You look exactly like ...

I'M getting a trifle wary. The first time it happened, I didn't mind much. That was the occasion on the shuttle from London to Glasgow. This fellow leaned over as we shuffled along the aircraft's gangway on the way to our seats. ``Enjoyed the lecture you gave this afternoon,'' he said.

``Thanks very much,'' I replied, a due pretense of modesty only thinly disguising the gratification I felt at his praise. The only trouble was that I hadn't given a lecture this afternoon, or any other afternoon within living memory. Clearly whoever had given it bore a striking resemblance to me. For this reason I was glad he hadn't let us down.

Then there was the afternoon trip to the Scottish Isle of Staffa - the one that has Fingal's Cave burrowing its way into its columnar cliffs and that provided Mendelssohn with such a swell of inspiration for his ``Hebrides'' overture. As we clambered out of the boat and stumbled across the rocks to the path leading up and along the green cliff-tops, this lady said: ``You look EXACTLY like Christopher Timothy. So I'm going to call you James'' - and for the rest of that hike to the famous cave, and on the boat journey back to Mull and Iona, that's just what she did. C. Timothy - to whom, as my wife has since comfortingly assured me, I bear no similarity whatever - played the part of the Yorkshire vet James Herriot in the TV series.

Then one Sunday for lunch we were just ordering a nice bit of roast beef at The Stables in Kirkintilloch - a barn converted into a pub on the outskirts of Glasgow - when the waitress suddenly, and with commendable sympathy, said: ``I see you've got your arm out of plaster. That's good.'' This was too much. I am not (as far as I know) a high-wire act or a Hollywood stunt man, and my limbs in general and both my gardening arms in particular hadn't been remotely near the slightest hint of plaster. ``Not me,'' I said. ``Someone else,'' I said.

She looked amazed for a moment and shifted her stance and eventually concluded I was not the man she had thought I was.

Then in Amsterdam, at a very elegant and haute cuisiney dinner given to a group of foreign journalists by the Rijksmuseum, I was puzzled to note out the corner of one eye that I was being studied in some detail by this chap from Belgium. Eventually he could contain his news no longer. ``It is amazing, absolutely amazing. I wonder, might you perhaps be a relation of - '' and here he mentioned a name I had never heard.

``Not as far as I know. Who is he?''

``Ah, he is a singer of ballads in Belgium. He is very popular. It is quite extraordinary. You look so like him. You even have the same mannerisms. The way you laugh.'' ``Is he a good singer?'' I asked. ``Yes, very good.'' ``Ah,'' I said, ``definitely no relation.''

And in Vienna, in the breakfast room of the hotel, there was a lady from the Midwest who was convinced I was her tour guide.

Then to cap it all, at a restaurant in Glasgow just the other evening, another waitress (a confused profession, that) announced that every time we came to eat there she thought to herself that I was a dead ringer for John Pilger. It turned out that the said Pilger, hitherto unknown to me, does television documentaries.

Naturally the number of times I am turning out to be the spitting image of someone else is provoking some minor forms of speculation. Have I got a whole load of close relations I never knew about? Was I (or rather were we) really quintuplets and could it be that only now the best-kept parental secret this century is starting to disclose itself? Is looking-like-everyone-else an aspect of middle age nobody warned me about? Can one be (have I been) clandestinely cloned? Could I turn my newfound talent for replication to commercial advantage?

I may, of course, simply be turning out to be a character in an Elizabethan play or a 19th-century comic opera. Mistaken identity was a mainstay of Gilbert and Sullivan, and real life is, they say, stranger than fiction. Perhaps, after all, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek weren't such unbelievable fools in ``Twelfth Night'' to confuse Sebastian with his sister Viola dressed as a man - though I have yet to see a production of the play in which the likeness is really plausible. Maybe even ``The Prisoner of Zenda'' was shot through with realism ....

Being an Englishman, of course, I don't particularly want to stand out in a crowd; but all the same a certain individuality in one's appearance has its points. Ionesco in ``The Bald Soprano'' may well have felt a certain comic justification in naming all his English characters by the same name, but even he didn't Madame-Tussaud them all into identical waxworks. There are limits.

DISCUSSING my predicament with a Scottish friend, I must say it came as something of a relief to hear that he has the same problem. For months one time he kept bumping into a man who was positive he was somebody else.

And he was accosted another time by a small man as he emerged from a paper shop. ``Ah,'' the man blurted out excitedly, ``you're Peter Keenan!'' He had the hardest job in the world to convince him that he wasn't. ``Aye, yes, you ARE,'' the man insisted: He thought my friend was just being modest. Since Keenan was a champion lightweight boxer, and my friend is not known even to his closest intimates for either aggression or athleticism (though he's pretty devilish at Trivial Pursuit on a good night), his story made me feel that perhaps, in the final analysis, Similarity, like Beauty, resides solely in the Eye of the Beholder.

Let's hope so, anyway. I'm sure it would come as a frightful shock to the people to whom I supposedly bear unavoidable resemblance that they, mir-rorlike, look just like me. Or even that they therefore look exactly like each other.

One thing's certain at least. None of us looks anything like Keenan.

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