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.