The fly in the shaving cream

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The Independent Culture
LOOK. SEE? Feel. Lovely. Smooth. Mmm! And soft! And scented! How could you resist me even if you wanted to? You couldn't. And yet there's a fly in the ointment, a worm in the bud.

Let me go back a bit, to Parkie: Alice Parkin, my Daddy's nanny, which made me her surrogate grandchild until she got a bit old and confused and thought I was him. "How are you feeling, Parkie?" "Now then, Master Keith, nice little boys don't ask that sort of question." "Um - who exactly do you think I am, Parkie?" "Nice little boys don't ask that sort of question."

Parkie was always just sort of - there, in the background. That was her life: there, in the background. When she retired, she struck out alone, living in a little flat in Abingdon, surrounded by photographs of other people and their children and their children's children, somehow even in the background of her own life, never forgetting a birthday or Christmas, parcelling out her little income in cards and presents. Catch her life at the wrong angle and you could be sad, the conventional cod-sentimental picture of the lonely spinster living her life through the lives of others. But Parkie wasn't sad. She loved her ex-charges and was loved back without the tight bonds of blood and duty, nor did she have to put up with any of that nastiness. You know; nastiness. Nasty men and their nasty ways, drinking beer and smoking cigars and their demands and never putting things back where they found them.

When I was 14, all thin and pointless and spots and hooting voice, Parkie detected the first facial smear of pubertal bum-fluff and swung into action and gave me, for my birthday, a shaving set. Not a plastic, just-like- Daddy's, Christmas-stocking one, but a proper one containing a Gillette razor, a shaving-brush, a tube of Palmolive shaving cream and a packet of Gillette Blue double-edged blades. Just like Daddy's? No: this was better than Daddy's, Daddy being an electric-shaver man whereas this involved cold steel, hot water, fierce lather and blood. It was a rite of passage made even more potent by the fact that I had to work it all out for myself over a lacerated and agonising fortnight, until I finally got the hang of things and entered upon a love affair with shaving which has lasted all my life.

"An odd thing to do," people say when they are trying to be detached and philosophical, "hacking at your face with a knife to undo Nature's work," but then so is paragliding. You get your pleasures where you can, and shaving never palls. I remember each new item of shaving equipment with the fond nostalgia of a lover. The adjustable razor with the little click-dial you turned depending how closely you wanted to be shaved (mark 7 functioned as a dermatome, removing a fine, even layer of epidermis, and was not to be recommended). The Gillette Techmatic, whose blades came in a roll like a film, and you just wound it on when the current blade got blunt. The curious Schick cartridge system. The advent of the twin- bladed razors, the Wilkinson Sword system being my favourite; the GII, the Profile, the Sensor Excel, the Protector, the Protector 3D, the FX Performa - all those razors, all those blades, all that promise of the perfect morning, the perfect day, smoothing the bristles from the face like sins and flushing them down the plughole. Once, even, I went through a cut-throat period, a pair of fine Solingen razors from Trumpers of Curzon Street, but then one got lost (how?) and I found the other, open, on the bathroom floor one day, the dog having got it and taken a neat bite, like a sandwich, out of the naked blade (how?). The dog was completely unharmed (how? how?) but I somehow lost heart after that.

And the gunks and lotions! Bristle brushes, badger brushes, best badger brushes, super badger brushes. Shaving sticks (Erasmic, Palm-olive, D R Harris's Lavender and Almond), shaving soaps (Tabac, Culmak, Boots' own brand, Old Spice), shaving creams (Trumper, Penhali- gon, Guerlain Habit Rouge, Ingram Menthol, Kiehl's) and then shaving foams. I remember when Foamy came out. You pressed the thing and it squirted out, lathered up already. But I didn't take to foams. No luxury in them; no skilled plying of the brush, no delicious paraphernalia of pot and holder; no indulgence. It was pure efficiency, and would not do.

Let's not go into the lotions and colognes, the Nine Flags and Monsieur Lanvin's, the Habit Rouge and Vetiver and countless soothing creams and dodgy French renovateurs cellulaires and American jollops. Enough to say that, throughout it all, I remembered Parkie each day, and most of all on special Feast Days.

Yesterday was one. Yesterday I got my Gillette Mach 3 razor. Three blades - three - and some sort of coated edge and single-point docking system and forward pivoting action, and pages and pages of PR bumf about how it "breaks the Performance Barrier" and grim business-style quotes from an executive called Leger. You can imagine the stuff. "Capture new users ... Gillette franchise ... zone of higher performance ... loyalty ... refillable systems segment ... business strategy ... quantum leap ... revolutionise the shaving experience".

There's only so much of that one can take: none, actually. But the ghastly truth is that the thing itself is wonderful: the Platonic shave of which all other shaves are a mere imperfect copy. For once, it's the triumph of experience over hype. But the worm in the bud, the fly in the ointment, is that I don't want to hear about their bloody business strategies; I don't want to know that 3,000 men worked for 127 years at a cost of $11bn to perfect the thing. Damn it all, they got paid. I'm not shaving with it for them. I'm shaving with it for me, and in memory of Parkie, and it's a private moment of contemplation each day as I watch the old face slowly succumb to gravity and life - tempus fecit - and to be reminded that I am a consumer is simply intolerable at such a moment. I don't doubt for a moment that my new shaving experience is indeed The Best A Man Can Get. I just wish I'd been allowed to think that for myself. !