Ian McMillan: Opening gambits

Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan

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‘It was one of those Septembers when it seemed the Summer would never end.’ Yes, I know it’s June, but bear with me. ‘Call me Ishmael.’ Yes, I know my name’s Ian but bear with me. ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ Yes, I know I’ve been happily married for years but bear with me.

Each of those statements, the ones that have nothing to do with me, is the opening line of a novel. The ‘truth universally acknowledged’ one is from Pride and Prejudice and the Ishmael one is the start of Moby Dick. The one about September is much less well known but it’s an opening line that’s stayed with me for decades, which must prove how good it is. It’s from Casino Royale, one of the Ian Fleming James Bond books. I first read it when I was a young teenager and whenever a Summer seems to linger past its sell-by date the line still replays itself in my head. In many ways it’s the perfect start to a story: it lands you straight into a particular time, it hints that the action will unfold in a warm climate, and somehow in the rhythm and cadence of the words in the sentence there’s a suggestion of nostalgia and regret. I wish I could write a line like that, because of course the opening of any piece is arguably the most important.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife

I’ve seen people in bookshops pick up a paperback, look at the cover, the title, the name of the author, the blurb at the back and then, as the look on their face suggested that they might be moving towards getting their wallet out, glance inside the book, read the opening line and put the book back on the shelf. If the opening sentence doesn’t grab you by the throat and thrust you into the swirling world of the book then the chances are it won’t be for you. I think hard about the openings to these columns, because although they’re only short I know you’re busy people and if I don’t wave my arms and shout loudly enough, you’ll just move on. That’s why I thought of the September line for this one. Hope it worked.

The thing that combines all the first lines I illustrated just now is that they’re not too complicated. I guess the Jane Austen one is the fussiest, but I think that makes you read it more slowly in order to take it in. The kinds of opening lines that don’t really work are the ones that try to tell you too much so that by the time you get to the full stop you’re ready for a lie down and cup of tea. You know the kind of thing I mean:

‘Ian McMillan strode into the lobby 
of the Athenaeum Hotel on a freezing cold afternoon in late January or was it early February, anyway it was definitely cold and in fact it was so cold that his nose 
was beginning to run or at least break into a brisk walk.’ Yes, that’s far too long.

Call me Ian. Ah yes, that’s much better.

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