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Hair Today and Gone Tomorrow

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Five or six summers ago, I was browsing in a shabbily genteel second-hand bookstore in a university town somewhere in the middle of the United States. The shop had a substantial stock of fiction, a generous and eclectic supply of non-fiction and the sort of haphazard shelving policy which actively demands exploration. I cannot now remember which section I was in when I discovered Reginald Reynolds’s extraordinary Beards: An Omnium Gatherum (1949). I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in fiction, but beyond that it could have been anywhere. The British Library shelves the book under ‘hairstyles’; the Library of Congress under ‘fashion’; Cambridge University Library under ‘European History’. The seller’s pencilling on the fly-leaf simply reads ‘History (?)’, which is probably where it was. But the uncertainty speaks volumes.

It was the cover that first drew my attention – the title on the paperback edition sprouts wildly across the chin of a figure who looks rather like Karl Marx – but it was the preface that ensured I bought the book. As part of his rambling discussion of the book’s genesis, Reynolds turns to the subject of serendipity, and the discovery of unexpected delights while browsing:

Now any good library is to a Serendipitist what a fly-paper is to a fly; and the most dangerous of all such fly-papers to a fly of small learning, such as myself, is the Reading Room of the British Museum. You ask for some old pamphlet or broadsheet, and it is certain to arrive in a bound volume with some twenty others or more, that are all the more entertaining because they have nothing in common with your studies. Or again, you are reading a life of Pomponius Atticus, who does not interest you, when you find that he died of tenesmos, which lays a hold of your curiosity. A considerate footnote explains that this affliction is a Violent Motion without the Power of going to Stool; and a new word with a sinister sound and truly terrifying connotation is added to your vocabulary. It will explain almost any modern poet, except Mr Betjeman, and can be swung on the head of any adverse critic of this book who has not himself written a volume on beards.

Fellow enthusiasts of Reynolds’s Beards occasionally surface online and more rarely in person. Almost invariably, their first encounters with the book and its author prove to have been remarkably similar to my own – a chance find in

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Five or six summers ago, I was browsing in a shabbily genteel second-hand bookstore in a university town somewhere in the middle of the United States. The shop had a substantial stock of fiction, a generous and eclectic supply of non-fiction and the sort of haphazard shelving policy which actively demands exploration. I cannot now remember which section I was in when I discovered Reginald Reynolds’s extraordinary Beards: An Omnium Gatherum (1949). I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in fiction, but beyond that it could have been anywhere. The British Library shelves the book under ‘hairstyles’; the Library of Congress under ‘fashion’; Cambridge University Library under ‘European History’. The seller’s pencilling on the fly-leaf simply reads ‘History (?)’, which is probably where it was. But the uncertainty speaks volumes.

It was the cover that first drew my attention – the title on the paperback edition sprouts wildly across the chin of a figure who looks rather like Karl Marx – but it was the preface that ensured I bought the book. As part of his rambling discussion of the book’s genesis, Reynolds turns to the subject of serendipity, and the discovery of unexpected delights while browsing:
Now any good library is to a Serendipitist what a fly-paper is to a fly; and the most dangerous of all such fly-papers to a fly of small learning, such as myself, is the Reading Room of the British Museum. You ask for some old pamphlet or broadsheet, and it is certain to arrive in a bound volume with some twenty others or more, that are all the more entertaining because they have nothing in common with your studies. Or again, you are reading a life of Pomponius Atticus, who does not interest you, when you find that he died of tenesmos, which lays a hold of your curiosity. A considerate footnote explains that this affliction is a Violent Motion without the Power of going to Stool; and a new word with a sinister sound and truly terrifying connotation is added to your vocabulary. It will explain almost any modern poet, except Mr Betjeman, and can be swung on the head of any adverse critic of this book who has not himself written a volume on beards.
Fellow enthusiasts of Reynolds’s Beards occasionally surface online and more rarely in person. Almost invariably, their first encounters with the book and its author prove to have been remarkably similar to my own – a chance find in a bookshop, a choked-off laugh of confusion at the cover (the dust jacket and endpapers of the 1949 Allen & Unwin hardback are even better), and then sheer delight at those opening words. The book itself is a genuinely extraordinary mixture of the whimsical, the esoteric and the intimidatingly learned. Reynolds observes for example that beards typically become most prominent during periods of rule by strong women – a point he illustrates with reference to the pointed barbs of Elizabethan courtiers in the portraits at the National Gallery, and to the bushes that festooned the chins of ‘muscular’ Christian missionaries during Victoria’s reign. He presents this as an assertion of unambiguous masculinity during a period when gender roles seemed to be in flux (at least to the beard-growers), and this seems plausible enough. But reading Beards simply as a great treasure trove of information and observation misses the joy at the heart of the book. This is the work of a (clean-shaven) author who delights in the impossible scale of his task. The point comes across rather well in the substantial appendices that follow the text proper (many of them excellent small essays in their own right): Bearded Women; The Capuchin Beard; Czar Nicholas I and the Beard; Dedication of Hair; Pogonology; Saxon Beards; Sunday Shaving; The Beard of Jonas; and Women and Beards (Male). As the headings suggest, these are presented with a light heart, but the relentlessness of the parade of learning is quite dizzying. When I’m not browsing in bookshops, I teach and conduct research in ancient and medieval history. As it happens, beards were quite important in the period that I know best. The emperor Marcus Aurelius was proud of his philosopher’s beard. Julian the Apostate – the quixotic philosopher-warrior of the fourth century who lasted just two frenzied years on the imperial throne before being killed trying to conquer Persia in emulation of Alexander the Great – was so pleased with his (and so proud of his rhetorical sophistry) that he composed a bizarre treatise entitled Misopogon (‘Beard-hater’) as a self-satire. This caused much confusion among his clean-shaven critics, who objected less to his hairstyle than to his attempts to restore paganism to an increasingly Christian world, and who never seem to have appreciated his eccentric sense of humour. I should also add that one of the many barbarian groups who carved up the western Roman empire in what we used to call the ‘Dark Ages’ took their very name from their exuberant facial furniture: the Langobards (or ‘Long-beards’) even circulated myths which traced their origins and their name to the wearing of false beards before their gods. This is the kind of stuff that you pick up around the edges of an academic career – when idly wondering if there might be an article in ancient beards, and then deciding there probably isn’t. Reynolds includes it all. His research for the book must have been prodigious, and he must have been a sensational dinner-party companion. Incidentally, Pomponius Atticus (a philosopher and correspondent of Cicero’s) may also have had a beard, which would explain what Reynolds was looking for that day in the British Library. Beards was prescient. A quick Internet search reveals a considerable sprouting of beard-themed books over the last decade or so: One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair (2002); The World Beard and Moustache Championships (2004); Beards: A Spotter’s Guide (2010); The Little Book of Beards (2014); The Philosophy of Beards (2014). At the very least, then, we could present Reynolds’s self-styled Omnium Gatherum as classic loo-reading avant la lettre. Or we could if Reynolds hadn’t beaten us to it. Six years before the publication of Beards, in 1943, Reynolds finished his magisterial Cleanliness and Godliness – a similarly exhaustive cultural history of the loo, which is every bit as delightful and peculiar as its successor. There is too a delicious irony in the fact that Cleanliness was published at the height of the war, when there was a major paper shortage in London. It’s worth pointing out at this stage that neither Cleanliness nor Beards is a straightforwardly comic work. Much of their delight comes from the relentless presentation of esoterica. By taking himself seriously as a pogonologist and balneologist, Reynolds created works that are both infinitely richer and much funnier than the profusion of disposable books that have been written on similar topics in recent years. In the end, both are about precisely that serendipity that Reynolds celebrates in the opening of Beards – the delights to be found in the library, and the unexpected connections that can be made even with the least promising material. Within these works, Reynolds champions the trivial – and that is no small feat. The greater irony is perhaps that Reginald Reynolds is remembered (if at all) as a purveyor of fine trivia rather than as the astute political commentator that he was. Reynolds was a Quaker, a committed pacifist and a life-long opponent of imperialism. Before the Second World War, he travelled across much of the British Empire and wrote a great deal about it. The best known of his pre-war writing focused on India, and sought to explain Gandhi’s independence movement to a largely hostile (and generally ignorant) British public. His essays on Gandhi’s hunger strikes, and the broad polemic White Sahibs in India (1937) are not in the least funny, but then nor were the causes that Reynolds sought to explain. Instead, they are concerned with the fundamental injustice of British imperialism, and they make the point vividly and persuasively. It is perhaps no surprise that Nehru wrote the preface for White Sahibs. Reynolds’s post-war writing also focused upon the comparable issues raised by the British presence in Africa. His Beware of Africans (1955) draws on his travels through the continent, and again makes an exceptionally persuasive case for rolling up the old map of empire. There is much more to be said about Reginald Reynolds. He was married to the novelist, philosopher and activist Ethel Mannin, and Robert Huxter’s fine biography Reg and Ethel (1993) provides a wonderful introduction to them both. His was a life lived against the grain, and nowhere is this more evident than in his marvellous book on beards.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 58 © Andy Merrills 2018


About the contributor

Andy Merrills lives and works in the East Midlands, when he isn’t poking around bookshops throughout the world. He wears a beard.

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