2012 Australia & the Pacific Date Europe Geography Middle East

A Close Shave in London

In London this past week, two stories have dominated the news headlines.

The first is that we now have photographic proof, if such was required, that Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge and future Queen of England, enjoys sunbathing topless. Thank God for that.

The second important piece of news this last week (although, based on column inches devoted to the story, marginally less important to the British public than the first) is that somewhere in California, a low-grade porn-movie producer has made an even lower-grade short film called The Innocence of Muslims.

This offensive little film depicts the Prophet Mohammed as a buffoon, killer, womanizer and child-molester. It is such an unspeakably bad production that it went direct to YouTube. No doubt it would have languished there in obscurity for all eternity, but for the fact that someone in Cairo decided they didn’t like this video very much, and thought that it might therefore be something worth organising a brief protest about, outside the US Embassy.

As tends to happen with these sorts of events, one thing leads to another, and suddenly half the planet is in uproar, and the other half is on the defensive. Violent outrage is the Islamic world’s response to this pathetic amateur-hour video, as if Americans and non-Muslims everywhere are personally responsible for its creation. Huge crowds have gathered in the capitals of Islamic countries, from Morocco to Malaysia, denouncing the video and calling for retribution. There have also been mass demonstrations in major European cities. In central London on Sunday, placard waving protesters brought local traffic to a stand-still in the area around the American Embassy.

Before you know it, the mobs almost forget what got them going in the first place, and quickly turn to burning Israeli flags. The connection between the offensive anti-Islamic video in question and Israel is non-existent, but hey, what the hell. In places like Jakarta and Teheran, it seems that it is never a bad time to hold an impromptu Israeli flag barbeque.

All of which would be grin-and-bearable, but for the fact that in Libya protestors decided to fire a rocket-propelled missile at the US Embassy, killing the American Ambassador and several other innocents. At every furious demonstration, yet more people get injured or killed, and the global death toll from the senseless violence that seems to be a necessary accompaniment to the demonstrations continues to climb.

It is a well-worn path – incendiary spark leads to global outrage leads to deadly repercussion. From the Satanic Verses in 1988 through to the Danish cartoons of 2005 and now this video – it is all so familiar and, sadly, all so predictable. So much so that when I first read the news of yet another growing storm in faraway places, over yet another slight against Islam in some obscure publication, I thought to myself: “here we go again”.

Which is fine when you are sitting safely, as I was, sipping a cappuccino in a cafe in central London. But on this particular occasion distant events “out there” in the big-wide-world decided to pay me a very personal visit. And, there is even blood involved in my story.

But, let me back up a bit.

London is a good place to enjoy Ye Olde Worlde charm. Within the city there are oodles of old and very proper businesses, offering goods and services rich in heritage and tradition, and boasting of active trading going back hundreds of years. When you come from a country like Australia, where the first European settlers showed up less than 250 years ago, there is something quite wonderful about buying your jam or socks or china plates at a store that operates “By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen”, and which has been doing so for longer than the entire modern history of your home country.

And, if you are a guy, I would suggest the ultimate, absolutely most deluxe and decadent yesteryear experience possible is to treat yourself to an old-fashioned cut-throat shave, at one of London’s traditional men’s groomers.

Once upon a time, the principal way of shaving was to use a straight razor – a single naked or “open” blade that literally slices the hair from your face. It was, however, very unusual for a man to shave himself. Quite apart from the risk of inadvertently severing a vein or two, it took quite some skill to maintain the blade through constant honing and stropping. So, professional help was required.

Rich men would be shaved at home by a butler or servant who had been trained in the art of shaving. But for most men, shaving meant a visit to a local barbershop, once or twice a week. Apart from being a place to get their facial hair trimmed, the barber’s was also a little male haven of sorts, where men could gather to chat, gossip and catch up with friends. (Incidentally, this is why the pole outside traditional barber shops is red and white – the red signifies the blood-letting from shaving).

All of this changed in 1904 when one Mr. King Gillette filed the patents for the first safety razor with a disposable steel blade, and the business of shaving was changed forever. There have been many books written about Gillette, his remarkable invention, and the profound impact this had on the world at large, which for your convenience I have tried to distil into four main factoids:

(1)    Someone actually named their child “King”.

(2)    The Gillette razor has to rank as one of the most successful, enduring brands of the last century. Official records are that in its first year of operations, The Gillette Safety Razor Corporation sold a total of 51 razors and 168 blades. In the second year, this was 90,884 razors and 123,648 blades. Ten years later, these numbers were around 450,000 razors and over 70 million blades. Today, more than 100 years on, annual sales are in the billions, and the business continues to prosper. Warren Buffet, who for a time owned a large chunk of Gillette, once said in praise of the business: “You go to bed feeling very comfortable just thinking about two and a half billion males with hair growing while you sleep. No one at Gillette has trouble sleeping”.

(3)    King Gillette has been widely credited with devising not just a new razor, but a whole new business model, described in various business textbooks as: “invest in an installed base by selling a product at low prices or even giving them away (eg: razors, Xboxes, iPods, water coolers), then sell a related product at high prices to recoup the prior investment (blades, Xbox Games, music downloads, water bottles etc)”. Or, more simply: “get your customers well and truly hooked, so they have no choice but to continue to buy whatever crack cocaine you might be peddling”.

(4)    King Gillette was a fascinating man, deeply committed to the cause of Utopian Socialism. Kind of ironic, really, that a guy who changed the face of capitalism had some fairly way out there Socialist ideals. Like the idea that all industry should be merged into a single company owned by the American public, who would then all live happily together in one giant city, called Metropolis. Gillette even went so far as to issue a prospectus for a company he hoped would be able to make his vision a reality, but evidently there weren’t as many takers as there were for his namesake razors.

Anyway, you get the point: the Gillette razor essentially killed the barber business. So where once there were hundreds, if not thousands, of barber shops offering wet-shaves in London, most of these have gone the way of the Dodo.

Most, but not all. Particularly in London’s West End, a few traditional men’s groomers have resolutely held out against Gillette, quietly continuing to offer up old-style shaves in elegant, Victorian-era wood-panelled salons that have not changed in hundreds of years. On St James Street there is Truefitt & Hills (established in 1805), where Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill were some of the more notable customers. In Old Bond Street there is Taylors (since 1854) and DR Harris (since around 1810, by Warrant to HRH the Prince of Wales). And down the road in Mayfair, Geo F Trumper, Gentlemen’s Perfumers, has been shaving London’s finest since 1875.

I decided to treat myself last weekend, and called into a venerable old tonsorial parlour for a wet-shave. My shaver was a young Egyptian man, who I will refer to as Ahmed. He welcomed me on arrival and led to into a private booth, where I was seated in the barber’s chair. It was a beautiful, luxuriously appointed space, pleasant smelling and oozing old world charm. The only salute to modernity was a small television on the side of the bench-top in front of me, tuned into CNN, to entertain me during the shave.

Ahmed began by prepping me. First, he rubbed pre-shave oil on my face, gently massaging it in, to tenderize my bristles, so he explained. After this, to open the pores and really make sure no bristles had anywhere to hide, he placed a scalding hot towel over my face, covering me up completely except for my eyes, and left me to steam for a full three minutes. Lastly, he took an old-fashioned shaving brush (“made of real badger hair, the best!”) and slowly began working some shaving cream into a frothy lather on my face. This seemed to go on for an eternity, until my face was completely covered in thick, dense white foam.

Now Ahmed reached for a very sharp razor that he had been heating under some hot running water, and began shaving. Gently, but confidently he slid the blade across my face, working with the grain of the beard and then against, pausing after each stroke to wipe the foam and bristles onto a towel.

Now remember, all the while the television is on CNN in the background. So while Ahmed is shaving me, in the background we are both listening to the news of ongoing protests and demonstrations erupting all around the Islamic world. I can see Ahmed is listening carefully, and every now and again he pauses between strokes of the razor to sneak a quick glance at the screen.

And then, as if on cue a story comes on about a demonstration that has just occurred in Sydney, Australia. Earlier that day several hundred Muslim protestors had gathered outside Sydney’s US Embassy to make their feelings known. Things escalated, bottles were thrown, violence erupted, six police officers were injured, and dozens of protestors were dragged away kicking and screaming as the riot-squad moved in.

It was surreal for me to hear about violent rioting in Sydney, of all places; taking place in streets and locales half a world away that I know first-hand. So I sat up a little in the barber chair to watch the news item for a few moments, and Ahmed paused the shaving. He had asked me earlier where I was from, and I had answered “Australia”, so he knew this particular story was of interest to me.

And in the few seconds I was watching the news, I saw something that horrified me. There, on the screen, was a small child, standing next to his sleeping sibling in a pram, holding a sign above his head that said: “Behead all those who Insult the Prophet”. I couldn’t believe it, especially since this was footage not from Beirut or Baghdad or Bangladesh, but from downtown Sydney.

I was so appalled at this image of a young child, in my “hometown”, being shamelessly exploited by adults to spread a message of violence and intolerance, that without really thinking about it, I muttered to myself: “fucking animals”.

Only I must have muttered it a bit more loudly than I thought, because Ahmed heard me, and was not at all pleased with my attitude. He had obviously mistaken me for someone who would find nothing wrong in the sight of a five-year old calling for the decapitation of those who don’t share his views on religion.

Clearly a bit irritated with me, Ahmed resumed his shaving, a bit quicker than before, and as he continued to shear bristles from my face he tried to explain to me why, in fact, what was happening in Sydney and elsewhere was perfectly legitimate, because it was in defence of Islam and the Prophet.

I wanted to get back to the quiet tranquility of my traditional English shave, so I shut-up and didn’t utter another word, but there was no stopping Ahmed now. He was in full-flight, and began to work himself up into a little lather of his own, delivering a non-stop monologue about American imperialism, how Westerners all hate Muslims everywhere, the unholy alliance between Israel and the USA, who were committed to destroying Iran and committing genocide on the people of Islam, and so on and so on.

And then, in the midst of all this, he nicked me. I felt the slight twinge as the blade cut me, and looking in the mirror, I saw a small drop of blood rolling down through the white shaving foam on my chin. Given the circumstances, I literally almost jumped out of the chair with fright, and for a fleeting second I wondered whether it was deliberate – Ahmed making a point to me. But of course it must have been an accident, probably the result of his having shaved a little too close over an ingrown hair or pimple.

Ahmed quickly applied some oil to the cut, which burned like mad for a few seconds but instantly stopped the bleeding. He then finished up the shave, applied some moisturizer to my now baby-smooth face, cajoled me into buying some product, and sent me on my way without any further incident.

I left the barbershop in a bit of a daze, my head spinning from the strangeness of the whole experience. The sight of the single drop of blood rolling down my foam covered chin, the juxtaposition of the relaxed old world charm of a traditional wet shave, and the very new-world phenomenon of religiously inspired rioting in Sydney.

Later, President Obama was on the evening news, where he said that: “images on our televisions are disturbing.” Well, Mr President, it might be disturbing for you to see these images on TV, but let me tell you that it is a little bit more than disturbing to hear a guy in the West End of London tell you in person why it is perfectly OK to behead those who blaspheme against the Prophet. And, it is downright fucking terrifying when, at the exact moment he tells you that, he is holding a very sharp razor-blade to your throat.

I might stick to my Gillette for the next little while.

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