Ian Clayton column - To beard or not to beard?

Beard Festival at the Spa.Charlie Saville has a twist of his beard.Picture Richard Ponter 141253d
Beard Festival at the Spa.Charlie Saville has a twist of his beard.Picture Richard Ponter 141253d

Way back in 1979, I travelled to India with Heather.

We went light, just a few clothes stuffed into rucksacks, a Bartholomew’s map (no Rough Guides or Lonely Planets in those days) and enough money for a three month adventure if we were careful.

We travelled everywhere by train and bus, stayed in hotels that were not much more than hostels and bought our food in street markets and bazaars.

One morning I was at a communal sink in the courtyard of a hotel in the rattan bazaar in New Delhi having a wash and shave. A hippy from Germany came up to me and said: “You need to be careful shaving with that water man, if you make a cut you might get infected, this water is not so clean.”

I was using a second hand razor that had once belonged to my grandfather at the time. I cleaned it put it away and decided I wouldn’t shave again.

By the time I got back to Pontefract I had a beard like John Lennon circa 1969. I have rarely shaved since and have sported beards of various bushiness for 35 years.

These days I prefer a neatish one and have it trimmed occasional when I go to see my favourite hairdresser Ljiljana, but there was a time when I looked liked the wild man of Borneo.

When I played rugby for a short while at The Jubilee, my team mates nicknamed me Robinson Crusoe. I’ve never been one for fashion, but I have smiled to myself a lot recently when friends have mentioned that beards are all the rage.

You know when something is ‘in’ when you see film stars going up to collect their awards wearing beards and by the time the fashion reaches footballers, well it’s really in vogue.

I don’t believe beard wearing will ever hit the heights it did in Victorian times, when everybody from Prince Albert to Karl Marx had them and Karl’s mate Friedrich Engels grew one a magpie could have nested in, but beards really are in. Or at least I thought they were until I heard about something called ‘peak beard.’

I suppose it started with Jeremy Paxman didn’t it? You know, late last year when he suddenly appeared on Newsnight sporting a beard as grey as a badger? Ever since then beards seem to have been in the news. In Paxman’s case no sooner had he got everybody debating his beard then he shaved it off, declaring: “beards are so 2013.”

So, onto ‘peak beard’ a phrase coined by Australian scientists who claim that the ebb and flow of beard fashion may be guided by Darwinian selection. (Darwin himself of course had a mighty beard.)

These scientists have worked up a theory that says beards become fashionable because in the absence of facial hair on men, women move away from clean shaven blokes in order to fancy men who grow whiskers. But when too many men have whiskers, women start to look again at blokes who have baby bottom chins.

I really don’t need scientific theories to tell me whether I ought to have a beard or not. I like having a beard, mainly because when I did shave I got barber’s rash, in other words, a spotty neck and I think I’d rather have hairs on my chin in preference to a spotty neck.

I asked Heather whether she still found beards attractive.

She said: “To tell you the truth I’ve never really liked beards.” I thought it was a funny thing to say after 35 years but I didn’t pursue it, because I don’t want her to make me shave mine off.

I have a sneaking ambition to let it grow long and when I’m old I think I’d like to look like Rip Van Winkle, now that was a beard!

Incidentally, for those who like words and phrases, there is a word for those who don’t like beards. It’s pogonophobia from the Greek ‘pogon’ beard and ‘phobos.’

The most famous pogonophobiac was Enver Hoxha, the former dictator of Albania, who managed to ban an entire nation from wearing beards.