The other day I walked past him on the return leg of one of my many strolls and he said “Hello, John!” and I said hello back but then he said “Ian, I mean Ian” and that was okay but for a brief moment I was my brother John, who lives in the same village and who looks quite a lot like me except that he’s got less hair. As I’ve said before, when we walk down the street together we look like a novelty cruet set.
Then I was interviewed on a local radio station in the south of England about a poem I’d written about volunteers in the pandemic, and the presenter introduced me as Ian McKillen. Who’s he? I wondered, but I was too polite to correct the DJ and we did the chat and then I assumed he’d correct himself when we’d finished, but instead he said: “Thank you very much to Ian McKillen, and now here’s Tina Turner with Steamy Windows.”
One of the things this crisis seems to be doing is loosening my sense of self. Then I remembered that a man once emailed me and said he was sorry he was unable to get tickets for my show in Exeter, and I have to admit I panicked. I wasn’t doing a show in Exeter. Or was I? I went through my diary and noted that it was completely Exeterless. I looked at what was on in the theatres in Exeter and I was relieved to note that I wasn’t. But guess who was? That’s right: Ian McKellen. I wonder if he ever gets called Ian McMillan? Hope so!
If I’m not Ian McMillan then who am I? Next time I get on a train will I just be a chap in a mask? Will I look at my half-face in the window as we rattle through a tunnel (yes, there’s a window theme this week – I like my prose to be transparent) and not quite know who’s looking back at me? Still, at least the people who got my name wrong had a stab at a name of sorts. I was once introduced at a literary event by a man who completely forgot my name, even though we’d been chatting just a few moments before.
I saw panic flicker in his eyes as he stood up. If he’d have looked across the room he’d have seen my name on a poster but he didn’t. He opened his mouth and said “I’d like to introduce…” There was a pause you could have driven a bus through. He took a North Sea-sized gulp of water from a glass, filled it from a carafe and glugged again. “I’d like to introduce…” The pause again. There was no water left. “I’d like to introduce a man who needs no introduction,” he said, and sat down heavily.
Before all this I was certain just who I was. Now I might be John or Ian McKillen or Ian McKellen or that man. Which man? The one who needs no introduction. That’s me. I think.
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