Today, I am tending the tenth beard of my career. Not, you understand, any beard, but my beard. This magnificent - or, as my wife would prefer, gruesome - record has been entirely due to the Sea Lords of Britain's Royal Navy, not that they have been aware of it.
In my student youth we didn't wear beards. Beards were the residue of Edwardian England. Only foreigners and apostles, both somewhat suspect parties, wore beards. There was, however, one exception to this disapproval. For some reason it was considered proper for the Royal Navy to wear beards. The Army wore moustaches, but not the Navy, for Queen Victoria apparently disliked moustaches on sailors.
So when World War II arrived and I, preferring to ride rather than walk, joined the Royal Navy, I was at once exposed to the world of beards, and almost immediately I comprehended the problems associated with shaving in a force ten gale. I therefore decided to grow a beard. To my surprise, this turned out not to be the simple operation I had supposed. The Royal Navy appeared to be distinctly touchy on the whole subject of hair and unduly preoccupied with the ruling laws of the Navy - Admiralty Fleet Orders.
Admiralty Fleet Orders covered a multitude of themes for the governance of the fleet, e.g., ''meeting the enemy at night'' (engage immediately); ''treatment of U-Boat prisoners'' (do not address them or lend them money); ''disposal of cockroaches in H. M. ships'' (apply on Form 334 with samples), and so on. On the subject of growing or cutting hair, A.F.O.s really went to town.
In the first place they addressed their views to ''men dressed as seamen'' desiring not to be caught giving undesirable qualifications by referring to their crews as ''seamen.'' No doubt they felt this was an appellation to be earned the hard way. Nor did they refer anywhere to ''growing beards''; they always talked of ''discontinuing shaving.'' One felt they knew the difference and had been caught out before. To a man the Sea Lords were determined that though Britain might lose the war they would not do it with a scruffy-looking fleet.
I think one should observe to the uninitiated that while anyone can discontinue shaving, not everyone can grow a satisfactory beard. A minimum of hair on the face did not, in the opinion of Their Lordships, constitute a beard. Charlie Chan, for instance, would have been an absolute non-starter in their view. The routine was firm and formal.
One appeared at Captain's Requests with an application in writing to ''discontinue shaving.'' The dialogue would run like this:
''Able Seaman Fennelly requests permission to discontinue shaving, sir!''
''H'm. Well, Fennelly, do you think you can?''
''H'm. We'll see. Permission granted.'' Exit Fennelly, pursued by doubts.
From this moment my status was both changed and well defined. Not only did I have permission to grow a beard but I was also specifically forbidden to shave. No matter if I had second thoughts, or didn't like the look of things, my beard was now naval property and could not be removed. To do so would have constituted something in the nature of theft, and the punishment for unauthorized shaving was fourteen Days Number Eleven, i.e., confined to the ship with extra work and parades in off-duty periods. The Navy, I discovered, would review my request and examine the spring sowing in one month. If my performance over that period was considered derisory by the Captain, I could be ordered to shave off.
So be it, or rather, was it. I had not until then realized the delicate variations involved in ''growing a set.'' There was the ''full'' set as popularized by General Grant, George V and Captain Hook. There was the Van Dyck, the Velazquez, i.e., full at the chin, clipped round the jaw, or the Captain Blood, reserved to those few who could grow hair out of their ears. In the end, those of us who passed through all stages have been apt to recall the late war in terms of beard variations, e.g.: ''Yes, I know we were invading Europe because I had the Van Dyck in 1944.''
Alas (for beards)! Peace broke out and the one thing we had never considered was brought to our attention. To a woman, our nearest and dearest did not take kindly to the ''full set.'' When we returned home, sisters passed sarcastic comments about hair hiding weak chins. Girlfriends affected not to recognize us, and when they did, complained about beards scratching. Mothers in particular were apt to turn pale when their baby boy turned up looking like a walking broom. And as for wives! A friend of mine who sported a glorious, huge, ginger beard a Viking would have cherished was reduced to a gibbering wreck by wifely pressure and shaved off within twenty-four hours. He has subsequently told me that he feels that his wife's ascendancy in the family dated from that hour!
Well, it seems that things don't change very much, even in this permissive age. Royalty-watchers will have noticed that Prince Charles returned from sea service with a black beard up to his ears. One day, after disappearing into Buckingham Palace, he emerged cleanshaven. Unlike her great-grandmother, the Queen is on record as not liking beards.
However, those of us who have shaved and surreptitiously grown again from time to time don't hold it against him. After all,hism mother is also Ruler of the Navy. What chance did he have on all counts? Still, who knows but that when Charles becomes King, he may feel free to go in for another nice ''full set.'' No one ranks above the King in these matters.
Though, of course, one has rather forgotten Princess Diana. . . .
H'm. . . .