Saturday, 4 May 2013

Babies, beards and spectacles

Get into a staring contest with a reclining baby, and you’ll most likely lose. Babies don’t suffer from embarrassment: because they’re not conscious of themselves, they’re not conscious of us as separate entities - we’re just a collection of familiar or unfamiliar shapes, noises and smells to them. I was sitting on the tube yesterday on my way back from Euston Station when I became aware that I was proving a source of intense fascination to the two babies in the double pram/pushchair affair parked next to me. Their eyes never left my face for ten minutes.

This happens to me a lot. I think it’s the beard and glasses, which are probably unfamiliar to them (their very good-looking mother, who was reading to her toddler, was sporting neither adornment). Whenever I’ve gichy-gichy-gooed babies at close range, they invariably reach up, grab a hunk of the hair on my jowels – where the skin is most tender – and give it a forceful yank. Luckily I was too far away from my two travelling companions yesterday for them to reach my face. So they just stared… and stared… and stared. I made faces, I popped my eyes, I did the “peek-a-boo” think with my hands, I waved. No reaction whatsoever.

I felt like some large, exotic, hairy animal being dispassionately examined by scientists who’ve foresworn anthropomorphism.

They were undoubtedly the best audience I’ve ever had.

I mention spectacles, because I’ve learned over the years that the one thing four-eyed people like me mustn’t ever do is take our glasses off while a baby is looking at us. Completely freaks them out. No matter how relaxed they were before you take off your specs, they will lose the plot the instant you remove them. I used to think it was because I had a scary face, but gradually realised they only started wailing when I took off my spare set of eyes. I stopped doing it about ten years ago after I reduced a toddler in an Italian train compartment to a state of hysteria: repeating the exercise to demonstrate that nothing permanent had taken place merely increased his distress.

I never tried this out on my own son when he was little, because I hadn’t yet identified the phenomenon. I wonder if babies and toddlers with bespectacled parents react differently.

Anyway, babies are the only other human beings one can study for an extended period without making them feel uncomfortable, or inviting the attentions of the constabulary. Unless, of course, you take your specs off. I expect babies feel the same about us.


  1. I was strolling along the Bund in Shanghai a few years ago sporting a heavy beard and dark Ray-Bans and a couple of Chinese babies became hysterical when they spotted me. Their mother started yelling at me and various articles were thrown from the crowd. Be careful around these little buggers. Read the Baby Correspondent in Private Eye. He knows a thing or two.

  2. I'm not absolutely sure the same thing wouldn't happen to you in Chiswick, SDG. Mind you, the only time I've managed to draw a crowd was in Tiananmen Square about 25 years ago, when Westerners were thin on the gound. I was working with a Radio 2 presenter called John Dunn, who was 6'7", and we ended up surrounded by a sizeable crowd of vertically-challenged gawkers who evidently thought we were from another planet - but at least nobody threw anything or started shouting at us (presumably in case the tanks rolled in to quell them).