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To beard or not to beard?

As Fotis Kapetopoulos deliberates over whether to grow or shave his beard, he takes an analytical look at the beard and what it has stood for through history

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02 February 2017

Like many men I have taken a few opportunities to grow a beard from the day bumfluff morphed into stubble. Every attempt has been short lived, lasting a few weeks, a month, at most six when I was in my 20s.

I worked on variations of facial hair incorporating the chin such as the goatee. The attempt at a moustache recently was a disaster. My father looked like Omar Sharif in Dr Zhivago, I on the other hand, looked a nondescript Greek uncle.

The three-day growth is my favourite. It's like a spit in the good boy's eye. A three-day growth opens the door to conjecture on lifestyle and behaviour.
This January I allowed my three-day growth to grow to a beard. What does it mean? Is it recognition to my age? Is it abandon? Does it make me older? Is it hip? I don't know….

The beard locks you in. It's a definitive tilt to manhood. It can enhance the look of wisdom and seriousness in an older man, regardless of the reality. Philosophers, holy men, teachers and leaders have taken on beards over history. Some are academics and economists' beards, neat, cheeks shaved, others tip the hat to outlaw radicalism, wild and furious.

Hadrian was the first Roman Emperor to break with convention and wear a full beard. He did so as a mark of his devotion to Greece and its culture. Hadrian 'the just', a Spaniard by birth, pulled the troops out of Mesopotamia (Iraq) and governed for a period of relative prosperity and peace. He oversaw tremendous cultural growth across the Roman Empire and loved architecture. He was a great administrator and oversaw the building of the Pantheon in Rome, the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian's Arch in Athens and much more.

Hadrian dedicated a number of sites in Greece to his young Greek lover Antonious who tragically drowned in the Nile River. Antonious' death broke Hadrian's heart that the emperor he had him deified. Hadrian had a great beard, gentle yet authoritative. Alas, I look like a cross between the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Ringo Starr. Shorts and T-shirts are just not imperial enough regardless of the beard.

The beard moves into fashion but stands independent of it. We are awash with young Ned Kelly lookalikes across the Northern Suburbs. All of them brewing boutique beers and pulling pork. I am sure most will shave over the next few years. The beard is an origin symbol to manhood. From primal, tribal to ancient and modern, men who lead people, armies and empires, hunted, build, explored, raided, discover scientific advances, philosophised, wrote and poetry, played music and created art, had beards. Thinkers, doers, lovers and fathers had beards. The beard signifies pirates, outlaws, bandits, bikers, terrorists, partisans, revolutionaries, Special Forces, all types of warriors.

I have no doubt many men secretly desire a beard and berserk authority like Ragnar's in Vikings or, our own legendary freedom fighter and outlaw Ned Kelly's, or in the case of my cultural cohorts the Greek Resistance who killed lots of Nazis. However those beards are a commitment to greater values (some of them crazy), and youth. At my age if I stuck to it I may look like a middle aged Greek Orthodox priest, or an ageing Greek lefty ready to commemorate the Polytechnic Uprising of 1974 against the Junta while having Theodorakis on full throttle.

The beard issues have challenged me for the last month of seeing this rough itchy mass of hair much of it much of it white protruding from my face. I constantly argue with myself about whether to shave to the neckline, but where is the neckline?

In 1984 I grew a Socialist Worker Party beard, I was looking for a cross between Abe Lincoln and Che Guevara. It was was an anaemic moustache hardly touching a scraggly low-density beard-line edging my jaw, a young Jesus beard.

My late mum had that dreadful photo from my graduation, me holding the parchment, in the black robe over a khaki ex-military shirt with a second-hand 1960s dark suit and my socialist beard.

I was calling for the collapse of capitalism and quoting Chomsky, Gramsci, Fanon and Lenin, while listening to The Clash and Jam and downing pints and joints at the uni bar. It was the 80s after all the worst in those days, Reagan and Thatcher, looked like small 'l' liberal by today's standards.

That phase passed when I hit 28 and the USSR collapsed. After a short period of mourning, I began to feel a new freedom; I drifted from my theories of centralised economic redistribution. Adam Smith and Max Weber made more sense. I also felt much better in a gunmetal grey Armani suit made perfect with a blue and red striped Ralph Lauren tie and my three-day growth.

Paul Keating's Zegna and chin shadow were my new emblem. Reconstructed lefties in love with the free market, equity in essence and leveraged housing, it was cool. Australia was now Asia with a reckless Euro style. We were all growing up and had mobile phones.

Keating made the cover of Rolling Stone and we were all multicultural. We were deaf to rising bile from the old-left and new right. Both of them are a miserable atavistic bunch.

Anyway, back to my current dilemma, do I grow or shave? I am impressed with my new beard, and its heavier dark moustache as well as white, grey, black beard. It's a take on one of Mel Gibson's beard incarnations. However as I'm not Che Guevara I am also not Mel Gibson. I fear I look more like a suburban Rabi, Greek Priest, or Imam, well fed and easy going. Worse, as one close friend suggested I was may be working towards "becoming like one of the old Greek guys with a dishevelled suit and runners at the local shopping centre."

I think I will visit my local recently arrived Iranian barber, a master of the tradition of shaving men with a cutthroat. He is a choreographer of the blade. It will begin with rosewater scented hot towels, followed by small targeted sharp cleansing scrapes of the face with the blade, a face massage, and ending with a dabbing of old-world alcohol rub.

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