Notebooks out, bookworms

Alan Warner: just about forgiven for getting a Fall reference slightly wrong

It may be my training as a sub-editor or my tragic immersion in pop trivia but there's nothing that upsets my enjoyment of a novel as much as when the author gets his music wrong. The illusion of authority is destroyed and I have to mentally mark the book down a point (or two) and face up to the fact that I am a nitpicking nitwit and, in all likelihood, a trainspotter. I guess the people who look out for continuity errors in movies are a similar breed.

I'm not talking about novelists who use rock music as a backdrop for their story as this is almost guaranteed to throw up any number of clichés. I can't think of a single novel set in the rock world that I rate and that includes DeLillo's Great Jones Street, often held up as proof that such a book exists. Rather, it's the casual namedropping of bands that proves a minefield for writers, and if it disturbs me more than it should it's also because I can't help wondering how many other factual errors creep in regarding subjects I know little about. Attention to detail is crucial in establishing the writer's authority - blow this and the old suspension of disbelief collapses.

One of the first examples of a musical mistake I can remember encountering was in Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers. My heart sank a little as I came across a reference to a 'violent and tuneless' Velvet Underground LP called 'Heroin'. I tried to convince myself that Amis may have picked up a dodgy compilation with this title in some foreign land. But really, I think he just used the band as a cultural reference with a lack of care he wouldn't show towards the works of his beloved Bellow or Nabokov.

More recently, I was about to start telling everyone I knew that Ghostwritten by David Mitchell was a modern masterpiece when, near the end, he makes a reference to Procol Harum's 'A Lighter Shade of Pale' (it's 'Whiter' if by some chance you have no idea what I'm talking about). There are two other smaller errors in this book which I'm dying to mention but I don't want to make myself seem even sadder than you already think I am.

A similar thing happens in Alan Warner's The Sopranos, a brilliant novel about Scottish schoolgirls running amok on a trip to the big city. One chapter is titled 'Leave the Capital Exit This Roman Show', a reference to a line from The Fall's song 'Leave the Capitol' (sic). Trouble is, the line is 'Exit this Roman shell' and it's not really difficult to make out what Mark E. Smith is singing. Also, in his debut novel Morvern Callar Warner refers to Can as 'The Can'. Now maybe this is something that old-time fans do, in the same way that some older football fans like to say 'The Arsenal', so I'm classing this under idiosyncrasy as opposed to ignorance. Which is very noble and forgiving of me I'm sure you'll agree.

However, Nick Hornby isn't getting away with the naming of one of his characters in About a Boy, a novel suffused with pop references from the title onwards. Eleanor Toyah Gray, we are told, is fifteen years and seven months old at the time of Kurt Cobain's suicide, which means she was born around September 1978. We are told that Ellie's middle name was given to her in homage to Toyah Wilcox, but Toyah was unknown in 1978. She didn't have her first hit till 1981 and it doesn't seem to have occurred to Hornby, or anyone else who read the book prior to publication, to do the maths.

Nor is Tim Lott escaping censure for chronological pop confusion in his White City Blue. We are told that the 'friends' in the story had a perfect day on 14 August 1984. At one point during this day someone puts on a record: 'There is a Light That Never Goes Out'. Which, as any fool knows, didn't come out till 1986. This happened half way through the book and I soldiered on but my heart wasn't in it anymore.

You can be sure I have noted many more examples but I'm off to Clapham Junction with my anorak and flask of weak lemon drink.

© Graham Coleman 2002