Two weeks ago, if you'd have asked me how I felt about offering free hugs to strangers in central London, I'd have replied that I felt about as enthusiastic about it as I would about sitting in on a real ale outing for model train enthusiasts. In fact, the latter might even have been preferable, because at least I wouldn't have to spend the evening clasping the model train enthusiasts to my breast.
But I am nothing if not a loyal friend. So when my bestie Elloa Atkinson, who is a far nicer and less cynical person than I am, asked me to help her organise a hug-fest in central London, it was this loyalty that led me to agree. The idea behind the event is that in offering hugs to people, you are offering them a moment of human connection, something that rarely happens in daily life, and certainly not in avoid-eye-contact-with-strangers-at-all-costs London.
So I said yes. And then I inverted completely up my own rectum.
Don't get me wrong. I love a good hug. I teach yoga, which often means touching people I don't know especially well in order to give 'assists' of various kinds. I always greet friends with a hug. I often, in fact, greet people I don't know all that well with a hug. I also believe wholeheartedly that good things happen when we humans experience genuine connection with each other and allow ourselves to be 'seen'.
But offering hugs to strangers? That posed an entirely different conundrum. What if they smelled weird? What if they tried to steal my phone? What if their reasons for hugging weren't as noble as our reasons for hugging and they just wanted to cop a feel? How were we meant to respond to them? Don't gropers deserve love too, after all?
And then there were the bigger considerations. Is a hug from a random in Hyde Park really going to make someone else's day better, or my own day? If I were, say, a single mum about to lose her home, wouldn't the support of my local MP or an interest-free loan be a whole heap more helpful than a five-second snuggle with someone I'd never see again? Who did I think I was? Jesus?
These thoughts all brewed as I sulked my way to the rendezvous point at Marble Arch last Saturday. I had already told my friend that I might not actually do the hugging, but that I would be happy to offer help in the form of taking pictures and pretending that I had nothing to do with the event. But when I arrived, a little voice in my head started nagging. Sure, it said, you might have very valid reasons for not wanting to do this, but isn't there also something a lot more subtle at work here? Isn't a lot of this also about the fact that deep down, you're worried that people won't want to hug you? That you're essentially spending a couple of hours making yourself vulnerable and having to shove that considerable ego of yours to one side?
And because I have an almost pathological urge to push myself out of my comfort zone, I agreed to join in. I held aloft a sign that said 'all you need is a hug' and stood right next to Marble Arch with my arms outstretched, dispensing cuddles with the rest of the intrepid huggers in my group and feeling, at first, like a class-A plonker. And you know what? I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. People wanted hugs. Sure, a lot of people walked past looking bemused, and a whole other group of people wanted to just film the whole thing on their phones whilst coming nowhere near us, but as a general rule, people LOVED the idea that we were giving away hugs with no agenda. And even when people didn't want to hug, I didn't take it personally. After all, I probably would have done the same thing in that situation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was almost always the native Londoners that refused.
Young people wanted hugs. Old people wanted hugs. Entire coach parties wanted hugs. I hugged women in Niqabs, men dressed as Spongebob, teenagers, seniors, joggers, homeless people and a fair few children (sent by their parents, I should add). And yes, there were one or two people who did, quite possibly, take a hug with ulterior motives, but they were few and far between. And yes, I did put my mobile and cash in a safe place first because I am not that naive, but on the whole, it was a positive experience that challenged a whole heap of my perceptions about myself, my motivation for saying no to things and about pre-judging other people. And in turn, I hope that our little gang did that for at least a few of those other people, even if the only thing they took from the experience is that Londoners aren't all a bunch of t**ts.