Brewer Street and Golden Square

Time for a haircut.

East along Piccadilly, up Swallow Street, across Regent Street and onto Brewer Street. Past the Leicester Arms and the Glassblowers erupting with hanging baskets, men outside in suits with pints and cigarettes. Past the Thai West Café spilling its queue onto the narrow pavement, the sweet smoke smell of curry. Past the blast of chlorine from the Third Space Gym. Hopping into the road to pass the scaffolding and crowds, a quick shoulder-glance for heel-clipping taxis. Hot sky. Energy everywhere. The unhealthiest, most polluted place in England: Soho, I breathe you in.

Past the boutique stores with coats hanging like spectres on illuminated mannequins and single beige trainers raised on pedestals. Past the Duke of Argyll, the Glasshouse Stores, the Crown. Past the windows of Fiorucci pasted with girls in bikinis and beach-blonde hair. It used to be the legendary Vintage Magazine Co., its wattle-red walls calling you in to flick through old glossies and cheeky postcards. So much has changed on Brewer Street but I clock the survivors: Rice Wine Shop, AZ Electrical Hardware, One Stop Food, De-Luxe Cleaning. But Jumbo Eats is being gutted, guys in tan boots loading a van in a cloud of plasterboard.

And then there is the orange-on-black sign of Splash, where I’ve been coming for a lunchtime haircut every six weeks or so for well over ten years. Stepping inside onto the black-tiled floor, the orange chairs facing the wall mirrors, I’m pointed towards a row of black pod stools like ice-cream scoops, but I’m seen straight away – “haircut?” – motioned downstairs where the basement leads to many mirrored nooks and crannies, into a chair in the corner, collar flicked up, towel quickly kneaded into my shirt, black cape billowed out and over and Velcro-ed tight behind. Music thumping – pop, dance – the chatter of the stylists, blow dryers, clippers. His own hair is a short Mohican, hint of a moustache over stubble. “So – what would you like?” Number 3 back and sides and, you know (vague scissors motion with my fingers), about half this length on top? And he’s off, fixing coloured guards, loosely and one-handedly shearing the grey-black scraggle of my hair. I’m in good hands with this one, and relax.

The stylists are mostly in their twenties, and mostly men, Italian and Spanish and Brazilian, chattering and joking to one another in their own languages. Sleeve tattoos, tunnel earrings, gym-toned arms. There is a constant churn of different faces. I get the feeling they are renting chairs by the day or even by the hour, raising some cash while touring Europe. Masters of the high fade, kings of the undercut, dancing along to the music. My hair presents them with few challenges, and each time there’s less to work with. I think of Mark Doty’s poem ‘This Your Home Now’:

This haze around what I’d like to think

the sculptural presence of my skull
requires neither art nor patience.

And of his devastation when the Peruvian barbershop on 18th Street that he’s used for over ten years – “comforting, welcome” – closes, having lost its lease. And how he spins that visit to the barbers into a miraculous orbit of grief and memory and belonging. And I think also of the thoughtful, beautiful barber Richie in HBO’s Looking, telling his ex-lover Patrick, “Um, you have a stylist. You need to stay loyal to him.”  Well, maybe in San Francisco. I must have had one hundred haircuts here and don’t think I’ve had the same stylist twice. But I have been faithful to a place at least, even when I was accidentally scalped, or when one young guy, alarmed at my receding hairline, gave me a fringe like a forward comb-over. That’s what I like about the place: the thrill and gamble of who you’re going to get, but no risk of seeing them again. An endless succession of one-night stands; haircuts for commitment-phobes.

I used to think going to the hairdressers ran a close second to going to the dentist. The vulnerability of the chair. I remember Marie’s on Bridge Street, Bushmills, her clacking bracelets and strong perfume, the women’s magazines curling at the edges, Marie stopping every so often to ask me what was wrong. She’d spotted my frightened darting eyes in the mirror. What could I say? That curtains were suddenly out? That I didn’t want to talk about my hobbies? That she had a sharp implement close to my ears?!

Now I like the intimacy and skill, the comfort and the competency. This one is great, giving a final light chop with layering scissors, clicking on a new guard to work the meeting of my burns and beard. And how quick it all is, ten minutes, checking the back with the hand mirror, nod, nod, yes, thank you, cape whipped off, hair dryer blowing the small hairs, glasses back on, I’m standing, taking the ticket, thanks again, up the stairs to the counter at the front, tapping my card, £10, out to the light and the bright fast street.

So much has changed on Brewer Street and so little. Ten years ago there were many more sex shops and porn cinemas and women through curtains of glass beads. Now opposite Splash is a cake shop, an Italian deli, a fish restaurant with lobster and octopus rock-pooling in the window. But next door to that Soho’s Original Book Shop clings on (Extra Strong Pills Sold Here), as does Simply Pleasures XXX. And what’s really going on inside the Thai massage parlours? Near the junction with Wardour Street is Prowler, the ‘gay men’s lifestyle shop’, surviving against the odds and the rent and the internet, its windows covered with six foot adverts of muscled boys in Addicted swimwear, causing about as much alarm as any Calvin Klein store or episode of Love Island. There are picnic tables outside for the Asian street food market on Rupert Street, tourists and office workers eating their lunch against a backdrop of abs and glutes. The gay lifestyle is everyone’s lifestyle now, and what are they doing in the Third Space Gym at lunchtime, gay or straight, if not to look like these guys on the beach?

I remember the first time like a rite of passage – no, it wasn’t like, it was a rite of passage – going in giggly-nervous with a friend who worked in a shoe shop opposite (that shop long gone and currently a frozen yogurt emporium). I imagine we spent all of five minutes inside, sweat cooling on my brow, and don’t think I bought anything, though probably picked up the free magazines (QX, Boyz) that I flicked through with suspicious buoyancy on the train back to Coventry. Today it is mostly railing upon railing of colourful pants: Diesel, Curbwear, Andrew Christian, Armani, Aussiebum, Pump!. There are self-help books (Yay! You’re Gay! Now What?), and DVDs of queer cinema classics. Rainbow boas, cola willies, calendars of pornstars. In the backroom the adult movies have been shrunk to half a wall, but the dildos are everywhere, in various sizes and colours, stretching across the room like missiles in a munitions factory. At the cash desk as I leave the three shop assistants are chatting about the air conditioning.

There is just enough time to eat my sandwich before I have to head back to work so I retrace my steps along Brewer Street and take a right into Golden Square. It’s not somewhere I visit often. Dickens described it as, “not exactly in anybody’s way to or from anywhere.” It reminds me of European squares, enclosed on four sides by tall buildings of mostly red brick façade and white dressings, some modern and glass, tall and skinny as the tenements of Amsterdam. The trees give it a different feel from the other parks around here: apple and hornbeam and maple, fanning out in broad low splendour, such a change from the usual London planes. To the north a building is entirely wrapped in scaffolding and white plastic, the timpani of construction rumbling behind the tarpaulin muffler.

Through black railings a set of stone steps take you up to the square which is interspersed with big stone pots with palms, and neo-classical plinths topped with urns, some broken or missing entirely. There are benches all around, packed with people eating lunch, who are also spread out across the inner wall and the concrete curbs of the flowerbeds.  I find a space here too, perch on the edge near a metal table tennis table. The flowerbed is filled to bursting point with a dramatic display of red and pink and yellow flowers, tropical-looking palms, and bulrushes. To my right a central bed has slightly wilted pink and purple roses, a gift, a small plaque says, “to London from Bulgarian Londoners.” In the middle of them is a statue of George the Second in full amateur-theatre mode as Georgius II: Roman soldier’s uniform, laurel wreath, chiselled torso, a sword with the head of a serpent. His expression falls somewhere between stoic and bemused, his face weathered into a comic gurn; as if to mock him, the pigeons take their turns landing on his curly-haired head.

Squares in London grow by chance and design to eventually be defined by a handful of businesses. Think Bloomsbury and it is writers and bohemians, publishing houses and the University; St. James’s Square and it’s gentlemen’s clubs and politicos and embassies. With Golden Square it’s film and media: Monmouth Dean, Sony Pictures, Digital Cinema Media. But are the hundreds of people in the square at lunchtime today the staff from these companies, or have they wandered in as I have from the marble-maze of streets? There are so many people in London it’s hard to tell their stories.

A group of three arrive to play table tennis on the table opposite me, two guys and one girl. Are they at lunch? Are they on holiday? They play with a relaxed flair – this is no one off encounter. The woman wears denim dungaree-shorts, her hair in a short bob. One of the men is pure US varsity: short-cropped black hair beneath a baseball cap, red shorts and loose black t-shirt, the Nike swoosh cometing from hip to shoulder. The other has long hair pulled into a top-knot, a baggy white shirt tucked into skinny black jeans. They play with pleasure, and they play well, taking it in turns for one-on-one while the third fetches any errant balls. They get some long rallies going, swinging freely at the hips across the width of the table. People who are passing glance up from their phones and stop to watch, and others stand up from the benches to get a closer look, so now they’ve gathered a small crowd around them, softly whooping and clapping, and they start simultaneously laughing and improving, their rallies longer, their shots more precise, as they try to keep the rallies going and going and going: their fluid movement an atom in the hundreds of atoms energising Soho on a hot Tuesday lunchtime in July.

I’m so lost in watching them, eyes on the small ball pocking back and forth across the metal net, that I’ve completely lost track of time. I quickly head back toward the office, checking my haircut in the glass windows of the shop fronts. I’m going to be late.