Treasures of the Muse in pools of dental mouthwash

Related Topics
THE BEST opening ever written for any book was that for Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, but then I found a better one, and I have not found a better one since. Here it is, from memory:

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 a little about myself . . .

Anyone know where that masterpiece of writing comes from? No? It's the opening of a novel called Sleep Till Noon, by Max Shulman, which I opened one day by accident in a bookshop and which had as strong an effect on me as Chapman's Homer is supposed to have had on Keats. In the fullness of time I came across another opening to another book which is just as good in its own way, but less frivolous.

Does anyone recognise it? Nobody I know has ever guessed it correctly. And yet it's a very famous book. You have almost certainly opened it yourself. Here are the first few words.

'1. Existence. Esse, being, entity; absolute being, absoluteness, givenness; aseity, self-existence; unit of being, monad, Platonic idea . . .' And so on. Everyone who sees that opening is convinced that it must be from some religious or philosophical work, because of its incantatory, meditative quality. Only by accident, however, as in fact it comes from the start of a British reference book. It's the opening of the first entry in Roget's Thesaurus.

Ever since I felt the poetic quality of Roget, I have been looking out for similarly unsuspected qualities in an otherwise humdrum work, and it has been a long wait, but I think I have found it at last. Here is the opening of another work which I came across this week for the very first time, and which startled me rigid.

1. One man starts and stops.

2. One man approaches and stops.

3. One man departs.

4. Two men start and stop.

5. Two men approach and stop.

6. Two men depart.

7. One woman starts and stops.

8. One woman approaches and stops.

Well, that's enough to give you the flavour, I think. Anyone know the answer? A film script, maybe? It's fairly avant-garde, if it is. A bit bleak, too. Samuel Beckett, perhaps. A bit of Eugene Ionesco or Jacques Prevert? Something from a Derek Jarman film script? No?

No. It is the opening passage of the sleeve notes to a new BBC cassette entitled Essential People Sound Effects, being the start of the list of sound effects that you can find on the tape. It goes on to golf noises and medical sound effects (erratic pulse monitor, normal heartbeat, dental mouthwash . . .).

One question this raises, apart from the question of how many of us actually need recordings of people washing their mouth out, is whether there can really be that much difference between the sound of a woman walking along a country lane and that of a man doing the same, but you forget nit-picking questions like this as you read through the other evocative aural listings:

'Darts thrown at board';

'Sub-aqua, as heard by scuba diver';

'Downhill skiing, skier's perspective'; and

'Skiers passing on slope'.

All lyrical stuff - as lovingly detailed as Roget was universal. The line that pulled me up short was 'Nail being pulled', because torture is not my scene; but luckily this turned out to be part of the carpentry section sound effects (which include the touchingly human 'Handsaw through plywood - saw jams on some strokes'). After that it is plain sailing until the end, where you get this little final verse:-

1. Person falls into water (0.10)

2. Person falls into water (0.10)

3. Person falls into water (0.10)

4. Person spashes in water (1.46)

The BBC seems to think that men and women sound the same when falling into water, and they may well be right. What spashing is I am not sure, though I suppose it might just be a misprint. Maybe John Birt had borrowed the spell- check that day.

And that, I am afraid, leaves me no time to tell you about a wonderful companion work from the BBC, Essential Crowd Effects, with its mysterious opening: 'General chatter of expectant crowd with children . . .', and evocative 'Small crowd at garden party (American)', all sounding like subtitles from a Charles Ives symphony. Some other time, perhaps.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Thousands of Russian troops marched on Red Square in the annual Victory Day parade in a proud display of the nation's military might amid escalating tensions over Ukraine  

Once again, the West fails to understand Russia

Mary Dejevsky
Jamie Oliver joins children as they celebrate Food Revolution Day 2014 by cooking bread, making smoothies and creating salads at St Paul's Whitechapel CE Primary School in London  

Teaching children to cook at school is a recipe for self-respect

Grace Dent
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before