Hair Here! – James Joyce and the eager beaverers of 1922

Frank McNally: An Irishman’s Diary

 Targets with only a moustache or beard were addressed as ‘walrus’ or ‘beaver’. A man with both was called ‘Royal Beaver’. Photograph: iStock 

Targets with only a moustache or beard were addressed as ‘walrus’ or ‘beaver’. A man with both was called ‘Royal Beaver’. Photograph: iStock 

 

Grim as the autumn of 1922 must have been in Ireland, it had its frivolous moments too. Some of them centred on a game involving policemen – the same policemen who were still liable to be shot as the country descended into civil war. 

In this case, they were vulnerable only if they wore facial hair, something that was falling out of fashion at the time. And the worst that might happen then was that they would have the word ‘beaver” or “walrus” shouted at them.

A primitive forerunner of Pokemon Go, the game was less popular in Ireland than in England, where it probably originated in the university towns of Oxford and Cambridge. 

What I know of it now is largely the result of two letters that appeared in this newspaper in October 1922, one attacking the fad as a symptom of the fall of civilisation, the other defending it as innocent fun in troubled times.

The critic of “beavering”, as it was called, writing under the pseudonym “Theomachus”, suggested it was now “quite a national sport” in England and “probably the only one of which the championship will not be won by a foreigner”.  

The letter went on to argue that it marked a “revolt of youth against age”, that its enthusiasts had a “socialistic” bent, and that it was the sort of thing “G.K. Chesterton” or “H.G. Wells” might have invented.  

Whatever the reasons for its popularity across the water, Theomachus thought it a good counter-argument to George Bernard Shaw’s stated reason for exiling himself in England: that “the lunatics there are more harmless”. Shaw, the letter added, would be a prime target for beaverers.

This last point was correct, since the game was not confined to policemen. In a follow-up letter, by a professed enthusiast signed “Douglas”, from Dundalk, more rules were explained. Targets with only a moustache or beard were addressed as “walrus” or “beaver”, he wrote. A man with both was called “Royal Beaver”. 

But the game’s ultimate goal was to identify a “King Beaver”, ie: “a red-whiskered policeman riding a green bicycle”. This, claimed Douglas, who had played it both sides of the Irish Sea, carried with it the “English ‘Beavering’ Championship”.

Theomachus may have been right in one way, at least, when he suspected the game marked a generational shift. Facial hair was one of the many things that had gone out with the first World War, partly because it wasn’t conducive to wearing gas masks. 

What began as a survival mechanism in trenches evolved into mere fashion. But as well as not keeping up, older men who still clung to beards may also have retained some of the stigma of causing the war.

On a less serious note, I wonder if a youthful Brian O’Nolan played Beaver. The year 1922 was certainly formative in his life. It was when his family moved permanently to Dublin and also when, aged 11, he first went to school. 

Until then, he had been educated at home, through Irish, with his exposure to English filtered mainly through reading about the adventures of public school boys.

In any case, beaverer or not, he would grow up to make whiskered policemen with bicycles a key element of his comic writings.

A writer who was definitely aware of beavering, we know, was James Joyce. If fact, it’s only through Joyce that I learned of the phenomenon. And I wouldn’t have known where to look except for one of his latter-day devotees, Peter Chrisp, who features the subject this week in his fine blog From Swerve of Shore to Bend of Bay.

The latter takes its name from Finnegans Wake, which Joyce is known to have started writing in March 1923. Over the years, however, scholars have pushed back the book’s pre-natal phase to October 1922, when the writer was staying at the Hotel de Nice. Since 2013, a plaque there proclaims it the place FW was born, and the evidence is in Joyce’s notebooks.

While in Nice, he had The Irish Times and other newspapers sent to him daily, and being a literary magpie, sifted these for details he could use in his last masterpiece, still only forming in his mind then, which would take him the next 17 years. 

He was not interested in the important news. Low culture was his preference. Thus, among the cryptic notes he transcribed for that crucial period are words that might since have inspired literary PhDs had there not been an archived newspaper letter to explain them: “King Beaver redwhiskered policeman on a green bicycle”.

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