COVID-19 is responsible for the death of the handshake. A human gesture of social connection has become the harbinger of disease. Just as the once socially acceptable cigarette now carries the warning ‘Smoking kills’, a corona-tainted handshake we are cautioned can have equally lethal consequences.
George Bernard Shaw once deflected an overzealous admirer who wished to kiss his hand — the hand that had penned his literature — by telling her that the same hand had done a number of less savoury things. The modern savant Stephen Fry, in his autobiography, recalls hosting the broadcaster Alistair Cooke at Cambridge. “When the evening was over Alistair Cooke shook my hand to say goodbye and held it firmly, saying, ‘This hand you are shaking once shook the hand of Bertrand Russell’.” Fry expressed wonder.
“No, no,” said Cooke. “It goes further than that. Bertrand Russell knew Robert Browning. Russell’s aunt danced with Napoleon. That’s how close we all are to history. Just a few handshakes away. Never forget that.”
Royals are paid to shake hands. It is part of their job description. Persons invited to shake hands with modern royalty are alerted that they should expect only the tips of royal fingers, not the whole hand, to protect the dignitary from bone-crushing enthusiasts.
Over time, royals have mastered the skill of shaking hands without causing themselves discomfort. In old news-reels of the Russian monarchy, for example, one sees Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna (wife of Czar Nicholas II) manage a prize distribution to over a hundred schoolchildren. In a smooth mechanical movement, she held the prize in her palm and, while the recipient kissed the top part of the imperial hand, the czarina dropped the parcel into the child’s hands. It was like a bomb being released from a plane’s undercarriage.
Her once-removed nephew the future King Edward VIII, on a tour of Canada in the 1920s, was required to meet over a thousand guests at a garden party. He valiantly shook hands with all of them. By evening his hand was so swollen that it had to be put into a sling. Regardless of his condition, though, he was obliged the next day to shake another thousand hands, which he did, with his left hand.
Even within royals, handshakes (or the absence of them) can convey messages. In 1967, at the unveiling of a plaque in memory of Queen Mary at Marlborough House, the normally courteous Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother could not bring herself to extend her gloved hand to her estranged sister-in-law the Duchess of Windsor. They had not met since the Duke’s abdication as King Edward VIII in 1936. A 30-year-old family feud could have been healed with one gesture of conciliation. Instead, it festered until both died.
Hindu tradition, if some proto-historians are to be believed, anticipated Covid-19 by inventing the hand-folded namaste as an aseptic form of greeting. To them, it is clean, hygienic, and encourages social distancing. Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi found it particularly useful when handling (or not having to handle) her minions, in particular Jagjivan Ram, her untouchable Dalit defence minister.
Perhaps the most absurd example of manual warfare is to be found in the US’s relations with communist China. In 1954, John Foster Dulles (then US secretary of state) refused to shake hands with Zhou Enlai at a conference in Geneva. This deliberate snub became policy within the State Department. Its officials were ordered not to shake hands with their communist Chinese counterparts. To avoid doing so, US diplomats at official receptions would nurse their drinks in their right hands.
To rectify that earlier slight, US president Richard Nixon made a symbolic gesture of contrition when he landed at Beijing airport in February 1972. He pointedly extended his hand first to the approaching Zhou Enlai.
According to Sultan M. Khan (Pakistan’s ambassador to China, 1966-68), Zhou Enlai, who had a special regard for Pakistan, ensured that Mr Khan was invited to watch the October parade along with Chairman Mao and the Chinese leadership on the ramparts of the Gate of Heavenly Peace (the entrance to the Forbidden City).
Mr Khan recalled that one year, he decided that rather than standing on high with the Chinese leadership, he would mingle with the million or so Chinese milling in Tiananmen Square below. He noticed that whenever any person singled out for the honour of meeting Chairman Mao returned to the square, his hand would be shaken by his comrades, whose hands would in turn be shaken by others. Gradually, concentric ripples passed through the amassed public, as eager hands shook the hands of men who had shaken the hand of the man who had shaken the hand of Chairman Mao.
Unlike Covid-19, handshakes are now history. RIP.