Your grandfather, or perhaps his father before him, would have known how to do it.
But we later generations are only familiar with the straight razor shave from the movies – the sheriff being interrupted mid-stroke to be informed of a band of outlaws coming into town; Robert De Niro or Edward G Robinson as the powerful gangster sitting in the chair, issuing orders while the barber carefully avoids nicking their boss.
The safety razor has triumphed - that bland, disposable trinket of plastic and metal that has as much in common with the art of shaving as Shannon Noll has with opera.
And there will be no discussion here of electric ‘razors’ at all.
Let’s get this – straight – from the start.
The term cutthroat is largely perjorative; it’s an extremely colourful adjective, yes, and technically you could do a lot of damage to yourself with one, but the correct term is straight razor.
It’s called that because the blade is straight, I think; or that if you do make a mistake, you’ll pretty much go straight to hospital.
In consideration of these possibilities, I chose to have my first straight shave done by a practised professional – Rachel from Lords and Lads barber shop in Camp Street, Ballarat.
Now there’s a comforting ritual in having a shave done by someone else – softening the beard with heated towels, the oil massage, applying the soap, the consummate, trained twist of the wrist holding the blade, the gentle tilt of the head back to access the philtrum, that tricky area between the top lip and the nose.
It’s a meeting of swordplay and sensuality, if you like.
But for a first time, it’s still slightly unnerving.
A barber shop is a busy place, sometimes noisy.
People get up to leave, another customer walks in, a boy chirps merrily about how little he looks forward to school.
In the background The Smiths are playing, then Joy Division, the Cure. The soundtrack of my youth.
All the while my beard is being removed by a steady hand, and I’m aware that I’m an older man now, doing something that generations of older men used to do.
The shave itself is remarkably calming.
I barely feel the blade cutting the coarse hair; perhaps once or twice on my top lip it catches a little.
It takes a while, longer than a perfunctory skate around with a cartridge blade in the shower.
This is a ritual of a different time, when time itself was less compacted and urgent, when someone might send their boots out to be repaired, or darn a sock, or mend a punctured bicycle tyre, or stop to talk for half an hour.
It fits neatly with the detachable collar, the waistcoat and the watch chain.
It’s also coming back into fashion.
The trend of the full beard has also led to a revival of the fortunes of the barber.
Jason and Michelle Quarrell opened their ‘micro’ barber shop in a lane off Doveton Street South a few years ago.
Two years later they are in Camp Street, and while ‘flowing beards are all the go’ among young men at the moment, Mr Quarrell says the rise in the number of men coming in for a shave has led to more than one barber in Ballarat offering the experience.
“For a while we were the only ones offering a full shave. Now I know there’s one, maybe two others that have definitely started apart from us.”
“I think men are recognising that being looked after, and looking after themselves, is something that’s OK to enjoy, that it’s fine.”
Suddenly there’s a cold towel on my face, instead of the hot ones earlier.
This closes the pores and prevents infections I’m told. Rachel applies a balm, straightens my hair for me, and I’m sitting up, bereft of a week’s growth of beard feeling – and it has to be said looking – the better for it.
So what’s next? Well I have some of my grandfather’s old straight razors in a leather roll at home. Perhaps it’s time to get them out, strop them up and have a go myself. Watch this space. Or the hospital lists.
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