I used to worry about how much more intelligent and successful I would be if I hadn’t spent so much time talking to other people, waking up in their homes, never sleeping enough, enraptured by temporary intimacies, by the women I would introduce myself to and the challenges we’d make to each other. What a brighter mind I’d have if I’d stayed in, if I’d read and written much more – and I wished I had behaved differently, until I realised that this was useless, suicidal, that the man I would have become would feel no sympathy whatsoever for the man I am, and I have only narrowly avoided being murdered by him, this superior bastard, this loathsome know-it-all, who would have got away with it completely, and no one would have mourned me. When I think about this I don’t feel so bad about my choices.
My name is Paul. I work in a bookshop and write two pages for a style magazine called Haircut. The pages were both my idea. I pitched them to the editor – Stev’n, ‘rhymes with seven,’ he insists – when he was going on dates with my sister and briefly listened to what I had to say. In one page I write about books. In the other I write about haircuts. The juxtaposition of these two pages might perfectly express the contradictions of my soul. I get paid twice the amount to write the haircut page as the books page, and it takes me perhaps less than a tenth of the time. I go out in Hackney and Peckham, approach strangers, and ask if I can take a picture of them to feature in Paul’s Haircut Review. Alongside their picture in the magazine and online I award their hairstyle between one and five pairs of scissors – a system I developed personally and which as far as I know is unique. Hair criticism is not a hard science – it is more akin to the interpretation of dreams. Using imaginative empathy like that of an analyst or old-fashioned literary realist, I write a witty summary of what the person attached to the haircut is like, a précis of their secrets and longings, in fifteen to twenty words. Increasingly, I am under pressure from my editor to be cruel. I understand the appeal snarkiness holds to our readers, to our souls. I do my best to resist it. Before I approach the haircut I usually decide how many scissors I am to award and if it’s positive I might reveal my rating then and there. I have to consciously fight my attraction to women with fringes, whom I usually award four and a half scissors out of five. Technically, of course, this is nine scissors, but people get confused if you let this sort of pedantry into the equation. I never award five pairs of scissors. Perfect hair is impossible, but the quest for perfect hair provides the page with a sense of telos, something the readers of Haircut crave, even if they don’t know they do. Hi, my name’s Paul and I write for Haircut Magazine. I love your hair, it’s totally four and a half scissors out of five – would you mind if I put you in the next issue? Often the people I approach giggle and think I am joking. They have been known to sneer and ask me if that is my best chat-up line. But not often. I choose the ones who look friendly.
Contrary to popular stereotype, this is a very friendly city we live in, often heartbreakingly so. Lack of friends is the least of our worries. I can’t be the only man who understands that it is just as easy to meet women on public transport as on the internet, particularly if one takes ecstasy before descending into the underground. This fiction that we live in an unfriendly city might have taught us to distrust unplanned encounters with strangers, but the romantic drift of our books and films show we yearn for these meetings too. We don’t trust our lack of trust. Our contradictions make us imbalanced, tipsy, available. Despite the many tricks of our mobile phones, in tube carriages on a Saturday night there are people on their way to warehouse parties reading D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys. East London is full of such intellectual flashers. Whenever I see a Kindle I try to imagine a porn freak, a frotteur. But this is my perversion: the days when reading porn in public was shameful are over, certainly for the commuting women of London. There was a period of a few months when at least 150 shades greyed each train carriage. I would try to gauge from the women’s faces whether it was a sexy bit or a plotty bit. I don’t mind confessing that this was sometimes a sexy bit of my day. There are very few plotty bits. And there can never be enough sexy bits. Hannah, sister, don’t hang your head like that. I am approaching the crux of the issue.
It turns out that a man needs nobler goals in life than mastering the art of introducing himself to women on public transport. Not all men, admittedly, for some men it’s enough, men who will lose their looks and charm, end up lonely and embittered. The thing about women is, they’ll say, if you don’t get away from them in time. If they’re lucky they might marry a junior colleague after a campaign of lowering her self-confidence with remarks about her appearance, by buying her drinks, dinner, weeks away, inviting her to move in. Every member of the older generation who owns property holds a purchasing potential over the younger. Perhaps it has always been this way. The young people dream of exacting revenge. Legal documents set out the niceties of the tension. Unlike many of my contemporaries in their thirties I own nothing; my allegiance is with the young, the squatters in this city. These are the people who still talk to me, the ones who live in decaying hospitals and office blocks awaiting destruction. I have walked to their bedrooms through corridors like the scariest level of Resident Evil. It’s true, of course, that except for my sweet nature I don’t have much to offer my younger friends. Inevitably, they will decide one day that I have been irresponsible with my opportunities, and they will resent me for this.
The last time I saw my sister Hannah she informed me that young men in London are the worst men in the world. This was before the argument really got going; but even then I couldn’t miss the accusatory tone. Part of me was proud that she still thought me young, but then I objected to the broad judgement. I hope she will forgive me if I say she’s been known to overstate things, to generalise too quickly from particulars. At the very least she might have seen me as an exception. For I have always wanted to be a good feminist. A good man. I don’t see any difference beyond the physical between a woman and a man, and I treat women like I wouldn’t mind being treated myself, complimenting them incessantly and offering to kiss them. Oh, calm down, Hannah – I’m joking. In the basement clubs and mezcal bars, perhaps, in the midnight hour, but not in the bookshop, not in the German supermarket, the exhibition of Chilean pop art. Only in the carnivalesque. The nightbuses. The queues for jerk chicken. The smoking sections. Only very occasionally in the desperate rainy winter mornings. And only after certain glances have been exchanged. If sexism is treating people unequally according to gender, I believe I behave in an exemplary yet heterosexual fashion. But it is of course more difficult than this.
The argument ended badly, with Hannah throwing a glass at my head. That’s not quite accurate. Even though she was very angry I’m certain that she intended to throw the glass at the wall next to my head. That was four months ago and I have not seen her since.