Travels inspired by the Wombles

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The great thing about the interweb...

Well, there are many great things about the interweb (and one or two not so great things, but let's not mention them).  One of them is the humbling effect of finding people who know more than you about a subject, and always will. Or people who own more Wombles stuff than you, and always will. For a dull winter's morning, there's nothing more guaranteed to cheer you up than to gaze on Tidybag's collection, for instance... especially the talking models.

'Daisy buns, my favourites!'


Thursday, 9 February 2012

The curious case of the time-travelling detective?

Over the coming weeks and months, I'll be working with the publishers to make Journeys from Wimbledon Common as good as it can be - and, in particular, to eliminate typographical errors and other mistakes.  However, there's no guarantee the book will be completely error-free. Even the best writers and publishers don't manage it, and sometimes they have a hard time admitting it...

A thoughtful person recently bought me a copy of Eleven minutes late, Matthew Engel’s history of the railways in Britain.  Engel used to edit the cricketer’s almanac Wisden and has written for the Guardian and the Financial Times over the years. Anyone who enjoys a good, sustained, wittily written rant is likely to like Engel’s writing. However, to illustrate a point about railway development, Engel cites Dr Watson’s train journey in The Hound of the Baskervilles - which, he writes, was ‘presumed to have been set in the early 1870s’.

My initial reaction was to refer to the first Holmes story A Study in Scarlet, which opens with Watson’s statement that he took his medical degree in 1878. As we know he didn’t meet Holmes for a while after that, how can Baskervilles possibly be set in the early 1870s?

Engel states on the same page that Conan Doyle was ‘a notoriously slipshod writer’. Hmm. Writer, heal thyself.

At the end of his book, Engel writes: ‘Readers who wish to correct errors of fact, vent their spleen against the railways or me, pick up on new developments, check the sourcing for my assertions, or join in a discussion about the issues raised by this work are welcome to log on at [my website].’

So I did. Via the website, I emailed him, politely. He replied: ‘Searching for consistency in the Sherlock Holmes stories will drive you mad. Just enjoy them.’ I suspect he meant: ‘P*** off, I wrote that book two years ago and I don’t care.’ 

A check on the early pages of Baskervilles showed, as you probably know, that Dr Mortimer’s stick is engraved with the date 1884. Holmes states this means that Mortimer left Charing Cross Hospital five years ago. So the story is set in 1889 or, at a stretch, 1890. Mortimer did not bring the stick back from the future, nor did Holmes and Watson solve the case by travelling back into the past. There’s no problem of consistency: Engel’s reference is a proofreading error or a research error. 

I invited him to share with me his sources for the claim that the story was ‘presumed’ to be set in the early 1870s: perhaps by people who never read it? He has yet to respond: surprise, surprise.   I'll do my best to ensure that Journeys from Wimbledon Common does not include any such shocking errors. And, if it does and someone points them out, I'll try to remember Engel's bad example - and own up.