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 . . .

"I myself 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." Photograph: Getty Images.

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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.