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Who needs Leveson when you’ve got lickspittles like me around?

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out in London" column.

Goethe once wrote: “Alles in der Welt lässt sich ertragen nur nicht eine Reihe von schönen Tagen.” It is a hard one to translate as mellifluously as it runs in the original, but roughly, it means: “You can put up with everything on earth, except for a succession of wonderful days.” Well, as Bertie Wooster says whenever Jeeves throws a line from one of the Stoics at him – I think it’s usually Marcus Aurelius – the next time you see Goethe you can tell him he’s a silly ass. (I don’t really think this about Goethe. But for comic purposes, right now, I do.) I have found that you can put up with pretty much everything fate throws at you except, it turns out, a moustache. Even my sainted editor wearied of this topic barely two weeks into Movember, instructing me to write about anything else, anything. I took a grim amusement, incidentally, into how easily and immediately I caved into editorial pressure. Who needs Leveson when you have lickspittles like me around?

Growth spurt

Anyway, having laid off the subject for two weeks, and checked with one of his deputies, I think I can touch on the subject for one last time. And how could I not? I’ve hardly been able to think about anything else for a whole month. It’s all been about the tache.

The thing is that, whereas at the very beginning only other people were upset by it, it didn’t take too long for me to get upset by it too. You actually can see it yourself, floating at the bottom edge of the peripheral vision, like something from a nightmare. It is, after all, a growth; in the least pleasant sense of the term. And also: it itches. It itches like mad and in a way that is not improved by scratching it. For some reason, that only makes it worse. So one ends up in a spiral of itching and scratching, and one finds oneself obsessively touching it, hoping, at some point, to find just the right kind of motion that will make you able to pretend it’s gone away. But you never achieve this and all that happens is that you just can’t stop fidgeting with it, and everyone looking at you thinks you’re the kind of self-fascinated berk who thinks stroking his moustache makes him look important and wise.

I imagine that my occasional next-door neighbour in this magazine, Hunter Davies, passed this phase a long time ago and, to rephrase Jeeves’s delicately phrased aperçu about David Niven’s soup-strainer, his moustache is very becoming to Mr Davies. And I also suppose that he long ago passed the existential phase of facial hair ownership, which involves asking oneself, in the still watches of the night: “What is it doing there?”

Only charity and a desire not to be known as a quitter kept mine there but it was a trial. There are many out there who think that growing one is not exactly swimming the Hellespont or bungee-jumping off the Chrysler Building. That is, there is no effort or risk involved. To which I say: balderdash. There is effort involved in not shaving the thing off and ending the unpleasantness. Just as the exquisite sadism of the Chinese water torture resided in its apparent innocuousness, so the itchiness of the upper lip was made all the more unendurable by the way many people seem not to be bothered by theirs.

I would look about me when in public – when I could bear to venture outdoors (and as fate would have it, November involved an unusually large number of shindigs and events where I had to give some kind of reading or public performance on a dais) – and look at the men with facial hair and ask myself: “How can they put up with this? And do they not know the root of the word ‘rebarbative’?” I suppose I should salute the tireless work of Keith Flett, founder of the Beard Liberation Front, and I think the world would be a sadder and smaller place if the BLF did not exist, but I don’t think I’m going to be joining it any time soon.

Hirsutes you, sir

The worst thing of all is the way it commanded so much attention. Those who know me as a smooth rather than an hairy man would, on my entering a room, immediately stop talking, laugh, and then make cracks about Clement Attlee/Borat/squadron leaders/pimps of various nationalities. (Everyone had a different joke. Gosh, what witty friends I have.) Very often the reason for holding the event to which we had all been invited was forgotten completely. I’m just glad that I didn’t have to go to any funerals in November.

Well, the money has been raised, the health awareness achieved, the Beloved may now kiss me on the lips again. But remember, next time you see a moustache again, try to think of the poor man suffering behind it.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?