How I learnt that familiarity really does breed contempt

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Last summer, late on a warm afternoon, my wife and I visited a splendid garden in Somerset called Hadspen and while we were paying our entrance fee, I realised I knew the man who was standing talking to his wife behind us. His face was very familiar, but I couldn't place it. Had we met at some function? Had we been to university together years ago ? Had he once come to inspect my tax accounts?

(Such things do happen. I was once approached at a dinner by a man who told me he was the very first Customs and Excise man who had ever helped me set up my VAT arrangements. I did not recognise him, but he was a very cheery fellow and I had no reason to doubt him. It's not exactly the sort of thing you would want to make up.)

Nine times out of 10 I would let the matter drop and worry about it endlessly later, but at Hadspen, for once, I took the bull by the horns.

"Excuse me, haven't we met?" I said to the mystery man.

"No, we haven't," he said, meaning that the conversation was over already. When he left the ticket office, I asked the owner of the garden if he knew who the man was.

"He's a retired politician, isn't he?" he said. "Lives locally, I think."

I did finally remember who he was, days later. His name was Patten. Not Chris Patten. John Patten. All I could remember about him was that he was a Conservative, rose quite high, took a title, retired. He was sometimes on the telly, so I had digested his face, and then, when I came face to face with him, had wrongly explained the vague familiarity by assuming he was a friend. Now he had retreated to Somerset and blasted people were still coming up to him and thinking they knew him.

(No wonder that in the reference books John Patten gives as his recreation: "Talking with my wife and daughter." It makes sense; at least they always know who he is.)

But this must happen to public faces all the time. It has even happened to me occasionally. I was once approached by an Englishman somewhere abroad who said to me: "Are you from Bury? I know your face." "Never been to Bury," I said. "Are you sure?" he said, distrustfully. "Then where have we met?" "I don't think we have," I said, feeling a touch of what I now know to be John Patten-itis. But, as we were in one of those overseas tourist places where people wander around looking at the sights, I kept bumping into him that day, and each time he would start quizzing me again. "Are you from Bolton, then?" "Never been to Bolton ..."

Famous faces must get this all the time and also adopt different tactics to deal with it. I once saw Esther Rantzen floating along High Street Ken, wearing a slightly regal smile with a touch of hauteur which meant: "Yes, it's me, I know it's me, no need to point, no need to say anything, goodbye ..." I once bumped into Jimmy Saville in a BBC corridor, and he gave me a friendly slap on the shoulder, and said: "Hey, feller, how are you doing, great, eh? Great! See you," and flitted on without me saying anything, which was very clever, because what he had done was avoid having a conversation with me by having one all by himself.

Maybe John Patten's problem was compounded by sharing a name with other notable people. There's Chris Patten, of course. But there is also Brian Patten, the Liverpool poet. Indeed, for a while there were two Brian Pattens, the other one being a BBC radio producer who specialised, oddly enough, in poetry programmes. Then the BBC producer died, with the result that the poet's wife got endless phone calls from people wanting to commiserate on the live Brian's death. I can remember poet Brian saying he was shocked by how many people, even good friends of his, thought he had a double life producing radio programmes in Bristol, even though he lived in London.

Incidentally, there was one other person that my wife and I bumped into that sunny afternoon in Hadspen, a travel agent from Bath whom we recognised instantly because we had often booked holidays through him. Giles, by name. One of a family of Gileses who run a firm called World Market Travel. Nice man. We stopped and chatted to him, and said we had often wondered where travel agents went for their leisure, ha ha, so it wasn't Barbados, ha ha, it was a small garden in Somerset, ha ha, and as we drifted apart and onwards, my wife said: "I don't know if you realised it, but he didn't have the faintest idea who we were."