Like economic policy, male grooming alternates between periods of laissez-faire and dirigisme. In Periclean Athens, no one expected you to cut your beard until it started tripping people up; in 17th-century France, half the day could be consumed with the affixing of beauty spots and the powdering of wigs.
We are living in interventionist times. The market is stocked with a vast array of torture implements inviting you to scrub, buff and depilate to preserve the blush of youth. It is impossible to say whether they actually work in the long run but if you’re not in it, you can’t win it. They’re a bit like your pension: you make the investment now only vaguely hopeful you’ll get anything out of it 30 years down the line.
My own beauty regimen verges on the minimalist, but it still manages to throw up a series of tricky conundrums: what is the optimum ratio between hair length and beard length such that I look neither like a survivalist-cum-Mennonite nor an egg with jowls? How do I nick off the straggling follicles around the cheekbones without eating into the beard? Cack-handedly shear off a section and, in order to create the vague impression of symmetry, I can easily whittle away most of the rest, leaving a thin rim of beard that makes me resemble a foppish courtier to some Spanish Bourbon.
While I fret about my facial hair, I’ve been neglectful of my skin. So I turned to Geneu, the first company, so it claims, to offer personalised skincare. After analysing your DNA, and establishing how well your skin neutralises anti-oxidants and produces collagen, they will give you a selection of serums tailored to your genetic profile. My consultation brings some welcome news: my skin-related DNA could not be in ruder shape. It purges antioxidants like the Stasi and I’ve got collagen coming out of my ears. But Geneu did not send me home with a shiny apple and a pat on the back. If you ever get stressed, or have been out in the sun, you’ll need all the help you can get. The choices are retire and live out your days in a blacked-out room, or slap on some serum. Three weeks in and the results are ambiguous. Of course, with skin like mine – did I mention that it glows so brightly I’m often mistaken for a halogen lamp or an angel? – the margins for improvement are narrow, but, as far as I can tell, the main difference is the migration of a small archipelago of spots from one side of my nose to the other. Geneu doesn’t come cheap – a supply that lasts between a fortnight and a month will set you back £150. For that money, you could buy a pair of second-hand alembics, hire a gigging alchemist and set him up in the spare room to work on the philosopher’s stone.
Skull Shaver sounds like the nickname of the kind of Norseman who relaxed at the weekends by popping over to Lindisfarne for a flagon of mead and a spot of monk-skewering. It promises to do away with haircuts for ever – just as long as you want the shortest crop imaginable. The flexible shaver with five rotary blades cleaves to your skull, allowing you to tidy up your hair without resorting to the barber. Or so the theory goes. It certainly cuts tight, though you’re still left with a problem. “It is not good that the man should be alone,” said the Bible and that’s mostly because doing the back of your head is really tricky. You’re never quite certain that you’ve got everything, so you go over the same spots again and again, rubbing them red; you crick your neck in the mirror to catch a glimpse of the dark side of the Moon; you take many blurred photos with your smartphone of enigmatic dermal landscapes. “Have I got everything?” I ask my flatmate as he comes home. “You’ve missed a bit under your ear,” he says with a sigh, and picks up the shaver.
BaKblade offers to do for your back what Skull Shaver does for your bonce. For many people, this is a solution for a non-existent problem. I, on the other hand, am so hairy that I’m sure there must be hobbit somewhere up the family tree. BaKblade is beguilingly low-tech: two blades on a swan-necked handle. I begin enthusiastically, hacking away at 20 years’ growth, which ends up curled on the bathroom floor. It takes a while to work out the angles: the shoulder blade proves challenging and the hairs in the gully of my spine remain entrenched, like one of those do-or-die platoons who refuse to admit the war is over. Eventually, the battle is won, though my raw back looks like it’s been through a couple of rounds of enhanced interrogation. Then, a day later, comes the stipple of shaving rash; then the prickle of re-growing hairs. Our work is never done.