39. The green one goes here

Arranging elements for optimal pathways

(Since last we spoke I moved to The Netherlands, spent a month getting internet set up, and ate my body weight in nieuwe haring.)

I learned a saying while getting my hair cut the other day, a Dutch saying if my barber is to be believed.

(It’s only been one haircut but make no mistake—this man is now my barber. He’s been cutting hair for 41 years, 35 in Haarlem, and lives above his immaculate shop where there are only two chairs. One for washing hair, one for cutting.)

The saying goes like this:

He’s had 12 jobs and 13 accidents.

As I understand it, it refers to when someone has switched jobs a lot due to possibly self-inflicted misfortune. I’ve not looked the saying up to confirm this. I want to preserve the moment we had, barber to customer. One of life’s greatest couplings.

When I moved to London one of the first things I did was find a barber. And there he was in Spitalfields, like a paean to hipster haberdashery. Babbo. Babbo the Barber.1 Cutting hair in what was, at the time, an antiques dealer/Mac repair shop. I never did figure out the relationship between the businesses. It’s a Cubitts now.

Babbo cut my hair for 7 years until he, well, disappeared. Vanished. He eventually popped up a year later to tell me he’d gotten divorced and was moving to Australia. I have no idea where he is now, but I hope he’s doing well.

After Babbo came two years with Steven until the pandemic hit, and then it was me shaving my head for a year. Now, through my new barber’s skill and I guess the passage of time and maybe even Dutch water, I have the hair I’ve wanted since 1995.

Namely, Brad Pitt’s hair in Se7en.

If you’ve not seen Se7en, then you don’t know about Brad Pitt’s hair. The hair every guy wanted in 1995 and no Asian guy, outside the very blessed, could have. In and of itself, the haircut is unremarkable. Fade on the sides. Longer on top like a shag.

The defining feature of a shag is its non-committal length. Medium. Which is hairstyle parlance for “give me something I can not care about between cuts”.

So why was Brad’s hair the subject of such intense male longing? It was a short shag.2 If you watch the movie, you’re going to see Brad run his hands through that hair roughly eleventy million times. Each time, each and every time, the hair looks the same as it did before his hands touched it.

If you’ve never had to work to maintain a hairstyle you won’t understand how profoundly unsettling this was, like watching someone throw a pebble into a pond and produce no ripples.

It looked like magic.

Anyway, that’s what my hair does now. I have the hair I wanted since 1995. And the world keeps burning.

There’s an English saying, by which I mean English the language not English the people, though it may well have originated from them, that, depending on the teller, goes something like this:

Polishing brass on the Titanic.


Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.3

It’s supposed to mean futile actions taken in the face of certain catastrophe, but has come to mean pretty much any slightly ineffective action in the face of almost any consequence. As we are with vowel sounds, so we are with the specificity of our sayings. That’s how a word like terrible can go from “fit to cause terror” to “kind of bad, not good I guess”.

People say this when they think you’re doing something not likely to move the needle, another phrase I’d pay good money to never hear again. If you’ve worked in a startup you know moving the needle is one of the best things you can do, while not moving the needle is likely to get you 360° reviewed out of a job.

Well, the other day while sorting my books in order of [REDACTED], I came up with a saying of my own. Yes, I’m the only one saying it, but if you don’t count towards your own mythology then I don’t know what to tell you.

My new saying is

Treading water can be a huge win when the alternative is drowning.

It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but it has the benefit of being absolutely true. I’m not going to engrave it on my tombstone. It’s just something to hold in the mouth, like a lucky stone in your pocket, or, as I did for a few years, a small brass pig.

Treading water for me has taken the form of buying plants. Nothing says “futile action” like living alone and set dressing your bathroom. Given the choice between repotting a fern and staring into the gaping void of existence, I’m buying plants. I’m buying all the plants.

This is the “maybe I’ll kill you” corner.

I’ve also started doing this.

I don’t know what this is, but I’m doing it. Yes, I bought these pastries based on how they’d look on these plates.

Which were bought based on how they’d look next to these pillows. On this rug.

I mean, I ate them! I just looked at them a lot, first. Staging meals for two (did I mention I live alone?) in pleasing colour combinations is the baking sourdough of 2021. Get in early.

I looked at them and photographed them and rearranged them slightly and then I ate them, the nuttiness reminding me of a cake I had in a small village in Japan, made by a woman who had trained in Paris, trained to be a world-class pâtissier, before moving back home to set up her bakery. Her specialty was chiffons, light as air, the texture of dreams. I ate these pastries very slowly, sitting on my rug, watching them renovate the prison outside my window. They’re turning it into a university.


Babbo is not his name.


This will be very funny to British readers.


I imagine a person’s choice of metal versus furniture coming down to whether they think Jack could have fit on the wood plank. Brass polishers say no.