My beard began about two and a half years ago, and has passed through four ages, as I believe all beards must.
Most beards aren’t planned. The man just stops shaving, usually as a result of some crisis. My dad’s beard began when he had chicken pox and couldn’t shave. Mine began in a very cold winter in a very cold flat, when I was writing Perpetual Astonishment and had lost interest in everything else. It was so cold that just getting out of the shower was an ordeal, as the water would instantly turn into a thin coating of ice that I would have to chip off my body. I couldn’t face applying a cold blade to my face, so I didn’t. After a few days of this neglect, people started to say that it suited me.
After perhaps three weeks, when I met people who hadn’t seen me for a while, they would invariably say, “Oh, this is new” and then they would wiggle their fingers in front of their chin. At this stage, people couldn’t bring themselves to call it a beard; they could only refer to it by miming the strands of hair on my chin.
After a while, people begin to call the hairs on your face a beard. At this stage, you can’t just say that you haven’t shaved for a while. You have to admit – if only to yourself – that you have deliberately grown a beard because you think it looks better than your face. People will then tell you what you look like. In my case it was Tsar Nicholas II (shy, ineffectual autocrat, murdered) and “someone who’s just got out of the Gulag”. This may not sound great, but it was infinitely better than the people I’d looked like before – Peter Baynham, Ronnie Corbett and Paul Whitehouse.
I realised that my beard had attained full maturity a couple of weeks ago, when a friend I hadn’t seen for a while said, “Oh, hello Tolstoy”. I very much enjoy the Russian aspect of my beard, and there are a great many other advantages. For one thing, a beard functions as a facial expression in itself, so you don’t have to move your face muscles about so much. For another, you don’t have to deal with it much. If you stop shaving for a week, everyone notices and you can’t go to business meetings. If you stop looking after your beard for a week, it looks pretty much exactly as it did before.
There is a slight prejudice against beards, but I think this is misplaced. The main objection is that men with beards are hiding something. We are: our faces. However, we are completely up-front about this concealment, unlike those devious clean-shaven men, who hide what they are hiding.