Rest in peace, Young George. (Photos supplied, additional design by Tina Tiller)
Rest in peace, Young George. (Photos supplied, additional design by Tina Tiller)

BusinessJune 15, 2024

Remembering Young George, the barber who cut Auckland’s hair forever

Rest in peace, Young George. (Photos supplied, additional design by Tina Tiller)
Rest in peace, Young George. (Photos supplied, additional design by Tina Tiller)

He earned 5c for his first cut in 1955, and $35 for his last in March. Duncan Greive recalls the life of his late barber, ‘Young’ George Dyas, who never stopped snipping.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

‘If you’re reading this you know I’ve gone… now I’m off to the other side to look up some old mates. George, we’ve checked the wind and the tide, Billy Ho says it’s a great fishing day, we’ll see you out there.’

George Bernard Dyas, who called himself “Young George”, which only got cuter as he aged, died on the last day of May, aged 84. He wrote his own obituary, radiating the gentle humour you got as a free gift every time you nestled down into his barber’s chair. I was comfortably his most junior patron, a spry 44, and had only seen him for 15 years, whereas others had been going steady with George since before I was born. 

He cut men’s hair in Auckland city for over 60 years, only ending in 2021, when he finally retired. Or stopped walking into town to work – retirement wasn’t so easy, it turned out. He’d started out as a teenager, in 1955, when he was paid a total of £5 a week – this being so long ago that the New Zealand dollar was yet to be invented. He moved to the central city in 1961, and stayed there for 60 years – surely the longest-tenured barber the city ever saw or is likely to see.

When he told me that he was shutting his Durham Lane shop due to a steep rent hike, I was shattered. I had grown so attached to him that the idea of going without our monthly chats was appalling. I asked whether there was any way this might not be the end. 

“Well, lad,” he said, a voice I can hear perfectly still. He told me, slightly conspiratorially, that he was going to be taking his chair home. A select few clients could still get their 30 minutes with Young George. Would I like to be one of them? Would I ever. So it came to be that once a month for the past few years I’ve sat in an ancient barber’s chair, owned by an ancient barber, on a porch in Ponsonby, come rain or shine. 

I didn’t realise how much that half hour meant to me until it looked like it might end. Because now he really is gone, felled by cancer which snuck up and stole him with brutal speed. I don’t know what to do with my hair, which has gone lockdown shaggy since he last took to it in March. I’m not alone – his funeral was studded with unkempt ‘dos, a group of men largely unknown to one another with greys brushing their ears.

Even in his mid-80s, his passing was still shocking. It was just February when he was last shushing through powder in Canada, an annual skiing trip with his beloved wife Flory which persisted as long as I knew him. Young George was always in motion. He surfed, he hunted, and he was always out fishing  – you learned quickly how to time your cuts around his lifestyle – the skiing in February, the fishing on Wednesdays.

Young George embodied apparent contradictions. The working class hero with a shrewdly-assembled investment portfolio. A child of the ‘30s who watched more YouTube than me. A pro-business individualist who would drop anything to spend a day chopping wood for a friend. He evoked a wholly different era of our society, and I will cherish every moment I spent with him.

George was born in East Auckland and came from a staunch Labour family. “In my homestead, no disrespect to my mum and dad, but they were hand to mouth. There was no spare money. I was in secondhand clothes right through school,” he told me, during a gorgeous Cost of Being published a year ago.

His politics were changed forever by his first clients, wealthy residents of St Heliers and Kohimarama, National voters each and every one. They took a shine to George, who really was young back then, and taught him lessons he never forgot: “it was OK to save, OK to invest.” They instilled in him a belief in hard work, owning a business and investment as a path to prosperity.

That business became a barber’s chair he first took up in 1961. It cost him £40 a week, when men’s haircuts were seven shillings (about 35p) – and thanks to price controls, which only ended in 1968, “you couldn’t even charge more if you wanted to”. It was only in 1968 that he could move from 10 minute dry cuts to half an hour and wet – a luxurious innovation for which he charged $1.50.

This experience of constraint over his trade was in part what sparked a lifelong interest in business, one which stayed with him throughout his life. He proudly recounted his investments – “I’m a Heartland man. A Meridian man. A Skellerup man” – who seemed almost like the children he never had. He voted National in every election, with the sole exception being 2020, when the winter energy payment flipped him to Labour. 

Even then, he enjoyed underlining that it was still self-interest which guided his vote. He saw Labour’s commitment not to raise the age of nor means test superannuation as the best deal on the table for he and Flory. 

They met in the early ‘80s, when she was holidaying from her home in the Philippines. He took her fishing, flew over to meet her and eventually convinced her to move to New Zealand. They lived in a ‘70s house on Franklin Road in Ponsonby, blazing hot all winter thanks to firewood he chopped and split himself, right until the end. Thus that winter energy payment just bought him a couple more cases of wine, he told me, as his energy costs didn’t change with the seasons. (The wine was trolling – he drank a bottle of Export Citrus a week, at most).

You could read that statement as the cynical actions of an unrepentant capitalist, which might be partly true. But he was also a man who worked on his feet six days a week for more than 60 years. He never did convert to any form of electronic banking – it was cash only in his chair, even when his colleagues had long since switched on Eftpos. It might have presented as technophobia, but might also have been a bit – Young George was an avid iPhone user and subscribed to a number of different finance YouTubers.

There was no position George held too firmly – every line was always delivered with a wink and a chuckle, and he was never happier than when winding you up. Because of my relationship with The Spinoff, he categorised me as a hopeless leftie, and never could resist the opportunity to tweak me as a result. But at the same time, he read the site every day, made all his clients download the app and would talk in detail about every story we published with even a grazing relationship to politics. Even more than investing, politics was the thing: we talked about it every time, this show which never ended, which never ceased to fascinate him.

What was so charming about George was how powerfully he resisted any form of typecasting. His home cost $142,000 in the early ‘80s – a price he marvelled at almost every time I visited. “The vendor loaned me money to buy it at 18% interest rates – the bank wanted 21%. Inflation was around 20% at the time.” We can sometimes act like older people had it easy; every story George told gave lie to that reductive generalisation.

When I met him I was working in marketing at a clothing company, and would soon quit to become a freelance journalist. We talked every month through the birth of my second and third children, the founding of The Spinoff, taking our first and second and third leases and my eventual resignation from leading the business. 

He cut my father’s hair, and my eldest daughter’s boyfriend’s, and met my whole family at different times. He was never less than steadfast in his encouragement of any endeavour, and every conversation picked up as if you’d just hit pause a month ago. Then the haircut ended: “how’s that – you’re a smoothie again”. 

He spoke glowingly of Flory. How she’d found a solution to her sea sickness, so they could go fishing together for longer and how he’d modified the boat so as to make lunch out at sea. About her new car, or his new chainsaw. One time a boarder left a pair of shoes in his room after heading home, abandoned because the sole was hanging off them. He had them resoled and proudly showed them off next time I saw him – the only 80-something in pristine tan Timbs.

I knew that it wouldn’t last forever. That despite him radiating energy, that one day I would have to say goodbye, to find a new barber. Still, he seemed so vital – he was still skiing! – that when he complained of crook guts in March I gave it little thought. When I texted in late April, typically slapdash in wanting a haircut before travelling to a conference, he called, rather than sending his usual emoji in reply.

“I need you to come round here, lad. But I won’t be cutting your hair,” he said. I knew. I headed round right away, and met Flory for the first time as she let me in. He was laid out on his couch, ashen. He told me the story of his illness, and that it would be weeks, not months. That he’d had to have surgery even to stay alive – and only did it at all because he didn’t previously have a will.

He told me the story, short of breath, but still cracking jokes. His brother Phil and sister-in-law Judy arrived, and it was time for me to go. Flory and I hugged as I left, eyes damp, uncomprehending. I walked down Franklin Road toward the city, weeping. It seemed impossible. I didn’t know how much I relied on that half hour; unchanging, rock solid, no matter what happened in my life or to the world. 

He made me promise I’d write that you just have to get a will. You want your affairs in order when the time comes, he said. “You have to write it,” he implored me, and again when I saw him a few weeks later, in the hospice. “And say the nurses were brilliant.” So that’s why I’m writing this. That and the fact Young George was one of the sweetest, funniest, most original people I’ve ever known.

Read Young George’s iconic ‘Cost of Being’ here.


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