46 Great Opening Lines: 18

Black are the brooding clouds and troubled the deep waters, when the Sea of Thought, first heaving from a calm, gives up its Dead.

From The Chimes, a Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In, Charles Dickens, 1845

Sometimes it’s not the first chapter that has a memorable opening line. It could be a later chapter like this one that comes from the Third Quarter of a short novella in Dickens’ Christmas collection. Rather than four chapters, it has four quarters, like the quarters of an hour at which church bells chime. The tale is set on New Year’s Eve. And since, today, it is indeed New Year’s Eve, I’ve chosen it to end my year.

Here is the story’s true opening line, for your comparison:

There are not many people — and as it is desirable that a story-teller and a story-reader should establish a mutual understanding as soon as possible, I beg it to be noticed that I confine this observation neither to young people nor to little people, but extend it to all conditions of people: little and big, young and old: yet growing up, or already growing down again — there are not, I say, many people who would care to sleep in a church.

While I agree with Dickens that not many people would care to sleep in a church, particularly a church whose bells mark every quarter hour, I was especially struck by the Sea of Thought giving up its Dead.

At this point in the tale, a poor and aging messenger nicknamed Trotty Veck (for he trots) believed that chiming bells were speaking to him as he sat on the church porch waiting for messenger jobs. He was a pessimist, he could see no way up and out of a pauper’s life; he believed that poor people are naturally bad. Now he climbs the stairs of the belfry to see these bells that speak to him. But the bells have spirits in the form of goblins who reprimand him for his lack of faith in a poor man’s ability to improve. They want to teach him a lesson: if the poor are not oppressed, they can strive for better things, and, like time, they must advance.

The goblins are excellently illustrated on the opening pages of the novella.

The Chimes, illustrated title page, archive.org
The Chimes, illustrated title page, archive.org

The Chimes is another of Dickens’ tales about injustice and the impoverished of Victorian England. Grim as it is throughout, the story has a happy ending. The goblins may or may not have been real, but Trotty Veck learned his lesson:

“I know there is a Sea of Time to rise one day, before which all who wrong us or oppress us will be swept away like leaves.”

A Sea of Thought. A Sea of Time.

And now to conclude 2017, some lines from The Chimes describing the past and future of any year:

“The New Year! The New Year! Everywhere the New Year! The Old Year was already looked upon as dead; and its effects were selling cheap like some drowned mariner’s aboardship. Its patterns were Last Year’s and going at a sacrifice, before its breath was gone. Its treasures were mere dirt, beside the riches of its unborn successor!”

 

Happy New Year to all!

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46 Great Opening Lines: 17

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

Luke 2:1, King James Version

While ‘all the world’ that Caesar Augustus had in mind was all the Roman world, this story is about the birth of a child, Jesus, who would change all the expansive Western world, and indirectly much of the rest of the world.
Augustus, 1st century, Vatican Museum

Back in 1611 when the King James Version of the Bible was published, ‘all the world’ was bigger than the Roman world, but not as big as ours. Today’s translators qualify the extent of Caesar’s decree:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (New International Version).
They’ve defined the ‘world’ as Roman, and the decree as a census, a population registration, through which Caesar would be able to tax everyone. The records would also be used for military service, though Jews were exempt.
Census at Bethlehem, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566

Pieter Bruegel the Elder back in 1566 made it easy for us to imagine Mary and Joseph trudging through the December snow to register their names in Bethlehem (though he painted a Flemish village…). His painting of the census is amazingly detailed. A high-resolution version on a large screen is the best way to see all the activities. There’s Mary on a donkey with Joseph heading towards the tax office where a group is already waiting to register and pay, women are preparing food, people are carrying heavy loads over a frozen lake, there are children playing and people bent and laboring, and even some castle ruins. An image I’d like to see on a Christmas card.

And now it’s Christmas Eve, and time for bed. Tomorrow my family and I will celebrate the birth of Jesus with feasting and gifts and pleasure. And freedom.

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Changing Seasons: December

Here we are at the end of the year, and here I am, writing the last of my twelve Changing Seasons posts in response to Cardinal Guzman’s photo challenge.

Canberra, December. Last week, schools finished for the year, and children began six weeks of summer holidays. In anticipation of Christmas, they’re enjoying the city’s decorations and festivities. In past years the local government has put up a huge FAKE Christmas tree in the centre of the city, which, in my humble opinion, has always been disappointing. But this year they’ve made an effort. We have a forest of trees within a forest of trees.

Children are invited to pick up a bag of decorations and dress the trees. The December sunlight filtering through the tall trees and small trees makes a pretty carpet. And the innocence of children taking pleasure in choosing their own decoration and their own tree was a perfect subject for me with my camera. Two toddlers, however, were reprimanded by their mothers for pinching a coloured ball and carrying it off… The innocence was relative, after all.

Glebe Park, Canberra

My Christmas wish for my blog readers: May you not be caught filching baubles.

Merry Christmas to all of you wonderful bloggers out there.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 16

The sun burns hotly thro’ the gums
As down the road old Rogan comes —
The hatter from the lonely hut
Beside the track to Woollybutt.
He likes to spend his Christmas with us here.

First lines, A Bush Christmas, C. J. Dennis, 1931
 

Clearly, if you’re reading a poem entitled A Bush Christmas and the first line says ‘The sun burns hotly…’ you can be sure you’re not in northern Europe.

My Christmases have always been hot. Where I grew up in Queensland, the morning temperature in the kitchen would have been, say, 25 degrees celsius, but Mum would never hesitate to turn on the oven and roast the chicken, a luxury. (No turkeys for us.) After a couple of hours of cooking, it would have easily been 35 degrees in that room. I’d keep out of the way and splash around in my small canvas pool while the grown-ups of my family would sit chatting in the shade of the yard. Dad in his long sleeves and trousers, which he wore in all weathers, would be chain smoking on his bench. We’d all wait for Mum to finish roasting the vegetables or making gravy, and then she’d call us to the table. The sweat dripped from her face as she served the food.

“It ain’t a day for working hard,” says the father in A Bush Christmas, and of course, as he speaks, the mother is roasting and boiling and baking in the soaring temperature of the bush kitchen. She’s hot, but guess what the poetic father says…

“Your fault,” says Dad, “you know it is.
Plum puddin’! on a day like this,
And roasted turkeys! Spare me days,
I can’t get over women’s ways.”

Traditions from the old country, the wintry Christmases of England, Scotland and Ireland, are dying hard in Australia, even now. For those from the old country who sought a better life in Canada or the northern parts of the USA, Christmas temperatures were just like home. But those who came to Australia kept up the traditions despite the upside down climate.

A few hours after our Queensland Christmas dinner was over, it was invariably followed by sharp cracking thunder, lightning flashes and a cooling torrential downpour.

But old Rogan of the poem is celebrating Christmas out in the bush, far from any city, where there might not have even been the relief that comes with a storm. Instead, Rogan passes the afternoon telling the kids “his yarns of Christmas tide ‘mid English barns”, “of whitened fields and winter snows, and yuletide logs and mistletoes”.

The children listen, mouths agape,
And see a land with no escape
For biting cold and snow and frost —
A land to all earth’s brightness lost,
A strange and freakish Christmas land to them…

Old Rogan was the lonely neighbour invited for “a bite of tucker and a beer”. They offered him company and a meal, and in return he offered them that valuable form of nourishment for children’s minds, a good yarn.

…The sun slants redly thro’ the gums
As quietly the evening comes,
And Rogan gets his old grey mare,
That matches well his own grey hair,
And rides away into the setting sun…

In the end, the father relaxes with a full belly, and his wife washes up.

“Ah, well,” says Dad. “I got to say
I never spent a lazier day.

This is how it was in my childhood. I’m glad to say some things have changed.

Cover, “A Bush Christmas” by C.J. Dennis, illustrated by Dee Huxley

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46 Great Opening Lines: 15

There were 700 or 800 of them at least. Of medium height, but strong, agile, supple, framed to make prodigious bounds, they gambolled in the last rays of the sun, now setting over the mountains which formed serried ridges westward of the roadstead.

Opening lines of Gil Braltar by Jules Verne, 1889, translated by I.O. Evans, 1965

Can you guess what they are, these gambollers? Perhaps if you’ve been to Gibraltar you’ll know they are monkeys. The title of this fantastical tale, ‘Gil Braltar’, is also the name of the main character, an ugly Spaniard who resembles the macaque monkeys that possess the great Rock. To convince them to follow him as their leader, Gil dons a monkey skin, fur side out. He tries to recapture Gibraltar from the British, but fails, defeated by an Englishman, General MacKackmale, a pun on the French words macaque mâle.

When Verne’s science fiction/fantasies were first published in French, they were quickly followed by English translations. But not this one, which wasn’t translated until 1965. Hmmm. Clearly, Verne’s satire on the British claim to the Rock didn’t impress British publishers. But like many things that at first feel unpleasant, we find a few decades later that perhaps there are interesting elements, after all.

In my previous post I wrote about Dr Trifulgas. This and Gil Braltar were both written by Jules Verne in his house in Amiens, France, which I visited earlier this year. While the ground floor is elegant and nothing out of the ordinary for a 19th-century French house, a climb up the spiral staircase takes you to Verne’s writing world, where at the top of the stairs there is an improvised ship’s deck, a larger space filled with exhibits, and a compact study-cum-bedroom where Monsieur Verne wrote many of his famous stories. There’s even a list in English of stories written in this house – if you look closely at the photo below, you’ll see Dr Trifulgas (Frritt Flacc in French) and Gil Braltar.

It’s funny that I’ve read so many stories by Jules Verne recently; I once had no time at all for science fiction. After visiting his house and seeing the upstairs space filled with books and maps and puppets and posters, not forgetting the ship’s deck, I had a whole new appreciation for the work that goes into producing an imaginative piece of literature. As a translator, I had not thought long about it until then.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 14

Swish! It is the wind, let loose.
Swash! It is the rain, falling in torrents.

Opening lines, ‘Dr Trifulgas’, Jules Verne (1884), translator unknown

This story in French is called ‘Frritt-Flacc’, the sound of the hurricane and the torrential rain it brings. Dr Trifulgas is a rich old doctor who demands exorbitant fees from his patients, or else they get no service. In the end, his greed brings him down when he least expects it. It’s a short horror story, but not scary enough to stop me reading it. (I scare easily.)

The opening lines invited me to keep reading, contradicting the advice that a writer should never start with the weather.

And by coincidence, as I write this, torrential rain that has threatened all afternoon has finally begun to fall. I’m not making this up. Fortunately I don’t have to go out with my dog, his lantern, and Dr Trifulgas.

Illustration by G. Roux for Frritt Flacc, Jules Verne

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