We all make mistakes - I'm delighted to say
`There is almost always a misprint in every menu. But am I cast down? Am I heck!'
Wednesday 15 September 1999
And about a week later I got a call from the BBC. It was from a researcher. She was working for a TV chat show. She said she had read my reference to Jonathan Miller's lecture.
"I wondered if you happened to have Mr Miller's phone number," she said. "We're doing a programme on whether women are funny, and he sounds ideal for the show."
"I don't think so," I said. "I'm not a friend of his. You don't actually have to know a person to mention the title of one of his lectures. Have you tried looking him up in Who's Who?"
She laughed. I didn't know why. It was a serious suggestion.
"Well, do you know where he works?" she asked.
It began to dawn on me that she was not totally au fait with Jonathan Miller's lifestyle. I asked her whether she knew who he was. She said she didn't.
"You don't know about him being one of the founder members of Beyond the Fringe? And an expert on the brain? And a director of many films? And a famous producer of opera?"
No, she had no idea. She was young. It was all history to her. She just wanted his phone number.
"Well," I said, "he has often worked for the BBC. He should be on the BBC's list of phone numbers. Assuming John Birt hasn't sold it off, along with all the other archive stuff."
"Too right," she said. "I'll have a look. Thanks."
It is customary after an experience like that to express shock and sadness. How low has the BBC sunk, that a researcher has never heard of Jonathan Miller? Or that the senior producer who asked her to get his phone number didn't seem to know anything about him either? I am amazed, shocked, dismayed, etc.
But, of course, I am not really dismayed at all. I am in fact delighted. I say that I am dismayed to hide the unedifying sight of my crowing in my superiority and my delight in putting someone else right. I am delighted in the way that we are always delighted by the mistakes and ignorance of others. Whenever people write to me to point out my mistakes, and say, "I am disappointed to see that you are unaware of the true meaning" (or spelling or origin or authorship, etc) they are lying. They are not disappointed. They are overjoyed at the thought of scoring a point off me.
And I do the same. Someone once said to me that if you look hard enough, you can find a misspelling in any menu, and I now waste endless time proof- reading the menu in any restaurant, and blow me down, they're right. There is almost always a misprint in every menu. But am I cast down ? Am I heck! All of us have a streak of pedantry somewhere which emerges in the form of joyful disapproval of error. Apart from menu-chasing, one of my favourite blood sports is hunting for misprints in the Radio Times. The other day they had a Radio 3 tribute to the jazz trumpeter Alex Walsh. Not only was it listed in the Radio Times, but his name was trailed on Radio 3 several times. Unfortunately, there was no such person. The tribute was to Alex Welsh. A small slip, but it gave me a lot of pleasure.
Mark you, every time I criticise the Radio Times in print I get a letter from a reader saying: "The Radio Times may be guilty, but I am sad to say..." (meaning, I am delighted to say... "...I am sad to say that The Independent is also guilty of misprints." And indeed it is not guilt-free. There was a cracking example the other day. This paper had been running a short series of translated poems from Goethe, and one was meant to have the title of "Ginkgo Biloba". The Ginkgo biloba is an ancient Chinese tree also known as the maidenhair tree, but the sub-editor working on the title was not a tree fan. He seems to have looked at "Biloba" and thought it was a misspelling and changed it, and so it was that in my edition of The Independent the poem was called "Ginkgo Bilbao".
I would like to say how sorry I am to see errors like that creeping into the paper.
But, of course, I can't.
I was absolutely delighted.
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