'I forget people are watching me'

Laura
Topham won Press Gazette’s Student Journalist of the Year and
Interviewer of the Year trophies for her interview with former Home
Secretary David Blunkett

I DO THINK about what other people’s faces might look like.

Over the years people have grabbed my arm and wanted me to feel
their face, which I don’t find acceptable really: you don’t go around
feeling people’s faces, it’s not a good thing to do.

But I do
wonder about faces. I wonder about the differences. I think about the
expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. It’s true of
personality, it’s true of voice and it’s true of mannerisms.

Obviously,
it’s true of faces and a good thing, too, otherwise there’d be even
more lonely people in the world than there are already.

I expect
the face doesn’t have to be classically beautiful to be enjoyable if
the personality is expressed through it. Sadly, I get the feeling that
people who are deeply unhappy have that written across their face. And
I miss some of that.

There’s good and bad in this, though. When
I’m speaking and people don’t like what I’m saying, I sometimes pick it
up from their manner.

It’s like body language translated into a
feeling, a transmission of annoyance or anger – people cough or shuffle
if they’re uncomfortable with what I’m saying. But I miss the glare, I
miss the person giving me a terrible stare, and so I carry on saying
what I’m saying long beyond what other people would.

Sometimes it
might appear as though I couldn’t give a damn what other people are
thinking, and in some instances that’s a good thing because it means I
say what I think rather than what I think is acceptable, but in other
circumstances it can be difficult because people think you’re being
unresponsive and uncaring. Whereas actually you just haven’t seen their
stare.

On the whole, I think it’s a good thing, because people
are often intimidated if somebody tries to stare them down, or
sometimes a facial expression makes someone back off – well, one of my
features is that I don’t back off. But I do need to be sensitive to the
fact that sometimes I’m not as quick at picking up the nuances that I
might be hurting somebody, and I wouldn’t want to do that. It’s one
thing to stand up to fellow politicians, but it’s quite another to be
hurting someone without meaning to.

This difficulty is true of
romance as well. I imagine – because I can only imagine this – that
most people can tell at a glance whether someone is interested in
continuing a conversation or wants to have a drink. But if you can’t
look at someone’s face and into their eyes, you have to work out other
ways of discovering, and that is slightly more clumsy.

There are downsides to not being able to see faces.

THE OTHER PROBLEM
is not remembering that people care about my facial expressions.
Whereas I concentrate on voice and mannerisms, other people are
watching my face and I often forget that. Friends say they can read me
like a book because I don’t cover what I think and so it shows.

There
have been occasions where I have had to deliberately and systematically
get a grip of how my face looks in order not to give away either
seething anger or a smile at something I shouldn’t smile at.

I’m still learning, even at this stage, that I have to recognise what other people will see in my face.

Sometimes
I won’t have meant it, it will just appear, and I forget – not having
ever seen a facial expression – that my face is different.

When
children are tiny they mimic the facial expressions of adults, so
people wonder how a blind child learns to smile. The truth is you just
adopt expressions, there’s something natural inside us where our inner
feeling shows. My task is to try to ensure that my expressions aren’t
distorted, in case people think I’m grinning at something when I don’t
intend to grin, or looking really angry when actually I only feel
moderately angry. I might let my face go without realising what it
means. I hear about people looking in the mirror and they see how their
own expressions look to them, but I can’t do that.

I have only ever had my face described to me in general terms.

When
I was little I was interested in what colour my eyes were, and whether
my facial structure was normal. All of us discover that we have an ear
lower than the other or that our eyes are not exactly lined up, but
blind people are not sure whether other people’s are as well, so you
need increased reassurance that you’re not a freak.

OVER THE YEARS,
I have had major cuts and scars because I have banged into things. I’m
not so worried about how I look now because you are what you are and
there’s nothing you can do about it, but I do make sure that I get my
beard trimmed regularly and that I’m not looking a scruff. I’ve always
been careful about not doing things that would allow people to say: “If
he could see, he would do something about it.” I’m quite sensitive
about that.

However, when people asked me to wear dark glasses, I was deeply affronted.

It
happened when I started appearing on television. With the intention of
helpfulness, a couple of people said my eyes moved rapidly, which I
know they do, particularly when I’m under pressure.

It’s just part of the eye condition I have. They said it would be better for the audience if I wore dark glasses.

For
me that was unacceptable. Firstly, because it was a concession to
blindness: namely, I would look blind. You wear dark glasses when you
are in sunlight or if you are trying to create an image and I was doing
neither, I was just appearing on television being myself.

And
secondly, nobody should ever ask someone to change their image other
than to protect them from severe damage. If my eyes were really badly
disfigured, then I would have to do something about it because
otherwise that would have become the focal point and what I was saying
would be lost completely.

I use a combination of cues to form
judgments about people – their approach, their manner, their
personality and their voice. Voices that are sharp and harsh often do
reflect – but not exclusively – harsh and sharp personalities; voices
that are pleasant and easy often reflect that personality.

It’s
true that I first heard Kimberly [Quinn] on the radio. I was attracted
not simply to the voice but to someone who was interested in literature
and obviously had an outward-going personality, which certainly turned
out to be true. But it can be misleading in terms of the person. The
best way I can deal with this is to try to imagine the pleasantness of
the visual aspects of the person based on their personality and their
voice, which I sometimes obviously get wrong, but it’s a reasonable
rule of thumb.

Not seeing faces makes you a fairer judge, in the
sense that some people, either naturally or because of time and effort
they’ve put into cosmetics and elegance of dress, appear to be
extremely attractive.

But you do get it wrong and I’ve certainly
got it wrong in a big way once in my life. All of us make judgments and
we just pray they turn out to be true.

We do it all the time, on visuals, on personality, on other traits, but there’s no accounting for feelings.

You can’t do a lot about emotion. But that makes us human beings rather than automatons, which is good.

The
difficulty with being famous is not the face, the difficulty is the
recognition. It’s hard for people who don’t want to be pointed at or
stared at to be with you. It’s not a problem for me because I can’t see
people pointing or staring, I only know if they shout “hello”, which
they do quite often, and they usually only do so if they’re friendly –
so you get a slightly distorted view of the world.

But friends of mine don’t want to be on show and it makes life difficult for them. So the face leads to other problems.

THERE’S ALWAYS BEEN
a problem in relation to politics and charisma and image. It’s a myth
to say that it’s new. Franklin D Roosevelt [the US president who lost
the use of his legs after contracting polio] hid the fact that he was
disabled. He developed the most enormous arm muscles in order to be
able to stand at a rostrum. There is an issue about how people try to
overcome any disability or disfigurement.

I’ve always tried to
overcome it by ignoring it, by finding ways round it, simply because
that is how you live life to the full. If you were defined by your
obstacle or challenge in life, you’d become absorbed by it. You’ve got
to ignore it.

It doesn’t worry me but I have said in interviews,
before my recent troubles, that I thought it was highly unlikely that
Britain would be prepared to vote for a prime minister who couldn’t
see. I still believe that. It’s just the residual concern that people
have of “can we take the risk?”

Visuals do matter in that respect
– if you’re looking someone straight in the eye, then people believe
they can trust you. If I was ever examined in that way, people would
say: “Why are his eyes moving – is he shifty or something?” Which he
isn’t, but it does matter.

This
interview was printed in the Evening Standard last week. See the centre
section for full details of the Press Gazette Student Journalism Awards

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