In the light of an interesting recent find, I’m stepping aside from our history of interviewing techniques for a moment, to ponder their content instead.
How good can our memory for a face – a voice, a person – really get, even when poorly seen like in my picture here? And are some faces more memorable, on some kind of absolute scale, than others? What if we were witness to a crime..?
No-one should stand on the right. But below me, and blocking the way to walk down the rush-hour escalator, is a bunch of rowdy Italian lads with whom I’ve no desire to argue. It’s 1980s London and I’m on my way to work.
So I stand, on the right.
Till someone kicks me in the back.
I turn around to see a pin-stripe suit topped by a pale, contorted face. I can’t work out how old he is. The language shocks: I’ve never heard anyone in a pin-stripe swear before. I forget, today, the words of my mild protestation – survival instinct hands me uncharacteristic restraint – but I remember the kick in the chest – the loss of breath. I recall wondering if the Italian lads know CPR. But when I turn to step off the escalator, they’ve gone. A sturdy, white-haired gent in tweeds – my guess is a retired Colonel – addresses a point just beyond my right shoulder:
“I say! That’s no way to treat a young lady!”
The pin-stripe scuttles off like a rat.
I think – I hope – that I thanked the gent in tweeds. I hope he read the thoughts on my face as for the first time in my life 21-year-old feminist rebel me – the only woman engineer in my workplace – realised that men of the Forces could also be kind. There’d been a string of anti-war protests of late, and I’d been on every one.
Fast forward a year, and a train carriage rushing through deepest Hampshire. A man and a young woman in the heavy, sprung seats across the way from me are arguing, and it’s getting ugly. They’re not a couple: they’re strangers. She’s sitting in the draught from the window he’s just opened.
I hate an argument, and this one’s so easy to resolve. I lean over and suggest they swap seats, putting him in the fresh air and keeping her in the warm. She rises to move, but he lets fly at me. Survival instinct cuts in again: I recall the words and voice – the pinstripe, even.
“That bloke kicked me on an escalator on the tube last year. He’s a ruddy menace. I’ll find the guard.”
I wonder how many other women the pin-stripe’s picked on, over the years. Did he get worse? Did he get caught?
Another city, another year: Portsmouth, in fact, and at least two years on. It’s hot, it’s dark and I’m among friends in the student dive, all jumping to George Melly’s lively jazz. I’m dancing on a table. As you do. Someone tugs at my sleeve – well yes, I suppose I shouldn’t really do this: 8 stone might be too much for a Students’ Union table. I glance down to gauge my leap. The sleeve-tugger isn’t one of our crowd. She’s saying something, with difficulty over the loud music:
“I’ve seen you before. You were on that train: you stopped that argument…”
Two years. A flash of a face in the dark. I stared, gobsmacked.
To be fair, she might have been one of those rare people with the gift of super-recognition. But other strangers have remembered me, from other glimpses and other incidents. It’s just this particular one struck me as the most extreme.
And so back to that recent piece of research: how many other people, I wonder, do folk remember?
What it can’t yet explain, though, is this: why always me?