BOOK REVIEW / Handshakes all round, and the faint sound of snores: 'A Cultural History of Gesture' - Ed. Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg: Polity, 12.95 pounds

THERE DO not seem to be many languages these days that cannot be learnt in 24 hours, given the right all-in-one multipack of tapes, videos, brochures, diet programmes, and so on. But body language remains a tough one. For historians there is an extra difficulty: physical mannerisms survive the test of time only in stylised forms, such as portraits and etiquette manuals. But one of the brightest aspects of modern history is its willingness to explore the minutiae of earlier life, and A Cultural History of Gesture is a keen examination of arms, legs, hands, feet, heads, hats and elbows.

As Alain Peyrefitte's recent book on the ill-fated British embassies to China showed, the world can turn on a single haughty refusal to kowtow. But the gestures described in this volume are more modest. Indeed the best chapter is about the handshake.

This simple reflex is not, as we might think, an ancient mark of friendship, but a rather recent and (I'm proud to report) British invention: an egalitarian rival to the courtly bowing and scraping that held sway until the late 18th century. When Leon Dupuis offered his hand to Madame Bovary in 1857, she

declared: 'A l'Anglaise donc'.

The book proceeds chronologically, which means that it starts on thin ice. The consideration of movement in ancient Greece notices that Achilles is 'long-striding', and suggests that the culture was therefore promoting a warrior ethos at the expense of the dainty, effeminate Persians. But the primary source here is an epic poem: 'long-striding' is one of those lovely concise tags that keeps the story on its toes. It is as if, in 2,500 years, historians hit upon Watership Down and concluded that the 20th century attached great significance to long ears.

A similar problem afflicts the discussion of Roman manners. There is a nice joke about the Italian who was too cold to take his hands out of his pockets, and therefore couldn't say a word, but otherwise the main source is Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria, a text book on the grammar of gestures. The author does not see this as distressing proof that even the wily Romans were not above producing self-help books, but accepts Quintilian as an authoritative census of Roman manners. A fist held against the breast signifies rage, an over-the- shoulder toga sweep expresses aggression, etc. When Quintilian suggests that thigh-slapping shows anger, the author points out that we associate it with humour. But when did you last see anyone slap a leg in mirth? And sportsmen and women are always punching their thighs when they miss an open goal, or knock over the high-jump bar.

The book warms up with Joaneath Spicer's description of the Renaissance Elbow - the swaggering hand-on-hip shot beloved of aristocrats in the 17th century. There are some delicious pictures of this fetching pose, and Spicer is obviously right to see it as a disdainful, I-own-this-joint salute. But it would have been much more interesting had she pursued the subsequent career of the manoeuvre, which now seems merely foppish.

The final chapters are the most up- to-date, and contain the freshest commentary. Andalusian men habitually hold their hands out and make little weighing movements, as if to estimate the size of another man's all-important cojones. Polish hospitality was so extreme that it was attended by endless formalised hugging and kissing, and sometimes even by removal of the guest's carriage wheel. And it is nice to have it confirmed, in the chapter on kissing, that no one has a clue how often, and on which cheek, we should plant our lips.

The book is well-stocked with pleasant historical observations, but there are some sad omissions: a serious study of non-verbal communication would surely want to investigate the thumbs-up, the crossed-leg, or just the way we wave goodbye. Readers interested in the history of the two-fingered salute will have to look elsewhere. And the book neglects to chart the disappearance of beards, fans, and hats, and the resulting impoverishment of our sign vocabulary.

But the authors have undertaken little more than a survey; there is little intellectual engagement with the ideas it throws up. On the contrary, the essays are composed in that familiar turgid key which scholarship holds in such mysterious esteem. Academics, I presume, hate it when they are chided for being convoluted, and imagine they are being asked to write down, to address the common herd. The truth is, they are being asked to write up, to inject some life or wit into their beady-eyed and gallant researches.

A Cultural History of Gesture is only a minor offender, and the English is in fact a tribute to the famous linguistic gifts of the mostly Dutch contributors. But it remains a book that is somehow, how shall we put it, holding its nose. The chapters have titles like 'Gestured masculinity: body and sociability in rural Andalusia', and on almost every page there is a phrase - sorry, an instance of cultural bipolarisation - that obliges the reader to think again: to what deep impulse do we owe the disgusted pencil-fling and shoulder-sag, the unbelieving reverse nod, the involuntary eye-droop. The book is an assembly of speeches from a conference in Utrecht, so maybe a key gestural aspect has been lost. You had to be there to hear the faint sound of snoring at the back.