It has all happened so quickly. Five years ago I'd have sooner kissed a warthog than a man. Shaking hands was the limit of well-adjusted intra- male intimacy in those days. We stood at a distance of never less than a couple of metres from one another with our feet apart and made as if we were opening the door of a car we thought was booby-trapped. Just occasionally, if one of us signed up for the French Foreign Legion or had to leave in a hurry to climb Kilimanjaro, we'd go into a prize fighter routine, bobbing and ducking and pretending to exchange jabs to the rib cage. But they were not meant to land. No touching. As for a hug, that was something you reserved strictly for the dying. And even then you had to be absolutely certain they were beyond cure before you tried it on. Wrap your arms around a man who subsequently came back from the dead and neither of you would have known where to look until one of you died again.
But that was another time, in another country. Now, after a night out with the boys, I have to remember to check for moustache hairs on my jacket and sniff myself for alien after-shave before tiptoeing up to bed.
That this outbreak of huggery between men has something to do with the new caution we have to exercise around women I don't for a moment doubt. Of course we didn't need to manhandle one another five years ago: we had one another's wives and mistresses to manhandle five years ago. The two cheek, three kiss, obligatory European Economic Union embrace, which had come over from the continental mainland a decade before, made it easy for us to take the most outrageous liberties, even on introduction. My personal favourite was the swoop and swivel. The trick to that was to move in quicker than a vampire, get a firm grip on both shoulders and then pivot the woman in the direction of your mouth - now her left cheek, now her right - much as though she were on strings, like the rudder on a one-man dinghy. Women with my best interests at heart counselled me against this manoeuvre at the last. I can count myself fortunate. It would go down as technical rape today.
I'm not complaining. I can perfectly well see why women decided they no longer wanted to go on risking damage to their thoracic vertebrae every time they encountered a man they hardly knew. But the fear of facing a sexual harassment charge did mean that men were suddenly having to be careful only to kiss air. Muh, muh, muh. The ozone kiss. Unhealthy when you consider the current condition of the ozone. And where did it leave those of us who were still so old fashioned as to want to encounter flesh whenever we pursed our lips? Having to kiss men, that's where!
Have I said that three weeks ago I cuddled my accountant?
There is, of course, a precedent for all this in Shakespeare. We used to snicker over it at school. "I do adore thee, Alonso, as I do love myself," or some such words. "Don't forget they're meant to be Italians," our teacher told us. I'm not so sure. After all, they were English actors who had to do it. The holding hands. The exchanging of purses. The snogging. Bussing, Shakespeare calls it. Bussing and clipping. Which words sound as though they have something to do with National Express Coach Services, but don't. Buss is from the French baiser, meaning to kiss, and we all know how the French kiss. And clip means to clasp with the arms, to encompass, to hug. "Let me twine mine arms about that body," the Volscian general Aufidius declares without embarrassment to Coriolanus, before dropping to his knees and clipping his one-time enemy's sword. At least I haven't gone that far. Yet.
So is it just cyclical, after all? Is it nothing whatsoever to do with the New Bloke and the legacy of Princess Diana and Tony Blair's Third Way? (Tony Blair, by the way, being one of the few men I haven't to date kissed. Peter Mandelson being another.) Could it be that all this male canoodling is not new at all but a venerable convention, a courtly tradition of unembarrassed demonstrativeness which the whirligig of time has simply brought around again?
And if so, why did it go away? Class, that's my theory. With the creation of an industrial underclass a man had suddenly to be careful who he threw his arms around. What if you rescued someone from a shipwreck, lent him your purse, puckered up your lips, approached his cheek, and suddenly discovered he was from Wolverhampton?
Today there's no such thing as an industrial underclass. Lads from Todmorden style their hair, sweeten their breath and table-dance for a living. You still might not want to engage them in lengthy conversation but they'd be fine for kissing. So it's safe again. And I should feel relaxed about it.
Funny, though: coming from the underclass myself I still hear the old reproach in my ear - "You big Jessie!" - every time one of my drinking companions puts his hand on the small of my back and draws me to him...Reuse content