Men don't stroke their beards in order to look wise; they're looking for bits of their lunch that may still be in there

I see that Boots is going to create some stores that are devoted to men's cosmetics. In the old days, we men were so embarrassed about anything that might make us seem not fully a man that any cosmetic aimed at men had to have a name that sounded like a caveman's nickname and be advertised by sportsmen who were not just heterosexual but irredeemably ugly as well. But now, apparently, with men such as David Beckham and Tony Blair, who are in touch with their feminine sides (and also married to women who are even richer than they are), we are not frightened of allowing ourselves full cosmetic expression.

Is this part of a process that, in a few years, will result in completely androgynous dress and styling? About every five years some fashion designer tries to introduce a dress for men, just as every five years some brave publisher reissues the novels of Patrick Hamilton, and in neither case does it quite work. (And I know from personal experience that the only books that sell worse than novels by Patrick Hamilton are biographies of Patrick Hamilton.)

So readers may be interested in my own grooming hints. These are slightly more intricate than Jeffrey Bernard's, which, he once wrote in a column, consisted of coughing for half an hour when he woke up. I was going to give one bit of good advice, which is never to use soap on your face. I thought I'd got this bit of advice from John Hatt's book The Tropical Traveller, but when I dug out my copy the advice wasn't there, just the more cautious opinion that "westerners use too much soap on their face".

So I've been operating under a misapprehension for many years and doubtless smelling like a badger, which may explain certain other aspects of my social life during the eighties. As I browsed through the rest of The Tropical Traveller (I can't resist books that offer advice I'll never be in a position to make use of), I became alarmed by its age. It was apparently "enlarged and updated" in 1985 but doesn't mention Aids. And there is the poignant example of resourcefulness he quotes: "I heard of two Colombians who were able to travel round the world because of their skill at mending typewriters. It is a skill which can be used in any city, and apparently the necessary equipment fits into a small case." Oh dear. Within a couple of years, typewriter-repairers were in about as much demand as Dodo-groomers.

The second piece of advice was given by the late Martyn Harris (I used to alternate this column with him long ago). He once wrote an article about how essential it is to use a wet-shave rather than electric razor. Apparently using an electric razor is rather like applying a hundred miniature pneumatic drills to your skin every morning.

You're luckiest of all if you're like me and suffer from some apparent hormonal problem that means that you hardly need to shave anyway, and luckier still if you work at home and nobody sees you or cares what you look like. I only ever shave when I get to the stage of the man in the Edward Lear limerick. You know, the old man who found that two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren had all made their nest in his beard. I've never actually found an animal in my stubble, but there is a certain crucial stage about three weeks after a shave when it feels as if a large number of very small rodents are doing strange things with each other in what passes for my facial hair.

At this point you have choices. Either you go for it and become the sort of person who spends his entire life wondering if there is a bit of food trapped in his beard. You know the way that bearded men stroke their beard with a wise expression? It's not wise at all. They're just wondering if one of those bean sprouts from lunch is still there.

At this stage there is one genuinely valuable counter-intuitive piece of advice I can give. When you shave, shave with the grain of your stubble, not against it. Sounds stupid, but it'll change your life. Only by a little bit, but still.

Anyway, grooming's not for me. We balding men are beyond grooming. I saw that some idiotic opinion poll showed that William Hague's baldness is a "problem" that he's meant to do something about. Sounds right. Another poll showed that more than half of men would rather be impotent than bald. On the other hand, there are those of us who at moments would rather have been bald than impotent, but there's never anyone around to offer you the choice when you want it.

This article first appeared in the 23 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, No Jews on their golf courses

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.