Bristling at the bearded Jeremy Paxman? Or too hip to be hirsute? It’s a fuzzy issue

The level of coverage for Beardgate has been more than a little baffling. What the heck is going on?

Some have suggested that Jeremy Paxman wearing the beard on Newsnight has made that entity respectable. If so, then it may also have killed off its status as a signifier of hipness.

Some have suggested that Jeremy Paxman wearing the beard on Newsnight has made that entity respectable. If so, then it may also have killed off its status as a signifier of hipness.

Sat, Aug 24, 2013, 00:01

Here is the news. Jeremy Paxman has declined to shave off his beard after returning from holiday. Observing the sheer volume of chatter in the media (of which this column is now a part), you could be forgiven for thinking that Paxo had appeared on Newsnight with a shrunken head around his neck.

It’s not as if the British establishment has always been opposed to sub-nasal facial cladding. George V and Edward VII both had notably bushy outcrops above their collars. W G Grace – who was to English cricket as Jesus is to Christianity – went to bat with seven or eight beards hanging from ample chin. Even in August, when dogs wearing berets sometimes make it on to the front page, the level of coverage for Beardgate has been more than a little baffling. What the heck is going on?

A glance at a piece Paxman wrote for the Daily Telegraph demonstrates that even he is a little confused about the beard’s current status in popular culture. “It’s not surprising that 21st-century facial hair is the province of the dodgy geography teacher,” he wrote.

Where have you been, Jez? There certainly was a time when this held true. In the late 1980s, when Gerry Adams was being voiced on the telly by Stephen Rea (no joke), the old “geography teacher” gag did much to dismantle the Sinn Féin leader’s faint air of menace. The fact that he was rarely seen without sports jacket and knitted tie added to the effect immeasurably.

At this stage, no beard was regarded as in any way trendy. Indeed, the last time any sort of proper full-on fuzz had registered as “cool” was in the late 1960s. That fashion had barely established itself – thanks to the hippies and the folk-rock revivalists – before it became the stuff of parody and outright ridicule. You didn’t see Marc Bolan wearing a beard. David Bowie wore a dress, painted a lightning flash down his face and dressed up as a Pierrot clown, but he never allowed any significant stubble to grow upon his chin. That would just be ridiculous.


Dead badgers
By the time Adams was scowling at a clean-shaven Paxman, the beard had become the preserve of mountain climbers, ascetic religious lunatics and the sort of writer who can’t pass a dead badger without writing some awful poem about it. Rare was it that the arts pages of this newspaper survived a week without carrying a photograph of one such man standing miserably beside a wet road in the west of Ireland.

The beard offered a visual manifestation of your own supposed “authenticity” (physical, religious or artistic). Shaving was a trivial bourgeois activity carried out by people silly enough to care about the face they presented to their trivial bourgeois world. Since the people who defined what was cool – pop stars, fashion designers, night-club entrepreneurs – positively thrived on a lack of authenticity they continued to shun the beard.

Nor did the beard register much in respectable society. Sartorial conformity set in at the start of the last century and, even on holiday, members of the establishment were unlikely to be seen wielding the fuzzy stuff. The odd print journalist (wearing loosened tie to accentuate his own authenticity) could get away with it. Posh yachtsmen and polar explorers were permitted such indulgences.


Reputable figures
But reputable figures such as politicians – and newsreaders, for that matter – were expected to appear with faces clean. (Let us here acknowledge one of several distinguished exceptions in the person of the very tidy-bearded RTÉ anchor Michael Murphy. ) This was the situation until the turn of the century. Beards weren’t cool. Beards weren’t respectable. To that point, Paxman’s comment about the geography teacher made sense.

Then, in the lofts of Brooklyn, New York, and the basements of Portland, Ore- gon, something awful began to happen. A new class of proto-folk musician emerged who was as likely to wield a hurdy-gurdy as strum a Fender Stratocaster. Recreational authenticity was back in fashion and if you want to fake authenticity – as those woolly poets and jumpered ballad singers had demonstrated – you could do worse than ignore the razor and foam. By the end of the last decade, the full-on shaggy beard had become the essential accoutrement for the irritating urban hipster. The kind of twits who host pulled-pork and whiskey-sour parties swear by facial mess. The world has been turned upside down.

All of which brings us back to Jeremy Paxman. Some have suggested that Jeremy wearing the beard on Newsnight has made that entity respectable. If so, then it may also have killed off its status as a signifier of hipness. Let us be frank. If I am aware of the phenomenon then it’s almost certainly long over.

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