I have just renewed my acquaintance with an old friend with whom I have had an off-off relationship for more than 40 years now… my razor.
During lockdown, I decided to make the commute to work (from the bedroom to the spare room) a bit faster by growing my beard again. Then at the weekend, I decided in a moment of ennui just to remove the facial hair and go back to my fresh-faced self.
No reason. Just something to do.
But it did prompt a flood of memories… some of them going back to years before I even needed to shave.
In a box in a wardrobe in our house was, of all things, my grandfather’s shaving kit from the First World War.
Shaving as shells landed
As a kid I was fascinated with this bundle of waxed linen, that when you untied and unfurled it held all manner of things, like a safety razor, a little box of razor blades, brushes, tins of things and a comb.
The box also had a couple of cutthroat razors and a leather strop, none of which was Army issue, I think. Even as a child this legacy of the past was fascinating, and I imagined granddad on the front line somewhere, shaving away, keeping a steady hand on that open blade as shells landed in the trenches around him.
It was years later I discovered he was in the catering corps, Blighty-side and the most used weapon in his arsenal was a potato peeler.
But as my grandad lived with us when I was young, his old-fashioned Victorian-style shaving scuttle mug, with its well-worn cake of soap on top, and one of those safety razors at the side was always present.
I always thought his mug was cool because it had a picture of a steam engine thing on it. Not too sure what the connection was between lathering up and George Stephenson, but there you go.
A few years later and in my early teens, I was sporting that bum-fluff that isn’t quite stubble but also shouldn’t be on your face, especially as girls were hoving into view. I decided it was time for my first shave.
Now, I had seen the films. I knew what was needed. Boiling water and towels. Whistling kettle emptied into the sink, my dad’s Gillette at the ready, I soaped up with foam from a can, swished the razor round the steaming water then ran the blade down my face. I think the next door neighbours heard the yelling as the red hot razor peeled the fluff but also left me scalded.
Era of electric razors
Turns out the boiling water and towels were in movie scenes involving delivering babies, not trying to de-fuzz your face. And that was the end of my adventures in wet shaving.
Instead, I did what any young man of the late 70s did. I watched all the adverts on telly and bought myself an electric razor. After all, if that Remington boy liked his so much he bought the company, then the least I could do was pick one up.
Just to make sure it worked as effectively as possible, I also decided to buy the absolutely vital pre-electric lotion to go with it. It makes your skin tight and smooth for a closer, stubble free finish… that’s what the ads said.
What it did was dry out my teenage skin so much the razor wasn’t just removing my proto-beard, but a layer of skin as well. I thought the first go was a bit uncomfortable. Just how uncomfortable was driven home when I caught sight of myself in a shop window. My dried-out chin and neck looked like I was a lizard shedding its skin.
Still, faced with either the nightmare of a razor blade – dad still used his and was forever walking about with bits of tissue stuck to nicks and cuts – or using a strimmer on my pus, I went with the latter. After all I was only shaving once or twice a week.
Like a young Para Handy
Which made my decision to grow my first beard at around 19 all the more ridiculous. The moustache bit just didn’t show up to the party. I looked like a young Para Handy (ask your parents).
As the years wore on, however, something changed. I discovered that as male-pattern baldness kicked in, the more hair I lost from my head the thicker and more resistant my stubble came in.
Eventually I had my Homer Simpson moment. You know that bit where Homer shaves, pats his smooth face then in seconds gets his five o’clock shadow back… that’s me.
By this stage, the electric option wasn’t even coming close to making an impact so I decided to embrace the lather and Gillette option again.
Initially I made the mistake of using those disposable orange things. I might as well have been using a rusty steak knife. Now I knew why Dad was always looking like he’d been to Sweeney Todd on a bad day. It didn’t help that nature’s last joke was to give me uber-sensitive skin that turns bright red if you as much as suggested about irritating it.
But then razor technology changed. All of a sudden if one blade was good, then two were better. But what if we went with three? OMG get five on there! Oh, throw in a lubricated strip.
And what happens if, get this, you make the handle vibrate to get even closer. How much of this is marketing tosh I don’t know. But I suspect a fair bit. And I fell for it all – up to and including the vibrating handle with the ball-pivot and blades you changed every week at about four quid a pop.
Full set by Friday
However, wet shaves were now keeping that five o’clock shadow under better control. We were still only getting to 2pm, but I’ll take that. And it makes it easier to shave my head now that’s a thing I need to do.
I still flirted with beards and was now of a level of hirsuteness that if I stop shaving on Monday, I will have a full set of whiskers by Friday.
Over the years, I’ve toyed with a couple of iterations… the close cropped stubble, the proper bushy beard. But never, ever a moustache. Okay, well once. And that was for Movember. Even then I decided to go for one of those Bill The Butcher handlebar affairs, just to make it obvious I wasn’t being serious but actually raising money for charity.
Now, each time I decide the beard is coming back – getting past the objections of my other half – there is a subtle difference. Less black, more grey. Like really grey, like last time it was just my upper lip that wasn’t white, but it was a close run thing.
There is an argument that it gives a chap a distinguished air. There is also the argument it puts years on your appearance. I’m now of an age where I don’t actually need that help. The wrinkly bits are speaking for themselves.
So, last Saturday I decided for my next few Zoom calls I would be a bit more youthful and beardless.
It was, actually, quite a treat. I decided a while back to treat my morning shave as a bit of a ritual and less of a chore (and not change blades once a week, after the advertising campaign changed in the hipster days when no one shaved).
Safety razors are back
There’s the whole steaming sink with hot (not boiling) water, the lathering up with a proper brush, the careful, long strokes, always with the grain never against, the rinsing and tapping of the blade, then the slosh of warm water from the tap and the splash of cold just after and brisk towel dry. And this being the 21st century, there’s even moisturiser. Goodness knows what grandad would have said.
I’m not alone in this old relatively school approach. More and more places are suggesting a return to the safety razor, like the one in grandad’s wartime shaving kit, suggesting it shaves just as well as the modern cartridges but costs far less.
So we’re seeing high-end razor stands and mugs and silly prices again.
That said, I’m tempted, but then I remember the generation that spent the morning covered in tissue dabs.
I am, however, going to invest in one old school bit of kit with a nod to my grandad. So if anyone can tell me where I can find a scuttle-style shaving mug with a steam engine on it, I’d be most appreciative.