Growing a beard

On 20 July, the day before our public holiday for Belgium’s National Day, I shaved my entire lower face and neck for the last time. The last time forever? I don’t know. The last time to date, anyway.

Photo taken in London by my colleague Andrei Goldis

I had tried this a couple of times before. In 1985, aged 18 and fresh out of school, I grew a moustache, which I kept until 1994; it defaces our wedding photographs, unfortunately.

Indeed, living in Germany in 1986, at the point I turned 19, I even grew a beard; not terribly successfully.

I had thought of giving the beard another try over last Christmas, and stopped shaving on 15 December; but then a crucial work meeting came up on the 20th, and I decided that I couldn’t really do it with five-day stubble.

I don’t really like the way my mouth looks in these pictures, and that was one more reason to try and grow a beard, to conceal the tight grimace I sometime unconsciously slip into.

Why? Well, I am 56 and can’t really carry off the “smart young man” look any more. My once fine head of hair has been thin on top for many years. I was interested to see whether, almost four decades on from my last attempt, the results might be different. I was also somewhat inspired by a former colleague who is about the same age as me, and pulled off the transition to distinguished beard a few years back.

Part of it also came from my genealogical researches. My father grew a beard one summer when he was 52, a bit younger than I am now, but was unsatisfied with the outcome and shaved it off again at the end of the holiday. My mother’s father was clean-shaven, and so were both of her grandfathers, at least in all surviving photographs and memories. My father’s father had a neat military moustache for most of his life. But both my father’s grandfathers sported splendid whiskers. (They never met each other; John Joseph Whyte had been dead for over a decade by the time his son met Henry Deming Hibbard’s daughter in 1927.)

My great-grandfather John Joseph Whyte (1826-1916)
My great-grandfather, Henry Deming Hibbard (1856-1942)

So there is some cause for hope from my genetic heritage. (Both salt rather than salt-and-pepper, at least in the evidence we have.)

For completeness, here are my beardless forefathers of the last three generations.

Left: my father, John Henry Whyte (1928-1990); top centre, my paternal grandfather, William Henry Whyte (1880-1949); bottom centre, my maternal grandfather Sean Francis Murray (1909-1976, bottom); right, my maternal great-grandfathers, William Murray (1876-1956, top) and James Stewart (1885-1954, bottom)

A majority of my male work colleagues have beards of varying degrees of success – here is a photo from an office outing to the pub last week, and as you can see beards outnumber the cleanshaven by eight to five among the adult men. (The smallest male in the picture is too young to shave. Another very young chap was also present, but didn’t catch the photographer’s eye.)

I feel right now that I’ll probably keep the beard for a bit. I was perhaps hoping for a salt-and-pepper effect, but in the end I got only salt. It’s been a little weird to adjust to the fact that the edge of your body is no longer quite where it used to be. But I can adapt to that; people adapt to much worse, after all. I also just like stroking it – it’s a completely natural gesture. It does occasionally itch; but everything occasionally itches.

And the key stakeholder approves, so that’s a decisive factor.