That was a close shave!

And what is the difference between cultivating a beard and growing whiskers, anyway?

“Shaving is such a barbarous activity!” Anonymous

“Beards is all right for awficersc but too much bovver for the likes of me.”Uncle Charlie, able seaman, Royal Navy.

Peter Warland

When my teachers first told me how Sir Francis Drake – the one with the trousers that looked like my mother’s underwear – had sunk half the Spanish Fleet and thus ‘singed the King of Spain’s beard’, the tale got me quite excited. And then, when I learned all about the pirate Blackbeard, he who draped his magnificent beard with explosives, I became ecstatic; I became determined to grow a mighty beard myself. However, as I was only twelve at the time, it was a bit of a problem.

I later discovered that there is a considerable difference between growing whiskers and cultivating a beard. Growing whiskers for most men is merely being indolent. They just neglect to shave. Cultivating a beard, however, can be a pain worse than owning a small dog. A man has to fuss over it, groom it, oil it, train it, fiddle incessantly with it, comb it and trim it and even take it for walks. Most of the men that I know either can’t be bothered with the business nor afford the costs of a barber.

However, I do see professional sportsmen sprouting beards these days, maybe to make them look more masculine. These guys do have the time and the money to waste on such idle activities and so there are some strange hirsute fellows out there, some sporting whispy little things like dead mice, some hugely barbarous, some all neatly tailored like Erroll Flynn’s was when he played Robin Hood, who, incidentally, would have sported a massive beard, living as he did in Sherwood Forest, that was not noted for barbers.

I still have a friend who was wearing a tatty beard when we first met over fifty years ago and, according to a recent ‘selfie’, still sports a white version that clings frantically to his chin. I think he was born with it. His late wife, who apparently gave up the idea of a clean shaven, respectable hubby some years ago, once told me that she had almost lost him when he was swimming in a harbour near his home in New Zealand. Some zealous native fisherman spotted him in the water and assumed that he was a bearded seal, and dug out his harpoon.

When, in the staff-room of the school where I was purported to have taught, a female member of staff accused a male member who had started a beard of looking like an arm-pit and he, quick witted, asked if she meant that her arm-pits looked like his chin. And the score was one all.

However, when I returned unshaven and generally dishevelled from a month long climbing trip in the wilds of Corsica, I was embraced by my fiancée who made no nasty comments at all. She patiently waited for me to get cleaned up and almost ‘hevelled’, and married me anyway.

But beards have been around for ever, it seems. Because women can only grow incipient versions, beards have been the symbols of masculinity and, probably, of idleness. Before razor blades were invented, shaving must have been a real chore. When, for example, Alexander the Great ordered his men to shave before they fought the Persians, famous for carpets, there must have been a great deal of bad Greek language as his armies scraped away with sea shells, bits of slate, dull bronze swords and whatever. This made them so mad that they thumped the enemy, ‘singed their beards’, as the saying goes.

Then there were the days that Jesus was portrayed as being clean-shaven like the Greek gods’ statues but, apparently, when the Roman emperor ordered all of his male subjects to smarten up, look masculine and grow their beards for the next hundred years, so did the paintings of Jesus change.

Anyway, before my whiskers are set alight by some irate reader, I reckon I’ll shuffle off, buy a new razor, then have another close shave.