Hirsute! The Autobiography

But my brother Esau is an hairy man –

But I, am a smooth man.

2nd Kings, 1, 14.

Actually, it isn’t the first verse of the fourteenth chapter of the second book of Kings, except in the immortal Alan Bennett sketch in Beyond the Fringe, in which Bennett mocks the hackneyed tropes and cadences of an Anglican vicar.  I have the original LP, which might be something of a collector’s item, except that the vinyl (shellac?) is so scratched as to make it virtually unplayable.    

Anyway, for the record, I am an hairy man.  I grew my first beard as soon as I left school.  It took a fortnight.  It was the fortnight of the Glasgow Schools First Orchestra’s summer course.  Nobody seemed to mind that this increasingly disreputable-looking vagrant occupied a desk in the viola section.  I think I shaved it off on the eve of the concert performance (Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture Romeo and Juliet, the Bruch G minor Violin Concerto, and Brahms 4). 

I grew it again in the summer following First MB at Edinburgh Med School.  I was staying in a croft in Benbecula on the Outer Hebrides, building a fence, helping the farmer next door to bury dead sheep, and walking Jet, our beloved family dog, along a vast and beautiful west coast beach.  Why would you bother to shave?  I was a composite of Charles Darwin, James Clerk-Maxwell, and Brahms.  I don’t wonder that eighteenth century gentlemen allowed their beards to burgeon so exuberantly.  Mind you, you would have thought the gentler sex might have objected.  Maybe this is why Brahms and Clara Schumann never got together.  “Johannes!  Last night’s dinner’s buried somewhere in there!  Wo ist deine Rasierklinge?”  I dare say Gillette, Wilkinson, et al, were yet to perfect an adequate blade.  Indeed, I can remember as a youth frequently shaving of a morning and then coming down to breakfast, my face a mosaic of bloodied Kleenex fragments.  The best a man can get.  Fortunately, blade technology has moved on.          

My Benbecula beard took me through medical school.  In these days, medical students were kept away from patients until they had absorbed, and regurgitated, a great splurge of factual material relating to the medical sciences.  Then we were awarded a BSc.  So it was perfectly possible for medical students only to find during the fourth year of the course that they didn’t actually like patients.  Most medical schools around the world now offer an “integrated” course in which students are exposed early on to the reality of clinical life, but I still have a notion that Edinburgh, conservative as she is, retains much of the old model.  As it happens, the medical faculty made some radical changes to the undergraduate curriculum while I was in the thick of it.  I wrote a piece for the Royal Medical Society rag, Res Medica, arguing that the changes were cosmetic and that nothing of significance had changed at all.  A sub-Dean took me aside and remarked, with apparent good humour, “Campbell, you will go far, so long as you don’t go too far.”  And as I was about to start pacing the wards, and looked like Rasputin, I was also gently prompted to shave the beard off.  I think I compromised and acquired an efficient beard trimmer such that, rather than Rasputin, I looked like an international terrorist.  I went off on my medical elective to Papua New Guinea and the beard flourished once more.  I have a picture of myself climbing up a Pandanus tree dressed only in shorts, looking so hirsute as to be, well, really quite at home in that environment. 

For graduating MB ChB, I decided to shave.  One evening I announced to the occupants of the Royal Medical Society library that I was retiring to the rest room to carry out the act.  When I returned, clean-shaven, everybody screamed and clutched their throat as if they’d been confronted by a monster – perhaps they were – and collapsed to the floor. 

I can’t quite remember when the beard returned, but it was certainly there for the fifteen years, give or take, I spent in the Antipodes.  I was bearded during the 11 years I spent in Middlemore Hospital Emergency Department, South Auckland.  Incidentally, there is currently a move afoot to rename the Emergency Department Te Tari Rongoaa Ohorere.

The Place of Sudden Medicine.

Isn’t that beautiful?

One morning, I woke up and realised I needed to go home.  I was Senior Lecturer in Emergency Medicine in the University of Auckland Medical School, I had a circle of good friends, I loved to fly light aircraft out of Ardmore just south of Auckland, and I lived in Devonport on Auckland’s beautiful north shore.  Why would I want to give any of that up?  I didn’t know why then, and I don’t know why now. 

But now here’s the thing.  I flew from Auckland to London via Singapore.  I stopped off at the Sheraton Towers, 39 Scott Road, Singapore, and I shaved my beard off.  The man who left Scott Road was unrecognisable – a reincarnation of Doctor Who.  I can dress it up as a kind of compulsion for reinvention, but I know it is symbolic of something that is at heart destructive.  For some reason, the idea of building a coherent life has been utterly alien to me. 

The beard has not since reappeared.  And yet I can sense it is just there.  Personally, I blame Covid.  Every morning I get up and go to my local shop for the newspapers.  I wear a mask, so, no need to shave.  By the same token, nobody can cross my door, so why bother to vacuum?  Standards are slipping.  And for sure, the hirsutism threatens to be ever more rampant.  Why is it that there is no effective and viable nasal hair trimmer on the market?  The ears get ever hairier.  Interestingly enough, aside from the assignation of male gender, the hairy ear is the only other piece of genetic information the Y chromosome carries.  What is that all about? 

And the stubble is getting ever stubblier.  Stubble encroaches so close to one’s mouth that I dread I will soon need to shave my lips.   Then there are the malars – the cheek bones.     

I’m turning into a werewolf.        

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