On Monday, the Prime Minister says, we can hug again. Personally, I never stopped, but then I’ve been corrupted by southerners, foreigners, posh boys and gorgeous homosexuals. In luvvie land (aka London and Twitter), there’s this perception that everyone is desperate to rush into one another’s arms because they’ve desisted for so long. In many places outside the M25, that idea is so nuts it’s comical. In Norfolk, where I was raised, most people meet with a nod and a grunt, and it is the height of good manners not to ‘look at anyone funny’ (in other words, we don’t make eye contact with strangers). If any outsider tries to offer a hug next week, they’ll likely get clobbered.
For those of us who like hugging, Monday’s easing of restrictions will be embraced with delight. But there’s no convincing those who don’t like it, and if you’re from the shires you’re sure to have relatives who despise it. ‘My great-aunt Mavis gave about as many hugs as the Queen,’ says my friend Anna, estimating the number of hugs the Queen gives at zero. ‘Dead reliable, rescued my mother as a teenager, but no tactility — if she was feeling affectionate, the furthest she’d go was calling her “Duckie”.’
‘Hugging is the worst and I hate people who hug,’ a former colleague confesses. ‘Now it’s going to be grim because even the people who don’t normally hug you will feel they have to do so. It makes me want to go back in my cave so I don’t have to face it.’
In 2016, there was even a concerted campaign by some remainers to go around hugging anyone who wanted to leave the EU — and we all know how that turned out. Hugging has been forcibly repelled, even at the ballot box.
As a child I can’t remember getting any hugs from my father except once, when he handed me a rape alarm on the day he shooed me off to university. Never, in all my years, did I see him hug my mother, and for this reason, biblical accounts of conception had previously made perfect sense. Live and let live — repression is OK.
In my home village of Blakeney (population: 801), interlopers make fools of themselves with their airy-fairy affections cast about willy-nilly where they’re not wanted. One man — shortly before becoming my uncle — went so far as to kiss my mother on the cheek upon meeting her. He was lucky my father didn’t make my mother carry a rape alarm because she’d have set it off.
My aunt didn’t like kissing or hugging any better than my mother did. Years later, when she was in the late stages of pregnancy and my uncle clearly felt her defences had been weakened, he had the temerity to hug her in front of me. Her response was to whip up a wet tea towel and hit him with it.
My handsomest man friend has a dad who loathes hugging too. ‘We know a Turkish guy who gives him hugs. He is livid afterwards,’ says my friend. ‘But the Turkish guy doesn’t realise — because he’s British.’
The pandemic has in some ways been convenient for anti-huggers, who can blame their opposition to it on dread of infection. ‘For years I’ve been recoiling from people’s embraces,’ the writer Martha Frankel admitted in the Guardian. ‘In 2008 I got the flu — and bad. What I experienced during those three weeks absolutely terrified me. I feared I would die… That next winter I noticed how people would cough into their hands and still try to shake mine. Or they would rub their noses and then lean in for a kiss. Don’t even get me started on little children, those snot machines.’
But for most people, I suspect not wanting to hug anyone has pretty much nothing to do with germophobia or a loathing of kids. Hugging is a word that may have entered our language in the 16th century, but prior to Princess Diana’s era, it just wasn’t a public spectacle. Like public crying, it was generally seen as vulgar, perhaps American, and it only really became a thing forcibly imposed on us by New Labour after Diana’s death.
Anyone who has retained a stiff upper lip should beware, come Monday. There will be compulsive huggers about looking to share the joy. Those on the other side should make sure they stay rigid as an ironing board even in the midst of a bear hug, for fear of encouraging more.