Writers often make mistakes, and it is the joy of the sharp-eyed reader to pick them up. In a recent reading of The Offing, by Benjamin Myers, there were many aspects of the characters and their relationship that were pretty unbelievable, but one really stood out for me.
A sixteen-year old boy, Robert, is walking through the coastal parts of Northern England. Having grown up in a mining village he has only seen the sea once in his life, when his father took him there on a very long bus journey.
My father had taken me there on a rare day off; fifteen miles and two long hours by a bus whose upper deck swirled thick with the blue smoke of Players and Capstans. We had pulled crabs from the drab water of the harbour using thick string lines weighted down with six-inch nails and baited with fatty knuckles of ham.
If that was the full extent of his acquaintance with the sea wouldn’t you find this account of his first bathe rather improbable?
…I pushed off and let the North Sea take my weight, my feet kicking a dark void as I swam out, each rising wave rising through me, lifting me up, the force of the moon exerting itself as the land disappeared from view between each undulation, everything on it obscured.
There is no way a young boy who has never been in the sea in his life could swim like this, or be so confident in the sea (without getting drowned). But Myers does not have these errors all on his own. In a very amusing article, Jake Kerridge cites many instances of writerly mistakes , one in Dickens which I was not sharp enough to pick up at the time of reading.
…in the opening chapters of Great Expectations …the escaped convict Magwitch frightens the young Pip into stealing a file so that he can cut off his leg-iron. But how exactly had Magwitch swum to freedom from a prison ship with a massive weight on his leg?
That has been accounted for by Professor John Sutherland who has suggested that swimming was such an unusual practice in Victorian times that ‘Dickens’ readers shared his vagueness about what human limits are in water.’
That is not the case today, hence my scepticism about the swimming son of a coal miner.
There are many other amusing examples of the failure of copy editors; one famous one about Piggy’s glasses in Lord of the Flies
…Piggy’s glasses are used to concentrate the sun’s rays and start a fire; Piggy being short-sighted, his glasses would have been concave, so it wouldn’t have worked.
But Dickens and Golding and Myers aren’t the only ones. Other names crop up; Shakespeare, Robert Browning, Sebastian Faulks (his was particularly egregious; blue peonies).
Even Gert Loveday may have made a few errors at times; we are quite happy for readers to point them out.
Jake Kerridge’s article can be found in the The Sunday Telegraph