Christopher Smith is looking for his opening line
‘When I write my novel…’, I occasionally hear myself saying. ‘When I write my novel, all this is going into it!’, I might say, in the midst of some apparently surreal parochial situation. But I have a feeling that, when do I sit down to write my novel, which will clearly not happen before I retire, I may not get beyond the first sentence. There is something so important about the first sentence, isn’t there? I have a terrible feeling that I would probably get stuck at that point. How to produce an opening line to rival, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’? Or how about, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’? Or an opening line much beloved of clergy of our tradition, ‘“Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass’?
All of those authors, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Rose Macaulay, knew the impact of the opening words of their writings, as indeed did the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, writing centuries before any of them. ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; vanity of vanities.’ And he goes on to ask the question which runs through the volume, ‘What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?’
Here’s another remarkably arresting opening line: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.’ Thus begins the story of a kind of civil war within a vast high-rise block in London, a building of forty floors and a thousand apartments, with restaurants, a supermarket, swimming pools and a school. And, in that closed, rather too comfortable environment, petty problems like power failures and arguments between neighbours ultimately trigger war within the block, as all the constraints which normally apply in society fall away.
- G. Ballard wrote High-Rise in 1975, and now I look across the Thames to see the skyline dominated by a building near London Bridge station called the Shard, with not forty but seventy-two habitable floors, including apartments, restaurants, shops, offices and a hotel. I confess that, architecturally, it’s not really to my taste; I half hope that one of these days it will take off and fly back to whatever planet it came from. It was finished in 2012, and it took its owners five years to let all the office space. I imagine that it will be difficult to keep it fully let after the current brouhaha. Likewise, I imagine the building going up at the end of my road, 150 Holborn, which is replacing a perfectly respectable red-brick office block from the 1980s, will never now be fully let. ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; vanity of vanities.’ ‘I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones’, says the rich man in Luke 12. And as the demand is made for his soul, the question God puts to him is, ‘this hoard of yours – whose will it be then?’
We all know how fragile a life based only on possessions must be. We occasionally encounter this in a very physical way: perhaps things are taken from us, or perhaps we know or hear of someone who has lost the contents of their home in a flood or a fire. All the same, we are still capable of falling prey to the decidedly unchristian notion that our success in life is shown through our possessions. One of the most surprising theological strands of the twentieth century was that business known as the ‘prosperity gospel’. ‘O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz’, as Janis Joplin once sang, envious that her friends all drove Porches. She asked God for a colour TV as well.
Better, perhaps, to keep our liberties than our possessions. Here’s another almost first line: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.’ Christopher Isherwood was writing of an inter-war Berlin with its personality split between the wild decadence which had drawn him there and the encroaching, oncogenic wickedness of the Nazi party. ‘Almost every evening, the S.A. men come into the café. Sometimes they are only collecting money; … sometimes they have come to make an arrest. One evening, a Jewish writer, who was present, ran into the telephone box to ring up the Police. The Nazis dragged him out, and he was taken away. Nobody moved a finger.’
Of another dispensation, Stalin’s Russia, Julian Barnes wrote something strikingly similar in his book about Shostakovich, The Noise of Time. The mechanisms of tyranny work in much the same way, whatever the political badge. ‘It happened in the middle of wartime, on a station platform as flat and dusty as the endless plain surrounding it.’
Here’s one last first line for us. ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’ And the re-creation of human nature in Christ is, as it were, the leitmotiv of the Gospels. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ And we have found our way to the greatest first line of them all, and the only one which makes a difference. For in that moment, the recreation of human nature is complete, and all we have to do is assent.
Here’s a last line to finish with. ‘The one who attests these things says, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.’