Both Mr B and Mr F are unusual. Not for what they do, but for what they don’t do. I have known them as neighbours for well over fifteen years but whenever I see them walking towards me in the street I know they will walk straight by. They will make no attempt to say “Hello” or to smile or even to nod; to them I will be invisible. Both are upstanding members of society and when we meet socially they are perfectly polite. We talk and, to the observer, it would appear that we get along well. It is outside that the problems arise, and being ignored, ‘cut’ as my mother would say, hurts.
A desire to be noticed is part of the human condition but, of course, recognition brings its own challenges. Smiling at a face is one thing, putting a name to that face adds another dimension. In such circumstances, how often have I had to admit “Your name escapes me”? And recently, just to complicate matters, I remembered the name correctly, but got the face wrong!
I was waiting for a train at our local station when Matt appeared from behind me. He lives nearby and was once a medical student of mine. After qualifying he became a media entrepreneur – leaving medicine is not so unusual, Harry Hill once attended my lectures! Matt, now in his late thirties, is a little shorter than me and has a distinct, smiley, open face with light brown hair and blue eyes. He often sports designer stubble but this time the stubble was a little more profuse.
“Hi Matt, how are you? And how’s Susie and little Liberty – she must be nearing her first birthday?”
By now I was on a name roll. The man looked slightly surprised and calmly explained that he was not actually Matt. Then, with patience, listened to my overlong explanation. I should never have tried. Two minutes later another man sidled up. The same hair and eye colour as the first Matt, the same build and facial expression, but this time he was clean shaven. Moreover, this time it was the real Matt. Or was I going mad? I greeted him with “Hello Matt” and luckily he replied with “Hello Joe”. I introduced the two Matts who, by now, we’re standing side by side. Both looked bemused – it was clear that they could not see the similarity that had been so obvious to me. Our train arrived and the first Matt went his way with a kindly wave and the real Matt sat with me chatting as we journeyed to central London.
This bizarre muddle with its warm-hearted outcome, was altogether different from my series of meetings with Ben that had taken place a few months earlier. Ben worked in the local digital communications store. He was tall and slim – an economics student in his late twenties – and he was also black, a fact more significant in hindsight than it seemed at the time. With his help I updated my Apple iPhone and iPad, a process that turned out to be much more complicated than envisaged. After three visits to the store Ben, who proved to be an electronics wizard, saw me through and was a pleasure to work with. Indeed, during that time we got to know each other and were soon on first-name terms. On my final visit, he told me how he would soon be working at another store.
After two months, the Internet access on my new iPad suddenly failed. I went back to the store and to my surprise Ben was still there. I rushed over to him to explain my difficulty.
“Ben, it’s great to see you. I need your help again.”
He gave me a very steely look and said, “I am not Ben, my name is Irwin.”
I apologised, looked at him closely – same age, same build, same colour, same beard – and tried to explain how I might have made my error. He listened to my explanation and then said without emotion that my muddle was down to my being racist. I was taken aback and explained how I often make such muddles, to which he repeated coldly,”Yours is no innocent mistake. It’s racism. To white people we all look alike.”
And later he repeated the accusation. There was little left for me to do except to apologise again.
When I left the shop I felt awful. In his accusation and in his unyielding insistence, he had hurt my feelings, but I know that in my assumption that he was Ben, I would have hurt his feelings much more. In our society it would have been his pain that was the greater because of the discrimination to which black people are routinely subjected. Accordingly, Irwin might well have seen my calling him Ben as an insult to him as an individual, and as such a slur on black people generally.
This was certainly an episode that I would not wish to repeat. But nor do I plan to stop greeting acquaintances in the street. Ignoring people, as is the way of the haughty Messrs. B and F, would seem the greater sin. I am sure Irwin would agree with that.
Photo: Arsenal player, Theo Walcott with ‘twin’ Lewis Hamilton.
Twitter @theowalcott with @lewishamilton at game today #twins #speedmatters