Sloppiness can ruin the pleasure of a book. I was totally absorbed in Ian McEwan’s “Chesil Beach” when I hit this piece:
“She sat dead still and listened patiently with closed eyes and too much concentration, to Chuck Berry. He thought she might dislike Roll Over Beethoven, but she found it hilarious. He played her ‘clumsy but honourable’ cover versions of Chuck Berry songs by the Beatles and Rolling Stones.”
(Ian McEwan, Chesil Beach, page 127)
“Chesil Beach” takes place in July 1962, and tells the tale of the wedding night of a pair of virgins in a Dorset hotel. The incident he’s describing refers back to the previous summer, so must have been July or August 1961.
Has everyone spotted the problem? The Beatles first single was released in October 1962, the first album with a Chuck Berry cover was “With the Beatles” in November 1963. The Rolling Stones played their first gig in June 1962, Wyman and Watts didn’t join until January 1963, and their first album was April 1964. This information took me approximately five minutes to trace and check on the internet. I knew he was two or three years adrift as soon as I read it. Is that because I have a train-spotter’s knowledge of rock? No, I checked the offending passage with five or six contemporaries by reading it aloud and they all spotted the error at once.
Ian McEwan is a year younger than me. For our generation, thinking that The Beatles and Rolling Stones had records available in July 1961 is akin to thinking that World War II started in 1937. It’s astonishing that McEwan is that ignorant of popular culture, even more astonishing that he couldn’t be bothered to check it out.
Once you’ve read something that daft, the fictional world falls to pieces. I never quite got back into the story with the same attention.
I posted this comment on his website, and I notice the offending passage was removed from subsequent editions and now remains the best way of telling whether your copy is a genuine first edition.
I recall an Angela Carter novel where right at the start someone arrived in a brand-new SAAB Estate in that part of the 1980s when SAAB were ten years away in either direction from producing an estate car. I will admit that one’s petty and trainspotterish, and my excuse is that I had a SAAB at the time and knew their range, but the automatic belief in the author’s world was shaken by the error.
Coming up to date, David Nicholls’ One Day is full of astute observations. I love his note that there’s always an Englishman in a kilt at a wedding. That’s true … and he means Englishman, not Scot. And the most boring conversations are with driving bores who have memorised every road number in Britain (just as you come off the M4 onto the A34, you’ll se a little pub on the roundabout where the B3087 meets the A359 and …). I didn’t check those road numbers. This is a blog. If I’d put them in a novel I would. But David Nicholls has his characters in Chichester, about to “carry on down the M3 to Cornwall.” No. They’ll join the M27 for a few miles, then no more motorways. They won’t go on the M3 at all. It doesn’t go on to Cornwall. I’m not a memoriser of road numbers, but I go past Chichester often in my travels, heading west. It’s a very minor irritation, but irritation it is.
A similar one happens in Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem. Maybe this error is that legendary wrong thread in a Persian carpet. Perfection is reserved for God. The writer, Jez Butterworth, explains in the programme notes that he moved to Wiltshire in 1994. Why then does he have them talk about the A14 road at Upavon? Roads with “1” numbers are all east of the M1, and in the north and Scotland. Roads in the south-west universally have “3” and “4” numbers. I drive that way from Salisbury to Marlborough frequently. Fortunately I don’t retain road numbers, but I know it’ll begin with “3”. (I Googled … A345 or A342).
The geographical bug goes into Will Davenport’s A Perfect Sinner. Davenport is actually James Long, author of Ferney. He’s one of my favourite authors, and his books are meticulously researched. We went to see Penselwood, the location of Ferney and it’s all as described. Similarly the history in A Perfect Sinner all checks out. The book was fascinating enough to make me Google some of the location and history stuff afterwards. Fascinating? I read the lot in just three reading sessions. I couldn’t put it down. This is a characteristic of James Long (aka Will Davenport) books. I read this as an eBook, not being able to find a copy. There are several eBooks oddities in the text. The village of Slapton is sometimes Slap Ton, and a couple of other words have odd gaps like that. I guess it may be line breaks being ‘hard set’ in one view (e.g. landscape) and then retaining the break in portrait view. Crêcy , scene of the battle, is sometimes crêcy. But eBooks didn’t do this one. In language teaching we make a distinction between an error (someone doesn’t know) and a slip (person does know, slips, realizes themself.) I regard the McEwan as an error, but this one as a slip!
They’re in Slapton, in Devon, near Dartmouth, talking about Purbeck marble (p83 of eBook in portrait view on an iPad):
‘Have you ever been to Purbeck?’
‘On the Dorset Coast? Maybe, oh, I don’t know, sixty miles east of here. The Isle of Purbeck? It’s not really an island. They just call it that. It’s this side of Weymouth.’
On the map, A is Wareham, at the edge of the Isle of Purbeck. B is Slapton in Devon.
Uh, huh. Well, by road, it’s well over 100 miles. It might be 60 miles as the seagull flies though. But looking from Slapton it’s not THIS side of Weymouth, it’s THE FAR side of Weymouth. It’s misplaced by about forty miles. That one’s easily done if James Long were writing the text somewhere east of Weymouth, like Poole, where I live, from where you can look over the harbour directly at the Isle of Purbeck, as I do on a daily basis. I’ve just realised that Weymouth is right next to Chesil Beach, connecting to the McEwan novel I started with.
That’s the essence of nitpicking on books. The reader in Sydney or San Francisco won’t know or care, but anyone on the south coast of England should pick it up. Anyway, I’d guess that’s another wrong thread in the otherwise perfect Persian carpet.
On the other hand … thirty years ago, the Teacher’s Book to Streamline English Connections one of my best-selling textbooks had the line: Have students read silently aloud. Fifteen years after it was published, a teacher said ‘That wrong instruction always gives me a laugh.’ I flushed, ‘What wrong instruction?’ She pointed it out. No one else ever had. There were forty teachers who were using the Teacher’s Book in the room, and not one had ever noticed it. I phoned the publisher and said, ‘We need to change this on the next impression …’ I was told very politely to ‘Get real.’ Changing stuff costs money.