MISUNDERSTANDINGS occur for many reasons and at every level.
Take Her Maj: “The EU isn’t working, is it, Mr Clegg?” was what, according to The Sun, the Queen told the then Deputy Prime Minister a year or two back.
[Not according to the Queen, of course. Nor according to Mr Clegg. But The Sun is a famously unimpeachable source; heads of state can roll and politicians will fib regularly but Rupert Murdoch’s red-top write-ups are rarely rooted in anything but reality.]
So HM’s words, I feel sure, have been misunderstood. Not so much criticism nor condemnation of the UK’s EU membership, perhaps, as a pep talk to the PM’s Number Two to do better: “Jolly well roll up your sleeves and show those foreign johnnies what my government can do when it comes to handling the migrant crisis, stabilising the global economy and filling the potholes in B-roads across Europe,” she might equally well have been urging.
Likewise Mr Trump, the US White House’s self-proclaimed heir presumptive.
Build a wall along the Rio Grande? He was suggesting, surely, a joint USA-Mexico construction project providing much-needed work for the needy on both sides of the border? Make sure all those sick Muslims in the USA go home? Travel passes to go with the Obamacare cards for disadvantaged citizens, perhaps?
It’s so easy to make simple errors of misunderstanding, even between the world’s great and good. As a young subeditor in the mid-Seventies, working on the Daily Mirror in Manchester, I remember Sir Hugh (later Lord) Cudlipp’s farewell tour of the then-mighty Mirror’s British-based empire.
He was an imposing figure, a major post-war editor since his early twenties who had risen so high in the nation’s foremost newspaper company that he carried no title known to we crumbs at the foot of the food chain; a national figure who had exposed and, thus, prevented his aristocratic predecessor Cecil King from conspiring with Lord Mountbatten in a political coup to topple Harold Wilson.
The day after an enormous all-night lunch (well, it had started as a sit-down ‘lunch’ for 200) the Great Man called for “some of my young eagles” to parade before him in the Withy Grove boardroom so he could review the future he had created for Mirror Group.
“Any questions?” Cudlipp demanded of me and the other two young turkeys who had been plucked, as the least hungover among the suffering ranks of staff, to meet our eminent leader.
Intimidated, we dumbstruck juniors shuffled from foot to foot and fidgeted as ‘sir’ took a lengthy draft from his bucket-sized brandy balloon. Suddenly, prodding the small of my back, the Great Man’s chief executive, Sidney Jacobsen, hissed in my ear from behind: “Ask him something!”
Who dared refuse? “W-w-what d’you th-think the f-f-future h-holds f-f-for n-newspapers Sir Hugh?” I stammered.
There followed a long, awkward pause. Blowing a plume of blue smoke, he beckoned Jacobsen over with the enormous Churchillian cigar clamped between his fingers and whispered something in his underling’s ear.
Jacobsen scurried the three or feet to my side and hissed: “He said you should ask him again.”
Puzzled and not a little worried, I repeated my question. Scowling by now, Cudlipp gestured Jacobsen back to join him in the Havana cloud, from which Jacobsen emerged looking as rattled as me.
“’Ask me again’ Sir Hugh said,” muttered Jacobsen, with the hint of a panicky shrug. “So go on, ask him!”
Reluctantly, I commenced to replough that lonely furrow until my sweated, stuttering interrogation was stilled by an angry wave of the foot-long cigar. Sliding his eyes sideways from me to his cringing Number Two the legendary newspaper knight growled: “I meant he should ask me another time!”
Problems of dialect can also provide fearful misunderstandings. Six months after surviving that trial by ordeal an offer of promotion to Fleet Street was almost scuppered when my intended future boss took me to the Mirror’s office pub, the White Hart (known to all as The Stab, for reasons which later became apparent) to talk pay rise and seal the deal over a drink.
“Oi’ll have a point of Guinness,,” said my mentor. “In a tin glass.”
I dutifully trotted up to the bar and ordered a pint of Guinness adding, as the barman reached for the pump: “And he wants it in a tin glass.”
“What’s he mean by that?” asked the barman. I scanned the bar in vain for signs of a pewter tankard.
“Maybe he has a special pot?” I suggested.
“No one has a special pot,” said the barman. “Specially not Irish Ted,” he said, raising his voice and pointing at my boss-to-be. “He was barred a week ago.”
Pleading for the barman’s silence with my eyes, I turned and asked Ted if he really wanted a tin glass.
“YES OI FUCKIN’ DO!” he yelled, fists clenched as he rose to his feet in the Fighting Irish pose. “A TIN GLASS! A TIN GLASS!” he chanted, the veins in his neck standing out like a hangman’ noose.
“All right, Paddy, calm down,” said the peace-keeping force behind the bar who stood between me and a career. “A thin glass, you Irish git!” he said, reaching for a handle-less pint pot. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”
I came within a cockstride of tears and a train back to Manchester, jobless, that night.
But misunderstandings can cause tension between the greatest friends for reasons as mundane as a misheard word.
Our best friends from New York, Gilda and Murray, were staying with us in London and, ever the benevolent host, I took them to dinner. That’s never easy: their religion gives them slight dietary concerns and Gilda, in particular, likes to quiz the maitre d’ on content.
Her meander through the menu was taking longer than usual. And I was hungry.
“CHOOSE!” I commanded at length. “BLOODY CHOOSE!”
Suddenly, Murray’s restraining hand was on my arm.
“Cool it, Dave,” he commanded, his eyes glittering. “What’s with the ‘bloody Jews’ remark?
“I never figured you as anti-Semitic. . .”