Photo: Garth Cartwright
The reason for this is perhaps best answered by Andrew’s age: 74. He is both old and old school: his barber shop is tucked away on pedestrianised Atwell Road off Rye Lane (Peckham’s main shopping boulevard) and, essentially, is unchanged from when he first started work here 55 years ago: cash only, nothing fancy available (a “beard trim” is on offer but forget “Turkish razor cuts” or “waxing”, “facials” or such), no music plays (let alone TV), reading matter for customers while they wait remains a tabloid newspaper, the walls are unadorned (beyond a few framed cuttings documenting Andrew and Steve, his former work partner, and a message of thanks from Andy McNab, the former British soldier turned bestselling author of Bravo Two Zero and a Peckham lad). Thus Andrew’s customers were largely local men of his generation and Covid-19 has likely made many fearful of venturing out.
During my post-lockdown cut Andrew and I chatted on our experiences over the past three months: he had stayed at home, looking after his disabled wife and tending his garden, this being the longest break from work he had ever experienced in his adult life. His daughter and grandchildren live in Cyprus but the island’s strict lockdown has ensured that travel there is not feasible right now. He got out his phone and showed me footage of his grandkids opening the presents he had sent them once Primark reopened. “Like Christmas,” he said and those children certainly were happy to be receiving new outfits. Andrew stressed that he was happy to be back at work but worried about the drop off in trade – if he wasn’t earning enough to pay the shop’s rent then there was, he felt, no point in continuing. I took some photos on my phone and posted about Andrew having reopened and needing heads to cut on Facebook. People expressed interest but its unlikely I generated much trade as, a month or so later, The Southwark News
– the local newspaper for this borough – carried a feature saying Andrew was retiring and August 29 would be his last ever day behind the chair. I’d be there, of that I was certain.
Upon arrival on that fateful afternoon I found many other people had the same idea. I turned around and went and did some shopping (Peckham is great for fruit, vegetables, used books & records, pound shops, African and West Indian clothing/produce) before returning an hour or so later. The shop remained busy – a table had been set up with drinks and nibbles so everyone could join in the celebration – but no one was in the chair. I shook Andrew’s hand and announced that I wasn’t here just to wish him well but to get a final haircut from his masterful hands. He did his usual excellent work – including trimming my eyelashes (don’t think of that when you are shaving your head, ay?) - and I paid the £8 (it was £7 until lockdown) plus £1 tip: this might just be the best value haircut in London. Then I did as instructed: got a drink and began chatting with some of the others who were gathered here while Andrew tackled the next head.
Standing by the table were two men around my age (mid-50s) and, once we had introduced ourselves, they mentioned how they had grown up on the same nearby Peckham council estate and been coming to Gents Hairdressers all their lives. One still lived in the flat he grew up in while the other had shifted a bit further south east, but not so far he could travel down here when he needed a trim. By coming to Andrew for a haircut they were maintaining a tradition that their fathers’ had started them on half a century ago. The closure of this unassuming barber shop signalled, to them, an end of an era of sorts. Not that they said so much, more we all reflected on Peckham’s relentless development, from working class backwater to a byword for gentrification.
I’ve lived in south east London since 1994 and witnessed changes I would never have imagined upon first settling but, for those born and bred here, the Peckham they had grown up
in the 1960s/70s appeared barely recognisable now. Indeed, only Wilson’s Cycles – which has been trading on the main Peckham Road for 150 years! - has been around for longer. But it is no longer run by the Wilson family who did so for over a century (and were recalled by these two from when they were children: “old men in those long brown coats” they said). So Andrew deserves an award in 2020 for being SE15’s longest serving proprietor. Even more importantly: he always did his work with a smile.
We spoke of our memories about this barber shop, mine obviously being much shorter than theirs (I live on the other side of Peckham, by the Old Kent Road, so used to attend a Syrian barber there. He moved on and I disliked his replacement: the price shot up with no discernible change in service – so I went looking, eventually finding Gents Hairdressers). All of us remembered Steve Georgiou, Andrew’s former business partner, fondly. Steve is younger than Andrew but chose to retire in his mid-60s. “Four years ago,” said Andrew, listening in. “He came in on December 23rd 2016 but not Christmas Eve. On Monday he and I will take everything out of the shop and give the keys back to the landlord.”