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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Hillary Clinton can take down the Donald Trump bogeyman - but she's up against the real thing

Donald Trump still has time to transform. 

Eight years later than hoped, Hillary Clinton finally ascended to the stage at the Democratic National Convention and accepted the nomination for President. 

Like her cheerleaders, the Obamas, she was strongest when addressing the invisible bogeyman - her rival for President, Donald Trump. 

Clinton looked the commander in chief when she dissed The Donald's claims to expertise on terrorism. 

Now Donald Trump says, and this is a quote, "I know more about ISIS than the generals do"

No, Donald, you don't.

He thinks that he knows more than our military because he claimed our armed forces are "a disaster."

Well, I've had the privilege to work closely with our troops and our veterans for many years.

Trump boasted that he alone could fix America. "Isn't he forgetting?" she asked:

Troops on the front lines. Police officers and fire fighters who run toward danger. Doctors and nurses who care for us. Teachers who change lives. Entrepreneurs who see possibilities in every problem.

Clinton's message was clear: I'm a team player. She praised supporters of her former rival for the nomination, Bernie Sanders, and concluded her takedown of Trump's ability as a fixer by declaring: "Americans don't say: 'I alone can fix it.' We say: 'We'll fix it together.'"

Being the opposite of Trump suits Clinton. As she acknowledged in her speech, she is not a natural public performer. But her cool, policy-packed speech served as a rebuke to Trump. She is most convincing when serious, and luckily that sets her apart from her rival. 

The Trump in the room with her at the convention was a boorish caricature, a man who describes women as pigs. "There is no other Donald Trump," she said. "This is it."

Clinton and her supporters are right to focus on personality. When it comes to the nuclear button, most fair-minded people on both left and right would prefer to give the decision to a rational, experienced character over one who enjoys a good explosion. 

But the fact is, outside of the convention arena, Trump still controls the narrative on Trump.

Trump has previously stated clearly his aim to "pivot" to the centre. He has declared that he can change "to anything I want to change to".  In his own speech, Trump forewent his usual diatribe for statistics about African-American children in poverty. He talked about embracing "crying mothers", "laid-off factory workers" and making sure "all of our kids are treated equally". His wife Melania opted for a speech so mainstream it was said to be borrowed from Michelle Obama. 

His personal attacks have also narrowed. Where once his Twitter feed was spattered with references to "lying Ted Cruz" and "little Marco Rubio", now the bile is focused on one person: "crooked Hillary Clinton". Just as Clinton defines herself against a caricature of him, so Trump is defining himself against one of her. 

Trump may not be able to maintain a more moderate image - at a press conference after his speech, he lashed out at his former rival, Ted Cruz. But if he can tone down his rhetoric until November, he will no longer be the bogeyman Clinton can shine so brilliantly against.