03 May 2010

Beaver! Writers and Rockers with big beards...

Above are some serious beards - from the top Roy Wood, James A.H. Murray (of the OED, pictured again below in his 'scriptorium') Lytton Strachey, Charles Darwin, John & George, ZZ Top, Viv Stanshall, Michael Moorcock and William Empson (Seven Types of Ambiguity). Beards have been on my mind since reading the obituary of the author Mark Bence-Jones (1930 -2010). As the obituarist notes he was 'an elegant writer on architecture, Roman Catholicism, Ireland and the Raj' and seemed to have been born in the wrong century. The obituary notes that he 'called for a revival of the game Beaver, in which friends competed to shout the word in the street first whenever a hirsute man appeared.' Beards appear to be vaguely trendy at present (led by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Frankie Boyle) and it is time for a revival of the game. According to Robert Graves and Alan Hodges The Long Week End: a Social History of Great Britain, 1918-1939 the game was so popular that beard wearing was seriously affected and many men returned to the razor. I can recall it as a car game suggested by an old uncle on long journeys with extra points for red beards, women with beards or beard and panama hat.

Nowadays you could add extra points for Roy Wood style coloured beards, forked beards etc., But bum fluff beards, boy beards, 'bro patches', goatees or badman stubble do not count and points could be deducted for false identifications. An early poster on the QI website notes a book with instructions and scoring rules:
'In the British Library I read an instruction manual for a game called Beaver. The game involves two players pacing the streets, or staying put in a café/on top of a double decker bus Рwherever they fancy Рspotting bearded folk. The game is scored like lawn tennis, whenever one contender spots a beard they shout Beaver! 15 / love and so on. A double fault occurs when a competitor thinks he sees a bearded man from behind, but when the two come face to face the competitor finds he is mistaken.

The book is full of pictures of different types of ‘beaver’ such as the ‘half beaver’, the ‘santa beaver’, ‘mandarin beaver’ and the ‘nanny beaver,’ which falls from the middle of the chin and must be 2 inches long. Women sporting beards are Queen beavers, which “should be exclaimed sotto voce, in a whisper. The game may have begun in Oxford, in Malta or a place of unknown origin.'
The book in the British Museum may be of immense value (there are many rich men with beards, even bearded billionaires) although how the game could have started in Malta is a puzzler. I see it as a game that started with young men, possibly undergraduates, in the 1920s. The yelling of 'Beaver' at the sight of a bearded man was a sort of punkish épater le bourgeois gesture, as at the time beards were associated with conservative older gents, reactionaries and pomposity. The game is not unknown in the USA-- Helen Hayes described being appalled by her husband Charles Macarthur and a friend of his, who were both old enough to know better, playing the game once at the expense of Charles Evans Hughes, the heavily bearded Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (left). No one was exempt.

Why Beaver? It is obviously from the animal and now has sexual resonance as slang for vagina and this may hinder Bence- Jones dying wish for the game's revival. It is time for the word to be reclaimed. In Canada the respected fur trade magazine "The Beaver' has had to change its name - readers complained that Internet spam filters were blocking emails and newsletters because of the word 'beaver'. On the subject of sex there are persons who find beards attractive (especially on the faces of billionaires) and a young woman attracted to bearded men has a website Beard a Day devoted to a 'quest for love and my love of beards.' Beards were last trendy in the era of Prog Rock--check out Head Full of Snow for some of the great 'beardy weirdies' of progressive rock.

As for Mark Bence-Jones his most desirable book is Guide to Irish Country Houses worth about £150. I have a copy somewhere. He also wrote All a Nonsense (1957) a light comedy of upper class life and Paradise Escaped (1958). Both are very hard to find, one was reviewed enthusiastically by John Betjeman. Neither are of big value yet, he also wrote Nothing in the City (1965) which can be picked up for £10.
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