Before we start: I only bother to point out slips in books and plays that are so good, I recommend you read any of those noted here. There are error-ridden poor books. They don’t get mentioned.
1 ON CHESIL BEACH by Ian McEwan
Sloppiness can ruin the pleasure of a book. I was totally absorbed in Ian McEwan’s “On 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, On Chesil Beach, page 127)
“On 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.
2 Angela Carter
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.
3 ONE DAY by David Nicholls
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.
4 JERUSALEM by Jez Butterworth
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).
5 MOJO by Jez Butterworth
Jez Butterworth also falls down in the play Mojo (1995. revived 2013). A character in July 1958 did not want to be like Spider Man, but Spider Man was created by Stan Lee in 1962. Nor did anyone say “motherfucker” in 1958. A well-researched mid to late 60s American import.
6 A PERFECT SINNER by Will Davenport
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.
7 INFERNO by Dan Brown
Dan Brown’s Inferno … it’s satisfying to find an error in something making so much money. We’re listening to the audio book (no plot spoilers as we’re only on CD2). Robert Langdon finds a playbill (in British English it would say programme on the cover) for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe, which featured Sienna, the heroine so far, as Puck, when she was five years old. Let’s leave aside the possibility of a five year old, even with an IQ of 208 (yes!) playing Puck, and child labour laws which would make it impossible … but Dan Brown says this playbill was 25 years old in 2013. Shakespeare’s Globe opened its doors to the public in 1997, a mere sixteen years ago. Alright, I know it’s picky to state something is untrue in a work closer to fantasy (IQ of 208) than fiction.
8 THE LAST RUNAWAY by Tracy Chevalier- NOT A SLIP!
There are authors you should just trust. Tracy Chevalier’s novels from The Girl With The Pearl Earring through to Burning Bright are carefully researched historical novels. The latest, The Last Runaway, is set in Ohio in1850, and is about a Quaker girl from Bridport, Dorset who gets involved with the underground railway, helping escaped slaves. There is a special Waterstones edition with an Afterword by the author and she details the historical research on Quakers, Bridport, The Underground Railroad, Quilting, Farming in 1850s Ohio. She paints an intricately detailed picture. I thought I found an error. She mentions the heroine seeing the sailors from foreign ships in Bridport, and she mentions the beach. Ah-ha! I thought, my eagle eye strikes again! Bridport is a good mile from the sea, and the nearest beach is known as West Bay. So I Googled. Full points to Tracy Chevalier, none to me. Though Bridport is inland, the river was navigable until the late 19th century, and in 1856 a 1000 ton ship made it through the already silting river mouth. And the beach at West Bay was historically known as Bridport Beach until the small harbour had to move there as the river silted up. But with Tracy Chevalier, I kind of thought she would be correct. She was.
9 THE BOOKMAN’S TALE by Charlie Lovett
What is it about beaches? We’ve had Chesil, Slapton, Bridport … and now Southampton, Charlie Lovett’s A Bookman’s Tale (Penguin 2013), p183:
“One day began in Bath and ended on the beach at Southampton at sunset.”
Oh, no it didn’t. Southampton is on the River Solent, not the sea, and while it has a pier, ferries, a cruise terminal and extensive docks, I’ve never seen a beach there. Out of curiosity, I Googled “Southampton Beaches” and got many images. They were all posted by Southampton University Oceanography Department and range across the world. None are in or even close to Southampton.
One theme of the book is a book forger leaving a deliberate pointer to the fictive aspect of his work by including a factual error in the forgery. Let’s be charitable and say Southampton beach has that function here!
10 SHAKE by Yvonne Roberts
This is a book set in small town North Wales. It opens with the main narrator’s sister winning “Miss 1967.” the sleazy judge is in pantomime locally, and the book jacket tells us it takes place in January 1967. So “Miss 1967” at the start of the year. The book is full of brilliantly-observed 60s detail, and again and again I was saying, “Yes! That’s what it was like.”
But there are bits. The narrator, Lily, has a pub-singer Dad. He sings standards, like Fly Me To The Moon, his set including Come on Baby Light My Fire. OK, recorded August 1966 by The Doors. The title is just Light My Fire. But the LP was first released in January 1967 in the USA. The single was released in June 1967. The version a pub singer would know, by Jose Feliciano, was 1968. So then I started noticing songs. Songs are really easy to check. The various books of hit singles tell you the date they entered the charts. Or you can use (as I do) the NME Book of Charts, giving week-by-week complete Top 40s.
What I noticed was that the songs seem several years older than the plot. It’s My Party by Lesley Gore (1962) is on the jukebox. They hear Cilla Black’s Love of The Loved and Gerry and The Pacemakers’ How Do You Do It? (both hits in 1963) on the radio. They hear Freddie and The Dreamers interviewed on Saturday Club. But their hits were 1963-1964. Their last chart entry (low down) was 1965. They’d be on Saturday Club in 1967? OK, it’s rural North Wales, but the radio was national then, and the “Golden Oldies” playlists had not arrived. I was beginning to think the book was conceived as earlier and time shifted to 1967.
Then the local club hosts groups like “Brian Auger’s Steampacket” and The Undertakers, both hip choices, but both disbanded in 1965. Other stuff looks researched – Matthew & Son was released in December 1966, though a character having a poster of Jimi Hendrix in March 1967 (first chart entry 29 December 1966) was between unlikely and “right on the cutting edge”.
The uncertainty about dates has a character studying A-level Sociology in the 1966-67 year, and this is second year sixth. At my wife’s school it was introduced in 1968. Maybe in a few places it was earlier, but it would have been quite cutting edge.
11 CAMILLE by Bob Marshall-Andrews
Bob Marshall Andrews. His The Palace of Wisdom was a novel I bought for several friends, as I do when I read a wonderful book. I tried hard to get his latest, Camille, after his long gap from novel writing while a Labour MP. In spite of having heard about it on the radio, not Foyles nor Waterstones, Piccadilly, nor Daunt Books had a copy. I ordered one from amazon. It’s the story of a French actress in 1670, who becomes secretary to Samuel Pepys. All well and good, and I felt his Parliamentary insights added to the intrigues between King and Parliament.
Trouble is, Camille was an actress in Paris. Her mum was an actress in England before the theatres closed in 1642, playing Ophelia to John Blagden’s Hamlet in 1642 in the last production. She also played at the Swan Theatre then. But the Swan finally closed in 1632 and had not been used for plays for several years.
I knew when studying Macbeth when I was aged 14 that pre-1642, women were not allowed to perform on stage and parts were done by young boys. According to the text, Camille has to pretend to be a man to act in France in 1670. In fact, Charles II had the theatres re-opened in 1660, and because women appeared on the French stage, they were then introduced to the English stage.
There were initially just two licensed theatre companies: The King’s Company in Drury Lane from 1663, and The Duke’s Company at Lincoln’s Inn. But Camille passes “theatres” in the plural along Piccadilly and Haymarket. Well, possible. The licensed companies performed spoken work (so potentially seditious / political) but companies doing just music or mime were unlicensed.
There was a Nicholas Blagden in The King’s Company in fact, so he must have researched something. To me, this is “Theatre History 101.” If you just go to a restoration play it’s going to be in the programme notes.
Having finished the book – an excellent swashbuckling story it is too – I was hampered by my irritation throughout. THEN there are notes at the end as POSTSCRIPT state Marshall-Andrews view that “it was inconceivable” that there were no women on stage pre-1642, which is why plays were banned. I’ve often had the same thought. See my review of Dekker and Middleton’s The Roaring Girl.
Moll Cutpurse was a real person aka Mary Frith, who liked to dress up as a man in Jacobean England, and may have been the first female to appear on stage then, at the Fortune Theatre.
QUOTE: In 1605, she leaped upon the stage of London’s Fortune Theatre, dressed, of course, as a man, and puffing heavily on a pipe. She loudly sang bawdy songs while strumming a lute. She regaled the raucous crowd with lascivious stories until watchmen arrived to place her under arrest. The charge was a minor one, that of a female wearing the garb of a man. She was fined and released. UNQUOTE
Marshall-Andrews also notes that the first woman on stage was December 1660, playing Desdemona, and the way he puts it in the book, Camille’s mother was officially playing on stage before 1642. No.
I think those Postscript notes really should be a Prologue, NOT a Postscript. I’d have enjoyed the book more.
And another one …
King Louis XIV of France speaks to Samuel Pepys and offers him a job, saying he’ll improve his use of our lingua franca. French was the lingua franca of the 18th century, by the time of Louis’s death in 1714. But this is 1670. Was it then? Lingua franca is a language used for international communication. Latin was the lingua franca of the Roman and Medieval worlds. English is the lingua franca today. The original lingua franca was Italian for “Frankish language” which is what the Arab world called the language in use in the 16th century across the Mediterranean. It was an Italian-Spanish-French hybrid used for trade, known as Bastard Spanish by the English. I was left with the lingering doubt that the author thought lingua franca meant French. I say this having spoken on “English as A Lingua Franca”, and found in most locations a significant percentage of the audiences thought it originally meant “French as an international language.” Apologies, if I’m wrong.
12 THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins
We did the full-length 11 hour audio book. One of the best audio books I’ve listened to as well. Haven’t read the text, so spelling may be wrong.
A couple of points. The police say they checked Kamal’s house and found DNA in the kitchen, but none upstairs. We hear Megan visiting Kamal and he “comes downstairs” to open the door. But it’s described as “Kamal’s flat.” Yes, he could come downstairs from a flat to open a door. But does a flat have a downstairs and an upstairs? Then Cathy’s home. Cathy is Rachel’s friend and landlady. Rachel has a room upstairs, but then it also mention’s “Cathy’s flat.” Duplex apartments exist but are not common in the UK.