'Short back and sides? How's your marriage, by the way?'

Times Online, September 15, 2006
A firm of solicitors in Salisbury is offering hairdressers cash to refer customers who reveal that they have marital problemsThe Times, September 1

I popped into my local hairdressers the other day for my bi-annual shearing. My hair is curly, and grows outwards and upwards rather than in long languorous waves down my back, and it was high time for a cut. There is neither rhyme nor reason for my choice of hairdresser, save that I never go to the same one twice. It is all far too intimate for a man of the law. On this particular day, I found myself in a salon called No More Hair From Hell, in Swindon.

An attractive woman in her early thirties ushered me to my seat, or rather, as she informed me, my "Alice," a top-of-the-range styling chair. In front of me were a mirror, a Majolica washbasin (of the Japanese ceramic, wall-mounted variety) and sundry tools of her trade. There was even, she proudly announced, an "Alchemy Argon Trolley," a discreetly understated trolley with five generous trays to accommodate all that the stylist needs. Her enthusiasm for the accoutrements of her workplace was rather touching, as was the understated style with which she covered my upper body in an appealing nylon cape.

All was in order, and I looked forward to hearing her say: "How would you like it?" But instead, she fluttered her eyelashes and captured my gaze in the mirror. She leant down towards my neck, all the while looking at me, and said: "My name is Sadie. Is everything OK at home?"

"Excuse me?" I said.

"Is everything, you know, all right with the wife?"

"Er, yes, everything’s fine, thanks."

"It’s just that if it’s not, I can help."

This was most unusual, and certainly too intimate. All the while Sadie gazed deeply into my eyes, as if we were regularly in the habit of discussing marital disaffection. Perhaps I should have put a halt to the conversation then, but hesitantly, I asked exactly what she meant.

"Well," said Sadie, picking up a pair of scissors, "we like to think we’re more than just hairdressers here. We pride ourselves on listening to our customers and giving them a sympathetic ear. You can tell us anything you like, anytime you like, anyway you like, and it won’t cost you a penny extra." She put down the scissors and stood upright, her hands on her hips, and then said, in an almost matronly manner: "Do tell if anything’s not, you know, going so well. We all have our gripes, and it’s good to get them off our chests. You men find it so difficult to be intimate, but I’m just a hairdresser who wants to listen, who wants to help. Is everything, you know, alright in bed?"

"What?" I said.

"Well, I was just thinking, a lot of men have affairs. You might be having one and your sex life at home might have gone down a bit, possibly even disappeared. But it probably wouldn’t be your fault. In fact it might be a good thing and you might want to separate from your wife, which could be best for all concerned, including the children. And if that were true, you could tell me all about it and I could help."

"Look," I said, "I came in for a haircut. Can’t you just ask me what I’d like done and get on with it?"

Sadie looked crestfallen. I got up, turned to her and said: "What on earth is wrong?"

She sat down in the Alice and confessed that a law firm had written to her. "Is that so bad?" I asked. Sadly, it was.

It transpired that a nearby firm had followed the lead of Salisbury practice Trethowans, whose head of family law, Andrew Mercer, recently wrote to various Salisbury hairdressers offering cash if they referred customers who revealed that they had marital problems. "We’ll pay you £75 per referred case!" waxed Mr Mercer, helpfully – as a family lawyer might – pointing out that apparently six out of 10 marriages end in divorce and that the average length of a marriage is now under 10 years.

Sadie had buckled under the weight of temptation. "I didn’t want to do it at first, but I thought ‘well, I could save for another Alice with the money.’ So I gave in. But I don’t know if it’s me. Maybe I should stick to cutting hair and talking normally." Then she said: "Is this kind of letter normal?"

"It is important to note that neither Trethowans nor the firm which has written to you are acting contrary to Law Society guidelines," I replied. "So in that sense, it is perfectly normal. But I’d say that it’s also insensitive, mercenary and corrosive."

Sadie gestured to the Alice. "How would you like it?" she asked. Then, as if she couldn’t help herself, she said: "And is everything, you know, OK at home?"

Standing there in my nylon cape, it struck me that what Justice Raymond George Reynolds described in 1982 as "the noblesse of the robe, the collegiate pride of a learned profession" was now as meaningful as the strands of hair on the floor.