While reading the serialised version of Greg Dyke’s memoirs, the following passage jumped out and lodged in my memory like a pebble fired from a slingshot.
“It was around this time that I shaved off the beard I’d had for 33 years. It is now part of Dyke mythology that I did it to make myself more presentable as a candidate for director-general, but the truth is less exciting. I grew it in the first place at 19, to make myself look older. I shaved it off at 52 to make myself look younger.”
In pondering this remarkable snippet of personal anecdote, it is difficult to know where to begin. I suppose it’s best to come clean at the outset and confess, rather shamefacedly, that I had no inkling there was such as subject as Dyke mythology.
Speaking for myself, I would have hoped that Roland Rat was a part of the myth, handed down by word of mouth, sung by balladeers, and made up, an accretion to the Dyke legend wrought by the fanciful imagination of a strolling player. But, alas, Roland was all too real: all I need do is hold an empty vessel to my ear and I can still hear that dreadful accent. Perhaps it was TVam that was unreal, unable to become tangible and manifest until Roland breathed life into its still form.
It would be nice, too, to learn that the Cut-the-Crap cards issued to BBC staff during Greg’s term as director-general were the creation of a muddled oral tradition. But no, they too were real. No doubt some dog-eared remnants lie in the wallets and purses of BBC staff still, ready to be taken out and waved in the faces of waiters and traffic wardens.
Was the diminutive “Greg” part of the mythology? Did the youthful Gregory have to perform some Herculean task or undertake some Homeric voyage before emerging, triumphal and truncated, as Greg the Bloke?
So much for the mythology. Now for the beard. Dyke’s explanation for growing it is unconvincing. Why should a 19-year-old wish to look older? At that age he could smoke, vote, and lawfully put his virile member to whatever use he felt appropriate, more or less. How many years did he imagine his beard might add to his appearance? It could have been five at most, not enough to make any difference to whatever ambitions he might have had.
The same objections may be made the argument that shaving it off at the age of 52 would make him look younger. Having compared Dyke cum beard with Dyke sans beard, I cannot see that either looks older or younger than the other.
What has to be agreed, however, is that the beardless Dyke face is more open, more revealing. And that gives a clue as to the reason for growing the thing in the first place
Men affect beards for a number of reasons: laziness is one (though that is not true of those fastidious goatees that require razoring and trimming daily); secretiveness is another. A beard is something behind which the wearer can hide. There are other reasons: vanity, poverty, and, in the case of bald men, an attempt to make up for a deficiency of hair on the scalp by growing a compensatory quantity on the chain. To sport a full beard at 19 is, I suspect, a sign of wanting to hide away from a suspicious world.
Certain jobs, professions and ways of life are associated with facial hair. It is popular among sailors and Muslims, for instance. Academics wear beards, probably to suggest an other-worldliness bestowed by learning. Artists, too, favour them, as do sages, philosophers, hippies, ghillies, hermits and lefties.
Dyke is neither academic nor Muslim, nor actor, poet, archaeologist, philosopher, hippy, ghillie, hermit, nor even a rabbi. He was, however, a leftie. Was that why he grew a beard at 19?
And was that why, at the age of 52 and on the verge of entering the establishment, he shaved it off? Was the bald-faced Dyke a new man in more than just appearance?
If so, the act of razoring his chin was more portentous than he could have imagined when he lifted the blade to his jaw.
For, as we now know, he was embarked on a tragic journey, leading to sadness, rejection and disillusion, and leaving the bitter memories now to be found between the covers of his memoirs.
Might it have been different had he kept his beard? If, believing that he looked older, might he have acted older? Would he have noticed that the BBC is not a model of impartiality but a bloated organisation institutionally wedded to a particular view of the world, a view held by men who wear beards?
Who knows? This is, after all, mythology, a subject that might with the passage of time become the proper study of long-haired academics. In a far-off age yet to dawn, scholars will ponder Roland Rat and Cut the Crap and conclude they are mysteries whose secrets may never be unlocked. The shaving of the Dyke beard, recorded in the testaments, will, like an Arthurian legend, be seen as fiction with perhaps some basis in fact. That is the most that we might expect.