No one likes to be caught out in a silly or ignorant mistake or an ungracious or clumsy action. My granny, my mother often told me, would readily clatter any of her large brood who knocked over a cup or glass at the table (a practice my mother continued). When, however, she knocked over the milk jug herself, she would snap accusingly “Who put that there?” All of us of course know we are not perfect, but feel it is best if we can keep that knowledge as much to ourselves as possible.
This, however, was not the policy of the distinguished American pianist and writer on music Charles Rosen, who died in 2012. Rosen wore his sackcloth and ashes in public, apologising for errors he had made in previous editions of his books but not removing them, feeling perhaps that to excise the evidence of his fallibility was to be a little sneaky. In his 2001 collection Critical Entertainments, Rosen opened Chapter 7 with this note: “At the opening of the following essay, the mistake of calling Joseph II [of Austria] the emperor Franz Joseph is so egregious that I have let it stand in the text in the hope that the public humiliation will make me more careful in the future.”
Newspaper corrections can range from the puzzling and the mealy-mouthed to the expansively baroque, their spirit informed by whether the publication is primarily concerned with preserving its reputation for accuracy (and thus does not want to be seen as foolish) or whether it prides itself on a more collegial we’re-all-in-this-together relationship with its readers, as The Guardian certainly did when Ian Mayes was its readers’ editor. A correction which fails to cite the mistake that has occasioned it is scarcely a correction at all. “We are happy to clarify that the company of which Mr Jeffrey Dennehy has been a director since 2007 is ‘Beautiful Brides’.” Well indeed, but what did you say it was? Here’s how to do it properly: “Instead of being arrested, as we stated, for kicking his wife down a flight of stairs and hurling a lighted kerosene lamp after her, the Revd. James P. Wellman died unmarried four years ago [gleaned from a nineteenth century American newspaper, alas unnamed, by the painter Edward Burne-Jones].”
Ian Mayes in The Guardian acted as a defender of the interests of the reader and thus was not too worried about the sensitivities of reporters or sub-editors, who, he no doubt felt, could and should do better. “A drone,” he might write, “is not a person who performs routine or meaningless work but a person who lives off the labours of others. The word the writer was looking for is ‘drudge’. I have corrected this mistake several times this year.” Or: “We spelt Morecambe, a town in Lancashire, wrong again yesterday. We often do.” I can’t help thinking that the reason this kind of thing can be done in the UK but apparently not here is that the English have more of a sense of humour.
Not so much a correction as an apology is the following notice from The Spectator: “Jeffrey Bernard’s column does not appear this week as it bears a remarkable similarity to the one we printed last week.” When did that ever stop them?