The other day I visited the National Portrait Gallery’s “Great Russians” exhibition, to see the portraits of the writers, artists, composers and their patrons who flourished from the late 19th century until 1914. “Flourished” is probably the wrong word – the pervading atmosphere of the collection was that of noble melancholy: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, depicted mostly against black backgrounds, seemed deep in troubled thought, perhaps oppressed by the pain of sheer existence and of having a soul. As I gazed at them, it suddenly struck me that all these great men sported beards of varying sizes, ranging from Tolstoy’s impressive length to the alcoholic Mussorgsky’s short, untidy model; and that somehow those beards, making their owners look much older than their years, contributed to their mood of cultured depression.
Later in the Gallery’s shop I noticed a bottle of Beard Shampoo cum special Brush. H’m.Of course, beards would need some maintenance, I thought and bearded – sorry, boarded a bus driven by a majestic Sikh elder with a beard as huge and impressive as Tolstoy’s. Now I was hooked: as a passionate collector of useless information, in beards I have found an unfamiliar subject to explore, moreover with scientific detachment, as personally I prefer clean-shaven faces and don’t understand the current fashion for the three-day stubble, which is supposed to be sexy but to me only suggests a prisoner on the run. ( Stubbled readers, please accept my apologies.)
“The male beard communicates an heroic image of the independent, sturdy and resourceful pioneer, ready, willing and able to do many things,” I find for starters on the Internet. Another quote, however, deflates the heroics, calling a beard “a vestigial trait from a time when humans had hair on their face and entire body like the hair on gorillas.” Never mind gorillas, the online treasury of data is huge. Among many things it offers a dazzling variety of present-day beard models, ranging from the Van Dyke goatee with or without mustache to the soul patch, the chin strip, the chin curtain and many more. All this is fully illustrated and accompanied with good advice to assist the would-be bearded man, vacillating between several possible cheek and neck lines.
And oh, the grooming advice! And the equipment that’s needed! Beside the daily shampoo and conditioner no man can be well-groomed without a beard trimmer, a wide-toothed comb for the beard and a fine-toothed one for the mustache. A magnifying glass and a three-way mirror are also recommended, plus some baby oil and moisturizing lotion. No blow-dry, though – it would make a full beard look like a disheveled hedgehog. There is also the delicate matter of colouring a graying beard; because of rapid growth this needs to be done once a week.
It was at this stage that a feeling of familiarity overtook me. Heavens above, I was reading the male equivalent of the caring prose I used to write an eternity ago when I worked on a women’s magazine as a beauty writer; it was a downmarket weekly, known sarcastically as the “Knit your own Royal Family” special, but selling millions of copies a week; how moving and endearing it seemed that men, those independent, sturdy and resourceful guys could lavish as much time, attention and even money on their beards as any ex-reader of mine used to devote to her hairdo. The eternal chasm between the sexes seemed to have shrunk a tiny bit.
I was also moved by the story of a man who had raised funds for his favourite charity by shaving off his cherished beard. Was he perhaps going to raise more money by growing it back to an amazing length, collecting hundreds of pounds for every inch of shampooed, conditioned and trimmed beard?
What had started as a light-hearted quest was turning into a mild obsession. I realized it had to stop when, looking at a restaurant menu, I was about to order “bearded chicken with new potatoes” – except that the bird in question was, in fact, breaded. O.K., that’s it, I thought, subject deleted, I really have no right to inflict beards on birds; whatever next unless I stop now?
What happened next was that I opened the morning paper and saw this news item: “Spectacular bearded vulture spotted in Britain for first time.”
Serves me right.