Literary Howlers Make Me Howl

Writers are only human and mistakes are all too easily made but it is less forgivable when mistakes – 'misprints' as they are often referred to – appear between hard covers by a respectable publisher

WITH THE FINAL judging of the Spear's Book Awards coming up soon, I've been doing a lot of reading here in the country. I'm one of the judges for the Novel category, with a shortlist that comprises Absolution by Patrick Flanery, Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger’s Child, Capital by John Lanchester and At Last by Edward St Aubyn.

In addition I've got a large pile of other random books heaped up by my bed that I dip into in the middle of the night – usually from around 4am to dawn – which is my preferred reading time.

One I've been enjoying very much is Harry Mount's A Lust for Window Sills: A Lover's Guide to British Buildings from Portcullis to Pebble Dash. Harry is a man very much after my own aesthetic heart. When I am lying in bed reading in the near darkness as dawn creeps through my curtains, I can all too easily identify with another Harry – Harry Flashman, the 19th century bounder and soldier who reflects at the end of his colourful life, with his best years behind him, that the only true achievement in his life he is proud of is that he has replaced a pair of Georgian windows in his house to their original casements.

I am not sure whether this medically qualifies me as an official insomniac, but I have recently read that having irregular sleep habits puts you in the 'high risk' heart attack category. Well, so be it – I'm not going to give up reading through the night for health reasons.

It's my 46th birthday today as I write, with my father telling me that I was born while he was enjoying a 'good English steak' in an old City 'tavern' across from St Barts hospital in the City of London on the 300th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, which started on 1 September 1666. If I do have a heart attack induced from reading too much through the night, I'll view it as a good a way as any to go.
 
 
WHAT HAS BEEN raising my literary blood pressure, however, during the night are the number of howlers that I have come across just in the last week or so. I don't know whether it is because publishing houses can't afford proper proof readers any more, or whether they don't use sub-editors, but what is more worrying is that the sort of mistakes I keep coming across are not typos but evidence of ignorance that could only have come from the author and which one is left truly puzzled as to how they ever passed unnoticed by their editor, the sub-editor and the proof readers.

The first was a week ago and the culprit was William Fiennes (pictured left), author of The Music Room, his moving and haunting memoir of being brought up in one of England's best known castles. The book was shortlisted for a Spear's Book Award in 2009 and Fiennes is a previous winner of the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and of the Hawthornden Prize, and somebody who was brought up surrounded by Old Masters and the 17th century decorative arts at Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire.

On page 187, he writes about flicking through an old house sale catalogue from 4 July 1837, when the contents of the castle were flogged off at auction. The auctioneers were called Enoch & Redfern and he then rattles off various treasures that the house used to contain, ranging from Nankin china sets to pieces of the Beauvais Tapestry to portraits attributed to 'Velazquez, Van Dyke and Spagnoletti’.

Did somebody say Van Dyke? As in Dick Van Dyke, the actor best known for Mary Poppins or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? I think Fiennes means Anthony van Dyck, the Dutch court painter to Charles I, whose haunting self-portrait painted shortly before he died in December 1641 won the Spear's 'Masterpiece at Masterpiece' prize at our Spear's Masterpiece breakfast back in June.

The portrait is definitely a work by van Dyck, which is how the dealer Philip Mould (who owns the painting) calls the artist, as well as the National Gallery, the Royal Academy, and the Rijksmuseum – the National Gallery of Holland in Amsterdam. Fiennes’ is a wonderful book but a mistake like that feels like walking into one of the castle's grand bedrooms during a tour and finding the sheets crumpled up and the bed unmade.
 
 
WRITERS ARE ONLY human and mistakes are all too easily made but while it is forgivable to an extent in a newspaper when sub-editors are on pressing deadlines and they have to proof thousands of words per hour it is less so when mistakes – 'misprints' as they are often referred to – appear between hard covers by a respectable publisher.

Evelyn Waugh was sufficiently embarrassed when the word 'Burgundy' was misspelled in the first edition of Brideshead that he flagellated himself and his publisher by drawing attention to his error in his Preface to the revised 1959 edition, which is now the Penguin Classic paperback text.

PD James has a reputation for writing with scrupulous forensic accuracy in her crime novels. So on page 13 of The Private Patient, bizarrely about a murder that takes place in a Tudor manor that used to be owned by the Cressett family (exactly like Upton Cressett, where I live), I was surprised to see that the large central mahogany table in the waiting room of the smart Harley Street plastic surgeon Mr GH Chandler-Powell is littered with copies of Country Life and Horse and Hounds.

My girlfriend is an avid reader of Horse & Hound, the correct title, which may not decorate the library tables of the House of Lords – where PD James sits when not at her writing desk – but Horse & Hound is one of the best known magazines in England with a weekly circulation of 245,000.

Horse & Hound is also the world's oldest equestrian magazine. Surely somebody at Faber and Faber must have been familiar with the magazine, or at least her own publisher, Stephen Page, to whom she dedicates the book after 46 unbroken years as a Faber author.

But the time I felt my heart palpitate dangerously with literary shock was when I recently received a book through the post called Top 100 Attractions: Wales. The editor was doing a sequel called England: Top 100 Attractions and wanted to know if we wanted to be considered for the book. I asked to be sent the Wales edition. When it arrived, I opened it up and the first word I read was 'Forward'. Not the Foreword. That was enough. I wish the book every success but a major spelling mistake in the first word of any book does not inspire the reader with confidence.

Anyhow, since it's my birthday and I'm just about to uncork the first of several bottles of Bandol rose, which I intend to share with my girlfriend on the Gatehouse lawn here on one of the sunniest day of the year, I hereby give absolution to the above literary sins. I only hope that the shortlisted Spear's novelists have better editors.

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