Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Bronco, Izal, Andrex and Jeffrey Archer

I'm reading 'Atonement', which is an altogether excellent book. Sadly its excellence doesn't stop my tendency to be distracted by harmless anachronisms. In the book McEwan mentions a wad of toilet paper being used to soak up some spillage in a pre-war country house nursery, and later he refers to a pervasive smell of diesel from retreating British army lorries near Dunkirk.

Both of which sent this sad schmuck googling, ultimately satisfying himself that absorbent loo paper wasn't invented until 1942, and that most British army lorries at Dunkirk were Bedfords, which had petrol engines until the 1950s. I want to make clear that I don't search for mistakes in a mean spirited way. It's just that when they intrude on my consciousness they interrupt the reality the author has spun.

I can understand the diesel slip, but McEwan should have known that over here there has always been a deep snobbery about loo paper (it could only happen with the British) which meant that the soft stuff wasn't normally found in posh houses until after the mid 1960's. For some reason the hard variety was thought to be superior - as well as being frightfully useful for tracing or making makeshift kazoos with a comb. This prejudice might have had its roots in a bawdy rhyme which apparently circulated in pre-war schoolrooms and playrooms. It went something like, 'Poor little Johnny, the paper's too thin; he pressed too hard and his finger went in'.

Instead, grand people bought Bronco in rolls, or boxes of medicated Izal if they had those wall-mounted ceramic dispensers. (It's odd how the gentry were quick to run with some innovations, like cars and cocktails, but were pathologically resistant to change in others).

In the course of my ridiculous search for enlightenment I was amazed to learn of Mankind's epic quest for Andrex. I knew all about the Romans using sponges on sticks from visits to Housesteads Fort on Hadrian's Wall, but apparently at different times people have also used wood-shavings, grass, leaves, sand, seaweed, snow, corn cobs, sea shells, sticks and stone. Sand? Corn cobs? Sea shells? Time travel suddenly seems less attractive.

As so often the Chinese got there first. In 1393 during the Ming Dynasty, 720,000 sheets of toilet paper, two by three feet in size, were produced for the general use of the Imperial Court. Two feet by three feet? That's serious loo paper.

Returning to mistakes in books, I was once given a newly published Jeffrey Archer by my in-laws. I can't remember which one it was, because it quickly went to a jumble sale. In spite of being irritated by his style, I tried, I really did. But I couldn't take the chain of sloppy errors. It was obvious he'd churned the stuff out without even having the good manners to check it. For example, early on in the plot someone entered a room, locked the door and sat down. Shortly after a visitor knocked, the sitter called 'Come', and in they came. I mean, really. That's just disrespectful, and as an author you can't expect to retain any credibility.

Not that I'm a fan of the man himself. I went to two Trafalgar Night dinners in the Painted Hall at Greenwich in successive years, when it was still in the hands of the Royal Navy. At the first the speaker was Sir John Harvey-Jones, who talked modestly and entertainingly about the senior service (he had joined the navy as a midshipmen in 1942, when he was 16). At the second the speaker was Jeffrey Archer, who spoke at length in a high-pitched voice about himself.

Ah well. I suppose OCD makes my books last longer. Does anyone else find themselves distracted by mistakes in books? Discuss, giving examples where appropriate.


  1. Sadly I don't read many books, I find them far too soporific. I am however dipping into "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson, during my lunch breaks. I completely and utterly trust everything this man says and believe him to have done his homework ... !?

  2. Pebbles - Good taste! I hugely enjoy and totally trust Bryson. I read 'Notes From a Small Island' (the British one) first, and found he had tracked me, from tea shops in Thame to joke shops in Inverness. He's at his best where he understands the language (who wouldn't be?). So, UK, Australia, USA. In Continental Europe, not so great. So I recommend, 'The Lost Continent'; 'A Walk in the Woods'; 'From Down Under'; but not 'Neither Here Nor There'. (I hope that helps!!)

  3. Jeffrey Archer segues so nicely into discussions about loo paper doesn't he? I can remember my grandparents having rolls of Izal around the house in the 70's but I suspect it had been downgraded to a working class perk by then. I used it once as a kid and felt I was cutting strips out of my arse with a piece of tin - I'll take the risk of perforation any day!

    As for book... I can't think of any that leap out at me: once the narrative starts I allow myself to be fully immersed into the arthor's world. Weirdly though I do pick up on mistakes on TV dramas - much to the annoyance of my wife: the bustle wasn't invented in this period, carriages didn't have suspensions at this time, the flintlock pistol was still the weapon of choice... blah blah blah. Half the time it's probably me that's wrong... but I speak like an expert.

  4. I loved this post. You might have heard my sharp intake of breath when I saw the name 'Jeffrey Archer'. I thought NO, BroTob doesn't read JA, surely not. Then you must have felt the strong wind when I exhaled again, relieved.

    I can just imagine you scuttling off to check these facts out. I can't recall any GPH (gaping plot holes) in any of my favourite books, but I do notice them in films - too many to mention. Once spotted, the rest of the film is ruined for me.

    ...and I also have the Bryson love. I especially love the one where he went on that walking holiday with his friend Katz - the one with the bear stories in it. Real laugh out loud stuff.

  5. Oh the Painted Hall. I went there once for a dinner (not the same one as I dont recall Jeffrey Archer being there!) and it was such a wonderful place. I had completely forgotten about it.

    My granny insisted upon using tracing paper bogroll - she never switched to soft stuff. I always took a stash of tissues with me just incase I needed to go.

    I never notice mistakes in books (well only typos) - or at least I cannot recall any that I have noticed.

  6. We had a sit down protest at secondary school in 1968 demanding soft loo paper instead of horrible Izal. We got it too!

    I have had quite few books ruined by typos - I cannot help myself, they just leap out at me and if there are too many I can't enjoy the book. Conversely, they (typos) add considerably to my enjoyment of meals out. The daughter who can spell and I derive huge amusement from them, while the daughter who can't spell has no idea what we are laughing at and thinks we are mad.

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  8. Far more information about bog roll than I could have ever wanted to know - thank you.

    Though you didn't cover the issue of which way to hang the roll on the holder. I insist it should hang down in front; the other half always puts it on 'backwards' so the roll hangs down behind. We'll end up splitting up over this, I know we will.

  9. I've come back to chatter on about one irritation I have with books - when the sentence construction is too long and then I have to mentally rearrange everything and read aloud how it *should* have been done.

    Not that I'm precious or anything.

  10. Steve - Your piece of tin analogy brought tears to my eyes. From what I hear of the BBC's historical liberties, I imagine you're right most of the time.

    Fancy - Have faith! I have many faults, but I can spell Jeffrey (it begins with a 'P' and ends with a 'K').

    RB - The Painted Hall is a splendid place to dine, isn't it? On one occasion the person sitting next to me, who had regularly eaten there as a cadet, told me how many breasts there were. I forget the number now, but I do remember it was an odd number, which struck us as funny at the time...the port having been uncorked by the white-gloved stewards some time before.

    Completely - Good for you, being revolting. I got involved in a similar protest about compulsory chapel...only we just got into trouble while you succceeded.

    I agree about mistakes on menus - and anywhere else for that matter. Although I feared typos in published reports. Somehow I was always responsible for KCC undertaking 'Pubic Consultation' and suchlike.

    Rol - Gosh, a kindred spirit! We have exactly the same problem. Front hanging seems far more logical to me. Curiously, the SS front hangs kitchen towel without a qualm.

    French - Mmm; I know that urge. Which is not to say that everything has to be reduced to a minimal 'Fog' index and a reading age of 7.

  11. I know what you mean on published reports. At the end of one committee meeting a member proposed a whip round for a new typewriter for the committee clerk as her L clearly didn't work - she had included pubic minutes on the agenda!

  12. So appreciate your wide-ranging interests!
    The wrong authors are popular, it seems ;-)
    I enjoy following your ruminations and the details your share, Brother!
    Aloha, friend-

  13. Brother Tobias, I am a voracious reader and unfortunately/fortunately am also one to check the details.
    I've been wracking my brain trying to remember the name of the book -- and of course can't -- but you'll have to take my word for it that the author had a character from the 50s in small-town America use, as an affirmative, the word "totally". Totally? Like, really, dude? I had to set it down.

  14. There are not enough profanities in the English language (or many others) to adequately express my contempt for Jeffrey Archer whether as a human being, a politician or a writer. Or for the people who say "But he writes a good yarn" - what there is of it that is good is not original, and what is original is not good. I wish I could remember who said that but sadly it wasn't me... I am very happy that the days of Bronco are past (we had it at school and I used to carry tissues around with me for just such an occasion) but my aunt has gone one further and has that very nasty loo paper that is in fact moist wipes. I have to say I draw the line there...

  15. I quite frequently find myself (often contrary to my better judgement) pointing out factual errors in narrative to anyone who will listen. As a science person this can be quite frustrating especially when it comes to the advertising media, which constantly turns out ‘scientific fact’ seemingly conjured by an infant with an over-active imagination. Pro-Vitamins – a good example from a leading shampoo brand; technically doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a gimmick designed to give an advantage in a relatively competitive industry (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_20040624/ai_n12793077). It is irritating that things like this annoy me and not most others, but then I suppose that is why they work...

  16. Completely - So it's not just me?

    Cloudia - I'm glad you enjoy; alas I only aspire to your level of karma and spirituality...and fall woefully short most of the time!

    Pearl - Unforgiveable! That sort of thing really does annoy, somehow.

    Lucy - Ach yes; Mankind reaches for the Heavens...and comes up with the moist towellette.

    Bob - Welcome back. I couldn't locate the article (assuming it wasn't 'Panic as Hindu God Sweats' or 'Voles in Love'. But I'm guessing it was about how pro-vitamins are useless unless injected or eaten, when they can become vitamins? It's good to rail against these peddlars of quackery.

  17. ...indeed. Blinded by science. It really works though, especially if you need to appear more intelligent than you might actually be...