Facial recognition: When you can’t think of someone’s face you are not alone

I recognise Tony Curtis and his famous DA (Image: Silver Screen Collection/Getty)

If I had a pound for every time people have said to me, “You don’t remember me do you?” I’d be rich enough to employ someone to walk behind me whispering into my ear, supplying me with people’s names and histories.

“That’s Joe Blow, the boss of the company you work for, so be polite.”

“Really? Oh, so it is.”

“That’s Fiona, your girlfriend in the early 1980s.”

“Blimey! Are you sure..?”

“That’s Mary, your neighbour from two doors down.”

“Yes, I knew I knew the face but I thought she was someone I’d seen on telly.”

Heaven knows I need help.

Psychological research conducted at York University and published in the journal Proceedings Of The Royal Society (no less), suggests that some people can remember up to 10,000 faces and the average is perhaps 5,000.

That includes friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, randoms and also famous people they see on television, film, sport and in newspapers and so on.

Are these people in the York study, these facerecognisers, the same species as me?

In fairness, they are not the same vintage.

Their average age was 24, about a third of mine.

So I have probably forgotten more faces than they even know but even at 24 I was no good at faces.

I knew my family and friends; I could recognise The Beatles, Mick Jagger and Bobby Charlton, Marilyn Monroe and the Queen of course

And Tony Curtis, not just his face but his haircut too.

But I have always been a bit hazy on faces and most people only had to change the colour of their eyelashes or put on a different hat and I didn’t know them from Adam.

That is not a social asset.

It makes life more interestingly mysterious I suppose, if you think you are meeting and seeing new people when in fact they’re the same-old same-old.

But it’s really nothing to shout about.

If you’re looking for a way not to win friends and influence people, just let them know you don’t recognise them.

People hate it, don’t they? And hate you too.

They feel slighted and they think you’re rude.

There’s one woman I bump into every now and again who always says: “You never recognise me.”

She’s right. I never do.

In fact I don’t even recognise her as the woman I never recognise.

However I do at least feel guilty about it.

It’s impolite and I know it causes offence.

There’s something wrong with me, not them, but there is some justice: it does bring its own punishment.

I often can’t remember who’s worth meeting again – which makes life sadder – but neither can I remember whom to avoid, which makes life a whole lot more boring (not quite true, there’s a bloke called Michael that I meet at parties.

I do know what he looks like and he must be avoided at all costs). I am a sort of social minus, a Mr Nobody who makes others feel like Mr and Mrs Nobody too.

If you’re famous, it’s a different matter. Tony Curtis was famous for decades. He said: “Being famous is like having Alzheimer’s. Everyone knows who you are but you don’t know who anybody is.”

Wayne Rooney, who now plays his football in Washington DC, was this week talking about the pleasure of not being recognised.

In Manchester he couldn’t go out of the door without being mobbed.

In the US, where soccer is a minor sport, he can live life like an ordinary human being.

The famous have to put up with an endless amount of being recognised or semi-recognised. Fame – most of them couldn’t live without it.

Decades ago, as an editor, I published a piece which said that at a wedding the actor Kenneth More had rushed around getting himself into as many photographs as possible. That was hunger for love, fame, whatever (unfortunately he sued us for libel, and won).

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These days people would kill to have him in a selfie. The other night Rowan Atkinson told Graham Norton how he had been waiting at a Land Rover spare parts depot near Peterborough with a man staring at him and eventually coming over and saying, “You look exactly like Mr Bean.”

Atkinson explained that he was Mr Bean.

The bloke refused to believe him but kept repeating how amazingly like Mr Bean he looked.

I take consolation from the fact that the famous sometimes have inflicted upon them this same demeaning uncertainty I inflict on others.

“I’m sorry to stare,” I once said, “but you look incredibly like a girl I once went to bed with.”

Her response: “Actually I am a girl you went to bed with for several months.”

Wayne Rooney could not go anywhere without being recognised (Image: Gareth Copley/Getty )

Dame Maggie Smith has been a great actress for more than 60 years but only really famous recently thanks to Downton and Harry Potter.

She was in her local Waitrose when a little boy stood staring at her, puzzled and wondering, and she said to him: “Can I help you?” and he said, “It’s all right  it’ll come to me in a minute.”

Charming, but not so charming for me when I’m gawping at somebody who clearly knows me quite well and I’m thinking: “Who the hell is this and how do I handle it?”

There are ways and I’m quite adept. I ask a series of questions carefully couched to elicit information without letting slip that I don’t know who I’m talking to, always avoiding referring to anybody connected with them, who anyway probably doesn’t exist: “How’s your husband?” one might ask, to which the answer may well turn out to be “You should know, you came to his funeral.”

One asks only open questions, such as: “How are you?”

If it’s a boring person, you will get a long answer. People are always keen to tell you about themselves.

When Benjamin Disraeli was prime minister he was always being accosted by MPs he didn’t recognise, but clearly he had to give them the time of day.

“How’s the old problem?” he would ask.

They would be complimented he was taking an interest, even though he had no idea nor interest in what their old problem was.

One-to-one conversations can often be handled without giving the game away.

What’s trickier is when a third partly poles up, a stranger to the person you’re talking to and someone you also can’t quite name and so cannot introduce. That may be time to say: “I’ll leave you two to it, I need the loo.”

A further problem – not confined to me – is that to the old, the young all look the same and vice versa.

My son had two blonde friends, both called Margaret. One of them worked as a supernanny for rich Russians.

“Have you been to Russia recently?” I asked. I was talking to the wrong Margaret who had never been to Russia in her life. I think she thought I was just old, or ill.

Perhaps I should simply be more brazen and accept that I can’t remember faces and names because I’m just not interested.

A teacher of mine had no truck with unpromising interlopers.

One unfortunate woman approached him and said rather pathetically, “You don’t remember me.”

He replied: “No madam I don’t remember you but I think I remember when I forgot you.”

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