March 29, 2015
The late Simon Leys, the great Sinologist and literary essayist, once wrote a little essay on the first lines of novels. He was inspired to do so by having picked up G. K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill in a second-hand bookshop and read its first words: “The human race, to which so many of my readers belong…” He said that the rest of the novel did not live up to this glorious opening, but it would have been impossible for any extended piece of writing to do so.
It is not only the writers of novels who strive to arrest the reader’s attention by a first phrase or sentence: writers of non-fiction do so also. They want to establish either the importance or the fascination of their subject. A splendid example of this is T. D. Kendrick’s book on the Lisbon Earthquake, written in 1955 on the bicentenary of the disaster. The book begins:
In October 1777 John Wesley said in a letter to his friend Christopher Hopper, “there is no divine visitation which is likely to have so general an influence upon sinners as an earthquake.”
The type of earthquake to which Wesley refers in his letter is that of the tremors that twice struck London in 1750, rather than the type that destroys whole cities. The London tremors rattled windows, caused things to fall off tables, smashed a few mirrors, but were otherwise fairly harmless. Nevertheless, scores of thousands of Londoners panicked and flooded out of the city, only to crawl back a little while later feeling distinctly foolish.
I have lived through two earthquakes, in the Wesleyan sense of the term, but sinner that I am, they had no influence upon me or my behaviour. The first was in Guatemala, where of course seismic activity can be severe. I think there must be a sensory faculty for feeling the effects of earth tremors, a faculty I do not have, for everyone around me felt the earth move but I did not. The second was at night as I was sleeping in my house in England: I was woken up by a clattering noise coming from the roof. Of course, I immediately thought it was burglars since burglary is a far more frequent, and serious, hazard in England than earthquake, and I learned the true cause only on the morrow.
The Lisbon Earthquake, it goes without saying, was of a different order. It destroyed much of the city and it is thought that 15,000 people died in it. The meaning of the event became a matter of dispute immediately afterwards: was it just one of those things, or was it God’s vengeance on the wicked people of Lisbon, who appeared pious but in reality were given over to the whole gamut of human sins?
Strangely enough, the London tremors five years earlier had given rise to similar questions, though because they killed no one it was easy to reconcile them with the idea that God was just issuing a preliminary warning. The clergy of the time preached many sermons referring to the wickedness of Londoners that justified the wrath of God. According to Kendrick, paraphrasing the Bishop of London, Thomas Sherlock:
The Gospel was rejected in spite of Protestant advantages; books were published that disputed or ridiculed the great truths of religion, and such books were not only welcomed in the metropolis, but widely circulated… Blasphemous language was used openly in the streets. Lewd pictures illustrated all the abominations of the public stews, and were well tolerated. There was much homo-sexuality. People were crazy for amusement, and in one single newspaper the bishop counted no less than fifteen advertisements for plays, dances, cock-fights, prize-fights, and so on, and this in Lent.
I love the image of the Bishop salaciously counting up the profane entertainments of the city and working himself up into a pleasant lather of indignation over them.
A book of poems about the earth tremors was published with the title Verses on the late Earthquakes: address”d to Great Britain. Four lines summed up the situation of the country:
Own it! (but with a blush) “No Realm
Like ours! so vile! so vain!
See! to the Dunghill from the Helm
Extends the moral stain!”
My sentiments entirely as I walk through the streets of London de nos jours, though of course about 80 percent of the people on the streets seem to be foreigners which, perhaps, explains the moral degeneration (as Albert Pierrepoint, one of the last hangmen of England, explained the struggle of the only man he knew who kicked up a fuss on the way to the scaffold, he being a foreigner and therefore not altogether pleased to be hanged).