SANDI TOKSVIG Never forgets a face
This month Sandi’s feeling a little sheepish that even a farmyard animal may have better observational skills than she does. Food for thought…
After 36 years of appearing regularly on television, one of the upsides of my life is that lots of people I’ve never met before stop me for a chat. The downside of my life is that they sometimes choose to do this at awkward times. Possibly my worst moment was being caught on the loo in a public ladies’ room, when the lock was faulty and the person who burst in didn’t appreciate that I might want to be alone.
I never cease to be impressed, however, that people actually recognise me at all. I sometimes struggle to place members of my own family, let alone someone off the telly. I am hopeless at a party. People I know perfectly well loom into view, grinning winningly, and not a single name appears in my head. I know I know them. Possibly I even know them well, but all I can muster is ‘Hello, darling’ as an opening gambit.
I don’t know why I’m so bad at recalling who is who. I read recently that even sheep are perfectly capable of spotting a celebrity out and about. There was a marvellous experiment where scientists bothered to train some willing ruminants to recognise the faces of former US President Barack Obama, actors Emily Watson and Jake Gyllenhaal and newsreader Fiona Bruce. I’m not sure how the boffins came up with that quartet of folk, or why the lives of Welsh mountain sheep might be improved by their acquaintance, but the video footage is extraordinary. Show a sheep two photos and you can see a look come over their woolly faces as they take a minute to figure out which one they already know. I have that same stare of concentration at parties all the time but no one ever gives me a food pellet if I get it right. It never occurred to me that food might be the missing piece of the puzzle in my poor recall.
As if the sheep didn’t make me feel hopeless enough, it turns out there are also chimps, goats, pigeons and honey bees that can spot a pal in a crowd. Even fish can use their glassy stare to divine friend from foe. The archerfish is ingenious. If it fancies a bug sitting on a leaf over the water, it turns its mouth into a water pistol, shooting a jet so accurately that the insect is knocked down into eating range. No scientist can leave such a talent untapped, so they put a computer monitor above an archerfish aquarium and showed the sharp-shooting fish two faces. I make it sound simple but they trained the fish to spit at one of the two images, giving them food when they got it right. The brightest fish succeeded 86% of the time, which is way higher than I manage at any work gathering. Again, food seems to be the key.
Of course, I’m not alone in my poor facial-recognition abilities. I get plenty of people who approach me in the supermarket confident that I am a) in their bowls club b) their child’s piano teacher or c) – my absolute favourite – a fellow member of the Salvation Army. Often, to save embarrassment, I go along with whatever the person wants me to be. I enquire about their child’s piano practice pieces or bemoan my loss of form on the bowling green. I do it to save any awkwardness and because the only time I ever corrected someone, it backfired spectacularly. I was out shopping, horribly late for an appointment, when a passing woman grabbed my arm and declared, ‘Hello! How nice to see you!’ ‘How nice to see you,’ I replied. The woman smiled. ‘You don’t remember me do you? We were at school together.’
I could literally feel the clock ticking on my wrist and I knew I needed to get away, so I said something I’ve never said before. ‘I’m very sorry but you’re mistaken. I work on television and you’ve recognised me from some show or other.’ She shook her head. It turns out I’m an idiot and we were at school together.
Anyway, I’ve been honing my skills. I concentrate when I’m introduced to anyone, I repeat their name, and I try to seek out some facial feature to imprint on my mind. I think it’s going well. So far I can absolutely recognise Barack Obama, and I can also nail Fiona Bruce – as long as someone feeds me.
I sometimes struggle to place members of my own family