Sunday, 18 August 2013

Errors and typos

Everyone messes up on occasion and it always heartens me when I notice deficiencies in works of great writers – despite all their learning and editorial backup. Who’d have guessed that the well-travelled Conrad (in the Heart of Darkness) would suggest that Africa is populated by alligators? Or that porcupines are found in Madagascar – as Geraldine McCaughrean suggests in her otherwise wonderful Plundering Paradise?

Those are errors of fact but how easy it is for mistakes to creep in. I was horrified to find two howlers in the first edition of my first book – my pride and joy – Lemurs of the Lost World.

I’d gone to some trouble to describe exactly the markings of my beloved lemurs, right down to their lovely soft white chest and belly fur. I wrote:

female Crowned Lemur with white underparts checking before entering a cave water-hole
“Most often we saw attractive small agile animals with thick grey fur marked subtly with white underparts and brown on the head. These were adult female Crowned Lemurs.”

Problem was that the publisher's editor (who clearly wasn't into wildlife writing) thought that I’d made a silly mistake or typo and changed white underparts to white underpants. Now there’s an image that still makes me smile.

The other embarrassing typo was:

“The door of the concrete bathroom had disintegrated long ago and had been replaced by some flattened oil drums in a wobbly wooden frame. It would not stay shut. Inside was a rustling oil drum which had been filled from the well. Floating on the water was a plastic mug which gave a clue to the local bathing technique: splashing the water all over me felt the height of luxury.”

Oops. Since when do oil drums rustle?

Those mistakes were corrected in the second edition and I also took the opportunity to update the text and especially the appendices which contain a lot of scientific detail. That edition, surprisingly, continues to sell steadily in book form though Amazon, and - a new departure - through my author website.

The 25th anniversary of the main expedition to Madagascar happened and was a stimulus for another update. I wanted to produce an electronic edition. I’d been contemplating the concept for some years but my problem was that I wrote the book on an old Amstrad – the kind with three-and-a-quarter inch discs. Yes 3¼, not 3½. I found a techie who said he could convert anything and everything – until he saw my discs. So we settled on scanning the book and converting it into a Word document.

I wasn’t too surprised when the system was discombobulated by odd Malagasy words like tsingy – that came out mostly as ts&gy, but accents also confused it. I was surprised too at how the odd mis-transliterated word can make something so unintelligible. Then there was a problem with the somewhat curly font reading Bs for Hs so 'had' became 'bad'. The most interesting error was a sentence that read:

Primates, the order of mammals which includes lemurs, bushbabies and lorises, apes, monkeys and Brian, are subdivided according to the shape of the nostrils.

Brian? Where did he come from? How did the system read Brian for Man? That’s almost Pythonesque.

Now I wonder how many more mistakes I have left to uncover.... actually there was one deliberate one in A Glimpse of Eternal Snows.  No-one’s written to point it out yet! Clue: it is hidden among bird names. Let me know if you notice anything.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The Bumps

July came and went and only now have I had enough of a pause to record the wonderful week of The Cambridge Rowing Association annual Bumping Races. Most people call them the Bumps. It is a mad annual summer event that must have evolved to cope with the fact that the River Cam is too narrow at Cambridge (Cambridgeshire) to allow side-by-side racing in something as long, wide and unmanoeuvrable as a rowing eight. They measure about seven metres wide blade-tip to blade-tip.

At the start, up to 17 eighteen-metre long boats are lined up along the bank with a boat-length-and-a-half between them. There’s a countdown of a four-minute canon and a one minute 'gun' when a coach on the bank will start to push the boat out into the river with a long pole. The cox holds onto a chain to prevent the boat getting an unfair advantage.

Then when the starting canon fires, the cox drops the chain and the crews row as hard and as fast as they can. The start is frenetic, splashy and can be full of panic. The idea is to try to ‘bump’ the boat ahead before the boat behind bumps them. You’re rowing as hard as you can, not knowing how well you are gaining on the boat ahead. (Sometimes coxes lie). Meanwhile, you can see the boat behind and think, are they gaining on us?

The challenge our crew had is that we are what my youngest son, Ʃ, would call a ‘seasoned’ crew and worked out we were about 250 years older than the boat that chased us on the first night. They were lithe sixth-formers (dressed in white) from the local girls’ public school. Predictably they got us, but the event goes on for four evenings. Any boat that ‘bumps’ is promoted further up the start order, while ‘bumped’ boats move down. The aim is to end up ‘Head of the River’. We were full of hope on the second night but again, a younger crew got us. Their start was faster, though we had plenty of comments on how neatly we rowed.

Third and fourth nights were going to be ours, we felt. Setting off rowing as hard as you can is all right, but the difficulty with this race is that you start as if you are running 100m, but have to keep going for over 1000. We kept away from our rivals the third night but by the time we reached the Plough at Fen Ditton, we wanted it to stop. ‘Stoke’ was beginning to whimper. I felt I couldn’t go on. But then I registered that the chasing boat had fallen apart. They had died completely. Suddenly the energy returned and we powered over the finishing line, and an honourable ‘row-over’. Fourth night too we rowed long and strong and again managed to maintain our place. It felt as if we’d done all right, AND we avoided serious collisions with other boats and even the bank.

And it is a great feeling working in metronomic harmony with women you know you can rely on, pushing through beyond fatigue, until finally there is the satisfaction of the end of the race – even if the whole event is mad and pretty pointless.

(With thanks to A and Ʃ for photography)
(I'm rowing at the 7 position)