When, in 1957, Harold Macmillan accepted the Queen’s invitation to become prime minister, following the resignation of Sir Anthony Eden, he returned from the Palace, marched up Downing Street to where Eden was waiting for him, and gave his old rival a man-hug, right there in front of the Pathé news cameras.
No, of course he didn’t.
But we have come a long way since then. Indeed, at the party conferences they were all at it: MPs, ministers, party activists, hug, hug, hug — and not a hoodie in sight. After the Mayor of London delivered his speech he was rewarded with a bear-hug from the Prime Minister, no less. At least it was away from the cameras this time, unlike last year at the Olympics, when Boris and Dave had a manly embrace in full view.
We are fast turning into a hugging culture, with goals, wickets and tries acknowledged by spectators and players alike with a man-hug, and with the journey from seat to stage at an awards ceremony becoming a veritable gauntlet of pats and squeezes.
What’s going on? Aren’t the British supposed to be a reserved breed? Don’t we have to be, on account of our living on a small and overcrowded island? After all, the handshake could have been invented for us, and probably was, dating back to the days when a gentleman carried a sword and offered his hand in greeting to show that it was empty.
From my own experience I can date the man-hug back to the mid to late 1990s, when my friend Jonathan Yeo started doing it to me. At the time I put this down to his being an artist (though come to think of it, he is also the son of a Tory MP, so there might have been something in his DNA). Then my friends Dom and Steve, who are brothers, started doing it.
Well, they always had, to be fair, with each other, but they started doing it with friends too and I have to say, when they signalled me over with supple rolls of the wrists and a ‘Come on, big guy, do you want some too?’ I found I did, and that it was rather nice. That release of endorphins, that sense of bonding, that reassuring rub of the back, followed by a couple of taps to send you on your way.
The only cultural influence I can think of from around that time would be Friends, which everyone watched and, like, oh my God, totally imitated. Girls copied Rachel’s hair, boys looked on with curiosity whenever Joey and Chandler would ‘hug it out’. It was the dawning of the age of the bromance. And here’s a curious thing: Matt LeBlanc, who played Joey, is pretty much the same age as David Cameron, 47.
Now, the hug has much to commend it. For one thing it requires much less social calculation than the handshake. It used to be said that you could judge a man by the quality of his watch, his shoes and his handshake. You could never trust a man with a limp, moist handshake. Nor would you want to turn your back on one who used ‘the crusher’, the handshake you’re not expecting and to which etiquette dictates you’re not allowed to react.Bill Clinton would shake with the left while clamping his right on either your upper arm, elbow or forearm, depending on your status, while Margaret Thatcher would use the shake to pull you out of her way, so that she could move on to the next person.
There’s none of that tactical nonsense with hugging. And it also reduces your chances of picking up germs, which can be an occupational hazard if you are, say, the lead singer of the Rolling Stones. This summer I found myself in the same box as him at a sporting event and was intrigued to see that after he had shaken hands with his fellow guests, he signalled to his assistant/bodyguard, who came over and squirted something in the palm of his hand. When Sir Mick noticed everyone noticing this, he apologised and said that it was an antibacterial gel, because when he was on tour he simply couldn’t afford to catch a cold. Apparently, the Queen always wears gloves in public for the same reason.
The hug isn’t appropriate to all occasions, though. In a work context it can be especially awkward. Far better to opt for an ironic bow there, which, in the Japanese tradition, can serve as both an hello and a goodbye. A civilian version of the military salute can also be useful, especially when it is turned into a brisk wave. With one of those, you could take your leave of a whole room in one go.
Nigel Farndale’s books include the novels The Blasphemer and The Road Between Us and a collection of interviews, Flirtation, Seduction, Betrayal.