"Rage against the blade" ... Handlebar Club a very special Gentlemen's club.
The Handlebar Club is an association of aficionados of the handlebar moustache, based in London. The club's sole requirement for membership is "a hirsute appendage of the upper lip and with graspable extremities"; beards are absolutely forbidden. The club engages in activism to assuage discrimination against the handlebarred as well as competitive facial hair tourneys, and has inspired the foundation of transatlantic and Scandinavian counterparts. The club declares itself to be at war with a society that demands people choose "the bland, the boring and the generic"; a club chant includes the proposition that being kissed by a smooth face is akin to "meat without the salt". The world's oldest whisker club, the Handlebar Club was founded in a London pub in April 1947 by a convivial gathering of ten, including raconteurs Jimmy Edwards and Frank Muir as well as sports commentator Raymond Glendenning. Their stated intention was to show that "men with moustaches are men of good character", and the mustachioed cohort resolved to meet monthly for "sport, conviviality" and charitable engagements. Enormous moustaches were quite popular among the flying officers of the Royal Air Force in the Second World War, and in founding the club Edwards sought to perpetuate the custom.
Never be ashamed of your hobby, even if it is just comparing facial hair. The gents of the Handlebar Club tell Sam Delaney why 'hirsute hedonism' matters
Saturday 25 September 2004 The Guardian
There's a group of blokes who meet in a pub on the first Friday of the month to share a pint and discuss facial hair. It might sound like fun and games but, make no mistake, the members of the Handlebar Club consider themselves to be at war. Their war is with a society that tells us to choose the bland, the boring and the generic. A society that tells us to choose Bacardi Breezers, comfortable leisure wear and unisex hair salons. A society that tells us to remain clean-shaven. Most of us haven't had the guts to resist this society's oppressive demands. But since 1947, the fine fellows of the Handlebar Club have stood up to such sinister, homogenising forces in the only way they know how. By growing enormous moustaches.
These days, the club's membership stands at about 100 and the spirit remains as strong as ever. With their furry upper lips, gentlemanly clobber and jaunty demeanours they occupy a little world where it's forever 1947. Stepping into their meeting in a pub off London's Edgware Road is a startling experience. Outside, the neon lights, baseball caps and Gillette Mach 3s of modern Britain abound: inside the air is thick with the smell of pipe smoke, hair wax and good-quality tweed. My arrival at the meeting rudely interrupts an anecdote that had opened promisingly with the words "I had a very sad experience involving my sweater while on holiday". A Field Marshall Hague type eyes me suspiciously. A Terry-Thomas-alike harrumphs into his pint. Suddenly, I wish I hadn't shaved before coming out.
"They're a pretty hard lot to impress at first," points out Michael "Atters" Attree, the group's youngest and most rakish member. "It takes them a while to be convinced by your commitment and character." The qualification for membership is stated in their official documentation as "a hirsute appendage of the upper lip, with graspable extremities". But even if you've got just such an appendage it may not be enough. "Some people have turned up here with decent moustaches but just haven't fitted in," says Atters. "Unpleasant types. You know the sort. We usually end up politely asking them to leave." It appears that the state of a member's mind is just as important as the state of his 'tache. But despite their mild suspicion of outsiders and seemingly fascistic code of grooming (fines are issued to members who allow their sideburns to merge with their moustache) they're a jocular bunch. Asked to describe what takes place at their meetings, most members coyly twirl at their moustaches and mumble something about "administrative matters". Most of them see the get-togethers as a pursuit of what they call "hirsute hedonism".
"We can be a bawdy lot," says Michael Attree. "There's a raw edge to these chaps. Many of them have fought in wars and have a few good tales to tell. Our behaviour remains on the adventurous side." It's an attitude they're keen to promote. "We attend international tournaments but always try to compete with the British sense of fun," says club president Ted Sedman. "The Germans take things much more seriously. They dye their moustaches jet black and curl them round to form complete circles. The furthest most of our members go is to apply a bit of the wife's hairspray!"
Not that their cavalier attitude has stopped them making their mark on the international stage. Every two years members enter the fiercely competitive World Beard And Moustache Championships. These spectacular events are attended by hirsute marvels from across the globe, who do battle in a vast array of facial hair events from the freestyle goatee to the Garibaldi beard. The Germans are usually the team to beat although the Americans, Swiss, Swedish and Norwegians are big-hitters. The Handlebar Club is opposed to beards of all forms but have an impressive record in the moustache categories. At last year's contest in America, Sedman won the Fu Manchu category, while Alf Jarrald scooped the top prize for sideburns. Next year, the championships take place in Berlin and in 2007 the Handlebar Club will organise the event in Brighton. Michael Attree has promised "a parade along the front to marching music ... many awards, speeches, mocking hoots and, of course, jealous tears". Keen to emphasise the club's convivial nature he stresses: "The Germans will be looking to hold on to their trophies but, frankly, I'll be looking to hold on to my gin and tonic!"
The club was always meant to be this way. Jimmy Edwards, the music hall comedian, set it up with Frank Muir and a few friends in April 1947. The inaugural meeting was held backstage at Soho's Windmill Theatre amid a gaggle of showgirls, and resolved to establish a club for "the promotion of the growing of large moustaches ... and for furry fraternising in suitably convivial surroundings of licensed premises". Referring to their moustaches as "smashers", the cohorts devised the motto: "Grow for victory and keep 'em growing. And if you can keep yours when all about you are losing theirs you'll be a man, my son, and what is more, you'll have a smasher."
In its early years the club served as a last refuge for ex-RAF officers whose extravagant moustaches were shunned by the outside world. But, as seasoned member Ronald Duck (yes, that's his real name) notes with bewilderment: "They even let civilians join these days." As the moustache fell further and further out of fashion, the club developed a siege mentality and began to attract the cream of society's mavericks. "When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge everyone was growing a beard to be different," says Ted Sedman. "But I wanted to be even more different so I grew a moustache. I've never even thought about removing it since." All members share an unswerving commitment to the cause. "My wife's never seen me without my moustache and I think that's the same for most of the other chaps," he explains. "We had a young chap join recently who we had high hopes for. But then he went and shaved the damned thing off. It was a terrible shame."
In today's world of goatees and shaven heads it takes a thick-skinned individual to maintain a 'tache. "Of course you get passers-by howling at you," says Attree. "You find yourself walking along through this surreal echoing mockery, but you just have to ignore it and get on with what you're doing." Their meetings may be all about warm beer and gentle banter but the central ethos is one of steely defiance. "People these days are glued to their televisions or computers or the bloody pavement," says Attree. "We're trying to live a more imaginative life." Not that the ridicule is universal. "One thing that every member can vouch for is that women find moustaches attractive," asserts Attree. "It's like Jimmy Edwards once sang: 'Every girl loves a fella with a bush upon his mush!'"
'HANDLEBARS' ON PARADE
ALAN'S 'FACE FLOCK' ASTONISHES THE EXPERTS
A COLLECTION of England's finest moustaches, of all shapes and colours, including one which may well set up a new world record, invaded Copthorne on Sunday, when members of the famous Handlebar Club came to play their annual match with the village cricketers. For those who are uninitiated into the mysteries of this exclusive club, which boasts 150 selected members, it should be explained that it is laid down in the rules that applicants must have a moustache which attains the length of at least five inches "at rest," or six inches or more "agrin," and must have "graspable extremities." The objects are to further the growing of moustaches, and by that they mean real ones, and not those growths affected by some youths and known among the members as "Cow's eyebrows" and "Hollywood halos." Despite the gaiety of the members on Sunday when they arrived at Copthorne, there was an air of underlying sadness for their "Prime Handle-bar", or the possessor of the longest moustache of all - George Hoffman - had recently left for Canada. There were, it is true, moustaches among the other members which rank with the best one could hope to see adorning the upper lip but although perfect in density and texture - important qualifications - they fell short of George's span of 8½ inches even when angry or surprised. A dark horse, although his moustache was ginger or should we say auburn, was waiting at Copthorne, however, and when Alan Gear was spotted, nearly a score of moustaches twitched in amazement. Alan, holder of the D.F.C. as a Battle of Britain pilot, hails from Redhill, and the other members had not seen him for a year. Twelve months ago, he admittedly had a fine specimen of "lip lichen," or "face flock" to use an alternative of the club, but it was hardly worth a second glance. Now the members could not tear their eyes away, and by unanimous vote they appointed him the new "Prime Handlebar" there and then on the cricket ground. No one had thought to bring along a ruler or tape measure, and guesswork is not encouraged in matters like this. One of the wives came to the rescue, however, with the aid of a six-inch nail file, and after a considerable amount of unfurling, it was duly recorded to have the amazing span of 10 inches, an all-time record. Mr. Gear has been carefully cultivating this moustache ever since 1942 when he had a wager with a R.A.F. colleague to see who could grow the longest. It has been getting bigger every year and of recent months has mad remarkable strides in all directions. Raymond Glendenning, of B.B.C. fame, is president of the Handlebar Club, which was formed two years ago, and Jerry Colonna, the film star, is American president. The founder vice-presidents are Bill Hooper and Jimmy Edwards. Bill Hooper is better known as "Raff," the famous cartoonist, and creator of the character everyone knows in the Air Force, namely "Pilot Officer Prune." Jimmy Edwards' broadcasts have an audience of millions. The "Handlebars" arrived at the cricket ground, following lunch at the Duke's Head, and before facing the demon bowling of the Copthorne cricketers hastily fortified themselves with a crate of beer. Their umpire was Flight Lieutenant Tony Dobson, the original "Pilot Officer Prune." Outsize pipe Baron Christian de Beer had a bottle of beer in one hand, and a huge pipe weighing a pound or two in the other. The case to hold it was bigger than a miniature wireless he brought along as well, and what with one thing and another, perhaps the reporter can be excused for asking his real name afterwards and finding out he already had it! As members of the Handlebar Club made a rapid procession to and from the wickets, small children gazed in open-eyed wonder at some of the finer specimens of lip growth. One young girl seemed to doubt the reality of the jet black adornment on the face of jovial Noel Henkel, the club's secretary. Her gaze of utter disbelief changed to wonderment when she could no longer resist standing on tip-toe, giving it a tug and finding it was a fixture. "Raff" handed to the "Observer" of a copy of his funny little book "You Can't Laugh It Off!" which is termed a history of the moustache. This book, which has sold thousands of copies and raised many more laughs, deals with every aspect of the moustache, in such chapters as "The Dawn of Down," "Advice to the Expectant Moustachee," "Deformities of the Moustache" and "Whiskers of the World." It might well be termed the official handbook of the Handlebar Club, and it gives some excellent advice to those who are hoping to gain membership. "Raff" points out that if a growth is not doing well at the start, it is seldom satisfactory to accept a cutting from other wearers. Grafting is far from successful, he says, and is a ticklish business at best. Heavy drinking during the growing period is discouraged, as constant swamping of new shoots can lead to that sad state seen in hardened drinkers known as "Booser's Droop" The book points out that on no account should the hopeful grower allow himself to receive great shocks. If the hairs are allowed to stand too often on end, they will stay that way, and become known as "Shocked Flock." If in the advanced stages of growing a "handlebar" the aspirant develops a staggered step, and a tendency to stoop forward, it is nothing to worry about, but only nature adjusting itself to take the extra weight on the face. "Raff" also deals with pests of the moustache. During the bird-nesting season he advises that small mirrors or bright tin lids attached from ear to ear on a piece of string are the best deterrent against feathered friends making a nest in the moustache when the wearer is taking a nap in the open. For night sleeping he says a camphor ball in each nostril will prevent attack by moths, and lastly, a weekly spraying with a powerful approved insecticide will save any trouble occasioned by green fly.