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9 April 2023

Despite unhappy past experiences, I have decided to give facial hair one more go

And like every stupid thing I do it’s because of a woman.

By Nicholas Lezard

Hello again. How is your Easter weekend? I am spending mine growing a beard. This might not be big news for you but it certainly is round here. Why am I doing this? I hate beards. Not people who have them, but having one on my face.

I was once forced to grow a beard when on holiday on an ancient houseboat where there was no hot water unless you heated it up on the stove. That was about 20 years ago and even though that dates it to my late thirties it still looked as though someone had scribbled on me with a grey pencil. It only took two weeks to grow because I am so manly. Perhaps this is why the first and so far only Mrs Lezard liked it. That or it made me look like someone else. Anyway, the itchiness was driving me nuts so the moment I returned to civilisation off it went, which was also by a wild coincidence around the time my marriage started to unravel.

Then about ten years ago I did Movember and that was a nightmare too. After the full month I had achieved the luxuriant moustache of the overworked owner of a Lebanese restaurant I used to go to in Queensway, west London. It was so itchy I couldn’t sleep and during the day I could see it in my peripheral vision.

When the month was over my then partner said “never, ever do that again”, and that was when the wheels started coming off that relationship too. You can’t win. I wrote about it two weeks in a row because I couldn’t think of anything else to write about and the editor of this magazine sent me an email forbidding me from mentioning it again.

As it is, I gather, the New Statesman’s 110th birthday I hope he will take the long view and let me write about my facial hair again. Just this once, promise.

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So why the face fungus this time round? A very good question. As usual, with just about every stupid or regrettable decision I make, there is a woman behind it all. In this case it is L—, a woman of surpassing intelligence and beauty with whom I stepped out a few years ago, and with whom, amazingly, I am still friends. During the course of a conversation she made it to be understood that she liked a beard on a man. Well, I don’t need to be told twice.

It’s not that I want to get back with her – for various reasons I will not go into here it was a rather fraught time in both our lives – but if someone as scorchingly attractive as her thinks a beard will be an improvement on the Mark I Lezard then it would be foolish of me not to give it a whirl. I am fast approaching 60 and have reached the far margins of desirability. If this helps give me a chance then I’ll try it.

You would have thought that growing a beard is right up my street in terms of effort: it involves, practically by definition, the refusal to do anything. One simply lies back and lets it grow. But it doesn’t really work like that. For one thing, there is the discomfort. It is always present and it makes me feel like I am losing an essential part of my care and beauty regime. An essential part? No, the only part.

When I have felt a bit seedy, morally or physically, I have found that a nice close wet shave with a new razor and my badger-hair shaving brush (a present, I suddenly recall, from the girlfriend who hated the moustache; only now do I get her point) did a lot to make me feel better. That shot is no longer on the board.

And then there is the way it goes against my self-image. To adapt the words of Genesis 27:11 (and Alan Bennett’s from Beyond the Fringe), I am a smooth man, and my brother Tony is an hairy man. The fact that he has a beard – well, a goatee, like Evil Spock in Star Trek’s mirror universe – and I do not means that when we are in the same room people know which Lezard they’re talking to. Now that distinction is collapsing. I wonder what our poor mother will think. To have one son grow a beard is misfortune enough; to have both of them grow one will feel like a judgement. But we are not put into this world for pleasure alone, I will tell her.

Meanwhile, I sit here, scratching my face. Tiny flakes of skin dance in the shaft of sunlight as I write. It is disgusting. But then every so often, while outside, I catch my reflection in a shop or car window and think: hey, not too bad. Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue