Do I know you?

Jour­nal­ist Mary Ann Sieghart talks about word blind­ness and how Thor­pe­ness soothes he

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

WHEN Mary Ann Sieghart was a re­spected po­lit­i­cal writer in the 1980s and 90s, she stood out from the crowd, and not just be­cause of her dis­tinc­tive curly hair. The world of West­min­ster pol­i­tics and jour­nal­ism was dom­i­nated by men, so she was some­thing of a rar­ity. Things are chang­ing. A record num­ber of women MPs were elected in June, and most UK po­lit­i­cal par­ties are now led by women. Laura Kuenss­berg is the BBC’s po­lit­i­cal editor, and even the Metropoli­tan Po­lice Com­mis­sioner is fe­male.

“It’s very ex­cit­ing, and a huge step for­ward,” says Mary Ann, 56, an out­spo­ken fem­i­nist and former Times po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor. “The three most im­por­tant peo­ple in Bri­tish pol­i­tics now are Theresa May, Ruth David­son and Ar­lene Fos­ter.” Not that Mary Ann, who has close fam­ily ties to Suf­folk, is a great ad­mirer of Theresa May.

“She has less emo­tional in­tel­li­gence than al­most any politi­cian I’ve met, apart from Gor­don Brown,” she says. “She’s sim­i­lar to him in many ways – she has a com­plete tin ear, she’s very flat-footed like he was, has no charm or hu­mour and doesn’t re­ally un­der­stand other peo­ple’s emo­tions. I found that out long be­fore she be­came Prime Min­is­ter. I used to lunch with her as a jour­nal­ist, but I gave up, be­cause it was com­pletely point­less.”

The idea was to be­friend politi­cians and ex­change gos­sip, all grist to the mill of a po­lit­i­cal colum­nist.

“But she used to treat th­ese lunches like an in­ter­view on the To­day pro­gramme – ut­terly but­toned up, not giv­ing a thing away. And I re­alised after­wards it was be­cause she was so un­con­fi­dent about what the ap­pro­pri­ate emo­tional re­sponse was, she just found the safest thing was not to re­spond at all.” She feels there are par­al­lels with Hil­lary Clin­ton, an­other politi­cian who squan­dered a huge ini­tial poll lead. “Hil­lary wasn’t able to cre­ate that emo­tional con­nec­tion with peo­ple. She was terribly ro­botic, for­mu­laic and unin­spir­ing, very like May.” Be­ing one of the few fe­male lobby cor­re­spon­dents at West­min­ster in the 1980s, Mary Ann was in­stantly recog­nis­able to the pre­dom­i­nantly male MPs. What the mid­dleaged, grey-suited politi­cians didn’t know was that they all looked pretty much the same to her. She of­ten had no idea who she was speak­ing to.

Mary Ann was un­aware then that she has a rare neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tion called prosopag­nosia, or face blind­ness, which makes it hard to recog­nise fa­cial fea­tures. It is a con­di­tion which causes con­sid­er­able prob­lems in both her work­ing and so­cial life. She is con­stantly ter­ri­fied of in­ad­ver­tently snub­bing some­one in the street by fail­ing to recog­nise them. Films are dif­fi­cult to fol­low, be­cause the ac­tors look iden­ti­cal.

“The good-look­ing ones are hard­est to recog­nise, be­cause their faces are all so reg­u­lar and sym­met­ri­cal,” she says. “Voices help a lot, so does fa­cial hair, or a wart or mole. Women are slightly eas­ier, be­cause their hair styles vary more. But then if they change them, I’m lost!”

It wasn’t un­til she was in her late 30s that she re­alised she had a di­ag­nos­able con­di­tion, af­ter her hus­band Dai chanced upon a mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle about prosopag­nosia.

“He said, ‘Oh my God, this is you!’ And I read it and thought, ‘Yes, this is ex­actly me.” She was tested, and found to be in the bot­tom 0.1% of the pop­u­la­tion for fa­cial recog­ni­tion. The con­di­tion, which af­fects around 3% of the pop­u­la­tion, is in­cur­able, and ge­netic. Her mother, Felic­ity Ann, who lives in Alde­burgh, and one of her two daugh­ters, Evie, also have the con­di­tion. Last year, Mary Ann made a Ra­dio 4 pro­gramme about prosopag­nosia to raise aware­ness.

“Lots of peo­ple have said to me, ‘I’m so glad you did that be­cause I re­alise I’ve got the same prob­lem’. Peo­ple of­ten make a point of

“The good-look­ing ones are hard­est to recog­nise, be­cause their faces are all so reg­u­lar and sym­met­ri­cal”

in­tro­duc­ing them­selves now. An­noy­ingly, though, oth­ers will come up to me and say, ‘You don’t know who I am, do you?’ – just to rub it in!” Her 90-year-old mother, she says, prob­a­bly has the con­di­tion even more se­verely.

“She and I dread walking down Alde­burgh high street, be­cause she prob­a­bly knows half the peo­ple she passes, but can’t recog­nise them!” Felic­ity Ann has lived in Alde­burgh for nearly 30 years, and ran the town’s cin­ema back in the 1990s, help­ing to turn it into the suc­cess it is to­day. She also found fame when, at the age of 76, she achieved two holes-in-one in the same round on the lo­cal golf course, a rare feat man­aged by only a hand­ful of peo­ple.

“There’s a bench on the course ded­i­cated to her!” says Mary Ann. Mary Ann’s brother Wil­liam, the pub­lisher who founded World Po­etry Day and the For­ward Po­etry Prize, has a house in Thor­pe­ness, where the fam­ily has con­nec­tions dat­ing back to 1930s. Felic­ity Ann, who lived in north Es­sex and whose father be­came chair­man of Rio Tinto Zinc, used to hol­i­day at the coun­try club as a child. She went to Ox­ford at a time when few women at­tended univer­sity, and later mar­ried Paul Sieghart, a bar­ris­ter who be­came a prom­i­nent civil rights cam­paigner. They and their four chil­dren hol­i­dayed reg­u­larly at Thor­pe­ness. From the age of three to 14, Mary Ann spent every sum­mer there.

“I’ve al­ways as­so­ci­ated it with child­hood hap­pi­ness,” she says. “I loved the free­dom. We’d rush out of the house on bikes af­ter break­fast, usu­ally in bare feet, and spend the whole day rac­ing around with other chil­dren. We didn’t re­ally see our par­ents from dawn to dusk. It was great.”

Thor­pe­ness pro­vided a wel­come re­lease from school, where Mary Ann was des­per­ately un­happy. She was so aca­dem­i­cally ad­vanced, her mother sought help from the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Gifted Chil­dren. At pri­mary school in Ep­ping, Es­sex, she reached year six by the age of eight. How­ever, the lo­cal author­ity re­fused to al­low her to take her 11-plus early, so she was sent to board­ing school. She suc­ceeded aca­dem­i­cally, tak­ing her first GCE at 11. But so­cially, she suf­fered, and was bul­lied.

“It was hor­ri­ble. When I was 12, I was a very late de­vel­oper in a class of 15-year-olds, and you can imag­ine how dif­fi­cult that was. It was de­press­ing be­cause in the hol­i­days at Thor­pe­ness I had lots of friends, so I knew I couldn’t be a com­pletely hate­ful per­son.”

From the age of 12, she de­cided she wanted to be­come ei­ther a po­lit­i­cal colum­nist for The Times, or its first woman editor. She gained an Ox­ford schol­ar­ship at 16 to read pol­i­tics, phi­los­o­phy and eco­nom­ics, but waited two years so she was able to study with her peers. She blos­somed so­cially and aca­dem­i­cally, and left with a first and va­ca­tion work at The Tele­graph un­der her belt. Af­ter spells at the Fi­nan­cial Times and the To­day news­pa­per, she be­came The Econ­o­mist’s lobby cor­re­spon­dent, be­fore join­ing The Times in her late 20s.

She rose to be­come as­sis­tant editor as well as a dis­tin­guished po­lit­i­cal colum­nist and leader writer. Michael Gove was her deputy. A cen­trist, she is cred­ited with per­suad­ing the editor to back Tony Blair af­ter the 1997 elec­tion. She en­joyed work­ing with Gove, de­spite their po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences.

“He has the best man­ners of any­one I’ve ever met. He’s funny, clever and in­cred­i­bly elo­quent. He’s a bril­liant guy, and I’m pleased to see him back in the Cab­i­net.” She still ad­mires Blair, de­spite dis­ap­prov­ing of his money-mak­ing ways since leav­ing of­fice. Her re­la­tions with his suc­ces­sor, Gor­don Brown, were not so good, and she had long dis­liked some of his bul­ly­ing hench­men. When it be­came clear Brown was go­ing to be­come Prime Min­is­ter, she took the sur­pris­ing de­ci­sion to leave The Times at the age of 45. “I knew I was go­ing to hate hav­ing to deal with his ghastly peo­ple,” she says.

Th­ese days Mary Ann en­joys a port­fo­lio ca­reer, chair­ing the cen­trist, pro-mar­ket So­cial Mar­ket Foun­da­tion think tank, writ­ing and broad­cast­ing, as well as sit­ting on the con­tent board of Of­com. She lives with her fam­ily in Lon­don and Wilt­shire, but al­ways looks for­ward to trips to Alde­burgh to visit her mother. She loves Suf­folk’s quiet tran­quil­lity.

“It’s not on the way to any­where, so it’s re­ally un­spoilt,” she says. “It has a real sense of calm and peace­ful­ness.”

Thor­pe­ness has pro­vided so­lace for Mary Ann Sieghart. Pic­ture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Mary Ann Sieghart

Mary Ann Sieghart’s mother, Felic­ity Sieghart, also has face blind­ness, found fame by scor­ing two holes-in-one on the same round at Alde­burgh golf course Photo: James Fletcher

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