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
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.
At dawn in an outlying district of Warsaw, sunlight swarmed around the trunks of blooming linden trees and crept up the white walls of a 1930s stucco and glass villa where the zoo director and his wife slept in a bed crafted from white birch, a pale wood used in canoes, tongue depressors, and Windsor chairs.
Opening line, The Zookeeper’s Wife, Diane Ackerman, 2007
On a long-haul flight back to Australia, I watched the movie of The Zookeeper’s Wife twice. The first time I could barely hear the sound, the earphones were poor quality, so I took a second bite at it, imagining the storyline by the visuals. In the stopover airport I spotted the novel of the same name at the newsagent. On the opening page I read the line you’ve just read above, and was hooked by the setting described in that long sentence, being able to match it to my memory of film images. I got hold of the book once I was back home. It was unputdownable.
It’s a true story about a Polish zookeeper, but particularly about his wife, Antonina Zabinski, who hid about 300 Jews and resistance fighters from the Gestapo. The zoo’s animals had all been let loose or killed in the 1939 bombing of Warsaw, so she and her husband, Jan, allowed people to hide in animal cages, shelters and underground tunnels on their way to longer-term hiding places. Antonina and Jan and many of their illegal guests survived the war.
I recommend the film as well. The actress, Jessica Chastain, like the woman she plays, has an awesome affinity with animals that’s delightful to watch.
Opening line, All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
There’s a chair at the kitchen table that I sit on for hours some days. Reading my own work forwards and backwards – backwards is a trick I learned in translation school – I’m forever searching for better ways to say everything. To get an editor’s tick, I have to stay on the chair. So I stay until the job’s done, or until life interferes.
Right now, a book of French fairy tales keeps me here. The repetitive acts of translating, reading, editing and reading again, in the hope of arriving at the perfect story, are driving me into an unproductive blankness. So here I am, writing on this blog, writing just for the distraction of it, analysing what makes writing work well.
My story has to make it further than an editor’s slush pile, and one element, more than any other, is the lure: the very first line. If it’s not great, he might not read the second.
Once, because I was 54 years old, I wrote 54 blog posts about opening lines (click the category link…). It was a thoroughly enjoyable exercise that taught me a lot. Now, as I have in life, I’m going on from 54 to see how many more I can find. It won’t be simple, for not all the stories on my bookshelves begin with a great opener. But I’ll challenge myself even further, now and then, to find great translated opening lines. You know, the sort of oft-quoted line such as “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Rosemary Edmonds.
Today I won’t begin with translation but with a novel originally written in English. I found this great opener that immediately had me hooked in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, on a page entitled ‘Leaflets’:
At dusk they pour from the sky.
The story is set in World War Two in Saint-Malo, Brittany, France. Fascinating. A page-turner. Great to read aloud.
It shouldn’t be hard to get to 100 (blog posts that is…). I’ll write about great opening lines whenever I need a break, which happens every few days! Please tell me if you know of any yourself!
Header credit: Jean-Christophe Windland, on Wikimedia Commons
A reader of this blog, a maritime archaeologist writing a PhD, expressed an interest in some of the photos I’ve posted here over the past five years, especially images of the Nile and its boats. So this post is about the Nile River, Egypt, in a particular period, 1941/42. The photos are from my father’s album, from a time he was stationed there for seven months with the army (not counting the couple of months to get there and back). He took photos and swapped photos with his mates, stuck them in an album and left them for his family to do what they wanted with them. Many of these photos have been on this blog before, with a couple of exceptions. Where there were captions beneath the photos in the album, I’ll repeat them. Where there was none, I’ll write what I know, if I know anything. The photographers of these photos are unknown. Some were taken by my father, some were not. I don’t know which is which.
I love all my black and white 1940s photos, but I totally love the feluccas and never tire of looking photos of them. Thanks, my reader, for asking me to take another glimpse into 1940s Nile history.
Two photos from the old war album. The captions are as I found them, written by my father. The photographer is unknown: they might be my father’s photos, or they might have been given to him by a mate.
The “Nile Bridge” is the Abou el Ela Bridge, Cairo – construction completed in 1912, demolished in 1998
Thanks WordPress for prompting me to post photos of framed shots.
Ailsa has posted a photo challenge: take her on a tour of my favourite concrete jungle. Well I’m not partial to concrete, and I don’t have a favourite city, but I do have a favourite photo of a city. Here’s Nairobi in 1941. Or 1942.
Ailsa quoted John Berger:
‘Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and, in this, hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.’
Nairobi is a young city, established in 1899 by the colonial authorities in British East Africa. So that tells us her age. But is this city feminine or masculine? Perhaps a long-time resident of Nairobi could tell me.
It’s now one of Africa’s largest cities, with a population of 3.1 million, but look at this photo from the ’40s – not a lot of people on the street, not a lot of cars on the road. Plenty of space for everyone.
And from the same photo album, this mosque in Nairobi, a very attractive building made of bricks, not concrete, and only three stories high, not scraping the sky. I like the man in uniform helping the woman cross the street, though she is also in uniform and obviously very competent. It was the gentlemanly thing to do. They’re easy to spot in the vast space of the uncrowded streetscape.
The photos are from my father’s World War II album.
Thanks Ailsa for the prompt to find photogenic cities.
I’m not old enough to have taken these photos. Lol. They’re from my father’s war album of photos taken in 1941-42. He was sent to the Middle East for several months and brought back photos of the places he passed through. He wasn’t always the one behind the camera; some of them came from friends in swaps, so I can’t know who captured these images.
The first one is a snatch of street life during the early years of the war in Alexandria, Egypt. Not much traffic!
In the mid-19th century, under the French, this was the Place des Consuls, where several Consulates were situated in what was then a cosmopolitan Alexandria. It was then renamed Mohammed Ali Square in 1873 after the statue of the Ottoman governor, Mohammed Ali, was placed in the square (on the right of the photo). British naval forces bombarded the area in 1882 and destroyed most of the original buildings. It’s now Midan al-Tahrir, Tahrir Square (same as the famous square in Cairo). In English, it’s Liberation Square.
The photo below is from the same album, but is unidentified. It’s in the same era, and probably in Egypt, definitely in the Middle East, definitely during the war. I like the perspective, the way the street curves into the distance behind buildings, and the way the buildings are flush with the street. It’s not so much about street life since everyone seems to be inside except for a woman and two children quietly making their way home. The scalloped detail on the rooflines is particularly clear in monochrome, as is the mass of (what looks to be) a dovecote on the right.
I’m very thankful these days that my family kept these photos. They’re possibly more meaningful now that several decades of history have passed, and we can compare the scenes then and now (thanks to all the images online). Try looking for current photos of Tahrir Square in Alexandria. The statue of Mohammed Ali is still there, but the square looks very different otherwise. But perhaps black and white hides some of the grit of street life.
I’ve just stumbled across Cee’s challenge to find black and white photos of cars. I have just the thing, though I didn’t take the photos. My father did, way back when these cars were his. They were taken long before I was born, in a spot near the beach, probably Noosa Heads (long before they solved the sandfly problem and turned it into an internationally appealing resort town). The first photo is of the family car; I have other photos of it with my sister and brother as toddlers sitting on the running board (that’s how wide it is!).
The next photo is of Dad’s ute (short for utility truck). My mother told me he made the tray on the back to put his tins of paint and work gear in.
Sometimes at the centre of a novel a new character is introduced who changes everything. In John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, it’s not until the middle that we meet the title character. And it’s then that everything changes for the German boy, Bruno:
“The boy was smaller than Bruno and was sitting on the ground with a forlorn expression. He wore the same striped pyjamas that all the other people on that side of the fence wore, and a striped cloth cap on his head. He wasn’t wearing any shoes or socks and his feet were rather dirty. On his arm he wore an armband with a star on it.”
Feluccas are traditional motorless boats that have been used for transport on the Nile River since biblical times. From the photo below you’d have to agree that they are graceful whether their masts are tilted into the wind or tilted at rest on the beach. The design is simple, a small wooden boat with a few cushioned seats around the sides, a table in the middle, and sails made from cotton or other natural fibres.
Today feluccas carry tourists and locals on peaceful pleasure boat trips along the Nile. This photo is from my father’s World War two album and was taken in 1941 or 1942. Aren’t the large creamy triangular sails ideal in black and white photography! I’ve posted a few felucca photos since I’ve begun blogging; if you’d like to see more, look here and here and here.
Ailsa came up with this theme for a photo challenge. Check out an amazing tilted tree and other photos here.