Brian Viner: Shaking hands with Hitler, Dali and Monkhouse

The world waits anxiously for another Peres-Arafat handshake
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The Independent Online

Israel's former prime minister, Shimon Peres, is reportedly about to meet the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, with whom he jointly won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, a decoration which might as well be made of tin. Still, with a little bit of luck and a lot of careful diplomacy - or maybe the other way round - the two men might, just might, help to stabilise the situation in Israel.

Israel's former prime minister, Shimon Peres, is reportedly about to meet the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, with whom he jointly won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, a decoration which might as well be made of tin. Still, with a little bit of luck and a lot of careful diplomacy - or maybe the other way round - the two men might, just might, help to stabilise the situation in Israel.

Whatever, the world waits anxiously for another Peres-Arafat handshake. And it strikes me, not for the first time, that there is no act between two people, arguably not even the act of love-making (which presumably is right off the Peres-Arafat agenda), quite as significant as the handshake.

Consider. Handshakes can seal multi-million pound deals, Faustian pacts, even the fate of entire countries. They can herald the reconciliation of enemies and the introduction of lovers. They can be meaningful, or meaningless, or both at the same time, like the handshake between Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain. I even knew a man who collected handshakes.

He collected them in person but also by proxy, so that by shaking the hand of X, who had shaken the hand of Y, he could claim to have X in one and Y in two. This intriguing notion gave him, he boasted, Winston Churchill in two, Thomas Edison in four, and Ludwig van Beethoven in seven.

Once you start thinking along these lines, handshake-collecting becomes quite compulsive. And the best bit is, we all have worthwhile collections. Even if you've never shaken a remotely famous hand, the odds are you've met someone who has. Moreover, the chain can lead in wonderfully improbable directions.

For instance, my mother-in-law has Bruce Kent in one, giving her the former president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, in two. That gives her the Queen Mum in three, Alfred Hitchcock in four, Salvador Dali in five, Andy Warhol in six, Mick Jagger in seven, and my mate Doug in eight. She also has Doug in one because he was at my wedding, but that's not as much fun.

It is cheating a little to have a job interviewing famous people, but it certainly enriches the handshake collection. For instance, I have Bob Monkhouse in one, who shook hands with Noël Coward. "And Coward shook hands with all the Mitfords," Monkhouse once told me, when I invited him to play the game. "Unity Mitford shook hands with Hitler, who shook hands with Mussolini. And Mussolini shook hands with Enrico Caruso. I know because Caruso tried to have the photograph suppressed. So there you are, I've got Caruso in five." Which gives me Caruso in six, Mussolini in five, Hitler in four. Yikes.

There is a measure of speculation involved when the chain stretches back in time. But handshaking has been around as a salutation for at least 200 years, so if you can be reasonably sure that two people have been introduced since 1800, they would almost certainly have shaken hands. According to the anthropologist Desmond Morris (who has Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon in one), "handshaking is an egalitarian act, because two people are performing an identical action at the same time."

I suppose that depends how it's done. I once shook the limply superior hand of the Princess Royal, giving me Bob Geldof, Nigel Mansell, Steven Spielberg and Idi Amin in two, to name but, ahem, a handful. Idi Amin in two gives me Yasser Arafat in three. And I have interviewed the former US Secretary of State Caspar Weinberger, which gives me Shimon Peres in two.

Even if Weinberger has never shaken the hand of Bill Clinton, I've also shaken hands with Alistair Cooke, who has. So that gives me Clinton, Arafat and Peres. Suddenly I'm a one-man Middle East peace conference.

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