Peter Batten’s thoughts turn to the possibilities of knowing others . . .
Recently I had an experience which I am sure all my readers will recognise. I was leaving a meeting when a lady, who was entering the room, gave me what seemed like a smile of recognition. Puzzled, I asked, “Do I know you?” The answer was, “No”. So why the smile? I blame a very English tendency to establish a friendly relationship with every one you meet. But there is a more interesting point. During your life, how many people do you know? How many people know you?
Let’s start close to home. I want to think particularly about those who know you. Obviously, there are the members of your immediate family. But most of us have a wider family, distant relatives who will know of us and about us. They may well have told other people about us, shown photographs, etc.
There may be a further family complication. Recently, I attended a conference about Adoption. Whereas in the past it was difficult to obtain information about parents or siblings from whom you may have been separated, today the trend throughout Europe is to make that information more and more accessible. So there may be someone, even someone living quite nearby, who may be related to you. They may find out about you, may contact you, even ask to become part of your life. This could be a concern if you have been a sperm donor, an egg donor or a surrogate. Several people may want to know you! Every day there are men who have to face the fact that a brief acquaintance has created another human being who wants to know them.
Then there are all your friends and the people who knew you at school or at work. Some of them will know a great deal about you, others just a few brief details. All of them will have had some interaction with you, though you may not remember them, unless something stimulates your memory. In Saul Bellow’s fine novel ‘The Victim’ the main character is contacted by someone he can scarcely recall. The man claims that he ruined his life. At first he dismisses the idea as rubbish, but gradually the man enters more and more into his daily life. He begins to feel a sense of responsibility; finally it requires a considerable effort to break free from feelings of guilt. Hence the ambiguous title, ‘The Victim’.
Some years ago I became an interesting example, though more trivial. A man came up to me and said, “It is you, isn’t it?” He proceeded to remind me of a silly trick which I used to perform at a jazz gig in Selsey. This was not just once, but many times. I had completely forgotten it, but he was right, it was me! Embarrassment prevents me from giving you further details.
So hundreds of people will know you or know or remember something about you. But I have been leading you on to an even more worrying conclusion. Recently, while reading Iris Murdoch’s novel ‘Bruno’s Dream’, I became aware of a disturbing extension of everything I have mentioned so far. You can add to these hundreds many more people, thousands of them, who at some time may have seen your face, heard your voice, caught even a mere glimpse of you. The final total of all these people is frightening.
But here is something even more frightening. At this moment any one of these people may be thinking of you. Their recall may be something quite detailed; it may be something very slight. Or it may be any sort of recall between these extremes. Someone two streets away may be telling their neighbour how nice you are; someone in India may suddenly remember your face from the one time when you shampooed their hair; someone in Spain may be remembering you as an angry driver. You may be part of someone’s fantasy; you may be the person someone wanted to marry; you may be the person whose handbag somebody coveted. At this moment someone may be imagining you in an intimate situation; someone else may be wishing they had hit you. The possibilities are endless and several of them could be happening at the same time, anywhere in the world.
Do not worry. You will never know.