Facing up to it – Alison Healy on who is behind the mask

An Irishwoman’s Diary

We are all victims of mask confusion these days. You know that moment when someone wearing a face mask greets you but you have no idea who they are because you can only see their eyes?

It’s even more challenging during inclement weather when the mystery person’s hair is covered by a hat. And if they really want to test your intuitive powers, they will also be wearing sunglasses.

Sometimes they are accompanied by clues to help identify them, such as children or memorable dogs.

If you’re in a shop, you can at least discreetly scan their shopping basket for identifying factors. Six gallons of milk and three loaves of bread – clearly the father of teenage boys. A catering-sized tin of double-strength espresso – it must be a working-from-home parent of home-schoolers.


It can be mortifying when you are the victim of mask confusion.

You give a hearty greeting to someone entering the shop alongside you only to discover he is not the man you thought he was. That would be fine if you never see him again in your lifetime but inevitably you collide at the courgettes and bump into each other over the bananas.

Eventually you take drastic action and reverse your normal shopping routine, heading for the back of the shop. Your confused brain cannot process the reversal and you forget half the items on your shopping list.

But mask confusion might occasionally be a good thing. By mistaking someone's identity you might inadvertently end a 30-year feud by accidentally saying hello to your mortal enemy. I'm not sure if Guy Goma thought his case of mistaken identity was a good thing but it certainly gave him the required 15 minutes of fame in 2006.

He had a job interview in the IT department at the BBC and while he was waiting at reception, a BBC News 24 employee came to find technology journalist Guy Kewney, who was to be interviewed on live television about a legal case involving Apple. When asked if he was Guy, of course Mr Goma said yes, and soon found himself under the hot studio lights, being interviewed by Karen Bowerman about the future of downloading.

He thought it was a strange interviewing technique at first but it was the BBC after all, so perhaps they were in the habit of conducting job interviews as though they were delivering the news. On realising he was the wrong Guy, he still gamely tried to answer the questions. And if that wasn’t stressful enough, Mr Goma then found the correct room and did the real job interview. It would be lovely to say that he got the job after such a traumatic morning but apparently he didn’t.

Mr Goma’s accidental impersonation of someone else only lasted moments but baseball player Bill Henry was impersonated for almost two decades, unknown to him.

In 2007 the retired Cincinnati pitcher was most surprised to be told by a baseball historian that he had just died.

It transpired that a salesman living in Florida had taken on his identity. He looked like the sportsman and his third wife of almost 20 years and his stepchildren fully believed he was the baseball player. He regaled friends with stories from his baseball days and even gave a biannual lecture on baseball and humour.

Fortunately, the real baseball player saw the funny side of it and did several interviews to reassure fans that he was still alive and kicking. Unfortunately, he died seven years later of heart problems – the same cause of death as his doppelganger. Now that was a curveball.

Sometimes, mistaken identity can have a positive outcome. Alfred Nobel’s brother Ludvig died in 1888 but at least one newspaper confused him with Alfred, and penned an obituary describing Alfred as the “merchant of death” for inventing dynamite. Upset at his legacy, he decided to repair his reputation. And so, when he really died, eight years later, it emerged that he had left a significant fortune to set up the Nobel prizes to recognise outstanding services to humanity.

Marcus Garvey was not so lucky, according to his biographer Colin Grant.

The Jamaican-born black nationalist and political activist had a stroke in 1940 and was partially paralysed. As he was recovering, his secretary brought his correspondence. It included several newspapers which carried reports of his death. Sadly they were not kind reports. The Chicago Defender said he had died "broke, alone and unpopular".

On the second day of reading the damning correspondence, he reportedly collapsed in his chair with a second stroke, and died.

We may all have muttered it at some stage recently, but this was one rare occasion when a person could have truthfully declared “this news is killing me”.