First Words III

Added on 23 October 2009

Sir Walter Scott opened Ivanhoe with: In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster; Proulx opens The Shipping News with the words: Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.

The first words set the tone of the novel, much in the way that the first goal sets the tone of the match. It may point to what's to come, yet it does not necessarily mean that you won't go on to lose 6-1. In the last of his intriguing three part series, Long Midnight Publishing artistic director, Elvis Shackleton moves on to the Barney Thomson short stories, most of which have been swallowed up in time, to discuss their opening lines with literary crime expert Professor Malcolm Laidlaw of the University of Glasgow.

Barney Thomson & The Face of Death

Opening sentence:

It was a cold day in the middle of January, when four young men walked into the Blackmuir Wood above the Victorian Spa village of Strathpeffer, sixteen miles west of Inverness, in the Highlands of Scotland.


ES: The first and most famous of the Barney shorts. What does the opening line tell us?

ML: Well, it's rather geographical, isn't it? On the surface a mundane opening, yet it also manages to conjure a vivid image.

ES: Of what?

ML: The woods, a town that speaks of a bygone age; there is in the sentence the very essence of remembrance, an evocation of a long forgotten era.

ES: And yet we get the sense that these four men are about to be brutally murdered.

ML: Naturally.

David Beckham's Left Ear

Opening Sentence:

I was working in the barbershop this morning.

ES: The curate's egg of the Barney Thomson collection.

ML: Absolutely. The only story written in the first person, the equivalent of Ian Fleming's The Spy Who Loved Me.

ES: And what about the opening line.

ML: Well, it seems dull, yet once again, it evokes so much that we need to know, establishing drudgery as juxtaposition to the dark events which we know are to follow.

ES: The work of a genius, then?

ML: Let's not get carried away.

A Hallowe'en Tale

Opening sentence:

The boy dressed alone.

ES: The boy dressed alone?

ML: Spare, brutal and magnificent. A writer at the peak of his powers, each word crafted as if by the Gods.

ES: Are you sure? The boy dressed alone?

ML: Magnificent. Who is the boy? Why is he dressing alone? How will this impact Barney Thomson? We know it's Hallowe'en, so is the boy getting dressed in an outfit, or is he just getting dressed for the day? What kind of outfit is it? Is the boy dressing a wound? There's a wound, you exclaim! Has he been attacked by a wolf? Is he a vampire, being chased down by the angry, torch-weilding townspeople of Millport?

ES: All that from just four words.

ML: Magnificent.

The Bloody Death of Barney Thomson

Opening sentence:

Something moved in the night.

ES: Don't tell me; utter genius, because we don't know what it is that moved, we know Barney's going to die, but really, Barney's not actually going to die etc. etc.

ML: To be honest this one's pretty dull. Very derivative...


Elvis Shackleton has been speaking to Professor Martin Laidlaw.

The Bloody Death of Barney Thomson and A Hallowe'en Tale can be read here.

David Beckham's Left Ear can be read here.

Barney Thomson & The Half-Blood PM is a genuine lost masterpiece. At least, it's genuinely lost.