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Playing the handshake game

Have you ever played the handshake game?

This is a bit like the “six degrees of separation” notion – that everyone is connected to everyone else in the world because each person is acquainted or connected with a certain number of other people, who in turn have their set of acquaintances, etc, etc, and that by the time you get to the sixth set down the line you have reached just about every human being on the planet.

Well, that’s as maybe, and it must be extremely difficult to prove the point other than statistically. However, the handshake game is a lot simpler and easier to verify.

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The idea is to think of one person with whom you have shaken hands and then make an educated guess (or use actual knowledge) as to other people with whom that person will have shaken hands at some time prior to your encounter. You can then say “I shook the hand that shook the hand of …” and the more famous or exalted that person was, the better!

It’s a blatant exercise in one-upmanship and name dropping, but harmless enough!

I offer as my “hand” that of David Owen, who was the UK’s Foreign Secretary from 1977 to 1979, and had been a health minster before then. He was first elected to the House of Commons in 1966, having qualified as a doctor in 1962. As Lord Owen, he is now an active member of the House of Lords.

I met David Owen in September 1977, when he had been Foreign Secretary for about seven months. I was on a short assignment in Moscow at the time, working in the Cultural Section of the British Embassy, and he passed through, shaking lots of hands including mine, when he visited the Embassy during a visit to Moscow to discuss matters with the government of what was then the Soviet Union. As I recall, his handshake was of the limp variety!

The question then arises of whose hands David Owen might have shaken prior to shaking mine? – handshakes that happened afterwards cannot count in this game! He would certainly have shaken the hands of the prime ministers that he served during his time in office, namely Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, and royalty including HM The Queen.

The fascination comes in speculating over which world leaders he might have met, and shaken hands with, during that seven months. Did he meet Leonid Brezhnev while he was in the Soviet Union, or were his contacts limited to officials in the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Moscow? The latter is more likely.

If he did shake hands with world leaders, they could have included US President Jimmy Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Yitshak Rabin or India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. However, there is no way of being sure, and this is – after all – only a game that is not to be taken too seriously!

One might also speculate, given David Owen’s former medical profession and training, that the hand in question might have been in places that it is better not to think about too closely!

I read about the handshake game in the London Times, where an incident was recalled in which three youngish Members of Parliament had wondered about whose hands had shaken those of well-known people that they had met. One put forward a link to Mao Zedong and another was sure that he had shaken a hand that had shaken that of Joseph Stalin. However, the former athlete Sebastian Coe (who was at one time an MP) said that he had once met Jesse Owens, the black athlete who had embarrassed the Nazis at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by winning four gold medals and who was snubbed by Adolf Hitler. A non-handshake with Hitler was reckoned by the other two MPs to win hands down over their own contributions to the game!

(Although, for the sake of accuracy, it should be pointed out that Owens once said that Hitler did shake his hand in a more private environment and that it was his own President – F D Roosevelt – who refused to acknowledge his achievement personally)

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