When people think they’ve seen me before, it’s because they think I’m Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away …
—Hughes Mearns, ‘Antigonish’
She stood, squinting into the late afternoon sun, swaying slightly.
“Are you guys jockeys?” she asked.
“No,” we said.
“Are you brothers?”
“No, we’re not brothers,” my friend said.
My friend and I were standing on the fence at Randwick Racecourse in Sydney. We had failed to pick the winner of the race which had just been run, and were consulting the form guide for the next event. From our position we had seen the runners go straight past us, up close, and we were deep in thought, considering our options. This interruption was curious, and amusing, as we don’t look a lot like each other, and while I am a short man my friend is average height, so it seemed a bit unfair to him that this young woman should think we were brothers.
It was because he was with me. People think they have seen me before. They aren’t sure where, but they feel they know me, from somewhere, doing something or other, if only their memory could be jogged. But they haven’t seen me. If anything, I’ve been hiding.
Often when I am ‘recognised’ it is late at night, and the fan has been fortified with something convivial. At night people will confront you. Mostly, at other times of the day, nothing is said. To say something requires a certain courage. Instead there are quick whispers and shared murmurs and gestures with hands.
At the racetrack the young woman, who was part of a hen’s party, had clearly been socialising for some hours with her friends. She was harmless enough, but my friend and I moved away to where the bookmakers stand as we considered our next bet.
Friends of course are fearless when it comes to name calling and other acts of puerility. They say whatever they want to say and feel no shame indulging in humiliation if it takes their fancy. When a group of old friends from school started comparing me with Julian Assange and pretending that the two of us were the same person that was a sign that he had really made it. He was a global figure.
Now when people mistake me for someone, they mistake me for Julian Assange.
The man seemed to burst into prominence, a fully-formed media identity and campaigner for government openness and transparency, however Julian Assange has been an internet activist for many years and Wikileaks has existed since 2006. He is an Australian, as am I, and we both have pale complexions and the prematurely wispy grey hair of a poet or an apprentice wizard. But that is where the similarities end. However, this strange, elven physical similarity we share is enough to make people think they have seen him, when they have in fact seen me.
He can seem like he’s everywhere: on TV news bulletins, in the newspapers. And yet he’s nowhere. He doesn’t do ordinary things amongst ordinary people any more, and is never part of a crowd. He certainly doesn’t spend much time in Australia. But people want to think they’ve seen him.
When the moment happens—the moment of recognition—it is frequently a vague understanding and no more than that. Walking through a pub one evening I heard a drinker behind me say to his companions, “Look, there’s that guy. You know, the guy … ” and he trailed off. I wonder whether he even knew the name of the man he thought he’d seen, or what he knew of Wikileaks. I wonder whether he knew that some politicians think of Julian Assange as a traitor and others want him dead, while still others think of him as a freedom fighter who bravely stands up to the powerful in his role as a new kind of journalist. The drinker’s mates laughed and went back to watching the game of football on the pub’s TV.
On another occasion the questioner was more sober. It was on a train. The man and his friends were dressed in dinner suits and silly headwear and were going to some sort of charity fancy dress ball. He told me who I resembled, and I said I knew. He asked if people often say that and I said they did. He understood that it must be confronting to have strangers talk to you as if they know you. One of his mates said that Julian Assange is quite a strange looking bloke … and then they all agreed that since they were wearing court jester hats they were looking pretty strange that night too. They seemed to comprehend that it is an unsettling thing to be mistaken for someone famous, and they left me alone. They seemed embarrassed for me.
It never happens the same way. But when it happens it’s always a little odd.
At Christmastime last year some friends ate at a restaurant. After the meal a couple of revellers on the street asked for a photo with a mate of mine, who is quite a well-known Australian comedian, actor, and writer. When they saw me they asked, rather forcefully, that I be included in the photo as well. They laughed and said they had donated money to the Wikileaks cause and told me to keep up the good work. They were joking, but they were serious too.
Posing seemed the thing to do, so I tried to look serious and self-important. It seemed right not to smile. Numerous mobile devices took several shots of the four of us. It was all good fun and they left satisfied. It was my first fan photo.
This recognition, which is a fake recognition—recognising someone who isn’t actually present—is never a serious event. It’s more like spotting a lookalike on the street. And in that sense I am a reluctant lookalike. A lookalike who only partially resembles the real thing, and isn’t trying to look like him. It’s just the way I look. But if it makes people who saw me happy to go home and tell their family and friends they saw a man who looked ‘exactly’ like Julian Assange, or even that they saw the real man, then I suppose that makes me happy too.
Photo courtesy of the author