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Moustache-growing is a lonely business, fraught with peril

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

Readers of last week’s issue of this magazine may have noticed that the illustration accompanying this column was enhanced by the addition of a moustache: of a style made famous, I am afraid, by Adolf Hitler. I suppose I asked for it. The idea was that over the course of the month readers could follow the progress of my moustache and I suppose the shading of degrees of stubble was beyond the reproduction process, so we’re going to pretend that moustaches actually grow outwards from the centre.

I just hope that this week’s issue sees me looking a little less . . . Nazi. (I know I mentioned scribbling such a moustache on a passport-sized snap of me when I was younger but I went on to say that the experiment appalled me . . . oh, never mind.)

Balls up

Anyway, that’s enough unpleasantness. The point about growing this sodding moustache is that it is meant to raise awareness of – in effect, raise money for an organisation that raises awareness of – men’s health issues in general, and testicular and prostate cancer in particular. (See the rather charming Movember website for further details.) As my arch-feminist friend Zoe, who has, I note, made a donation, says, there is no fun in chopping men’s balls off if they’re dropping away of their own accord.

Still, there is this worry niggling away at the back of my mind about the concept of good works, for this is the first time I have got into this thing since I was a schoolboy, and would go from door to door holding out a blue NSPCC papier- mâché egg and looking like a spokesperson for abused children. (Not that, in those days, I had any real idea what atrocities really lurked beneath the phrase. We were being used, I suppose, but at least the cause was a good one and we got to earn badges the more we collected.)

One of my very favourite biblical injunctions is the bit about charity, which is to be done secretly: “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth”. The problem with charity these days is that this is very far from the way people go about it. It is often a way of pushing one’s own virtue up the public nose, even if one is not, privately, virtuous at all.

There was a bloke, very famous in the 1970s, did a lot of marathons and stuff for charity, his face everywhere, and if you didn’t sign up to one of his causes you always felt that someone might actually think you were in favour of children dying of leukemia or whatever. From Yorkshire, long white hair, always wore a tracksuit, smoked cigars – you know the one I mean. Anyway, the thing about this bloody moustache is that it is indeed very much in your face. I suppose it is a more ambiguous gesture than, say, wearing a pink ribbon – you can always say that you’re just growing the thing for your own pleasure – but in my case, each public appearance has to be prefaced by an announcement on my part that this is all for a good cause rather than a personal lifestyle choice and fashionstatement.

For the thing is that, apart from the itchiness and the really quite surprising way that it registers at the lower edge of the peripheral vision, but really mainly the itchiness, it is more your problem than mine. In this I have something in common with Guy de Maupassant, who loathed the Eiffel Tower but was often to be found dining in its restaurant, on the grounds that it was the only place in Paris where he couldn’t see the damned thing. (Incidentally, Maupassant had an incredibly impressive moustache, although he did spoil its magnificent purity, in my opinion, by having one of those little sprouts of growth bang underneath his lower lip as well.)

Mother courage

But it is a lonely business, at times, fraught with peril. The journalist Nick Cohen, who knows a thing or two about speaking fearlessly, told me that he lacked the courage to grow a moustache; he might just possibly have been joking but what’s bothering me right now is that I am due, in a week or so, to be meeting the Beloved’s mother for the first time.

I have, for the previous year and a half, been skulking on the sidelines, waiting for my moment, but when she finally claps eyes on me in the flesh she’s going to be seeing facial hair that has been nearly a month in the growing. And whatever I say or do to explain afterwards, her first appalled thought will be: “My daughter is going out with a man who grows a moustache.” I could get her daughter to warn her beforehand, but there is a mischievous and self-destructive prankster within me that wonders whether it might be more fun if she did not.

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 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC