(Books) Beginnings and Endings

West End

John Harris had a good piece in yesterday’s Guardian, dealing with celebrity memoirs. He had been set the challenge of reading 11 of them over four days – and he reported back on the awfulness of the writing, the absence of any editing and he explained why they had become so popular over the past decade.

A few opening passages were fished out and hung up to dry. ‘I am writing this on my new 27-inch iMac,’ begins, for example, Michael McIntyre’s Life and Laughing. ‘I have ditched my PC and gone Mac… It’s gorgeous and enormous and I bought it especially to write my book (the one that you’re reading now).’

I won’t linger too much on that, but the article did get me thinking about the start of books. Harris forks up Silvia Path’s The Bell Jar – ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York’ – as an example of a brilliant beginning. Here are a few others that have stayed with me over the years:

A little before midnight on the last night of his life Timothy Marr, a linen draper of Ratcliffe Highway, set about tidying up the shop, helped by the shop-boy, James Gowan. Lengths of cloth had to be folded and stacked away, rough worsted dyed linen, canvas for seaman’s trousers and serge for their jackets, cheap rolls of printed cotton at fourpence a yard, and bales of silk and muslin laid in to attract the wealthier customers from Wellclose Square and Spitalfields. 

(The Maul and the Pear Tree – PD James and TA Critchley)

Yesterday afternoon the six-o’clock bus ran over Miss Bobbit. I’m not sure what there is to be said about it; after all, she was only ten years old, still I know no one of us in this town will forget her.

(Children on Their Birthdays – Truman Capote)

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Phillip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

(Great Expectations – Charles Dickens)

A Bean was in a nursing home with a broken leg as a result of trying to drive his sports-model Poppenheim through the Marble Arch instead of round it, and a kindly Crumpet had looked in to give him the gossip of the town. He found him playing halma with the nurse, and he sat down on the bed and took a grape, and the Bean asked what was going on in the world.

(The Amazing Hat Mystery – PG Wodehouse)

William Palfrey, a recent graduate of Cambridge, paraded naked along the side of a canal on a summer’s day in 1818, loudly proclaiming that ‘he would not put on his clothes for any man living.’… The crusade failed, and Palfrey was fined one shilling.

(Decency and Disorder – Ben Wilson)

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.

(Hiroshima – John Hersey)


I’m currently drifting through the middle of December after finishing off the second draft of my book, which went off to the editor about a week ago. Walking the cold London streets in a chilly breeze and with the sun barely making it through the clouds or above the rooftops is something that I have not been able to do on a weekday before. And in the time that I’ve got left in the centre of London, I’m enjoing being a little more observant of the surroundings instead of rushing about as if my house is on fire, as people generally do (and I certainly did)

For anyone who might have a little bit of free time tomorrow afternoon, I’ll be doing a presentation at City’s International Digital Publishing Conference. It’ll be a case study of Damn His Blood and I will be explaining how I used digital media resources such as Google Books, Google Maps, Delicious and the Newspapers as I went through the narrative.

Image Credit: Mr Andy Bird

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