A tree in our garden was blotting out the light, so tree surgeons had to be called to reduce it. There were four of them, equipped with enough climbing gear to scale Everest, and each with a bushy beard that hinted at a lifetime’s adventure at high altitudes. It took a moment to see through the foliage that they were young enough to be my sons, or even grandsons.
Beards are back, as GQ magazine would say, bigtime. And the ubiquitous (and anatomically confusing) “hipster” style is far from being their sole growth area. Today’s cool dude may equally choose a neatly trimmed Vandyke, as Charles I wore to the scaffold, or the pious goatee of an old-time religionist, or even the waxed moustachios of a villain from a Victorian melodrama.
The craze originated with Hollywood stars such as Brad Pitt and George Clooney, and was fed by British youth’s passion for the retro. Sales of razors have dropped sharply and products for the hirsute (beard rakes? Moustache cups?) have multiplied.
Clooney, Affleck & Co have also changed the idea of the beard from an inbuilt personality feature, like a squint or halitosis, into something to be put on as casually as a shirt. Temporary beard-growing is now a popular fundraising stunt for charity, through online organisations such as Movember, No-Shave November and Decembeard.
Latterly, beards have become a political issue, too. It may be even harder to think of Jeremy Corbyn as a style icon than as an effective party leader, but that scrubby white beard, from which no compelling word ever emerges, has unquestionably made him one, kind of.
Last year’s Labour party conference, just after he became leader, produced an outbreak of what the newspapers called “Corbyn Casual” – acolytes with identical white beards, mimicking his early-Seventies Open University lecturer look with beige jacket, open-necked drip-dry shirt and shorts with sandals and socks. Delegates who stuck to Ed Miliband-style designer suits were disparaged as too “Old New Labour”.
Since then, the fungus has spread across the party divide. During Stephen Crabb’s brief stint as work and pensions secretary, he was the first bearded cabinet minister since 1905. The latest Tory to succumb is Michael Gove, “papped” while out jogging, in his new obscurity, with immature stubble that had a perverse hint of red.
Yet to many people beards will always equal weird. After the Victorian mania for chest-covering growths and mutton-chop whiskers (also known as Dundreary whiskers, Piccadilly weepers or bugger grips), the early 20th century became largely clean-shaven, save for its upper lip. By the 1920s bearded men had become so unusual that they used to be taunted with cries of “Beaver!” – a term that later underwent a sex change.
It was always assumed that beards were camouflage for something: a scar, or a weak chin. And they had a whiff of randiness. A Donald McGill seaside postcard of the 1950s, set in a nudist colony, shows a seated man with a black beard cascading into his lap, watched by two young women from behind a hedge. “Do you think he’s hiding some kind of secret weapon?” one of them asks.
I have never been tempted from clean-shavenness, not even in the hippie late Sixties, when whiskers were far more widespread than today. I was too afraid of emulating Edward Lear’s “Old Man With a Beard”, who finds it has become a home to “Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren”. For me, the constant dread would have been stray bits of sweetcorn.
Psychologists interpret the beard boom among the youth in various ways: straight one-upmanship, a desire to look tough and authoritative in an increasingly dangerous world or even to rise socially, for, Corbyn notwithstanding, beards still connote both poshness and intellectual superiority. According to the historian Alun Withey of the University of Exeter, they have always boomed in eras when male identity seems under threat. Nowadays, it may well feel itself menaced by feminism, political correctness and “gender uncertainty” by way of the trans lobby.
In the interests of sexual equality, it should be pointed out that beards are not a male monopoly. One of the most fascinating paintings on display at the Prado in Madrid is Jusepe de Ribera’s portrait of a 17th-century Italian woman, whose glorious black, curly growth was then considered “a great miracle of nature”. De Ribera shows her aged 52, suckling a baby from a single teat in the centre of her chest. Beside her is the shadowy figure of a much lesser bearded man, who turns out to have been her husband. As my grandma used to say, there’s a lid for every pot.
This article appears in the 24 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser