McGregor’s Army

14th August 2022

I have met two barbers in the space of twenty four hours, which is surprising, given I have precious-little hair.

The unkindest cut of all, in matters follicular, is the discovery that the less hair you have, the more you must take care of it. I am in a constant state of hosting a party where half the guests are missing.

The first young man was a barber, moonlighting as a hotel receptionist. Cannes is calling, but he needs first to finish his hairdressing studies, specialising in hair extensions.

As we spoke, I began to look at the detail of his own black, tight-curled hair. It was a buzz cut, but one with a quarter-centimetre perimeter of hair, cut super-short and super-close, enhanced by a kind of charcoal mascara.

The more I looked, the more detail I appreciated, on both his hair and beard. Which meant I had to engage him in way more conversation than getting a room in the mid-afternoon requires.

It transpired that his favourite creator of hair extensions is a UK business called Foxy Locks. Had another hotel guest not interrupted our flow, I might have given him an explanation of that amusing name, commencing with a treatise on Chicken Licken.

I am in Perpignan for some post-equid rejuvenation, a pitstop on the road to Barcelona.

Yes. I’m missing Kaïsha, or, as French more insightfully expresses it – Kaïsha’s absence pains me.

Elle me manque.

Monsieur Christophe texted me to say her return to Monastier had gone well, and that she is resting up for four days before her next adventure.

It turns out, I am claiming more recuperation than she.

Perhaps, in a wider manner, it is Nature that I miss: being active in the Cévennes, each day filled with clear physical direction. There is relaxation in knowing the work that has to be done, and the progress that has to be made; each measured and celebrated, in blisters, kilometres and stories.

I miss the smell of the saddle pack, the sound of her hooves in motion. They began to resemble a train to my untrained ear. I miss all of this.  But such feelings are impermanent, I presume, like the darkened tan on my forearms, or the lengthening hair on my head.

Perpignan has a Tijuana feel to it, defined by its border. Here, I am 25kms from Spain, more precisely Catalunya.

Indeed, this is Northern Catalunya, and Catalan is a live regional language. The street signs and museum notices carry it, alongside French, and waiters navigate Spanish much more than English as they go about their summer service.

I would gladly hear more about the politics of it all, only most of the Perpignanais have quit the city, it being too damned hot and humid. They’re either at the beach, in the countryside, or hanging out in Mama Catalunya.

One of the defining characteristics of south central France is its intersection of cultures: the Arabs of North Africa, the Catalans, the French, and the west Africans, chiefly of Senegal and Nigeria. This goes in part to explain why I found a barber shop that was open on Sunday. Muslims don’t fetishise France’s day of rest.

The barber I found was a green-eyed, Berber barber, whose family was from Morocco, but who, himself, was born here.

I could hear this by his beautiful, lilting French accent, full and rich, like his hair. ‘The accent of the south has the sun in it’, one of my walker-friends remarked. And the thought has stuck with me. There is a thickened brilliance to French spoken in these parts, the sun being the unspoken guest at each conversation.

By phone, he had given me the first appointment after lunch at 14h15. On the mark, he swung around the corner on a battery-operated scooter.

He was a young man, perhaps 27, with a crown of thickest black hair, carefully tussled and coiffed at the top of his head. It gave him fully 4 centimetres extra stature. His shop was called Impérial Barbers, and he ran it alone. He was all business.

I sometimes feel embarrassed meeting a new hairdresser. He was having none of it.

I have 21 year olds with less hair than you, Monsieur! Now tell me, what can we do and are you English?

I took the double-barrelled question as the equivalent of an absent comma, and tackled the most interesting part first.

I’m Irish. Yes but where. Dublin. You’re from Dublin. Yes. What’s it like. I love it. It’s got people, and music, and theatre, and fun.

He paused, said he’d love to go, intends to go…

Because of McGregor.

It took me a moment to compute the name he was saying. The most difficult French to understand is English à la française.

McGregor! I said.

As he excitedly talked about the man, he began to cut my hair.

He’s my hero. He’s a bit off the boil now, but he’s amazing. Such discipline. You can sit on the couch and talk about stuff, or you can go do it.

I could feel the passion in his words. McGregor connects with a certain kind of young man who wants to achieve; especially those whom academia has treated as lesser, or lacking.

I mentioned that the bold Conor was up to all kinds of high jinks and had trouble with the law. The Mafia, he suggested, unsurprised. Well, not quite.

My barber was prepared to give McGregor a pass. It’s part of his brand. He has to be bolchy.

I said I admired much of what Conor has done, though I follow his sport not one bit. We talked about what stands him apart. His ambition, his resolve and intelligence, and the Proper Twelve whiskey which my barber knew all about.

He has competed, he has won and he has built, he said. I want to go to Dublin to hear people like him.

I was less than four minutes on the chair and my haircut was almost done.

The Berber was a boxer too. I imagined he approached cutting hair like he did a round in the ring. He couldn’t box competitively because of the Impérial, which is busiest at the weekends.

Getting up to leave, a young client who had been listening in, now pitched in.

Mc-Gregor, he annunciated to me, overcoming that southern French accent quite well.

Mc-Gregor, repeated my barber, with less accuracy, but way more conviction.

When I come to Dublin, I hope I will see you, Monsieur! I told him I’d look out for him, which amused them both.

Then I left the quickest, warmest little barber shop I’ve been to, since the balding began.

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