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Will Self: Why do so many young men have beards?

Today we are seeing a resurgence of beards the likes of which haven't been seen in British public life since Lord Salisbury's second government.

I return to beards again – and gladly. I got on the Tube the other day and there were what would’ve been two perfectly inconspicuous young men – skinny jeans, long-sleeved T-shirts, basketball boots, iPhones, side-parted hair – were it not for the vast and indeed anfractuous beards they both sported, beards the likes of which haven’t been seen in public life since Lord Salisbury’s second government. However, I looked at the guileless eyes of the young men and concluded that this wasn’t an ironic reference to the Cleveland Street scandal at all but presumably related to that most pernicious and pervasive of modern mass follies: fashion.

Indeed, having had the initial pair thrust scratchily in my face, the beards kept coming thick and thicker. You know the ones: these are not beards of the sort worn by those slightly older gay men styled “bears”; nor are they bikers’ beards designed to capture the slipstream of the chopped hog in front; nor again are they hippy beards, long-lasting hangovers of some other loveless summer. No, these are full-blown, late-Victorian and Edwardian beards, complete with curling and often waxed mustachios.

What’s disconcerting about them is that they bear no discernible relation to the faces they have taken root in, or to the sartorial efforts of those who affect them. In this respect the beard they most obviously resemble is the “beard of bees” in the Magners cider advert; and in common with that bombinating illusion, these beards are both intended to flog something, and are – despite their apparent heft – evanescent things, ever on the point of flying away.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the finest opening in English literature (to date) is from Roald Dahl’s The Twits: “What a lot of hairy-faced men there are about nowadays. When a man grows hair all over his face it is impossible to tell what he really looks like. Perhaps that’s why he does it. He’d rather you didn’t know.” What men traditionally don’t wish you to know about their faces are that they have an irresolute chin or that it’s Jimmy-Hill hypertrophied, or, like David Cameron’s that it’s paedomorphically dimpled. Alternatively they wish to mask a deformity, or a war wound, or a port wine stain – any of these can excuse a beard although by no means justify it. I myself suffer from a sort of reverse-Dahlism: I would grow a beard, were it not for the fact that if I do it’s entirely grey and makes me look about 800 years old. But these barbellates-nouvelles are quite different; what they have to hide is, counterintuitively, nothing at all.

If you could bring one of these young men down in the public highway, and, gripping him firmly between your knees take a pair of electric clippers to his face, you’d soon discover that shorn of its fleece his face would be void of Charles Manson’s murderous psychopathology, or Ted Kaczynski’s deranged long view, let alone Dave Lee Travis’s questionable taste in . . . music. No, these jejune middle-class chaps are the sort who get up in the morning, look in the shaving mirror, and seeing a tabula rasa for a face, get the foggy, fourth-hand notion that a bit of hairy scribbling will make them look “creative”.

What most perplexes me about the new beards is that judging by their length and girth they must have taken a considerable time to grow – and yet I haven’t seen a single fledgling, only yearlings. It occurred to me, as I struggled through the urban jungle swiping the chin-borne lianas out of my way that perhaps the new beards were like pigeons in this respect – and I shared this insight with Keith, who works in the Vintage House where I buy my cigars: “What a lot of hairyfaced young men there are about nowadays,” I said as I came through the door, and that’s all it took: for the next ten minutes we ranted like a pair of old geezers about these young whippersnappers with their retro facial hair.

Keith’s view was that the beards were only the gateway drug, leading on to such dreadful solecisms as the button-up cardigan worn as a fashion item. (I kept quiet at this point, having one of these cardies myself, although maybe Keith would excuse it in a valetudinarian.)

Traditionally the view is that to be cleanshaven has always been a puritanical thing – but I’m not convinced that this remains the case. After all, Keith and I are as old and hip as it gets, while what we object to in these beards is not their outward form – but their manifest insincerity. Ah, well, hair today . . .

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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