My identity crisis with a difference during lockdown: Ian McMillan

There’s a bloke up our street we call The Window Man; this isn’t his name because he’s made of glass and is completely see-through, but because he’s a man who fits windows.

Poet Ian McMillan

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.”

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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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