Scruffy or smart – I'm just the same guy underneath
Oxtail soup is one of the greatest culinary glories to have evolved since mankind first learned to cook with fire – and for some weird reason I always make a big pot of the stuff when it snows.
Why is that, I wonder? What deep-seated, inherited, knee-jerk reaction drives me to the freezer to get out the stand-by supply of oxtail as soon as the weatherman predicts white stuff?
I anticipate the aromatic scent of oxtail bubbling in a slow-cooker during a blizzard like I expect the whiff of sun-tan lotion in a heat-wave.
For all of us in life, certain things are a must.
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For example, for more than half-a-century people have been criticising my appearance. I am used to folk saying I'm scruffy – and expect complaints about my lackadaisical looks.
So when I inadvertently kicked up a mini-media storm by reacting to a reader's letter criticising my appearance, I might have known nothing would change. My physical façade did – but not the endless peel of criticism.
For 50 years people have been deriding my scruffiness – so I smarten myself up, have a haircut, put on a suit and publish a before-and-after photograph in the newspaper. Result? A small tsunami of criticism.
"For God's sake, grow your hair back. You look like a banker/lawyer/estate-agent…"
Those were the three occupations mentioned in nearly 200 emails and Twitter messages I've received in the past week. All the missives but one complained about my new smart appearance.
You put on a suit and have your hair cut – and what happens? Nearly 200 newspaper readers beg you to go back to being scruffy.
Now, I realise that writing about this seems horribly self-obsessive – but I do think there's a serious point to be made about the world of personal appearance in general rather than just the shoddy subject of shabby old Hesp…
In order to make the point let me repeat a line from Jo Thomas's email on the before-and-after haircut photo that appeared in the newspaper – because it sums up what so many said: "The chap on the left is a countryman, a trustworthy type who looks up for a yarn or two with a relaxed attitude – happy in his own skin.
"The chap on the right... Sorry Martin, you look like (God forbid!) an estate agent or (worse) a banker! If you came to interview me looking like that, I wouldn't even let you in the house!"
That last sentence is interesting. It seems to say that smart middle-aged men in suits might earn one kind of respect – but they don't attract warmth or a sense of personal trust. The man with the tidy hair and the pinstriped suit obviously has a career – and that is what he is all about – which in turn means that, really, he is driven by what he wants to achieve.
It's an appearance that says: "Be in no doubt, I can do clever things – so this interaction between you and me is grounded on my expertise – which means that it's really about me and what I can do, even if I'm doing it for you."
That is the very opposite of what journalism is about. A huge part of a journalist's job is to open doors, get inside, and persuade people to tell their sometimes very personal stories. For that you need a little bit of charm, and an awful lot of trust. And it has to be instant trust – journalists, for the most part, don't have time to build up relationships. They need people to immediately think: "This guy seems OK. He's not some sharp-suited operator who's driven by his own career and out for himself. He's just a friendly, laid-back bloke who's doing his job."
And so the new lawyer that is Hesp rests his case.
Except… I must just tell you about the one missive I received that applauded my new merchant-banker look. It was a lovely, friendly letter commending me for my journalism but saying in no uncertain terms that my scruffiness had always "irritated" the correspondent.
"A few years ago at the Royal Cornwall Show I saw Martin talking to a smartly dressed Show Official who, I thought, must have cringed at his appearance, as I did."
Oh dear… I beg you, dear readers, if you see me out and about on journalistic duty in the Westcountry, please come over and say hello. Call me a scruffy beggar if you must – but please don't cringe in silence.