I have to get a new passport. Well, the current one doesn’t expire until July, but some destinations seem to insist that it must be valid for several months from your date of arrival, even though you’re booked on a ten-day package holiday; and anyway we have no idea where we might want to go in the next few months, so why not? The new online system looks pretty slick (on the face of it…). I have to attach a digital photo of my upper body (which they’ll trim to regulation), so we’ll have to take that soon, the main requirement seeming to be that it looks like me. Hmm.
By coincidence, Z approached the same general topic from a quite different direction on her blog today, and it set me off thinking about recognition. If someone had to describe me to another person who’d never seen me, what, leaving out bodily dimensions, hair, clothing and so on, in other words focussing just on my face, what would they say? I have no idea; and equally I’d find it almost impossible to describe my brother’s, sister’s or indeed wife’s faces in words.
Border controls, of course, use biometric measurements to solve this, but we can’t all be expected to carry an app around in our brains to replicate that; and anyway the one they use is obviously in its technological infancy (aren’t they all?) if my experiences of it are anything to go by. The queues at the fast track are far longer than the old-fashioned ones where a human glances at your passport and your face twice each and nods you through. I once had to go back three times; turned out I wasn’t looking at the right green light or something.
I then wondered how novelists tackle it if they feel the need to describe a character’s face. It is done, and no doubt you could cite examples of characters that you’d recognise in the street just from the author’s description, but I couldn’t come up with any, once I’d filtered out subsequent screen portrayals. I did think of Mervyn Peake – I’d recognise Steerpike, Mr Flay, Fuschia, although interestingly not Titus, the hero – until I realised that he’d drawn them and then described his drawings. Perhaps that’s the trick.
I once had a two- or three-minute conversation with a chance-encountered girl on London Bridge station, which was going pretty well until we both realised we weren’t who we thought we were.