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So Long, Aaron Biber

March 22, 2014
by the gentle author

In respect for the grief of the Biber family, we have held the announcement until this spring of the death of Aaron Biber, London’s Oldest Barber, last year on November 27th. It seems Aaron was not feeling so well one day and went to hospital to get a check-up. He was kept in for observation and died peacefully there. It was a quiet conclusion to Aaron’s extraordinary career as a barber spanning eight decades and, in spite of the tribulations of life, his triumph was to keep cutting up until the very end.

Aaron Biber cut hair for nearly eighty years, using the same blue steel scissors that his father gave him when he began at twelve years old, which he sharpened himself. At ninety-one years old, Aaron still worked six days a week at his tiny salon in Tottenham, waking each morning at four, driving the five minute journey from his home in Chingford and opening up the salon from six until midday.

After all that time, Aaron could not retire because he knew nothing else. “Three doctors have told me, I would be dead within two months if I stopped,” he admitted to me with a helpless smile,“I can’t stop at home because my wife passed away after seventy years of marriage.”

For more than forty years, Aaron’s business was a going concern in Tottenham until one summer morning, shortly after his wife died, when he arrived for work to discover a crowd of two hundred, including eighty interviewers outside his barber’s shop. The rioters had destroyed Aaron’s salon and he found himself at the centre of an international media storm. “I was on TV all over the world, Canada, Vietnam, Australia, Germany, Japan …” he recalled in bemusement, “And the Archbishop of Canterbury, Boris Johnson and Prince Charles, they all came to see me.”

Although his salon was restored thanks to donations from an internet campaign, Aaron’s customers – many of whom had been coming for decades from all over London – disappeared. On the Monday of the week I visited, Aaron had one customer and on Tuesday also only one customer. No wonder he was delighted when I walked through the door at the end of the morning, on a day that had been a total blank, to interrupt his melancholic discourse with his pal Richard. “I’ve been cutting his hair since he was a baby,” declared Aaron to me, by way of introduction, with an affectionately dismissive flick of the wrist in the direction of his friend. A gesture reciprocated by Richard with a nod of confirmation and a loyal smile.

“They took everything, even my kettle and my chairs!” explained Aaron casting his eyes around at his memories of the destruction, “Luckily, I always carry my scissors with me, so they were safe at home.” Lesser men would be defeated what happened, but Aaron’s experience of life granted him a sense of proportion which permitted a degree of equanimity.

Aaron’s mother and father both came as refugees to the East End from Poland in the eighteen nineties. “My mother grew up on the farm, and the Russians used to ride through the village on horseback and knock people to the ground as they passed,” Aaron informed me, “My father killed a copper who assaulted him and he ran to England to escape.”

“When I was around ten years old, my mother moved out from Myrdle St where we lived because my dad wouldn’t give her a penny. She took all the children – nine sons and four daughters – to Coke St off Commercial Rd near the Bell Foundry. We went to the Jewish Board of Guardians to get an iron token for the soup kitchen, and we got bread and pilchards and kosher margarine. We used to go round the streets searching for money and once we found half a crown, we bought two salt beef sandwiches and had one shilling and eightpence left.

We had to work because we were starving. When I was ten, I went across the road to work for Mr Cohen making beigels for sixpence and then I weighed out sugar for his wife in the shop next door for tuppence, so I had eightpence. I used to wash down the horses, Ginger & Tubby, for Barney Dan, he had a cart and went round delivering stuff. He took me down to Covent Garden. I can tell you all about Covent Garden because I met my wife there, her father Alex Simmons, he designed all the sets for the theatres. I took a room in Tavistock St on the first floor, full of lads cutting hair. Later, I had a place in Hanbury St opposite the market in Spitalfields and I cut all the porters’ hair.

I cut hair for the police for fifty years, they wanted to make me a policeman at seventeen but my father said, ‘No, you don’t!’ I cut the hair for the flying squad for twenty-five years. Everyone wanted me because I cut hair properly. We used to have the police lined up outside the shop, there was a shortage of barbers.

We had all nationalities down in Cable St, Italians, Spanish, Maltese, Ghanese. I picked up all the languages. I can still speak Ghanese. We had the High Commissioner of Ghana come for a hair cut. Everyone got on and we all used to help each other out. I remember the Battle of Cable St, I was by the Royal Mint and the dockers came out of the dock to stop Mosley. I went to one of his rallies in Victoria Park to have a look but my mother warned me, she said, ‘They’ll kill you.’

During  the war I was guarding Tower Bridge when Winston Churchill came along and said to me, ‘Shoot any parachutists you see coming down.’ I said, ‘What if they are ours?’ They showed me where they expected me to sleep and I said, ‘Forget it, I’m going home to my mother.’

I could have gone on the Queen Mary to America, cutting hair. There was this bloke in the docks, he said, ‘I’ll fix you up get you a job there, all you have got to do is give me a hundred pounds later.’ Most of the barbers from the East End went to America. My brother Ben opened a salon in Times Sq, but I couldn’t go because I was my mother’s blue-eyed boy, her favourite. She said, ‘No, not with them German submarines you’re not going.’ I never had any children. My mother told me, ‘It’s too much trouble.’”

“Everyone wanted me because I cut hair properly.”

Aaron cuts hair in Cable St in 194o.

“The Archbishop of Canterbury, Boris Johnson and Prince Charles, they all came to see me.”

Aaron outside his salon in St Anne’s Rd in the nineteen fifties.

“I cut the hair for the flying squad for twenty-five years.”

The blue steel scissors given to Aaron by his father seventy-eight years ago when Aaron was twelve years old, wrapped in a nineteen forties linen towel.

“I can still speak Ghanese.”

Aaron’s pal Richard - “I’ve been cutting his hair since he was a baby.”

Aaron’s brother Ben (left) outside his salon in Times Sq, New York.

Aaron’s salon in Tottenham.

“Three doctors have told me, I would be dead within two months if I stopped.”

Visit the Aaron Biber memorial website Keep Aaron Cutting

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The Barbers of Spitalfields

12 Responses leave one →
  1. March 22, 2014

    The world has lost an amazing man, a real character. Valerie

  2. Robert permalink
    March 22, 2014

    Rip Aaron. He led an interesting life and could teach us how to live.

  3. March 22, 2014

    Dear Mr Aaron Biber — you made it and you did it very well. May you rest in Peace forever.

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  4. March 22, 2014

    Sad to read this. A truly strong and wise man. Rest in peace, Aaron Biber.

  5. tanya permalink
    March 22, 2014

    Such a moving story and rich life. I could comment on so much of it, but the irony of Aaron being asked to join the police didn’t escape me.

    RIP Aaron Biber.

  6. Ruth Isaacs permalink
    March 22, 2014

    I met Aaran at your last book launch. He came with his nephew Eddie who I know. What a character he was lovely. I have a great photograph of Aaran with me. I nicked one of his chips which the landlady of the pub had bought him at the book launch. He also signed the page he features in The London Album. I’ll treasure both forever.

  7. March 22, 2014

    What a lovely man.

  8. annie permalink
    March 23, 2014

    RIP Aaron.
    A great character.

  9. Erminia permalink
    March 23, 2014

    Crying as I leave this message. Bless you, Aaron! RIP, you are shining bright!

  10. March 25, 2014

    Dear, dear chap. RIP Aaron. x

  11. Rosa Brinn permalink
    October 11, 2014

    I have known Aaron (Alf as I have always known him) all my life. I was shocked to find out about his passing. I had a great respect for him. He and my father were great friends. I wish a member of his remaining family would contact me.

  12. Paul permalink
    November 25, 2017

    You are a total inspiration to the hard working man in the uk , And to the trade itself
    Bless you

    Paul

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