Your starter for 10: who wrote this opening?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
I once had the duty of setting a Christmas quiz in Punch magazine, which was not easy because, as someone once said, everyone has a good novel and 10 good quiz questions hidden away inside them (actually, I think it was me that said it) and 10 good questions is not enough for a good quiz. But one of the questions I devised was good, because it gave the openings of famous books and asked people to identify them, and one of the openings baffled most people.

Do you recognise it ?

Here it is.

"1. Existence. N. existence, esse, being, entity; absolute being, absoluteness, givenness; aseity, self-existence; unit of being, monad, Platonic idea..."

Some thought it felt a bit like modern poetry, and others thought it might be a religious meditation, but it is in fact the opening of Roget's Thesaurus. Once you are told the title, the style becomes immediately recognisable, but nobody is likely to recognise or indeed even to have ever read the opening of the book. Roget's Thesaurus is not the kind of book people read from the start to the finish, so there was no obligation on Dr Peter Mark Roget to devise a snappy opening. You can't imagine this exchange taking place at the publisher's:

"We like the book very much, Dr Roget, but we find the opening a little stodgy. Would it not be possible to ... to ...

"Yes? To what?"

"Well, frankly, to put some of the more sensational word clusters on the first page!"

I was reminded of the matter of openings when I came across a novel by Auberon Waugh the other day in a second-hand book shop in Bristol. It was called A Bed of Flowers, and if Auberon Waugh is interested, the 1985 paperback of the original 1972 hardback is currently fetching pounds 2. Not having heard of the novel, I idly started reading it and was taken aback - this being the middle of last week - to find that the opening scene is set at an election night party, in fact an election night party for the night in 1966 when Harold Wilson was elected in a Labour landslide.

It was quite funny.

(" `If the Conservatives had won, I honestly think I would have emigrated,' said Charlie de Rothschild. He was a merchant banker.

" `I just feel that the good people are here again,' said little Mrs Pardue, crinkling up her eyes. She was either a Peek or a Frean - anyway, the biscuit family.")

Whether it would have been quite so funny if I myself wasn't about to face election night, I don't know. In fact, I might not even have read those opening few pages if it had not been for the coincidence of the way it described an election night party. I am not sure I shall read any further in the book now, even though I bought it. Yes, long after the time I thought I would ever buy another Auberon Waugh novel, I paid pounds 2 and brought it home (which is how I am able to quote from it so accurately) and I have in fact read a little further onwards, but already there are so many characters doing such satirical things that I am not sure I may not have forgotten who half of them are already.

What the bookseller in Bristol should have done if he had any enterprise was put the novel in the window, affix a card saying "Topical - Topical - Topical - Contains Classic Description by Auberon Waugh of Election Night Party!" and charged pounds 10 for it. But second-hand booksellers seldom show that sort of enterprise. They will affix little signs saying "First Edition" or "Signed by Author", but what they will not do is put signs on saying "Very Funny" or "Good Battle Scenes" or "Pretty Sexy in an Understated Sort of Way".

I did once see a book shop window in Museum Street, Bloomsbury where the wily bookseller had pinned a book open at a rather funny opening, and I was sufficiently tempted to go in and buy the book but on later perusal it turned out to be the only funny bit in the book, as I pointed out to the bookseller next time I was in there.

"Yes, sir," he agreed. "That was my opinion, too. Still, it worked, didn't it?"

Certainly did. There have been one or two other books I bought entirely on the strength of the opening. Catch-22 was one. Another was a novel by Ian Hay which opens with a description of a young Scottish country lad coming to Edinburgh by train on his first visit there, and how he is initially disappointed by its not being quite as big as he imagines, with not so many shops, and its being covered over by some sort of artificial dome. It turns out he is still inside Waverley station, which he assumes to be the whole of Edinburgh.

But my favourite opening of any novel is still, after many years, this one.

"Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

"Four shots ripped into my groin and I was off on the biggest adventure of my life.

"But first, let me tell you something about myself..."

Can anyone identify it?