Magazine article The Spectator

Bearded Folly

Magazine article The Spectator

Bearded Folly

Article excerpt

Kabul

In Nairobi I bumped into a friend who was home from running a safari camp for anti-terrorism troops in Kabul, which is where I was headed myself. He wore a mullah-style beard. 'Have you gone native or what, men?' I asked. 'Christ no, men,' he said. 'You'll need a beard in Afghanistan, eh? That way the snipers can't tell you're a mzungu from far off. And you'll need a flak jacket too, men.' Later the same day I read Robert Kaplan's brilliant book Soldiers of God, in which he describes how the Pathans regard males without decent beards as womanly - and possibly homosexual. This was three days before departure. What was I to do? I stopped shaving, but I knew it was too late.

Now, I come from a long line of British military men. Generation after generation, they had two things in common: they fought the Pathans and they managed to grow impressive amounts of facial hair. In many ways my ancestors' story is one of changing fashions in whiskers: mid-Victorian mutton chops gave way to bushy bugger grips and on to beautiful waxed moustaches and even ones that made my great-grandfathers look like wild Sikhs. Rudyard Kipling was a friend of my great-great-uncle and aunt and he based his 1899 Indian 'tale without a plot', The Story of the Gadsbys, on their courtship. 'Kissing a man without whiskers,' the young woman of the play announces to her sister, 'is like eating an egg without salt.' My problem was that I'd never tried growing a beard or even a moustache of any kind.

I flew to London en route to Kabul. As I stared at my pathetic stubble in the aircraft lavatory mirror I saw that I was done for. My wife Claire works in the film business and she had a suggestion. 'Why not get a theatrical beard?' I thought this was a rather good plan, so we got on to a theatrical outfitter in Notting Hill. The people there said they could do me a full-on beard for between 120 and 150 quid, depending on whether I wanted to resemble Mullah Omar or go for the whole-hog Osama bin Laden look.

This wasn't a Father Christmas strap-on that you just hook on around your ears. It was a stick-on job and very authentic. Dressing up has always been half the reason why Englishmen of a certain persuasion travelled in Central Asia. …

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