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.

New Statesman
"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.

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 . . .