The best a man can get

March 24, 2000

Beards may be unpopular among the Blair boys, but Jennifer Wallace talks to academics who are (mostly) resisting the razor.

First Alastair Darling shaved off his "demonic" black beard. Then Peter Mandelson's moustache went the stubbly way of all flesh. Now Frank Dobson's thick bristles are threatened with the chop. Facial hair is political suicide at the moment. Michael Caine was told by his father not to trust anyone "who wears a beard, a bow tie, two-toned shoes, sandals or sunglasses", and No 10 is taking the advice to heart. It's rare to see a new Labour man with facial hair.

But unlike Dobbo, academics are shamelessly sporting beards. Why are so many of them bucking the trend? "It is because academics are slovenly," says the clean-shaven John Mullan, trendy lecturer at University College London. "They don't care about their appearance." Californian psychology professor Don Norman concedes that he has been influenced by the need to "put comfort before fashion".

Intellectuals, though, are clued up in what Roland Barthes calls the "semiology of our bourgeois world" and know that beards are not just due to tonsorial apathy but send symbolic messages. The neatly bearded Carl Djerassi, the Stanford University chemist who played a part in inventing the contraceptive pill, patiently explains the semiotic distinctions of facial hair. "A carefully maintained or interestingly shaped beard is a form of peacockery displayed by men who also dress well. A wild ungroomed beard is a different label: 'I don't care for the outside world - I am busy with my own thoughts.'" Wild, defiant beards also carry radical political overtones. Howard Kirk, the left-wing sociologist hero of Malcolm Bradbury's campus satire, The History Man, who ends the novel with a "Zapata moustache", calculatedly adopts his beard when he buys his black leather jacket and copy of the radical newspaper Red Mole: "There were many new beards in 1963; Howard's was one of them," writes Bradbury. Daniel Dennett, professor of philosophy at Tufts University, outside Boston, confesses that he was certainly motivated by radical politics: "I grew my beard in 1967. I was involved in the anti-war movement in Southern California, and it was a way of making myself recognisable to like-minded people."

But others think beards denote not so much sandalled socialism as outstanding brains. The witty ancient Greek historian, Ammianus might have cautioned his intellectually aspiring followers that "a beard creates lice not brains" but many leading international philosophers from Pittsburgh-based John McDowell to Slovenian professor Slavoj Zizek are allowing their facial hair to flourish. Socrates, the father of philosophy, had a full head of hair, and Henry Sidgwick, the 19th-century philosopher, was heavily bearded. As Mullan observes: "The bearded Victorian sages like Carlisle and Ruskin have a lot to answer for."

Indeed, just as owners start to look like their pets, so academics model themselves on the authors they study. Many prominent Shakespearean scholars maintain neat goatees like Shakespeare's. Peter Holland, director of the Shakespeare Institute, recognises the comparison between himself and Shakespeare but points out scholars who have gone to greater extremes:

"Stanley Wells (the previous director of the Shakespeare Institute) is even closer in the Shakespeare lookalike competition. And Gary Taylor (American joint editor of The Oxford Shakespeare) not only grew a beard but got one ear pierced, so he looked just like the famous Flowers portrait of the Bard."

It is a question of showing you are part of the club. Richard Dawkins advocated the "green beard effect" in The Selfish Gene. Genes look out for replica genes to help them reproduce. "A green beard is one way a gene might 'recognise' copies of itself," he writes. So notorious has this argument become that a conference chairman dyed his beard green to introduce Dawkins as a speaker.

But perhaps the ideological climate and the necessary signals of barbered academia are changing. Certainly more than one academic, in The THES's highly unscientific survey of the current state of facial hair, has recently given in to the razor. Is the Blair tonsorial witchhunt getting to them?

"In the light of the debate concerning the reliability of bearded academics, this very Sunday I took a razor to my moustache and removed it," genetics professor Paul Nurse, director-general of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, confesses. "My colleagues at ICRF do not believe it makes me look any more reliable than before, and certainly they do not think I have a greater chance of being elected London mayor."

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