David McKie, who is always worth reading, had a piece in the Grauniad last week about the first lines of novels. He refers to a reference work I had never heard of, Novel Openers : First Sentences of 11,000 Fictional Works, Topically Arranged with Subject, Keyword, Author and Title Indexing compiled by Bruce L Weaver and published in 1995. No doubt one could spend many happy hours browsing through it seeking out one’s own favourites, cursing the absence of others, and making new discoveries. It set me to thinking, by the by, that such compilations, whether fat like Weaver’s or brief and idiosyncratic like any number found in books and magazines and online, seem invariably to focus on fiction. What about arresting openings of non-fiction works? How about this, from Sword Of Wisdom : MacGregor Mathers And ‘The Golden Dawn’ by Ithell Colquhoun (1975):
I was a schoolgirl sitting on a lavatory-seat and leaning forward so as to see into the depths of an osier basket lined with newspapers. The closely-printed pages carried an article by a young woman visiting an Abbey in Sicily and described the strange goings-on there. The director of the place was someone whom she called ‘The Mystic’ but did not otherwise identify: and his Abbey was far from being an ordinary monastic establishment. I stayed put until I had read through the two or three large pages, in spite of imperious rattling at the door.
That certainly did what McKie says Bruce L Weaver suggests is “the best way to capture readers” – it instantly put me somewhere else and piqued my curiosity. A page or so later I was introduced to an amusingly intriguing cast of characters:
I began to pick up dark hints about the activities of certain (unspecified) members, of whom others were suspicious. The rumours centred around a third studio, situated beyond the one used as a library, and their chief disseminator was the librarian, a Miss Worthington… The members were not all of Miss Worthington’s calibre, however; they included Dr Moses Gaster, the eminent Hebraist, whose youngest daughter was my contemporary at the Slade; Hugh Schonfield, whose scholarly preoccupations did not prevent his founding later The Mondcivitan Republic; Dr W B Crow, Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Wisdom and author and lecturer on Traditional themes; Margaret L Woods, the Edwardian poet; Gerard Heym, the scholar and bibliophile, and Edward Langford Garstin who was secretary of the Society, his Alchemical treatises, Theurgy and The Secret Fire, not yet published.
This is a peculiarly British, or English, shabby-genteel world of the interwar years, suburban mystics scraping by on invisible means, their secret wisdom unsuspected by their neighbours, and often unintelligible even to their disciples. Later, Ithell Colquhoun is invited to a weekend in the country:
The basic formula for such establishments is a simple one: get hold of a large house and garden, also a biddable and industrious wife and/or a selection of concubines with similar qualities; then collect disciples of both sexes willing not only to pay for their keep but to work for it. (You recommend work in house and garden for its therapeutic value, but it also saves you the expense of employing staff.) The formula was used successfully for a number of years early this century by ‘Monsieur Gurdjieff’ at Fontainebleau; by Crowley (more briefly) at his Abbey of Thelema, Cefalu, in the early Nineteen-Twenties, and by P D Ouspensky in the ‘Thirties, when he occupied at least two different properties in the Home Counties. To expand the cynical remark that ‘behind every Western teacher is a boarding-house or a brothel’, I would put Meredith [Starr] and Ouspensky into the first category; but if the reports of inmates are exact, there were at least elements of the second chez MM Gurdjieff and Crowley.
She arrives at Frogmore on a chilly November day, met at the nearest station by her host in a “battered car”.
Frogmore proved to be a red-brick gabled house set on sloping ground; the atmosphere of the demesne at once struck me as gloomy, the interior no less so. The dining-hall was sombrely pannelled and almost without illumination; we all sat at a long table with Meredith at the head. The diet, strictly food-reform, was far from being the delicious fare vegetarian food can and should be; I remember a tasteless soup with something like barley-kernels in suspension, also whole cooked cabbage-leaves like dark linoleum. Why these could not have been chopped up, seasoned, and served with an appetising sauce I don’t know : perhaps that would have destroyed their virtue?
Writing in the 1970s – or, as she would put it, the Nineteen-Seventies – Ithell Colquhoun looks back and sees parallels with the present:
My room was cold, cramped and shabby : when later I described it to Margot, ‘Very simple’, she murmured with a far-away look. But is it simple when all water has to be carried, the lavatory is a long way down a spooky corridor, and the only warmth comes from hot bottles? Is an earth-closet in the garden that has to be emptied periodically really simpler than main drainage? Or rather, does not the absence of mod. cons. make for less simple household-running than if things were arranged with a little common sense? I suspect that to-day some hippie-girls, after enthusiastically integrating themselves with a commune, learn this same fact the hard way. Life may be simple for their men if these do little but discuss what they call philosophy, but how about the women? To keep even relatively warm, clean, and fed in primitive conditions is more difficult than in ‘squarer’ surroundings. (Incidentally, how far out-dated is much hippie ideology when it comes to considering women as human beings! Or failing to consider them at all.)
Forty years on from this spot-on observation of hippies, she still skewers, in a few simple sentences, the inanities of those of our twenty-first century eco-warriors who would like nothing better than to plunge us into a pre-industrial dark age.
I realise I have quoted on far beyond that startling opening paragraph, but doing so proves the point I suppose. Read it, and you’re hooked. I am fifty pages in, and am looking forward to the rest of the book with immense glee.
The best description I’ve read of the rigours of housekeeping in the old days is to be found in the first part of Robert Caro’s Years of Lyndon Johnson. One is incredulous as the sheer physical stamina required just to do the basic tasks around the home in the Texas Hill Country before the New Deal brought electricity.