Like the hapless Oxford schoolteacher, this is a subject that could run and run. Perhaps we could start with customs and immigration officers, a breed yclept men since at least the time when Arthur Rimbaud wrote Les Douaniers (1871). My first contretemps with such people came when I was returning from a summer in Greece in 1964. My luggage was searched, and they found Les Amours, a volume of sonnets by Ronsard*. The duty officers gathered round and put on a display of officiousness and bullying, and made a great display of checking the title against their Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which they refused to let me see. It was clear than none of them had the slightest idea what they were dealing with. I put on a show of fear and bluster, so as to keep their suspicions aroused. This gave my companions the freedom to walk through unimpeded, bearing armfuls of fancy Swiss watches and cases stuffed with booze and fags.
The story is well known of how Groucho Marx, having taken his then wife to Paris shopping, put down his occupation on the U.S. Immigration form as “smuggler”. He thought this was tremendously funny and well worth being locked up for three days. His wife did not. Fifty years earlier, Liane de Pougy, one of les grandes horizontales, put down her occupation as “putain”, that is, “whore”. There is more to this story, for putain was and is a taboo word that must not be printed or spoken. Hence, on my first visit to Paris, the Beaumont and Fletcher farce “Tis pity she's a whore” was being advertised as “C'est dommage qu'elle soit P---”. Anyway, she was not refused admission, probably because U.S. Immigration officials were notoriously drawn from semi-literate Irish immigrants.
To be fair, though, U.S. Immigration officials had to deal with shiploads at a time, all jabbering in foreign languages and all desperate to start the new life that they had dreamt of. Hence Aaron Copland's Hungarian-Jewish father had his surname Kaplan interpreted as C-O-P “Kap” plus LAND, describing his native country infested with secret police. Later Mihael Kertesz, of similar ancestry, had his name interpreted as the Anglo-French “Curtis”. He was at least given the opportunity to state that it had a Z on the end, and Michael Curtiz the film director gained admission.
Being presented with an official-looking form brings out the inner Groucho in all sorts of people. When I worked in a City insurance office in 1962, I kept coming across forms in which under “sex” the proposer had entered “three times a week”. Given that an insurance proposal, once accepted, creates a contract uberrimae fidei, one might have expected more discretion.
Oxford is a wonderful place for comical misunderstandings. At one time one used to see driving school cars belonging to the Impact School of Motoring. One also remembers Professor Yoshimoto, a Japanese gentleman of the kindest and sunniest disposition, getting into trouble for pushing passengers on to the train at Oxford Railway Station. One young man, a friend of a friend, did well enough in his final examinations to secure a place in Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service. His first posting was to communist Romania, where he was asked to make a speech at some not very important reception. His immediate superior was on hand in case he got into difficulties. To please his hosts, he began his speech in Romanian, before reverting to English.
“How did I do, Sir?” he asked.
“You did very well, young man.”
“But I got the impression that some of the audience were nudging each other and giggling.”
“That is because you started 'Pedestals and Urinals'.”
Peter Ustinov, one of the greatest raconteurs of all time, tells the story of how he was the prosecuting officer at a court martial in Scapa Flow.
“Seaman Baines, you are here charged with conduct prejudicial to naval discipline, namely that you had sexual intercourse with a ewe being the property of Hamish McTavish of Upper Farm. Do you have anything to say in your defence?”
*Pierre de Ronsard 1524-1585, France's greatest poet of the period.
“Thought it was a Wren, Sir.”
Presiding officer: “When did you ever see a Wren in a white woolly coat going about on all fours on a bare hillside?”
“You see some funny things in Orkney, Sir.”
Explorers are bound to risk misunderstandings. For instance, Christopher Columbus thought he was going to Asia. Or so we are told. In fact, that is what he told their majesties Ferdinand and Isabella in order to get sponsorship money. But their majesties were not taken in either. Their competitors the Portuguese had already established footholds in Brazil and Puerto Rico. The misunderstandings belong to subsequent historians. A more recent story that belongs here is illustrated by the annual Anchorage to Nome dogsleigh race. Nome is a small town on the Bering Strait. It got its name from Captain Cook's third expedition, where he pencilled in “Name?” against a promontory on the Alaskan coast. This was misread as “Nome”.
The Bible is, as we all know, full of misunderstandings; and misinterpretations of what is actually written there are sufficient to fill several books. I will mention just one, because it leads to some interesting ideas. The idea that Mary the mother of Jesus was a virgin has been developed and elaborated for as long as the Christian religion has existed. Yet the original Greek word korē means simply “young woman”. HRF Keating's joke in the Inspector Ghote of Bombay series comes to mind:
“Ghote, reports have come in that a virgin has had a baby in the Christian quarter. As you know, every time a virgin has a baby there are intercommunal riots. I want you to get down there ek dum and find out who the father is.”
On a visit to Germany I was taken to the church at Sankt-Maria-Laach, which is a glorious baroque building only excelled by Vierzehnheiligen. There is nothing like it in Britain, and you have to make an imaginative leap across artistic disciplines and think of CPE Bach or Mozart to gain a comparable idea of the design and the subtle use of colour. In pride of place is a wooden carving of the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven. When I saw it I gasped, because I recognised it as the Queen of the Witches. My companion, an Anglican, said “Didn't you know?”
Some European languages have two words for “virgin”, one ritual and formal, the other everyday. So English has virgin and maiden, French has vierge and pucelle (Joan of Arc was la pucelle d'Orléans) and Welsh has morwyn and gwyryf. So Welsh has them the wrong way round. “The Virgin Mary” is Mair Morwyn, while the everyday word gwyryf derives from the Latin virginem. I mention this because something of anthropological interest might be revealed.
What I am leading up to, though, is an idea that I picked up during a chance reading of Taliesin. The Welsh phrase armes Fferyll means “the prophecy of Virgil”. What was that? The answer is that Virgil prophesied that a young woman would have a baby who would bring peace and glory to all mankind. Of course we can see that Virgil, as poet-in-residence at the court of the Emperor Augustus, was simply laying on the flattery with a trowel. But later Christians interpreted this as a prophecy of the coming of Christ. Or did they? There was a period while Christianity was being established during which libraries (and librarians) were burnt, people's homes were ransacked to make sure they were not reading, and a whole civilisation was ruthlessly destroyed. People who valued their literature had to resort to various expedients. The monks of Nag Hammadi in Egypt crammed their precious texts into an amphora, sealed it with beeswax, and buried it deep in the ground. I think the armes Fferyll story is a deliberate misinterpretation intended to transform the Aeneid into a Holy Book in order to preserve it. If so, then it worked.
Coming back to Oxford, during my time (I matriculated in 1962) there was a student called James Bond. Now the film Doctor No came out in that year. The student in question was a slight inoffensive-looking young man with a wispy moustache. He was chiefly noted for committing what the police call “moving traffic offences”.
“Who do you think you are, Sunshine? James Bond?”
So James Bond would be locked up in the local nick. Eventually the duty sergeant would telephone the night porter at the young man's college.
“I'm really sorry to trouble you, sir, but we have taken a young man into custody who claims to belong to your college and he says his name is James Bond. I don't suppose...”
“Oh no! What's he done this time?”
The brother of a friend used to be a test driver for Jaguar. He was an expert driver, but he liked to drive very fast. One day he was flagged down by the police. The officer swaggered across and said:
“Ho Ho, Sunshine! May I see your pilot's licence?”
So the driver reached into his pocket and handed the officer – his pilot's licence.
In 1752 the British Government decided that they could hold out no longer against the Gregorian calendar that most of Europe had adopted. In order to make the adjustment, eleven days were omitted from the month of September. If you were using the Unix computer operating system and typed in “cal 1752” you would see that September of that year has eleven days missing. At the time mobs roamed the streets shouting “Give us back our eleven days!” This was held to illustrate the inherent bone-headedness of the lower classes, who were so stupid that they thought the government were reducing their life-span. That interpretation was the one given in twentieth century school history books.
However, the lower orders were not the ones who were under a misapprehension. They were still expected to pay their rents on Quarter Day, which in England was Michaelmas or September 25th. But they were given eleven days less to earn the money to pay their rents, and those eleven days fell during harvest-time. The upper classes, though, who paid taxes to the government out of those same rents, had the tax year extended. That is why the end of the tax year is not Lady Day, March 25th, but April 5th. The ruling classes had contrived to make even changing the calendar a device for swindling their social inferiors.
A vast and growing literature exists relating to the attempts during the Second World War to contrive misunderstanding by the enemy of the Allies' strategy and immediate objectives. Much of the earlier literature is self-congratulatory: “How I deceived Hitler”. What I would maintain, however, is that we deceived ourselves. The actual situation was that the German upper classes wanted to be rid of both Hitler and Stalin. For that to happen, Germany had to win in the East and lose in the West. The Abwehr, or Military Intelligence, worked to achieve precisely that double objective. This would have left the upper classes in charge of an extended German Empire. Stalin knew this, and it explains a lot of his decisions. Dudley Clarke, in charge of strategic deception in Cairo and subsequently for Overlord, explained how this worked to his second-in-command in Cairo, David Mure. The point was not to deceive the enemy, but to give the Abwehr plausible stories that they could present to Hitler and allow him to deceive himself. Operation Mincemeat, where the corpse of a tramp was made up to impersonate a military courier, was just such an operation. Mussolini, who was rather brighter than Hitler, called it “a typical English trick.”
The first book of self-congratulation was “The Double Cross System” by Sir John Masterman. He had run the “Twenty Committee” (that is, XX, hence Double Cross) from Magdalen College Oxford. David Mure worked under him as case officer for the five most important double agents. According to Mure, once Himmler had contrived to secure the dismissal of Admiral Canaris and his more active deputy Colonel von Oster, there was no more merit in strategic deception. But by then Overlord had succeeded in the West and Bagration was winding up the German conquests from the opposite direction.
There was more to the story that the Allies did not understand. Dudley Clarke had arranged for twenty “notional” divisions to be stationed in Kent preparatory to an assault on the Pas de Calais. Patton was put in charge of them; the King made a visit; radio and vehicular traffic was simulated; plywood tanks were moved about; journalists were arrested; and double agents reported back to Canaris. Yet Bletchley Park decrypts revealed that Hitler was being told that there were thirty divisions in Kent, not twenty. How come? The answer is that the Germans had adopted a similar method of handling incoming intelligence to the British. In Britain intelligence was channelled through the Joint Intelligence Committee, chaired by Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, to Churchill. His German counterpart was a Latvian-German aristocrat called von Rienne, who was himself embroidering plausible stories off his own bat. At his trial he stated that he did it because “Nazism is incompatible with Christianity”.
Another cause of misunderstandings about the War was the plethora of secret organisations, so that it has become very difficult to work out who was doing what and to whom. In particular a new super-secret organisation called “Z” was hived off from MI6 during the late thirties. Run by Claude Dancey, it reported to Churchill when he was an ordinary back-bencher. It was financed by the Prudential Insurance Company, and it recruited its own agents. When Dancey died in 1947 Z was reincorporated into MI6 leaving behind much that remains mysterious. I will give just one example. The British Ambassador to Turkey, one Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugesson, was having the contents of his private safe periodically rifled by his valet, an Albanian called Elyesa Bazna, codenamed Cicero, who sold the contents to the Abwehr. This is still represented as a triumph of German intelligence. Yet a clue was given by AJP Taylor, who mentioned without comment that the valet of one of the British diplomats at Locarno (1925), one Viscount Dunglass (later the Fourteenth Earl of Home, then Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Prime Minister in 1964, then Lord Home of the Hirsel) was called Elyesa Bazna. Another clue is that the dozy ambassador's career does not seem to have suffered.
This series of essays was intended to purge my brain of miscellaneous dross, so as to make room for further learning in the interests of staying alive. However, more stories keep bubbling up, and I am very much afraid that Misunderstandings (3) might be inflicted on my readers in due course.