The voice seemed to come from nowhere. Lancashire Court was as busy as you’d expect at 7pm on a warm spring evening, but for some reason, I knew the comment was directed at me: “Smart hair, good suit…look like a Peterhouse man – are you?”
I look around and he’s staring at me intently as we walk side-by-side, through the quaint Mayfair side street. He has the tone of a well-educated officer in the British Armed Forces, but by the look of him, one who’d been dismissed a while back. His face is handsome, but slightly ravaged – he looks worn in and well-travelled. I admit that Leeds University, rather than Peterhouse College, Cambridge, is my Alma Mater and carry on my way.
“Maybe that’s for the best; if you’d have gone to Peterhouse, all you’d have now is a deep and enduring understanding of high-grade homosexuality; that and the pleasures of pure maths. Perhaps Leeds was a better idea.”
I turn around cautiously, becoming aware that as an encounter, this is beginning to remind me of one of those terrible, pivotal moments in Ian McEwan novels, where the protagonist’s life takes an awful turn that coincides with a chance meeting with an unusual stranger. I tentatively ask if he is an alumnus of Peterhouse.
“No, I never made it, and that’s the point; that’s probably why I’m so f**ked. But I’m here, I’m alive, and that is all there is. I’m sorry.”
And with this strangely oblique apology, he has gone, disappeared into the cool Mayfair night.
The reason I found myself in this bizarre situation is because I chose to have my hair cut at The Refinery, a gentleman’s ‘groomery’ that stands on a well-positioned spot across the road from Claridges at 60 Brook Street. I suspect I would not have been exposed to this surreal interchange had I chosen to have my hair cut at the £7 Cypriot military barber who hacked into my golden locks last time I needed a trim.
The Refinery opened twelve years ago, and was perhaps a little ahead of the game in recognising that there was a complex, burgeoning market for male grooming – for utilising man’s vanity. This elegant townhouse salon offers a wide range of services – everything from a trim to a Botox and multitudes in between.
I arrive at 60 Brook Street approximately two hours before my strange, unsettling encounter. I arrange myself in the leathery waiting room and read the Economist whilst sipping green tea. A smartly dressed gentleman approaches and asks me to follow him into the grooming room, a well-lit and evidently masculine chamber with lots of hot towels and badger hair brushes – it feels invigorating and comforting all at once.
My first grooming experience will be a wet shave. This is not my first wet shave; the first time I offered my neck to a stranger was years ago in a small backstreet Turkish barber’s in Vienna. I’d been Interrailing all summer and had a magnificent beard that I’d acquired whilst passing through Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia and Austria all without a razor! As soon as I sat down in the cigarette-scented gloom of the Viennese barber’s I started having panic attacks. What a thing it is to close your eyes, tilt your head back knowing that a dark eyed barber has total control over your jugular. It’s deeply counterintuitive. Thankfully the barber was a genius with the cutthroat; I lived to tell the tale and was thereafter allowed into smart restaurants sans facial overgrowth.
Here we are in Mayfair and the feelings of terror are present again. All it would take would be the slightest of nudges and that’s me gone, claret cascading over the warm towels. But no, once again, the service is majestic. There are hot towels to begin and then oil to soften the hair follicles. After that, a thick, subtly-fragranced cream that works into a lather. More hot towels, this time over the eyes, and before I know it, he’s underway; sliding the blade gently, but with purpose, skilfully following the grain. The job is dealt with extremely carefully and professionally – I feel in expert hands. When he’s done he oils and moisturises again; my skin feels cared for.
Next up is the haircut. As I mentioned earlier, my last cut cost the price of two cheap beers and was carried out by a half-blind ex-Cypriot military barber. I left feeling brutalised. At first the cut looked fine, it was short everywhere, there was little more to be said. As it grew out, the cracks began to form. Some areas of hair were much longer than others, and my sideburns were ruined. As I cross the grooming room to meet Chris Foster, the award-winning Creative Director of The Refinery, I feel warm and safe; I know this is a man who understands. We have a consultation – this man knows hair like no other. It’s the equivalent of speaking to an internationally-lauded brain surgeon. He works quickly, but with a firm, safe hand and eye; layers of texture form; parts of my head that I never realised existed start to look beguiling. As I recognise that he’s coming to a close, I start to get fractious; I don’t really want the cut to end. He finishes and offers me to the mirror. A smarter, better-judged ‘do’ never met this scalp of mine.
I’m ready for anything, I think, as I leave. Fit for a king, never smarter. I pull on my jacket, saunter out of The Refinery and into Lancashire Court; the sun is setting, drinkers spill out of pubs, there’s a glow of possibility on people’s faces…and then a strange voice breaks into my consciousness.
We are pleased to offer readers a 20% discount on all services at The Refinery on Brook Street, Mayfair, and at the Harrods branch. Simply quote ‘The Arb’ when booking your treatment. The offer is valid until 31st August 2012.
The Refinery, 60 Brook Street, Mayfair, London W1K 5DU. Tel: 020 7409 2001. Website.