This week’s Guest Blog comes after a shaving related revelation by our good friend, Philip Ralph.
I suppose I must have been 12 or 13 and I guess he must have shown me how to do it but none of this is based on any actual recollection or memory. I’m just guessing that, at some point, my dad must have done what all dad’s are supposed to do…
He must have taught me how to shave.
I’ve never been a guy with a ‘five o’clock shadow’. More like a ‘midnight the following day if I’ve
eaten a lot of spinach shadow’ kind of guy. But still, like every other man, at a certain age, the dark shadows on my face ceased to be mud and actually were that crappy downy hair that guys get before they start shaving. And after thinking it was cool for five minutes – (a mistake, guys, let me assure you of that – it isn’t cool. It looks crap, end of story) – I realised pretty fast that I was *never* going to look good with a beard and so began to dip my toes into the adult world of shaving.
My dad has always been an electric razor kind of guy. Maybe it’s because he was born during the war and saw this new technology as a boon when it arrived. No more soaping and brushing, scraping and hacking. Just plug it in, charge it up and BUZZZZZZZZZZ … Beard gone! But I never felt that way. Right from the start, electric razors seemed to me to be about as much use as chocolate teapots. I rubbed it round my face for five minutes and came away feeling vaguely dirty. So, for me, it was always going to be wet shaving. And this is where the fun really starts. And also my story.
The common way of going about it nowadays is you buy some form of disposable razor system – Mach-this, or Zoom-that – you slather your face with foam from a can and scrape away with your – how many blades?!?! – razor until your face is smoothish and then you dab something on it and Bob’s your uncle. And that’s how I shaved for years – squirting, scraping, dabbing. But something about it wasn’t right… All those razors, used a few times and then chucked away; a process of hair removal that never required me to do anything other than move my hand up and down. It was boring. It was soulless. It was wasteful.
I know you’re probably thinking what difference do a few little razors make in the grand scheme of things? It’s not like throwing away a car, is it? But – in the course of a lifetime of shaving and throwing – it probably is. And I don’t want to contribute to landfill. Not till I’m dead.
So, I got this idea. I knew that – somewhere in the mists of time, before disposables – men used to do it differently. I’d seen it on TV or in movies. They used to shave with cutthroat razors – otherwise known as ‘straight’ razors. A single blade, agonisingly sharp, without any guard or safety features. And you shave with it by, literally, dragging it across your face. (For the record, at this point, if you saw Naomi Harris’s Moneypenny shaving Daniel Craig’s Bond with a cutthroat in Skyfall and thought it looked cool, you were right. If you thought she wouldn’t have left him a bleeding mess, you were wrong. Dreadful technique…) I knew this was how men used to shave but I didn’t know if you still could. I turned to the internet to find out…
Some weeks later I was walking into a shop on London’s Jermyn Street called Taylor’s of Old Bond Street. Despite this odd confusion of name and place, everything else about the shop is a paradise for men. Its sole purpose is ‘male grooming’ and not the kind that is illegal… Inside, amidst a wonderland of brushes, sprays, creams and unguents, a fantastic shop assistant, dressed to the nines in tails and dress shirt, took me through the process of buying my first straight razor and all the accoutrements I would need to use it. And then he showed me how…
The blade must be stropped – run up and down a strip of leather – to hone the already sharp cutting edge to infinitesimal thinness; the face must be washed and prepared with shaving oil; the soap must be lathered using a traditional badger hair brush before being applied to the wet beard; and then the blade must be carefully – oh, SO VERY, VERY CAREFULLY – run against the grain of the beard, shaving back to the skin; before finally after shave cream is applied and a block of moistened alum dabbed on to cauterise any major snicks or bleeds. As I took my many purchases to the till where George, a man as old as the shop itself, rang them up for me, I felt as if I were joining an ancient lineage of male behaviour. George saw my trepidation and excitement and winked at me – “Best shave you’ll ever have, son…”
Later, at a friend’s flat – when everyone else was out
so as to avoid spectators – I prepared myself for my first ‘real’ shave. Half an hour later, dazed and bloody, I looked at myself in the mirror – and for the first time, perhaps in my whole adult life, I felt like a man.
Why? Because shaving like this is all about responsibility, danger and time. It’s about staying present and aware for every second because the tiniest moment of distraction can lead to a cut, or worse, a serious wound. You can’t stand there, razor in one hand, dick in the other, listening to the radio, checking Facebook and scratching your arse. You have to focus entirely on the task at hand. And you have to take your time. And you have to care for the blade – sharpening, honing, oiling. I asked the guy in the shop how long it would last and he looked at me with an amused smile at my naivety: “This razor, sir, will last you a lifetime…”
Imagine, just for a second, that instead of handing me a plug in electric monstrosity when I was 13, my dad had taken me to that shop and bought me my razor. Not my ‘first’ razor. My one and only razor. And I had learnt from him – and all the men there – the art of male grooming. Every shave from then on would have been a sign that I had entered manhood. And it was not a thing to take lightly. Manhood means being responsible for yourself. And that means being able to wield a razor that could quite easily kill you if you don’t pay attention.
This isn’t just shaving, my friends. It’s a philosophy for living. It’s a philosophy for being a man. And I’m never going back because George was right in so many ways…
It is the best shave I’ve ever had.