Graham Greene’s memoir Ways of Escape contains a final chapter called The Other. This title, from a poem by Edward Thomas, heads an epilogue that deals with the writer’s long and unfulfilled search for at least one conman who had passed himself off as Greene on several continents.
Michael McDowell was first elected to the Irish parliament in 1987. Some years still had to pass, though, before people began to mistake a harmless nobody called John Flynn for him. That can be put down to the lookalike spending more time in Dublin and less time combing receding hair. It all began late in 1993 with a tap on the back from an old lady on a bus. She was echoed one night on Dorset Street during the noisy nearby convergence of an ambulance and some squad cars. It was then that another old dear approached him on a street corner.
“Sorry, love, I thought you were Michael McDowell and you’d know what was going on.”
By 1999, McDowell was Attorney General. That August, a pal and I were in a pub on Camden Street that is known to be popular with the police. A new barman went out of his way to be nice. He even brought the pints down, unbidden, to where we were sitting. He then set them down with an attitude of reverence. Later another barman did a background check, while I was in the toilet.
“Eh, what does your mate work at?”
McDowell had an even better result in 2002. During the election campaign a homeless man approached me at a bus stop but I didn’t have any spare change. As he walked away he looked back for a moment. You look like Michael McDowell. Following the election the great man was appointed to the Cabinet. This extra power was soon reflected in the same bar when another chap asked the lookalike to settle a bet.
“Are you the Minister for Justice?”
When people ask such questions often enough, you can get into character.
“Do you want to be thrown into prison?”
The man hung his head and said sorry. He was shrinking away when granted an exasperated reprieve.
“No, I’m not him. Would you ever cop on?”
Shortly before Christmas 2007, it was a dark morning when I rose in a Waterford city hotel. There was no bottled water at reception (“But you can have all the drink you want”). The night porter then suggested asking at the nearby McDonald’s.
Two deaf guys in t-shirts had got to the locked door of the outlet first. They seemed to have had a long night and were indifferent to the frost. It then turned out that one of them could speak because he translated some giggles and sign language going on behind my back.
“I’m sorry, my friend thought you were Michael McDowell.”
As for Greene’s quest, he never came closer than a couple of photographs and a letter from an impostor who had got himself into some trouble in India. Greene himself was later accused of being the fraud by a newspaper during a visit to Chile. It was then that he was assailed by metaphysical doubt as to whom was the real impostor all along. All he was left with was the Edward Thomas poem’s ending.
Even though McDowell had seemingly left the political scene, back in late 2007, these lines could ever only sound a bit sinister, given that I always knew he was out there, waiting.
He goes: I follow: no release
Until he ceases. Then I also shall cease.