Sorry, I just don't like beardies

Imagine Jimmy Hill, Sir Dickie Attenborough and Frank Dobson together and you see the problem

AND NOW, as if life were not complicated enough, we have to start worrying about men with beards, the problem of institutionalised beardism and a generalised threat to the right to sprout facial hair.

With a level of wit not usually associated with its home country, the Swedish furniture emporium Ikea has announced that bearded men are to be banned from its Bristol store. Those particularly addicted to the form of shopping purgatory offered by Ikea will be granted temporary beard permits but an uncompromising "Beardies are weirdies" policy will be enforced at the store.

It's a marketing stunt, of course. However, already there have huffy, po-faced mutterings from the usual whiskery activists. "No doubt Ikea thinks this is a joke, and we can all laugh at the man with a beard, Private Eye-type cartoon," announced Keith Flett, a regular letter-writer to newspapers and Britain's most frequently outraged man.

"However, post the Stephen Lawrence report, what Ikea is really doing is reinforcing the attitude that says it is OK to discriminate against someone because of who they are and how they look. That is unacceptable."

At this point, the argument becomes as tangled as David Bellamy's beard. Could it be that Flett is having a laugh, too? It seems unlikely.

Apart from the fact that facial hair is a sure sign of humourlessness (think only of the sublime, clean-shaven John Cleese of the early years and the dreary, bearded psychobabbler of more recent times), there's the reference to the report on the death of Stephen Lawrence - a jaw-dropping comparison, at least for those of us who have jaws to drop.

Once any form of prejudice is regarded as essentially part of the same moral problem as more serious intolerance, then madness will follow. For example, this column might already have prompted several Flettesque letters to the editor: "Sir, To suggest that the famously witty Swedes lack a sense of humour is offensive to... Sir, Your columnist's casual deployment of the term `psychobabbler' reveals a deep-seated bias against those of us in the psychiatric profession..."

Whatever the reason men have for growing beards (shyness, vanity, perhaps), I'm in favour of them facing up to their dysfunction. An act of self- presentation which, while drawing attention to itself, perversely provides a hedge of protection is surely a cry for help.

Clearly there are good beards as well as bad beards - for every Robin Cook, Manfred Mann or Maharishi Yogi, there's a David Blunkett, Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ - but, unfortunately, most beards are bad beards. Imagine Sir Dickie Attenborough, Jimmy Hill, Clement Freud, Frank Dobson and Sir Peter Hall in a studio together and you begin to see the problem.

Obviously, there are worse things than beards. Sideboards, for example. Who, studying the behaviour of the prostitute-stalking prime minister William Gladstone, the severe moralist Sir Rhodes Boyson or Slade's tuneless three-chord basher Noddy Holder, could seriously deny the connection between bushy facial mutton-chops and a problematic personality?

To those who will argue that my beardism is illogical and betrays a deep seated fear of the masculine, I would merely point out that others merely have a different set of prejudices - against people who smoke, or wear fur, or eat the wrong kind of food or talk on mobile telephones in restaurants.

Far from being the first slither down a slope leading to hatred, the amiable expression of minor intolerances is a social safety valve, a provision of colour in an increasingly grey world. Over-reaction to it leads only to moral confusion.

There were signs of the trend a few years ago when Randy Newman's ironic treatment of bigotry, "Short People", led to an absurd row over his alleged prejudice. Since then, knee-jerk disapproval of attitudes deemed unacceptable has become the norm.

It was there, disturbingly, in the Glenn Hoddle incident and in reactions to the bottom-wiggling antics of the Liverpool footballer Robbie Fowler. It was evident in a letter to the London Review of Books in which a correspondent claimed, in apparent seriousness, that the journalist Christopher Hitchens was "a self-confessed homophobe" on the grounds that he had once made a joke about the Cambridge spy ring and had argued that "people's sexual preferences are a legitimate subject for humour, dirty humour if at all possible".

The people who find so much of which to disapprove in modern life are almost certainly beardie weirdies, but that it still no excuse.

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