Art school kid

I spent a lot of my childhood in student digs. Now I fall asleep at the hairdressers. Let me explain how those two things are connected

6th March 2018

I often fall asleep at the hairdressers. I’d always thought it relatively normal, soothing as it is, but then I mentioned it to a close friend in passing and they said: “No, mate. That’s weird.”

Which is true. It is weird. My local barber probably thinks I’m high or something, inexplicably nodding off as he trims my fringe. I’d not before thought about the fact that I’ve never seen anyone else drift off in the barber’s chair.

I started to wonder why it happens to me. I spoke to someone.

My youngest years growing up were unconventional; unorthodox, you might say. Perhaps most tellingly because I grew up in student flats and houses: places of chaos and delirium. My mother, having had me young, didn’t want to pass up on studying fine art in Exeter (fair enough), so off we went from Purley to Devon – to student digs.

My mum lived with other undergraduates; thus, so did I

Like most students, my mum lived with other art undergraduates; thus, so did I. The house was typical – crowded, noisy, full of canvasses and sculpture, mayonnaise pasta, cider, and stranger things besides. People stomped around in Dr. Martens, smoked a lot, and talked about the pub.

Josh Barrie
Growing up around art students could be chaotic and fun

There was a tiny black and white TV and a ginger man called Hayden who a handful of times had ice creams with us by the river (we lived very close to the river). There was a woman with blonde hair called Manda. She used to sing Joni Mitchell to me on an acoustic guitar, which I found enchanting. All I Want has an effect.

I also remember: my small plastic fire engine which I loved but accidentally left by the fire to melt, necking a bottle of Calpol, and sneaking off unsupervised to visit the mechanic across the road to talk about spanners and wheels. He used to give me fun-size Mars bars. And no, if you’re thinking it.

Anyway, we had a room on the top floor. It was full of paint and paintbrushes, books, a sink – which once leaked and spoiled my Tintin and Astrix comics – and ornaments of varying description. There were beads everywhere. Great tapestries hung this way and that. And beautiful Victorian wooden floorboards that were the stuff of gentrified dreams.

But my god the floorboards were noisy.

It’s the noise that’s important. Even though we were on the top floor, sound reverberated about our room: Dr. Martens and endless REM records; the clattering of things. It’s probably why, indirectly, I now fall asleep – or, if not, get extremely sleepy – at the hairdressers. It’s why I occasionally feel near euphoric as the comb hits my head. The comb is the inducer.

Josh Barrie
When my mum moved into student accommodation, so did I

My sense of tiredness at the hairdressers is because every night my mum would stroke my head, very softly, to get me to sleep; usually while we read some stories and poems. Afterwards, I’d be in perfect slumber, my last memory a handful of words from Alice in Wonderland.

After an unidentifiable amount of time I became wholly reliant on having my head stroked to fall asleep

Josh Barrie
My mum didn’t want to miss out on an education

This is called conditioning. Call me Pavlov. After an unidentifiable amount of time I became wholly reliant on having my head stroked to fall asleep. It would somehow drown everything else out. As my hair was swept behind my non-pillow settled ear, I wouldn’t hear the Dr. Martens on the floorboards or the distant mutterings of artists hellbent on creativity whatever the hour.

If I was down in Cornwall on holiday with my nonna, she would do the same. She’d stroke my head, sometimes for longer than my mum would endure, on my bunk bed by the sea. The idyllic sound of waves helped. “One more minute, Nonna,” I’d plead. And she would. One more minute until she would finally be allowed to retire to a glass of wine. Just as my mum would be forced to do before she could join the student amusements and listen to Kate Bush with a beer.

She carried on long after it was necessary, though not to the same degree. When we moved back to Surrey (I think we moved house about 19 times – usually for regular reasons, but also a drugs raid, a leaking pipe, and an unsavoury landlord), my mum would at the very least give me a handful of cursory strokes as I read a book.

Josh Barrie
Stroking my hair was a way for my mum and nonna to get me to sleep — and it still works

And so now, when barbers or hairdressers cut my thinning barnet, I feel an unrelenting urge to slip to the side and sleep. It’s tricky to prevent. It’s also partly why I go to inexpensive shops over places embellished with gold lettering and Jo Malone candles: it’s much more embarrassing when you reach repose and a man is about to set fire to your ears. Fire and sleep aren’t bedfellows.

It’s not just a feeling of tiredness. Hairdressing to me is therapy. It’s ecstasy when they start brushing my hair, combing it to the side, back again, swooping it back to front and front to back and then rolling the clippers up and over.

Then, after, even better: they comb, cut; comb cut. My god. My hairdresser is, for 20 minutes, a substitute mother; and I am four, in a little bed on a wooden floor, Dr. Martens clomp-clomping about the place, REM playing below, drifting off to Alice in Wonderland.

My friends say: “So weird, mate. You need help.” And a haircut.

6th March 2018