Growing a beard is like that time I tried to write a novel. The first 3,000 words are a breeze

I was opposed to beards, until a most excellent woman asked if I’d grow a goatee. For her.

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So the other day I got a text from A Certain Woman asking if I’d grow a goatee. For her. Well, that was an easy question to answer: “No,” I said. I have several reasons:

1. Facial hair is itchy;

2. It indicates a certain vanity;

3. It makes me look older than I want to look (I know this flatly contradicts reason two, but there you go); and, most importantly,

4. My little brother has one.

I am fine with him having a goatee. It suits him (Bertie Wooster appeals to Jeeves by saying that David Niven has a moustache, so why can’t he have one? And Jeeves replies diplomatically that “his moustache is very becoming to Mr Niven”) and helps people differentiate us, in the way that Spock in the parallel evil universe has a goatee and his our-own-universe incarnation doesn’t. So the thought of my growing a goatee and having my brother smirk inwardly, or very probably outwardly, and thinking or saying, “I thought of that first” makes me shudder.

But after getting back from London ten days ago, I was too enervated to shave for a few days, and then after that I thought, “Why not? Let me do something for this most excellent woman.”

For a while, all went well. It was disconcerting when I emerged from the bath still stubbly, for I always shave in the bath, so I would have the odd feeling of being unwashed, even though I had just thoroughly washed myself.

Then the hairs continued to grow, and from occasional glimpses in the mirror I noted the Stations of the Beard. First, there is the “haven’t shaved today” look. Then there is the “modishly unshaven” look. After that things go downhill rapidly. For there then follows the “gentleman of the road” look, and then the longest stage of all, which I am still suffering, the “wanted by the police for a string of crimes too disgusting to mention in a family newspaper” look.

It is funny how something that is literally no effort can be so effortful. I remember having most of 1970 ruined by a Peanuts strip in which Linus, the cartoon’s conscience and moral core, suddenly announces that he has become aware of his tongue, its continuous and disconcerting presence in his mouth. His sister Lucy says that this is the dumbest thing she’s ever heard, until she, too, becomes aware of her own tongue and finally says, in very large capitals, “I oughta knock your block off!”

Well, I am now aware of my own beard. During the summer my friends in the south would ask me about the midges up here, and I just said that I laughed them off; they weren’t so bad. But growing this blasted beard has been like having my own personal cloud of midges living on my face. I am being driven mad and although the upside is that, at least, having been unable to think of anything else for the past few days, the subject of this week’s column has been ready to hand, I really would like to think about something else now, even Brexit. It’s that bad.

How did beards get so popular? Also, just as you don’t see any baby pigeons, you don’t see anyone walking around with my Sex Criminal’s Stubble. You either see nothing, or something full and bushy. (Actually, I did once see someone at this mid-stage and it was none other than Christopher Hitchens; I felt emboldened enough to ask him what the hell was going on with that beard, and he mumbled something about his son having dared him to or wagered he couldn’t, or something like that.)

But the popularity of the hipster beard is, I think, more than just a yearning, ironic or not, for the fashions of the past. It is about an ideal of commitment: the notion that one is in this for the long haul. I am reminded of my occasional attempts to write a novel: the first three or four thousand words are a breeze, it’s like running downhill with the wind at your back, and then on day four you look at it and realise it’s rubbish. The beard-wearer, on the other hand, is announcing to the world that he perseveres.

Maybe this is what accounts for the fact that quite a lot of women like them. But it is one thing to be 24 years old but looking much grander and more mature (supposedly) because you have a beard, and very much another thing to be 55 and looking like a 70-year-old who has just got out of, or is just about to go into, an institution.

Ah well. In between the end of that paragraph and the beginning of this one, I have had a bath and shaved off the fungus. I don’t know how I am going to break it to the woman who asked me to go through this ordeal. Even though I am revelling in the fresh play of air about the lower face, I can’t help feeling that I have let her down somehow. Maybe I should quote that Meatloaf song at her: “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.” 

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 appears in the 12 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain