Saturday, 11 February 2012

Mundane openings

My book Queuing for Beginners began with the following sentence: 'On Friday 12 March 1937, a series of uninteresting events unfolded across Britain.' I've always been interested in the deliberately ungripping opening sentence, the kind that challenges you to read on through its uncompromising mundanity rather than by grabbing you by the narrative throat.

Perhaps the most famous example is the lowkey opening to A Question of Upbringing, the first book in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time sequence, which begins with a surprisingly riveting description of some roadworks: 'The men at work at the corner of the street had made a kind of camp for themselves, where, marked out by tripods hung with red hurricane-lamps, an abyss in the world led down to a network of subterranean drain-pipes.'

The first sentence of Alan Partridge's autobiography, I, Partridge, is almost there: 'When I was eight years old, I suffered a nose bleed so profuse and generous, I bolted from the schoolyard and sought solace in the first-class countryside of Norfolk.' But I think that is just trying too hard.

The opening of chapter six of Chris Bowers's biography of Nick Clegg is, however, exemplary: 'In the autumn of 1998, former Conservative home secretary Leon Brittan - by then Sir Leon Brittan, now Lord Brittan of Speenithorne - was standing on the Eurostar platform at Waterloo station, reading some literature he had in his briefcase.'

Mundane quote for the day: 'It is a sad fate to be the child of the urban or suburban middle classes. As a first or a fourth are the only dignified kinds of degree to get, so one's upbringing must be conducted either in several establishments with several bathrooms each or in one with none, if it is to distil any glamorous potential. Compared with the upper and lower levels alike – but especially with the lower, to which it has many unlooked-for similarities – the middle stratum is bound to seem drab and glum. Beset by constant anxieties about decorum, it has never devised a traditional way of enjoying itself. Alongside those of the working classes, its fears show up as neurotic, unreal and self-regarding.' - Kingsley Amis, From Aspidistra to Juke-Box


  1. Of course you know the famous opening paragraphs from "Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften" by Robert Musil:

    A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising and setting of the sun , the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913.

  2. There was a good Guardian article a while back about boring celebrity biography opening sentences which you might appreciate:

  3. If the openings to plays count, my favourite is still Pinter's 'The Homecoming' and 'What have you done with the scissors?'

  4. Or the opening line to Proust's In Search of Lost Time: "For a long time, I went to bed early". That may actually be a counter-example - the rest of the books (not that I've managed to finish any of them) are even more dull - so the opening line is in fact rather atypically exciting.

  5. Thank you all for these other examples!