I once lived down the corridor in Oxford from the late Derek Parfit, a famous philosopher whose great interest in life was personal identity. He had no patience with the commonsense idea that it could be taken for granted. On the contrary: mental states were so fleeting that it made no sense to think of somebody being the same person on Saturday as they had been on Friday.
Armed with the strong sense of selfhood of a man in his early 20s, I was sceptical of his views. But when I drifted from academia to journalism, I found myself grappling with the problems of personal identity on a very practical level.
Many of the politicians and business people I interviewed were interchangeable people who parroted the party line and reinvented themselves whenever the line changed. And as I hurtled from one interview to another I found it difficult to keep track of exactly whom I was talking to. I once went to interview a Pentecostal preacher in Guatemala City. I was surprised by how halting his answers were given that he had recently spent a term lecturing at Harvard. I was even more surprised when I noticed that he had a gun under his jacket. It was only when I was summoned into another room that I realised that I had been interviewing one of the preacher’s numerous bodyguards.
I have more often been the victim of mistaken identity than the perpetrator. Once in Miami I was mistaken for a sex pervert. I had spent the night in the fashionable Delano hotel and considered myself rather a hit with the staff with my generous tipping and suave English manner. Just after I checked out I received a call telling me that my meeting had been postponed for an hour. I decided to fill the time reading the newspaper by the pool. I had made the mistake of wearing a tweed jacket so I began to sweat a bit. I also noticed to my surprise that a striking number of the women around the pool were topless. Suddenly a fit-looking hotel employee in dark glasses loomed over me and asked what I was doing. I told him that I was a guest at the hotel and pointed to my (admittedly rather battered) suitcase. He checked the guest list and discovered that my name was not on it. Before you could say “Jack the Ripper” I was on the street in front of the hotel, red-faced, soaked in sweat and desperately trying to hail a taxi.
On another occasion I was mistaken for a terrorist. I had bumped into Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief economic adviser at a conference in Tel Aviv and he suggested that I drop into his office in Jerusalem. I duly presented myself to security and handed over my passport. An amiable guard asked me to step aside and handed me over to a much less amiable guard. He pointed out that I had recently visited Dubai on a different passport from the one that I had just handed over. I admitted as much but told him that I had two passports because I travelled a lot and needed a spare passport in case one got stuck with a lackadaisical visa authority. This didn’t please him at all. He insisted that I was a bad man who had come to do mischief. I insisted that I was a good man who had come to talk about economics. He snorted with derision. By the time I escaped his clutches, I was an hour late for my interview.
Mistaken identity can sometimes be a plus rather than a minus. During the London Olympics I was invited by Nike to see the final of the 100 metres. I had been a fierce opponent of the entire event – a gigantic waste of money that would clog up the city with free-loaders and VIPs was my verdict – but I naturally accepted the invitation with alacrity.
Everything went swimmingly – I had an excellent lunch in the VIP tent and one of the best seats in the stadium – though my hosts seemed surprised when I said that I’d never been to a sporting event before. Confusion turned to shock when I confessed that I’d never heard of Usain Bolt and had no idea what all the fuss was about. When it came to the 100-metres final, however, I found his performance most impressive, and told my bemused hosts as much.
A few days later, while boasting about seeing the 100-metres final, I told a friend of Nike’s surprise at my ignorance about sport. He pointed out that Nike had probably got me confused with Ian Wooldridge, a celebrated sports journalist who had written for the Daily Mail for 50 years and died in 2007.