Caught in a gathering through being in the company of someone else, I was introduced to the visiting speaker.
‘And who are you?’ he asked, with all the sincerity of a salesman who thinks continued repetition of your name will incline you toward buying his product.
‘Oh, I’m nobody’, I said. One of the group protested at what he saw as self-deprecation. It wasn’t intended as such. It was more an expression of the feeling that my presence in the room was an accidental event and that my identity was not important to the business of those gathered.
Anonymity seems attractive. The characters from Samuel Beckett novels, who once seemed bizarrely eccentric in their behaviour, seem, at times, to be not so mad, after all. To be nobody means not having to answer questions, or to be an apologist, for others.
Of course, the real problem lies not in your identity, but in what is ascribed to you by others; the assumptions they make about you and the attitudes they take towards you on the basis of those assumptions.
Parties were always the worst occasions, people taking too much drink and becoming serious, or worse, aggressive about religious matters. ‘No, the Queen of England is not head of my church. No, I didn’t hear what the Archbishop of Canterbury said. No, we are not under English rule’. Attacks tended to be of a political nature; inferences that Protestants were somehow British colonialists who should return to Britain. Occasionally, there would be theological stuff, ‘If you believe in God, why doesn’t he do something?’ I would shrug and smile and point out that if I knew the answer to such questions I would hardly be a parish cleric.
Being anonymous, I discovered, allowed conversations that might never have happened. Attending a wedding where the officiant was a fundamentalist Pentecostal pastor, my heart sank when I discovered I had been placed next to him at a table at the reception, what argument might there be about church matters? Then I realised I was in a collar and tie, had sat in the congregation and was present merely through being married to a relative of the groom. I walked to the table and put out my hand to shake his, ‘Hello, I’m Ian, I’m from Somerset in the West of England, where are you from?’ He spent the next three hours chatting about his life and work and hobbies while I made appreciative noises from time to time. When the final toasts were made, I thanked him for his company and he wished me a safe journey home.
To say, ‘I’m nobody’ is not generally a viable option in a community where it doesn’t take long to find out who you are. Much better to be able to blend into the crowd, to be inconspicuous. Being invisible is attractive.