Andrew Vine: Hair today, gone tomorrow: why life with a beard has no shaving graces

IT was the great American screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz who observed: “You know, it’s hard to hear what a bearded man is saying. He can’t speak above a whisker.”

A wonderful line, but he might also have added that it’s hard to concentrate on what a bearded man might be saying, since the world has a peculiar tendency to focus on what’s growing around the mouth rather than issuing from it, as television’s interrogator-in-chief, Jeremy Paxman, is discovering.

Since unveiling his new look – a neatly-trimmed beard grown while on holiday – Leeds-born Paxman has been the subject of much commentary, not all of it complimentary. I have a lot of sympathy for him, because whether he realises it or not, he’s on one of the oddest journeys a man can take.

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And if he’s at all disconcerted by all the attention his beard continues to receive, it just goes 
to show that despite his 
formidable intelligence, he’s plainly neglected the First Law of Beards, namely, that whatever protestations he may make that it’s the same chap lurking underneath, once a man sets the cold steel and badger aside, he is defined by the result.

It becomes his identity and badge. He has to become used to the world abandoning eye contact and looking instead at the lower half of his face.

All this can leave a mark on 
the psyche. It did for me, as the former owner of a beard. I say “owner” because I came to 
regard it as being more akin to 
the sort of small, troublesome dog that needs to be kept on a short leash lest it misbehave than truly a part of me.

Purely practical considerations lay behind the decision to grow it. I was living in a house with an annoyingly temperamental hot water system, and grew so weary of shaving in ice-cold water that I decided to see how I looked with a beard. At first, all went well. The itchy first few days flew by and within a fortnight, I had something quite respectable.

The beloved was generally supportive, at least until she returned from working away for two weeks, by which time what had been a sort of distinguished-naval-officer-scanning-the-horizon look had morphed into a formidable polar-explorer-marooned-in-the-wilderness.

She tilted her head first this way, and then that, as she searched for something to say as I smiled hopefully from behind the hedge. “Well,” she eventually ventured, “it covers your face up.”

This was my introduction to the Second Law of Beards, namely that the wearing of one persuades the world that it has a licence for a degree of casual insult that it would never inflict upon the clean-shaven.

On seeing the beard, a female friend became inexplicably tearful. After much coaxing, and several cups of tea, she shame-facedly explained that she immediately thought of her treasured miniature schnauzer which had been run over by a dustcart some months earlier.

She returned to her usual laughing self later that evening, when we went for a drink. “What’ll you have?” asked the smiling, apparently polite barman. She ordered, he nodded, and then inquired of her: “What about Beardy?”

I quickly became acquainted with the Third Law of Beards, that rules one has to become used to unexpected second helpings of food and drink. What resulted 
from the scrap between the thicket and a plate of spaghetti with carbonara sauce in an Italian restaurant still makes me shudder involuntarily.

That beard was keener on encores than any ham actor. However thoroughly I dried after washing in the morning, it invariably dripped about half an hour later.

In the face of being defined by the beard, insulted because of it, and covered in embarrassment by its uncanny ability to make things vanish and then reappear with the dexterity of a master magician, I had a dawning awareness of the Fourth Law of Beards, which dictates that the owner develops a siege mentality.

Despite the mounting evidence that it was a blasted nuisance 
that made me look like an extra from a pirate film, I became bloody-minded about hanging on to it as a matter if principle. 
The jaw jutted and the teeth clenched – not that anybody could see either – and I pressed on for several weeks more.

The end had to come, and it did, on a Sunday evening in Sheffield as a result of one conjuring trick too many by the beard. “Right,” I told it in the mirror. “I’ve had enough.” It quivered a bit, and then I got to work. Within an hour, it was a memory.

A new world opened up. The following morning, as a clean-shaven working week began, people looked me in the eye 
for the first time in months.

Barmen stopped sniggering, 
and I developed a new, confessional, relationship with old friends who revealed they simply hadn’t had the heart to tell me what a berk I looked.

We can only guess whereabouts Paxman is on the emotional journey that goes with a beard.

Has he been laughed at, 
insulted, or haunted by last 
night’s dinner yet? We shall 
never know. But whether he 
keeps or ditches it, he will be a changed man. That’s what beards do to a chap.