Treasures of the Muse in pools of dental mouthwash

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The Independent Online
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.