Good news on the hugging front — unless of course you were born at the inflection point of shifting social niceties. Those of us too old or awkward to be entirely at ease with commonplace clinches but too young to crustily extend a handshake have struggled for a decade with bro-hugs, double kisses for people we don’t really know and other socially sanctioned embraces.
There are, of course, more terrifying events in life than those milliseconds where you try to work out if you are expected to lean in for a hug or a kiss (or two kisses, or three, I don’t know, it’s a total disaster). You could be asked to contribute to the prime minister’s furnishing fund. But for a certain type of awkward Englishman it’s a minefield. Lean in too early and you look uncomfortably eager; hold back too long and you risk overcorrecting with a headbutt.
It is even more stressful at work, particularly on spotting a colleague or contact you rarely see. Are you in the circle of intimates, or will a wave or handshake do? Sometimes you just want to scream, “Godammit, I’m British! Can’t you just leave a calling card?”
Even so, though I have occasionally pined for the return of a little more formality, a global pandemic was not my go-to remedy. It has been bloody effective; I have not had to lean in to anyone outside my household for more than a year. But it is probably excessive as a policy solution.
Now the great reacquainting looms. We are heading to hugtopia and everyone will be making up for lost time. Oh yes — it’s going to be like New Year’s Eve in Trafalgar Square, but without the smell of Heineken. Offices are going to turn into hugging bacchanals as separated colleagues greet each other for the first time in a year with all the intensity of Jenny Agutter spotting her daddy at the end of The Railway Children: “Team leader, my team leader!” We are all going to have to participate; you can’t be standoffish after surviving a worldwide crisis.
It is all part of the new Roaring Twenties spirit. So great is the joy I envisage Morris dances will be invented to celebrate our reclaimed freedom. You think I’m joking? Just remember that lockdown made people like sea shanties.
We are at least promised a gradual return to proximity. Boris Johnson has made clear that we must continue to live “responsibly”. (There are so many jokes here.) We must be “cautious” and not go spreading hugs all over the place. What exactly does “cautious hugging” involve? Do we hold our breath? Do we circle warily before closing in? After the two-metre rule, is there a two-second rule? If ever there was a need for some government graphics, this surely is it. Hugging is meant to be restricted to close friends and family, so can we repel an unwanted embrace with the sorrowful observation that, “Regrettably, you do not meet the approved criteria”?
For plenty of people, of course, the lack of physical contact has made this a grim and isolating time and one can only be happy for them. Their sole option has been contraband hugs from lockdown sceptics like Laurence Fox, and frankly that’s no substitute for the real thing.
Not that hugging is the only area of readjustment. We are about to welcome people back into our houses, which means some of us are suddenly having to pay attention to our interior decor for the first time in a year. Sure, we may have done up the garden, bought a patio heater or some new recliners, but the prospect of visitors makes us aware that some of the main rooms are going to need a serious tidy. The kitchen table that has doubled as an office, for example. The Dell laptop propped up on six Lonely Planet guides is not really an acceptable centrepiece. And all those papers there was no reason not to stack up are suddenly getting shoved in a cupboard.
Like those trapped Chilean miners, we are stepping back into the light and facing the shock of the old. Maybe we could all do with a hug; though perhaps a cheery wave will suffice.
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