The folk musician Billy Bragg has out-whiskered Stephen Fry and Brian Blessed to be named Hirsute Personality 2013 at the launch of Beard Week, the Beard Liberation Front’s festival of facial hair and call to end beard discrimination. Similar awards this week will go to sportsmen, broadcasters and employers who embrace beards as warmly as their beards to their chins. Beard of the Year will be announced as usual in December (Robin Lustig, the BBC newsman, holds the title).
But, as a campaign group formed in the clean-cut Nineties must surely be aware, beards are now quite fashionable, hanging as they do from the faces of models, actors such as Ben Affleck and, in certain offices (I survey mine as I type), just about all men. A dating site called Beardiful now connects the hairy-faced with the growing number of women who prefer them. The male grooming industry, meanwhile, is bristling in the face of the boom. Phillips has lobbied for a return to shaving, while Gillette is celebrating Superman, who ditches a beard part way through his new movie, by asking boffins how the man of steel might practically have done so (Mach III Kryptonite™, anyone?)
Surely, Keith Flett, beard-wearer and the man behind the Front, your work here is done? Isn’t campaigning for beard liberation now a bit like defending the rights of men to wear skinny jeans, or launching a Kim Kardashian awareness week? Has the time not come for the Chin Liberation Front (I write this as a man who last saw his seven years ago)? No, Flett says. “I won’t stop until we see more hirsute people at the top of society, in business and politics. We’re still waiting for the first hirsute BBC TV newsreader, which I would see as a benchmark for beards.”
Prejudice against beards (pogonophobia) is a relic of an age when beards seemed shifty. What are you hiding under there, apart from bits of breakfast? Keith Graves, a broadcast journalist and former Beard of the Year runner-up, has claimed that the BBC refused to hire him as a newsreader in around 1980 when he ignored their demands he shave. Flett says workplace discrimination persists, and that beard-wearers also suffer public insults, such as, “oi, beardy!”. “I’m afraid white van man is still prone to lean out his window and shout beard-related abuse,” he says. “I often get it myself.”
The campaigner, who is also a union officer and socialist historian, formed the Beard Liberation Front in 1995, partly in response to the lack of facial hair in New Labour. This newspaper reported the following year that Labour insiders had promised to appoint a bearded cabinet minister should the party win the General Election in 1997. Step forward Robin Cook, the late former Foreign Secretary.
But Blair’s Labour was otherwise fairly hair-free, and Ed Miliband appears to be no fonder of beards, real or figurative. In a Sunday Mirror story about the his plans to snub senior figures in the event he forms a cabinet in 2015, a Labour source said: “There will be no return for the greybeards.”
Flett finds solace only in the return of Tony Benn’s beard but he concedes: “I fear it’s only back because he’s extremely old.”