Saturday, 12 February 2011

Faulks on Fiction: Sebastian Faulk's Beard

Last Saturday, BBC 2 aired the first part of the series entitled Faulks on Fiction, the Faulks in question being the novelist Sebastian Faulks.

I must say that I was a tad surprised to see Faulks opting to front a television programme. There is of course no law against writers doing television. But somehow you don’t think serious writers, writers of real merit, would be interested in television. And Faulks is currently definitely in the premier league of British writers. He is one of those writers who are regarded highly by the critics, and whose books sell. Many would say he is a class act. And the real talent of classy writers lies in writing classy novels, not in gabbing at the camera. It’s is probably OK for someone like Will Self to prostitute himself in this fashion. Will Self is to writing what Steven Segal is to acting: he butchers it. (When will Self learn that it takes more than obscure sixteen-letters words from the OED to produce a half-descent novel?) Self is not known to have written anything that has sent critics scrambling towards their word-processers to type out kudos, or has had the public queuing outside Waterstone’s to pre-order the latest Self.

At least Faulks is fronting a programme devoted to literature on prime time television and not some puerile quiz show Self used to do. And I would any day prefer to look at Faulk’s face (See above) than into Self’s serial-killer-eyes.

The first part I watched was devoted to the heroes of English fiction. There he was, Faulks, with his mane of curly hair, matched by the luxurious beard that covered rather a lot of his face, the intertwining of the scalp and facial hair conspiring to give an appearance of a grizzly (but cuddly) bear.

Why do men grow beards? Does a beard tell us about a man’s character, just in the way a tattoo above the coccyx of a woman (with a fat arse wearing hipsters), that proclaims ‘Julie loves Pete’, as I witnessed in Asda (where else?) the other day, tells about the woman’s character (or IQ)?

When I was in my 20s, I went through a phase, which lasted for a year, I think, when I grew a beard. I never sported a goatee and, if I remember correctly, for the first several months, I trimmed it only occasionally. The scraggly beard, combined with my painstakingly assembled attire of casual scruffiness, I hoped, would give the message to others (i.e. women) that here was an intellectual, a cerebral man, a man who may be nothing to write home about in the looks department but was nevertheless intense and, therefore, interesting. (I even toyed with the idea of smoking a pipe, but gave it up after a few weeks because even I could see that that would make me look pretentious; and it was not an image I wanted to convey. I mean I was a pretentious little sod, but I did not want others to know it.) I was forced to revise the strategy when girl-friend number 3 (in 7 months) who dumped me said, as her parting advice, begging me not to take it personally, that the beard and crumpled clothes made me look as if I was in need or (more likely) in receipt of Care in the Community. (It is difficult not to take personally a comment made on your personal appearance even if it is accompanied by the disclaimer that it is not personal. When you make a personal comment, what else can the recipient of your comment do than take it personally?)  This woman, I used to tell myself during the two months that we went out, was attractive in a fat Teutonic way. The truth was I was kidding myself because she allowed me to sleep with her (I was desperate); she was just fat (but I did not tell her so, because that would have been personal), and although I insisted to my friends that the sight of her pierced belly-button turned me on, there was nothing remotely sexy about her tummy as it rolled down lard layers over her jeans. The girl friend before her was, I think in retrospect, slightly bipolar, although she put down her violent mood swings to PMT. This girl friend tended to go at the deep end too quickly, and before I knew it saucepans would be hurled at my occiput when my back was turned. She would express extreme views about my beard (OK, not just about my beard; she would express extreme views about me and my character, but beard was part of it). When you have grown a beard you tend to stroke it, or caress it, or (frequently) scratch it. It becomes a kind of reflex; or a tic. You do not do it intentionally; I didn’t, or, at any rate, didn’t do it to deliberately annoy others. The girl friend with undiagnosed bipolar condition (or poorly controlled PMT) would get indescribably annoyed when in a bad mood (which was, like, 20 days out of a month; that’s how I ruled out PMT, unless of course she suffered from perpetual dysmenorrhoea, which, I knew for a fact, she didn’t) and would snap at me to stop milking my nose even though my hand would be nowhere in the vicinity of it. When we finally split up which was after a row (if you can call a woman hysterically screaming at the bloke who is standing there wondering whether the next missile is going to be hurled at his face or genitals a row), during the course of which I was described as vain, selfish, passive, lacking in will power, insufferably dull, arrogant, sanctimonious, misogynist, petit bourgeois, whinger, complainer and a Communist (you see what I mean by bipolar?), she declared that she would rather set herself alight and run through Madam Tussaud’s  than look at my face-fungus. Finally, there was another girl I went out with during my beardy phase. This girl, I am convinced, had OCD (also undiagnosed). She was excessively and inordinately concerned about matters of personal hygiene. Any kind of physical intimacy, as far as she was concerned, was just an open invitation for the germs to colonise different parts of your body (depending on the activity). She would refuse to have sex unless I had a shower first. I had to present myself for her inspection as soon as I stepped out of shower. She would lift my penis as if handling a dead mouse and, cocking her head to one side, would peer critically at my scrotum (which admittedly is not the prettiest sight in the world, but I would put it to you that a good looking scrotum is a bit of a contradiction in term, like a hard-working Arab), wondering, no doubt, whether they oughtn't to be pinned down lest they swing too freely and bounce too forcefully causing vulval bruising, and wrinkling her nose at the thicket surrounding them, no doubt thinking they were too untidy. Only when she was satisfied that I was not carrying on my genitals germs of Kala Azaar would she agree to be horizontal. Afterwards, she would spend two hours in bath cleansing her orifices. She always refused to kiss me on the mouth on the grounds that she could still detect evidence of last night's dinner stuck in my beard. She had, she would declare, no desire to munch on stale food. The real reason of course was that she was paranoid about unsanitary exchange of saliva and—I have to accept this as a possibility—germs in my beard contaminating her. She thought my beard was infectious. With this girl it was I who quit, having come to the rueful conclusion that while her ability to detect dirt in creases and folds of a human body was a talent to reckon with, it was not conducive to a lasting relationship. 

It would be fair to say that my beard was not the unmitigated success I hoped it to be. But I digress. We are talking about Sebastian Faulk’s beard.

I think Faulks sports a beard to make him look intellectual; and academic; and meditative; and erudite; and scholastic. Mind you, he is probably all of these, and would be, even without the beard. But would he look it? Shave off Faulk’s beard and you could be looking at the (about to be made redundant) waste disposal manager in your local (Labour) council. It has to be said, though, that Faulks carries off his beard well. Not everyone could do that. You can be a beardy like Al Pacino in Serpico or you can be a beardy like Mahmoud Ahamadinejad. Faulks definitely is in the Al Pacino category.

As I watched Faulks in the first episode of the four-part series on fiction he is presenting, I kept on thinking the man had missed his vocation. He looked more wise, worldly, and compassionate than my psychiatrist. (He would also be a great host at the dinner table: he would regale the audience with his amusing, witty—if slightly mendacious—anecdotes; would keep the wheels of conversation among different groups moving by dipping in and out of different conversations, managing to give each group the impression that there was nothing in the world he was more interested in than what they are discussing; and would nip potential tricky problems in the bud by his timely interventions that  would calm jangled nerves.) His deportment was perfect; he couldn’t be faulted. As Faulks mouthed sentence after beautifully sentence, as neatly sculpted as those in his novels, in a voice as soothing as the rectal massage you get in one of those Soho parlours, I suddenly realised that this is how we colonized the world. I have no doubt it was our accent. We said to the Indians, ‘Hey Gungadin, this is a fine mess you have made here. We are going to have to take over your country, we are afraid. Now be a good chap and get a glass of water. Jaldi Karo.’

In the programme Faulks spoke to a number of people some of whom I recognized; like the baby faced poet from Huddersfield, Simon Armitage; the baby faced mayor of London, Boris Johnson; and of course, Martin Amis, who, I can confirm, is not baby faced (and looked as if he was nursing a particularly vicious hangover). Amis was on good form, and declared that he would consider writing children's book only if he had a serious brain injury. This had some (women) children's authors (the authors were women; the books they write are presumably for both male and female children) madder than rabies victim. One children's author announced that she felt especially offended because she actually had a brain injury (which, if you think of it, proved Amis's point, but I guess a brain damaged person would struggle to notice it). Then there were a few faces (on Faulk's programme) I didn’t recognize. There was a man whose face had an uncanny resemblance to a frog, his mouth so wide it literally slashed his face into two halves. This guy looked something straight out of Taliban except that he did not wear a beard and skull-cap (and spoke English), but had the same mad glare they have when they are about to stone an adulteress to death. He was creepy; I didn’t look at him, as I was afraid I might die of fright if I looked at him for too long. Naturally I didn’t listen to him. Then there was a fit looking redhead who spoke in a slightly breathless voice, as though looking forward to or having just emerged from a vigorous session of bedroom PT, talking about I forget what, as I was too busy looking at her lips. Finally, there was another bird in her forties (so not really a bird), also a redhead, speaking about I forget what, as I was not listening, imagining, instead, a session of bedroom P.T. with the other redhead. (Also, she talked too much—the older redhead that is, although it is possible that the first redhead talked too much as well; I couldn’t really say; I wasn’t listening to either of them.)

So who were the heroes of British literature Faulks discussed? I haven’t a clue, although I remember that the programme started with Robinson Crusoe. I loved Robinson Crusoe when I first read it; but then I was only fourteen and didn’t know any better. (Ditto for Gulliver’s Travels) As for the rest, I am sure those who are really interested to know would already be in the know, as they would have (unlike me) paid attention to the programme.

I am not finished with Faulks yet. There was something about his attire that caught my attention. But that is for another post.