If a beard was good enough for Jesus, why not New Labour?

Nicholas Schoon

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As a weirdy beardy of 22 years standing, I've never felt the need to write a word about this condition - until Today. It was a mini-debate on BBC Radio 4's flagship news programme yesterday morning that brought a red mist down in front of my eyes.

Here's the background. Over the past year, there has been a trickle of tongue-in-cheek newspaper stories and diary items about Labour's style counsellors putting pressure on hairy-faced frontbenchers, and now ministers, to shave. Then Chief Secretary to the Treasury Alistair Darling went and did the deed, totally erasing his already close-cropped pepper-and-salt effort. (Three beards remain in Cabinet, however, and there are several others among the ranks of more junior ministers).

Cue further press coverage, followed by the decision by Today to devote airtime to the issue. Bearded backbencher Paddy Tipping gave a splendid, heart-warming defence of facial hair, and I was moved by his talk of it bringing him comfort and confidence. Then the egregiously smooth Peter York gave a chillingly credible account of how corporate image-makers - and now, it is alleged, political ones - have set their faces against the beard. Research had shown that Joe and Joanna Public think beard-wearers "strange, divergent, unreliable". They are "individualists, not team players". They are not wanted "front of house".

But what really made me bristle was when Sue MacGregor, audio-icon of common sense and sweet reason, interjected: "And you can't see people's mouths." How could she say that? Of course you can see their mouths, unless they are sporting a ridiculously unkempt and overgrown beard of the kind that gives all us beardies a bad name.

I've never experienced any direct anti-beard prejudice myself - or at least, I've never been able to detect it. But I have become aware that it's out there, ugly, unkind, invincible, like any other unjustified prejudice. You read or hear the odd item which makes you realise some people, quite a lot of people, not only lump all of us beardies together but go on to hold something against us.

Case 1. A Peak District National Park committee is appointing a new warden. The only applicant without a beard gets the job, and one of the councillors on the committee actually tells him afterwards that that is why he succeeded.

Case 2. I ring MORI to ask if it knows of any polling research that reveals people's distrust of or uneasiness with the bearded. The researcher I speak to says she will try to find out, but adds that she would not be surprised if such was the case.

Weird, isn't it. How can we be considered collectively, when we are all individuals. And how can anyone form a view about, say, our reliability based on something as superficial as facial fur. It provides me with the tiniest hint of what it might be like to be black or gay, always useful for a white middle-class liberal. And it gives me an excuse for all those job interviews I've failed over the years. Just blame it on bosses whose minds were as small as their chins were smooth.

My father is a long-term beardie and I began growing my own the day I left school. Back then it was about the only thing we had in common, but the beard was the beginning of a crucial and complete reconciliation. It was a struggling, straggly affair at first; but as the hair on top of my head began its retreat, it thickened up and became excitingly piebald. I've removed it only a couple of times over the years, been horrified by my appearance and immediately regrown it. The occasional trim and a shave around the periphery once a week is all the maintenance required.

Why have a beard? Give me one good reason why not. It seems highly likely that the reason men can grow them is that they served some purpose during our evolution. I've not heard a completely convincing explanation for what this purpose might actually have been, and I accept that beards may have no real function in advanced industrial societies. But they don't seem to do any harm. So why waste time and energy, every day, scraping very sharp steel across your face (or getting a whirring little machine to do it for you)? It's not natural.

The most monstrous allegation of all is that beards are inherently unhygienic, trapping extraneous matter and providing a refuge for other life forms, as described in Roald Dahl's The Twits. But if that is the case, then the hair on your head is unhygienic too. We get round that problem not by shaving our scalps but by washing our hair regularly, something we beardies are perfectly capable of applying to our chins. True, you don't push food through an orifice in the middle of your pate. But let me assure you that it really is quite easy to keep dinner out of your beard - you simply apply good table manners, and keep your moustache trimmed so that it does not become a soup strainer.

There have been times when facial hair has been far more popular than today (I hear it is pretty fashionable in parts of Afghanistan). I am confident that beards will come into mass fashion again. That said, I have no wish to be some kind of beard Messiah (but I note that Jesus, God and the prophets are all strangers to the razor). And I hold nothing, absolutely nothing, against people with hairless chins - as long as they keep their daft prejudices out of my face.

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