Frank McNally on royal typos, Tennyson’s Tories, and the mystery of ‘Operation Sonnet’

The gold standard in newspaper typos

There but for the grace of God thought many journalists yesterday, reading a rather unfortunate typo in the London Times’s obituary of Bruce Arnold. Near the end of a page-long epic, the paper had noted that Arnold was “a proud Briton who never took Irish citizenship”, and that he was “appointed OBE in 2003″.

During the investiture for the latter award, “with typical boldness,” he had asked the monarch: “When are you coming to Ireland ma’am?”. To which, as the piece explained: “She gave just a hint of an enigmatic smile as if to say ‘in my own sweet time’.”

And with that, the Times added the last, crowning line of Arnold’s obituary: “He was overjoyed when she finally died in 2011.”

It will be a misprint for the ages now. But it could have been even worse, perhaps.


The gold standard in newspaper typos concerning the British royal family is one endlessly quoted, with many variations, although in the invariable absence of a firm citation I have come to doubt whether it ever actually appeared in print.

In all versions, it involved Queen Victoria and a bridge. The London Times is also widely implicated as its author. But the location of the bridge has varied between Anglesey Island (in Wales), Bristol, Cork, and Dublin. And other newspapers have been credited too.

The website of the Little Museum of Dublin, for example, suggests the bridge was at Dublin’s Leeson Street, and that the newspaper in question was the Freeman’s Journal.

In any case, all versions agree that what the paper meant to write was: “the royal party passed over the bridge”. Then somehow, a slender vowel replaced a broad one, accidentally or with seditious help (from a Fenian typesetter?) and transformed the verb.

And yes, it’s the sort of thing that could have happened. Even so, the usual construction is that a newspaper “is said to have” reported the line. In continuing absence of proof, the “royal wee” typo must be considered just a cautionary legend.

While crucially different, the two verbs confused by the London Times obit have sometimes been combined to deliberate poetic effect, as in a famous poem currently attracting renewed interest among political op-ed writers in Britain.

“Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to do and die”, wrote Lord Tennyson in The Charge of the Light Brigade, now one of the more popular metaphors for Rishi Sunak’s decision to call an early election.

Hence the latest Spectator magazine, which in an editorial headlined “The Valley of Death”, tells us that “gallows humour” is rife among Tories, “with more seasoned campaigners quoting Tennyson (‘Into the valley of death rode the six hundred’).”

The UK’s governing party has nothing like 600 MPs. But in the most pessimistic scenario, it is predicted to suffer proportionately worse losses even than the cavalry at Balaclava.

This year marks the 170th anniversary of the charge, which will fall on a Friday in October. Perhaps only fear of ending up with a poll on that date can explain Sunak’s decision not to hang on for an autumn election.

It may be a mistake ever to look for logic in the names of policing operations. But speaking of poetry, I’m intrigued that the gardaí chose “Operation Sonnet” as codename for those immigration checks near Dundalk and elsewhere.

It can hardly be because the recent upsurge of migrants seeking asylum in Dublin is considered poetic justice by some, namely hardline unionists, Brexiteer Tories, and at least two columnists of the Spectator, all delighted that the Ireland’s no-hard-border strategy has come back to bite it.

No. My hunch is that someone in Garda HQ is a fan of Patrick Kavanagh, the Border poet, and considers one or more of his many sonnets relevant to the situation.

Not Shancoduff, I imagine: the one about his black hills that “have never seen the sun rising”, because “eternally they look north towards Armagh”. North is definitely not the direction asylum seekers and economic migrants look these days. The south is where the sun is, in every respect.

Could it be “Inniskeen Road, July Evening”? Probably not. As they focus on checking passports along the Newry-Dundalk corridor, the gardaí would hardly want to advertise the other 207 border crossings available, half of them into Kavanagh’s Monaghan.

Maybe they were thinking of Epic, which is after all about a territorial dispute: “. . . Here is the march along these iron stones”?

Or perhaps they had in mind his canal bank poems, both sonnets and both set around the corner from where the International Protection Office is now located?

Those same Grand Canal banks are these days heavily barricaded against the tented encampments that sprang up there after Mount Street itself was blocked off.

But Kavanagh may be still an inspiration to those determined to dig in. He came south himself once and applied for asylum in Dublin, with mixed results. And he remains entrenched where the tents have gone (for now), having claimed commemorative seats on not one but two sides of the waterway.