46 Great Opening Lines: 40

It’s pre-dawn, all dark. Breeding season.

First words of ‘Breeding Season’, Amanda Niehaus, in Overland, Spring 2017

I’ve been buying literary journals for a couple of years now, reading short stories to see how writers write in the 21st century. My translations are mostly of 19th-century stories, so I need to prompt myself to read today’s writing. It’s never good to get stuck in the past.

Overland is one of the Australian journals I’ve been reading. Not every piece is to my taste, but there’s usually one in each issue that I read and re-read. ‘Breeding Season’ was such a story, drawing me in with the very word breeding, not in the title but in the first line. And then, later, the mention of an antechinus.

I once caught sight of an antechinus in a sawn tree trunk in Wangaratta. I’d heard about them, how they resemble mice and rats, how we can confuse them all, but this one was prettier than any rat and I suspected that the crevices of the old trunk were more suited to a native marsupial than an introduced species. He stood still long enough for me to snap his photo. I wrote about the antechinus and my trip to Wangaratta in an earlier blog post.

Antechinus, North Beaches Reserve, Wangaratta (river beaches not ocean beaches…)

To return to the great opening line: my interest was triggered by the word breeding, evidence that the first words of a story can click somewhere in the reader’s experience, or in their hopes and fears. I wasn’t disappointed, for within ‘Breeding Season’, Amanda Niehaus writes about the jelly-bean sized babies of the antechinus and a woman’s own baby growing inside her.

I read this prize-winning story in my copy of Overland but it’s also available online.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 38

Had it not been for a murder and robbery on Sunday, 26 March 1848, the University of Queensland would not be sited at St Lucia.

The Mayne Inheritance, Rosamond Siemon, 1997

The first line of this book contains the beginning and end of the story. A great way to start. Especially in a book about a real murder and a real university.

But the reader finds in the preface that the author “has taken a little licence”.

I discovered Siemon’s book in a relative’s personal library this week in Brisbane. My interest was piqued by the discovery that Patrick Mayne, the protagonist, lived very close to my great great great-grandfather, Joseph Burley, in the new streets of the new town of Brisbane. Mayne, as an alderman, helped Burley solve the problem of drays flinging mud up against his door. For the streets were then nothing but rutted tracks of dirt, turning to mud on rainy days.

Rosamond Siemon wrote the story of the successful businessman Patrick Mayne who died in 1865 and left an inheritance to his wife and children. Patrick’s son and daughter, James and Mary, made a number of philanthropic donations with their inheritance, including the acreage on which the University of Queensland has been built.

University of Queensland, St Lucia, 1948

The topic of the book is the inherited money and its possibly dark origin: Patrick Mayne may have gruesomely butchered a cedar woodcutter in order to rob him of a substantial sum. Another man hanged for it. However, though the credibility of the story is a deathbed confession by Mayne, no actual confession has been found by anyone but the author…  Until we can all have access to this proof, the book must remain a mythical murder mystery.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 36

My brother Jack does not come into the story straight away.

Opening line, My Brother Jack, George Johnston, 1964

A great first line that lets the reader know he’ll have to read on for a while before encountering the man of the title, Jack.

It’s a story about an Australian bloke who is a likeable larrikin, tough and uneducated, but it’s also about the effect of war-damaged parents on their children. The father is a sapper and the mother an army nurse who have had roles in World War 1, on the Front, and who have now returned to suburban life. On Anzac Day this week I thought of my own father and grandfather, veterans of the two world wars, who also returned to the dullness of suburbia, bringing with them troubled minds as shell-shocked soldiers.

The soldiers marching this week in the Anzac parade in Yass looked clean and smart, untroubled.

Army waiting to march, Anzac Day, Yass NSW 2018

I liked seeing the odd ones in this group, a New Zealander with a red-banded flat-brimmed hat, and a Fijian in a beret and three-quarter trousers, his muscly arms almost too big for his sleeves, catching sight of me catching sight of him as he adjusted his belt. I was also amused by the Australian soldier to his left, looking at something under his arm that was not quite right…

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46 Great Opening Lines: 35

The rabbits came many grandparents ago.

First line, The Rabbits, John Marsden, 1998

The phrase ‘many grandparents ago’ is a brilliant way of defining time for Australian descendants of immigrants. For me, it’s a great opener to an unsettling story.

The Rabbits is a fable about two things multiplying prolifically in this country: rabbits and non-Indigenous people.  John Marsden is cryptically commenting on the coincidence of the human and rabbit population explosion since the arrival of the British in 1788. The illustrator Shaun Tan produced quite disturbing images for the award-winning book destined for older children but for us adults too.

This week, I read two conflicting things. I read The Rabbits with my adult student who has come here from across the seas, and explained to her the problem caused by introducing these cute fluffy creatures into Australia. And also this week I read this advertisement near my house:

Are they serious?

Rabbits near Lake Burley Griffin shoreline
Rabbits near the underpass of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, Canberra
Rabbits near underpass of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, Canberra

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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: 22

In Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’, which adorns numerous war memorials around Australia, there is a verse that every Australian knows:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old…

Opening line of the Author’s Note, Desert Boys, Peter Rees, 2012

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I’ve heard the line ‘They shall grow not old…’ every year of my life, yet it still catches me out. Wars need poets.

When I look at the photo above from my father’s World War Two album, taken during his time in North Africa in 1941/42, I wonder whether these soldiers fell or grew old. Unfortunately the photo is uncaptioned and I have no names for them. They seem to be posing, demonstrating a lesson in warfare.

I’m struck by its similarity to the image on the cover of Desert Boys by Peter Rees, a book about Australian soldiers who fought in the desert in both world wars. In each photo there are five young Australian men in helmets, focusing on something to their left. Perhaps these cover men are also posing. In any case, their photos remind us that they went to the desert to fight, and may not have returned to grow old.

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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: 4

At least two hundred poor beggars were counted sleeping out on the pavements of the main streets of Sydney the other night – grotesque bundles of rags lying under the verandahs of the old Fruit Markets and York-street shops, with their heads to the wall and their feet to the gutter.

‘Dossing Out’ and ‘Camping’, Henry Lawson, 1896

The economic recession and strikes of the early 1890s forced a lot of Australia’s country people off the land and into urban areas, only to find there were no jobs there either. ‘Dossing Out’ and ‘Camping’ is a short story that paints a clear picture of the poverty of poor beggars who had been sleeping in the park but were driven out by rain, onto the streets, under the verandahs.

The title refers to ‘dossing out’ in the city and ‘camping’ in the bush, two different ways of living with no money. In the bush, Lawson writes, you can light a fire, boil the billy, make tea, catch a sheep and fry a chop, wash your shirt, wash yourself, whistle and sing by the camp fire, breathe fresh air and make poetry.

George Washington Lambert, ‘Sheoak Sam’, 1898

In the city, when you doss out, there’s no possibility of lighting a fire to cook over. And a man is generally too hungry to make poetry.

The story ironically appeared in the collection While the Billy Boils.

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