46 Great Opening Lines: 27

An old cemetery is one of the most pathetic and melancholy spectacles in this world, and the pathos of it is deepened when it has been allowed to drift into neglect and ruin, with broken fences, overturned tombstones, fallen railings, obliterated inscriptions, rank weeds, long grass and general desolation.

Opening line, ‘The Paddington Cemetery’ in Truth (Brisbane newspaper), 17th November 1907

In my last post I lamented the discarding of books by libraries of all ilks. Michael Wilding alerted us to the false promise of libraries to put unborrowed books in storage somewhere. What actually happens to many of them is quite different: they are dumped and used as landfill.

Another element of our civilisation has suffered the same fate. While searching for information about two of my ancestors, siblings Eliza and James Burley who were buried in Paddington Cemetery, I found this article about ‘Bygone Brisbane’ written when the town was all of 80 years old! It’s a sad story from the first. The writer’s adjectives are depressing: broken, overturned, fallen, obliterated …  Yet I had to keep reading: why had the graveyard been so neglected? Worse was to come. I discovered that a large number of headstones of Brisbane’s early settlers have been used as … landfill.

Paddington Cemetery opened in 1843 for the first settlers and closed in 1875, and over the following years became an untended, weed-infested, goat-harbouring eyesore. The local population sought a solution from the Council, who proposed a children’s playground, kindergarten and pool to be built over the graves!

Goat on grave, Paddington Cemetery, Brisbane, photo courtesy Flickr

But what could they do with the headstones? A Councillor offered a suggestion: “Break them up and use them for the footpaths; they make good road metal!”

The author of the Truth newspaper article where I found today’s great opening line compared the councillor to Troglodytes, “men who have the skulls and intellects of cave dwellers who sat in their dark dwelling places and gnawed the grilled bones of even their own parents, when having a special feast. To such men there is nothing sacred.”

Milton, looking across the former Paddington Cemetery, c1870, photo courtesy Qld Archives

The Burley children lie in the Paddington Cemetery, which itself now lies under a huge football stadium formerly known as Lang Park, these days Suncorp Stadium.

Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, photo Jack Tanner, Flickr

An historian, Darcy Maddock, recently let me know that many of the headstones from the Paddington Cemetery were supposed to have been used for road base (!) but in fact were removed to the newer Toowong Cemetery where they were not re-erected for posterity but rather “placed in a gully” where “someone has used a crowbar to break them up. They were covered over and trees planted over them in the hope no one would ever know.” Darcy and an archaeologist are working with the current Council on extricating the headstones from beneath a large long water pipe laid on top of them.

The gravestones of my ancestors are not, so far, among those lifted from the ditch.

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Entering the words “headstones landfill” or “books landfill” into Google turns up numerous stories from around the world: burying them in ditches is an old and common practice.

Cemetery administrators make promises to safely remove headstones to new sites, and librarians promise to retain unique copies of books and journals. Yet, sadly, a search too often reveals that the items have “disappeared”.

How briefly we’re allowed to remember people we’ve known and books we’ve read.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 26

Alicia Martin, ‘Biografias’, installation in Cordoba, Spain, Photo courtesy of Toni Castillo Quero, Creative Commons

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Over the past decade university ­libraries have been systematically removing books from their shelves.

Michael Wilding, ‘University Libraries should Preserve Printed Books’ in The Weekend Australian, 23rd August 2017

Last week’s opening line came from a short story by Michael Wilding. Now I’m drawing on him again, but today’s opening line is no fiction. It’s sadly the absolute truth about our libraries. He has written at least three pieces over the past seven years to alert the world to the emptying of its libraries.

Wilding is in some ways a man after my own heart. I’ve been told that my local university library will one day be purged of old French books (among other foreigners), so I’ve been borrowing what I can to prove they are wanted, to keep them out of the book cemetery.

In March 2014 Wilding wrote ‘Libraries Under Threat’ in Sydney Review of Books, and revealed what happened to some books from the University of Western Sydney:

… skip loads of books deemed duplicates, silver-fish infested and surplus to requirements were thrown out and used for landfill.

Hold onto that word ‘landfill’. I’ll be back.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 25

Advertised it looked an interesting job: Writer requires an intelligent typist.

Opening line, The Words She Types, Michael Wilding, 1975

A few years ago I was staying in an apartment with bookshelves full of books. With only three days to read, I selected The Penguin Best Australian Short Stories and flicked through it, reading first paragraphs. Michael Wilding’s story ‘The Words She Types’ captured my attention from the start, from the opening line.

And from the second line I was completely into it. As someone who has been typing for forty-odd years, I saw myself in this woman’s shoes:

It sounded more interesting than routine copy-typing; and the ‘intelligent’ held out the bait of some involvement.

She is accepted for the job of typing up the handwritten manuscript pages of a writer, but over time his pages contain fewer and fewer words and she is expected to fill in and expand, and even to interpret blank pages. She knows he will publish the story, but will he claim the words are his and hers, or his, or hers?

Michael Wilding, by the way, is a much published author. No doubt, all the words in his books are his.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 24

The forty days of the soul begin on the morning after death.

Opening line, The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht, 2011

I’m staying this weekend in an apartment with only three days to read. There are no bookshelves here, but I did find some books in a drawer, from which I chose The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht after reading the prologue. Unfortunately three days are not enough to read a novel and I’ll have to put it back in the drawer before I go home. But yesterday I took it to lunch with me, and its yellow and red cover went well with the yellow and red restaurant.

The meal was excellent. Delicious. What you’d expect in A Taste of Eden. (I’m in Eden.)

By the way, the prologue held my attention with its description of a visit to see tigers in a zoo. There was an incident…

And the opening line? It introduces a paragraph describing the movement of the soul away from the dead body, and the rituals of the living to keep it from leaving the house.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 23

Two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him.

First line of the story ‘Solomon’s Wise Judgement’, 1 Kings 3:16

The lowest of the low approach the highest of the high. It’s an extraordinary situation evoked by concise, simple language. I try to imagine two prostitutes approaching Queen Elizabeth and demanding a hearing, but I’ve immediately restricted the meaning to my own experience, and, voilà, the opening line has hooked me in. (A little research later reveals that ancient Eastern monarchs often sat in judgement at the city gates and anyone could appeal directly to them for a legal decision. But it’s too late, I’m already curious and reading on…)

This story from the second half of Chapter 3 of the first book of Kings in the Bible was frequently chosen as a subject by artists up until the 1700s, obviously drawn in by the first line!

The painting below is one of my favourites because of its Caravaggesque chiaroscuro and drama, and the emotion of each player evident on his or her face. The essence of the story: two prostitutes each have a baby boy, one accidentally smothers hers while she sleeps; she steals the other baby, claiming it’s hers. Now the women are before King Solomon, arguing over ownership of the boy. The king asks for a sword to be brought to divide the live baby in two so each woman can have half. The real mother, whose love is greater, tells him to give the other woman the baby rather than have it cut up. The child lives because of Solomon’s wisdom.

Solomon’s Judgement, José de Ribera, c1610, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, abounds with stories that are short and to the point, and therefore get straight into the main idea in the first sentence. It’s a good source for great opening lines.

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