1 EAGLETON NOTES: First Lines

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Tuesday, 29 August 2017

First Lines

I have a bad memory: I always have had. It is a strange irony that people constantly tell me what a good memory I have. Like most people I can recall certain things.

The Big Book Clearout made me think about first lines and I wondered how many I could recall. The answer is that the number of first lines I can accurately recall is remarkably small. However the number that I can almost recall surprised me.


I can recall several verbatim:

“No one had expected Ernest to die, least of all Ernest.” from Dead Ernest by Frances Garrood.

"The Mole had been working very hard all [the]* morning, spring cleaning his little home." The Wind in The Willows by Kenneth Graham.

"It was morning and the [new]* sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea." Johnathon Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach.

"I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to." The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson.

"Pip the pixie was doing the washing for his Aunt Twinkle." The Adventures of Pip by Enid Blyton. 

There are many of which I can recall the general wording but had to check:

"The French are proud of the fact that they are the last people to invade the British Isles." 1000 Years of Annoying The French by Stephen Clarke.

"I have very pale skin, very red lips." Skin by Joanna Briscoe. (An odd book for a man to find intriguing, I suspect.)

"It is always difficult to find a beginning." An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan. (A book that had a very very profound effect on me.)

"The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it." Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

I was ashamed not to be able to recall the first lines of Tolstoy's War and Peace given that I've read it three times or The Piano Shop on the Left Bank which is one of my favourite books but whose author (T E Cathcart) I could not recall either.

I'm sure that there are very many other books which should spring into what passes for my mind but they haven't. 

Does anyone else remember first lines?

* Not quite verbatim, having checked.

42 comments:

  1. I am one of the fast book readers so it's not often I remember those first lines. I do however remember reading "a tale of two cities" at school and often think of "it was the best of times and the worst of times", funny how that one thing has stuck in my head for so many years.

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    1. Amy I am a very slow reader unfortunately. I suppose that stems from the days when every word I read and wrote had to be precise either in its accuracy or its obfuscation. I've not read a Tale of Two Cities but I recognise the words.

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    1. You know Maywyn I said exactly the same when the question arose which was why I sat down to see if I really could. I bet your subconscious knows more than you think.

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  3. I'm ashamed to admit that I do not remember or think about first lines. I do know that first lines in a story are important.

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    1. For me, Red, the first line has always been the defining entrance to the world I am about to enter.

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  4. I have never tried to remember them and I actually cannot even remember those that I have written !

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    1. I've never written any Heron so that's one problem I with which I don't have to grapple.

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  5. That, to me, is a sign of having an exceptional recall...brilliant memory. Half the time I can't even remember my own name, let alone the first line I say each morning! :)

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    1. No, Lee, if you look at the books that I recall most vividly it's a sign that I have dipped in and out of some of them for decades: nearly 70 years in some cases. I once managed to forget my wife's name which is even worse than forgetting one's own.

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  6. The first line of A Tale of Two Cities is probably the most remembered first line in literature, but my personal favorite is ... "Scarlet O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were." (Margaret Mitchel's Gone With the Wind).

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    1. Jill I have never read Gone With The Wind. I saw the film when I was very young but have never watched it since. I have the DVD. I must put it on my bucket list.

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    2. Graham you've missed a treat! John and I both re-read it last year. It was unputdownable.

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    3. Well, Frances it now is on my reading bucket list. I just hope that I live long enough.

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  7. I might not know all the first lines from books but if you hum a few bars...ha!

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    1. There you are, Kay, that is a talent I wish that I had. I listen to music constantly. I have certain pieces I play very frequently. Yet I have a complete lack of ability to remember the name of a piece not only from the first few bars but, often, from the whole piece even though I know every next note that is coming.

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  8. Hmm... I might try this as an exercise for my mind, when I am waiting for a train or stuck on one (as is often the case) and when my eyes are too tired to read. Right now, I can not remember one single one, even while trying to help my mind along by looking at the backs of my books on the shelf next to this desk where I am sitting as I am typing this.

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    1. I'm sure, Meike, that you will remember some important (to you) ones. Of course you are another fast reader so perhaps you remember plots and outlines and characters rather than the mundaneness of quotations. I have always been a lover of quotations. It helps, too, that I have read or at least dipped into some of those books since early childhood.

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  9. Last Friday I saw a photograph of Brian Keenan with John McCarthy and Terry Waite. It was framed and in the church at Broxted, Essex - placed beneath two wonderful stained glass windows that were installed in recognition of hostages everywhere. John McCarthy used to live in the adjacent property.

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  10. Good grief, I couldn't remember one first line. You do have a brilliant memory.

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    1. No Diane it's just a question of constant familiarity. If you suddenly sprang the question of me I'd hardly even be able to remember a couple of dozen books I'd read.

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  11. I think there are memorable books and memorable openings, but the two don't always go together. I can remember Pride and Prejudice, Emma (both admittedly great books), many of Beatrix Potter's (ditto) and often-read children's books, The Wind in the Willows, not completely accurately. There may be more. But I can't remember a single opening of a Trollope (Anthony - my favourite author), although "the bishops was dying" may have been one. He just didn't write memorable openings. Your memory is amazing, Graham!

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    1. Frances my memory really isn't. Dead Ernest is ingrained because it is short, pithy and really hit me and I've written about it but the rest are there because of long familiarity. I can often recall vagueries but not details. However, as I've said in other responses, if I were asked on the spot I'd probably be hard pressed even to recall what I'd read.

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  12. That's a lot of beginnings. I don't think I ever made a habit of remembering/memorizing first sentences. I'd probably be able to pair some classic quotes with titles (like "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times"); but can't just recall a list like that from the back of my mind. Even my Bible quotes are a bit muddled up nowadays because I have read "too many" translations through the years (both Swedish and English). (And the same with certain other classics that I have read in both languages + nowadays I listen to audio books more than I read with my eyes.) ...
    "Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn't."
    (Had to look that up to be able to quote it, as in childhood I read it in Swedish!)

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    1. Monica considering when I was a child and at prep school we had to learn epistles and collects every week of term in the first few years my ability to recall quotes is pitiful. Of course some, like 1Corinthians 13:1 or Genesis 1:28 never leave one. In fact, these days as CJ and I have discovered when doing cross-words I can't even recall all the books in the Bible now. I should add, Monica, that all the ones I posted didn't just come spontaneously all at once, I had to really think hard.

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  13. Like Kay G, if you were to hum the first line of a melody I probably would know the song but as far as first lines/sentences of a book I'd draw a blank.
    The Wind in the Willows one sounded familiar- wouldn't have been able to tell you to your face tho' ๐Ÿ˜Š
    I've come avisiting from Lee's blog. Will be having a look around now and again to see what I can see. Thanks for being here ~ Cathy

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    1. Thank you for visiting, Cathy. Good to see you here. I really envy the ability that you and Kay have to recognise music from a first few bars. As I said to Kay, I can listen to a piece that I've listened to a hundred times before and still have problems recalling its name. As for the words of songs: no chance. And I live with music constantly.

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  14. Rebecca's- Lastnight I dreamt I was ... I've never read it, but have seen the film so many times and it's first line often appears in quizes in the UK!

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    1. Potty, is it "at Mandalay again." ? I've never read it either but it was a very haunting film. In fact thinking about it sends goose-bumps though me.

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    2. That's it! Mrs Danvers and ever playing the cad, George Saunders.

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  15. I have just been reminded by a friend that many of us probably know the first words of the Bible: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."

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  16. I don't know any first lines at all but then I haven't read anywhere near enough books!
    There was one book I read and, unusually for me, was struck by how fabulous the first page was. I thought it was going to be an amazing book but it became average when I turned the page. It wasn't a bad book but the author obviously made sure to get the first page right!
    It was "the mud house" by Richard Glover

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    1. What have I been doing for 3 days that I haven't looked at my blog? Kylie that's not a book I've heard of. For a while I've taken the view that if I don't like a book then I stop reading it. I obviously didn't have that view when I read Lord of the Flies!

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  17. Just catching up after an internet malfunction and two or three big machine disintegrations. I never recall first lines but The Dead Earnest one was a cracker.....What was it again?

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    1. Adrian I laughed my head off when I read your comment as an 'internal' malfunction.

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  18. I can only remember the incredibly well known ones... "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" and "Alice was getting very tired of sitting ...." well, you know what - I can't even remember that one!

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    1. The strange thing Jenny is that if you asked me what I could recall then I'd answer pretty well nothing except Dead Ernest (to me one of the funniest and most addictive first lines). It was only when I started really thinking about it that I realised I knew far more than thought. I suspect most of us can dredge up far more given a bit of effort.

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  19. My favorite first sentence is from Flannery O'Connor's second novel The Violent Bear It Away. It's rather long so I won't quote it here but I do hope you will look it up; it drew me into the book completely. Flannery died of lupus at the age of 39 in 1964. She is known more for her short stories, particularly "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." I have the feeling I have told you about this before but I may be hallucinating.

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    1. Well Bob I eventually managed to track down the first line on someone's blog. I've had a good search of my blog for Flannery and not found any reference. A Good Man Is Hard To Find sounds worth reading particularly if you happen to be looking for a good man.

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  20. Graham, her four published works of fiction are A Good Man Is Hard To Find (short stories), Wise Blood (novel), The Violent Bear It Away (novel), and Everything That Rises Must Converge (short stories, published posthumously). Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to read them. This comment will self-destruct in five seconds.

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    1. Oh dear Bob. I was too late and missed it.

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