When I was a much younger man, I took a trip on the Trans-Siberian express from Moscow to Beijing in early February, stopping off for a couple of days at a city called Irkutsk in Siberia.
My father, an extremely knowledgeable man who once put a zed on the end of ‘quart’ at the end of a game of Scrabble, advised me that I should grow a beard to ward off the worst excesses of the -30° Centigrade temperatures that I could expect, if I was foolish to go at that time of the year. Brought up on tales of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, he recognised that no clean-shaven person had ever made it to the South Pole and there was a reason for this.
At the time I worked in Dunnes Stores in Grafton Street and I remember that I had to ask permission from my manager at the time to grow a beard, there being an unofficial no-beard policy in the company at the time, except for one guy who worked out in Northside.
I started growing the damned thing about four weeks prior to my departure date and sadly, any hopes I might have had of adding beard-growing to my extremely small list of accomplishments soon faded in the light of the scutty little effort that faced me in the mirror on the morning of my departure.
That I had failed publicly in my attempt to grow facial hair punctured my machismo somewhat, though in retrospect, I doubt that even if I had succeeded in producing a beard of Ronnie Drew proportions, it would have helped to keep out the deep Siberian cold to any degree. I was able to suggest to my father subsequently that I found that a scarf wrapped around the lower half of the face did the job just as well.
Of course, being in retail for the first half of my working life, I was always very assiduous about shaving, performing the mundane ritual every morning before work. I was never tempted to grow either a moustache or a beard, having it in my head that those with the former were intrinsically evil and those with the latter seemed to have a sad look about them.
I got an electric shaver on my sixteenth birthday and I think I’ve only had two shavers since, an endorsement that I am hoping will be read by Philips and suitably recompensed. The other odd thing is that I have never shaved in front of a mirror, preferring to let my knuckles tell me when I am baby-bum smooth. I tell myself that this is because there is no mirror near the socket where I plug in my shaver, but in reality I have better things to do than to stare at my ugly mug first thing in the mornings.
About ten years ago though, I moved out of retail, first into manufacturing and then into warehousing. Naturally, with practically no contact with the general public, there was no onus on the staff to take pride in their appearance. Not being exactly a snappy dresser at the best of times – I view clothes as being purely functional rather than a statement of fashion – this suited me down to the ground and my former daily shaving habit fell by the wayside too.
The latter is not due to lack of pride in my appearance, though when you have a face like mine, the word ‘pride’ isn’t be the first noun that springs to mind. No, it’s just that shaving is so boring. It’s not something you can do while otherwise engaged in reading or gardening or something, as you have to contort your face up like the Elephant Man to get the job done. I start under the nose before doing the cheeks and then sweeping down to my chin. Then I do under my chin before catching the stubbly bits on the line of the chin itself. Even writing down the sequence is boring.
So I leave off shaving until one of two things happens – either my wife tells me to ‘lose the beard’ or the bristles on my chin become so long that when I look downwards, I stab myself in the neck. Of course, now, my facial hair, rather than coming out a dark and virile black now comes out a rather doddery silver, much to the delight of my nearest and dearest.
I have no idea how people grow beards and moustaches. It must irritate them all the time. And I’d also be afraid that bits of food or nasal waste would become lodged in the hairs unbeknownst to myself and I’d walk around like that for days with people too embarrassed to tell me.
I was in a pub down in Loughrea recently and there was a photo on the wall of the local GAA team in 1923. The two things that sprang out of the photograph was the amount of hats and moustaches that everybody had. Well, they only had one of each but you know what I mean. How distinguished and austere they all looked! How come my three days’ growth merely makes me look like a scruff?
Like hats, moustaches have very much gone out of fashion. Take the local political scene here. None of our three TDs – Brian Lenihan, Leo Varadkar nor Joan Burton – obviously feels that growing facial hair is much of a political advantage and their lead has been largely followed on Fingal County Council, although the new Mayor sports a very distinguished James Robertson Justice full set. Gerry Lynam obviously didn’t get in at the last election because of his moustache, however well-groomed it might be, the public clamouring to see a bit of skin ’twixt nose and lip. However, I am determined that when the glorious day finally arrives and Dublin 15 gains its independence, I will make the moustache the official facial hair of the new republic.
My daughter’s boyfriend, Greg, is actually quite a good beard-grower, being able to develop a thick full set between breakfast and elevenses, though I think he realises that it may be a hindrance if he ever nurtures political ambitions later in life. Still, as I keep on hinting, it’d be a great skill to have if he ever decided to bring my daughter to Siberia.