So now, thanks to Jeremy Paxman, we know what pogonophobia means – a fear or hatred of beards. Once you start with pogonic from the Greek – of or pertaining to a beard – there’s no end to the lexicological merriment you can have. Suddenly the world becomes full of experts and activities you had never before imagined.
Take a pogonologist: one who writes on beards, which is I suppose what I temporarily have become for the purpose of this column. Or a pogonotomist: one who cuts beards off, though by the sound of him he might just as well be a shaper of beards, much like a topiarist. In which case why not a pogonolagniac: one who indulges an abnormal, morbid, maybe sadistic, maybe masochistic, interest in beards. And pogonoleaginous: having an oily beard. And even pogonolandry: the practice of taking more than one bearded wife.
Myself, I think that Paxman’s beard – assuming he’s still got it – suits him greatly. It lends to his accustomed rebarbativeness a measured calm, as though he is angry now because he has wisely thought through and rejected all the reasons not to be, rather than because he is bored to death by the dull equivocations of his studio guests. Generally, bearded men are more magnanimous in their scorn, probably because they haven’t wasted time, or wounded themselves, shaving. “The smooth skinned are invariably choleric,” the Greek philosopher Pogonos wrote, “for the reason that they have looked too long into their own reflection while barbering. Happier are the hairy.”
Because it’s grey, his beard ages him a little – Paxman, I mean, not Pogonos – but age becomes most men. I grew my beard when I was about 18 partly in order to look older than my years, so hateful did I find it to look young. This must have been the minute I left school. The time had come to put away childish things and that included a face which bore no marks yet of experience. Somewhat like Dorian Gray’s in reverse, my face still retains that air of innocent expectancy beneath my beard – as I see when I occasionally shave it off – as though all the living I have done has taken place above it. Does that mean there is someone else under my beard? This would, if so, justify those who think a man grows a beard to hide something, though they might be surprised to discover that what it’s hiding is the fact of there being nothing after all to hide.
I had other reasons for growing a beard. Call them dynastic. My father had one. As does my son. Though I didn’t want to work on the markets or drive a taxi like my father, I thought he presented a picture of exemplary manliness, with a touch of the rabbinic about his face, but also some entirely unspiritual comic gusto. He looked a little like James Roberston Justice, and even more like Peter Ustinov. Indeed he once found himself driving the Ustinov entourage in his taxi and so great was the likeness that they offered him work as Ustinov’s body double in the film Spartacus. “Land me a job as Marilyn Monroe’s body double and we’ll go to Hollywood together,” my mother said. But Marilyn wasn’t in Spartacus. Only Jean Simmons. And she didn’t seem worth leaving home for.
What I liked about my father’s beard, anyway, was how it moved when he laughed. The thing that upset me most as he lay dying was the sight of his beard pointing upwards – like John Donne’s if you imagine him recumbent in his shroud – as if the world below had no more use for it. If a living beard is a thing of plenty, a celebration of nature’s gifts, then a dying beard is cruelly redundant. I never found out whether it was shaved off him before he was buried, or whether it was left to fall away with his flesh. Perhaps it’s still there, enjoying an independent non-existence.
It was said of me by my enemies when I first taught at a university that I grew a beard because D H Lawrence had one. Nothing could be further from the truth. I didn’t like Lawrence’s beard. It was too sexuo-spiritual for my taste. There was too much intent and pedantry about it, and finished too far from his chin. You can always tell an erotic disciple-seeker’s beard: it doesn’t know when to stop. Had I wanted to model my beard on any novelist’s it would have been Joseph Conrad’s – a melancholy, well-travelled, utterly unillusioned seaman’s beard. Or the one Henry James sported for a while – the beard of a man who thought he hadn’t lived enough but was prepared to die trying. A beard should be accepting of human limitations, sceptical but sympathetic, and a little sad.
But the mystery of beards altogether is that it’s the growers of them who are questioned as to their motives. Given that a beard will happen of its own accord, shouldn’t it be those who interfere in the process that we ought to be interrogating? Not why do you grow, but why do you shave? I grow because I can’t bear the fag of shaving. Now you explain yourself. We will very quickly, I suspect, find vanity at the root of clean-shavenness, or if not vanity neurosis. All that work for what? To look like David Beckham who reputedly shaves every other inch of his person as well? And having shaved himself to resemble a muscular baby, gets someone else to draw on him with a needle. Tell me that’s not sick.
Esau, you will remember, was a hairy man. You will also remember that it was his brother Jacob, a smooth man, who soft-talked his way into Esau’s inheritance. The smooth do that. For all their hard-scraped air of transparent affability, it is they, not the bearded, who have something to hide.