Titles and opening sentences

 Ghost writers in the sky

I’m starting on an updated historical novel about Joseph and Mary with the working title:  “We need  to talk about Jesus“. In Aramaic.

I’ve just finished a short story about witchcraft set in a 17th century Scottish village at carnival time with the title:  “Fowlis Fair” ( Fowlis is a wee village outside Dundee)

My last novel – a complicated narrative about a feckless young teacher who was marooned on Ibiza with a plane-load of mostly upper-class schoolchildren and who let the school (and himself) down but came out quite well in the end – was called:  “Lucky Lord Jim of the Flies“.

And so on.

But you can spend ages trying to find a title for your writing, whatever it is.  Or for your painting. I don’t like it when a photograph of  a sunset over the sea has as its title “SUNSET OVER THE SEA.”  On the other hand, if Picasso hadn’t called his painting “Guernica” what would critics have made of it? And someone pointed out that ‘untitled’ is a title. Is “Catcher in the Rye” a good title? ” Moby Dick”?  “Pride and Prejudice”? How about one-word titles like “Departures”, “Distances”? The book I’m reading now is called ” A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In”. I think good titles tend to be a touch ironic, or metaphorical, or even poetic in some way. I’m not even sure they are all that important but you can spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to think up a ‘good’ one.
I’d be interested in your views on titles ( or opening sentences for that matter  – there’s another time-waster. Or is it? I get the distinct feeling after having read the opening sentence(s) whether I’m going to enjoy this (or not).
“It is a truth universally acknowledged….” Jane Austen can hit the right note from the very beginning; and

” If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
The same applies to the opening shot(s) of a film….C’est le premier pas qui coûte.) After the first few seconds I know whether I’m going to be riveted or bored by the next hour or so.


The River Ericht near Blairgowrie on a November day, best known for its narrow waterfall across which a Covenanting minister, Donald Cargill, leapt to escape arrest from pursuing soldiers (not much later he was caught and executed).

Cargill’s Leap is a narrow waterfall on the River Ericht at Blairgowrie. In higher water the force of the current funnelled through the narrow gap is so great that fish cannot swim through.

Cargill's Leap - completed work  

Red squirrels leap from tree to tree 

denying laws of gravity

in a  joyful death-defying game

while a  heron watches  still and tall

from the pool below the waterfall

where Donald  Cargill left his name 

in a leap that might have set him free.


I liked the feel of them. Early 1900s. Brass with leather covering. Centre focus. And French. I ’ve always had a penchant for things French, as you’ve no doubt guessed already. Lumière de Paris. Just the sound of the maker’s name was enough to make me close my eyes, to make me yearn for something I hadn’t got. Lumière de Paris
All the way home I was like a kid with a new toy, zooming in on anything and everything that caught my eye – a couple kissing (she kept her nice blue eyes open throughout the kiss); a roof-repairer (wearing an out-of-date Arsenal shirt with HENRY printed on the back – I could only see the HEN bit because he was half-hidden by the chimney stack but I could guess the rest – I probably could have deciphered that much without the binoculars); the front page of The Times (being read by an elderly gent at a bus stop across the street – I was surprised to note it had gone up to £150 but that was perhaps only for the Saturday edition).
After a week of irregular use, however, the binocular novelty began to fade, diminish, dwindle, ease off as it were.
My first misgivings came when I spotted a fox on the garden wall, an exciting enough event  to watch, drink in and remember later. A precious moment stolen from time. Emotion recollected in tranquillity and all that. If I had been a Verlaine I would have penned an immortal poem about it some lazy Sunday afternoon months afterwards but instead, me being just me, I reached for the binoculars, a bit like a Japanese tourist reaching for his Nikon as soon as the Taj Mahal comes into sight.
The fox stood there,  posing so it seemed, big tail, thinnish body, long face, bright fearless eyes, quite relaxed, quite blasé, something of autumn in its red-brown coat, looking over its left shoulder for me as if it had been waiting for ages, as if I was late for our appointment, but as soon as I made that fatal move to fish the binoculars out of my pocket – Whoosh! -and it was gone, dematerialised, vanishing into the thin air from whence it came, leaving me disappointed. Disenchanted. Disrespected.
My next faux-pas was when I saw Helga, my 40 year-old next-door neighbour, naked, well after midnight, chasing round her kitchen with a yellow plastic fly-swatter held aloft, poised and ready to strike. (I used to use a rolled up copy of The Scotsman for the same purpose, usually waiting till the bluebottle  landed on a window pane before I struck, but all that was well before I entered my Buddhist period….now it’s ‘Live and let live’.)  Anyway Helga’s bluebottle wasn’t one of those end-of-season types, (“torpid” is the word I’m groping for) but a bit of a mover, a frenetic zigzagger, never settling for long enough to be a sitting target. It was such an uneven contest. I became more interested in whether she caught the fly than in catching a glimpse of anything in the breast or pubic regions – she was after all a middle-aged lady and a nice woman to boot, a bit of a gourmet, well-travelled, interesting, kept herself to herself but with neighbours like me who could blame her?
The binoculars were excellent. No complaint there. Nothing wrong with the instrument though perhaps the same could not be said for the user. In fact I was able to locate the bluebottle long before she did, and felt like throwing open my kitchen window and shouting at her, “It’s behind you!” or ”Above you! Just above your head! ” or ” Look, look up, you silly woman! Up there! On the effan lampshade!”
I had switched off my kitchen light and assumed I had thus rendered myself invisible but I think she must have spotted me spotting her, some glint from the binocular lenses perhaps,  because she suddenly switched off the light (“and in an instant, all was dark“) and when she switched it back on several minutes later she was fully dressed, as if she was setting off for some secret midnight ball that the rest of us hadn’t been invited to. (..to which the rest of us hadn’t  been invited…Better? Too Henry James perhaps?)

A vintage pair of metal and leather binoculars

She peered out of her window in my direction (my light was still switched off) then drew the curtains, not first the left then the right one as most people do but both together, a very clear-cut act of closure, a very definite zzipp!
So. curtain-time then, my night’s entertainment over, sad to say. And when I bumped into her at the Deli counter in the Supermarket next day she wasn’t her usual cheery self. Far from it. Decidedly chilly, if you really want to know.
“Have you tried that Camembert de Pichaud ?” I asked pointing out the little round balsa-wood box  with the white horse picture on the lid but she just shook her head, pointedly avoiding eye-contact, and pointedly hurrying off elsewhere with her trolley. I felt like shouting after her, ” Did you finally get that effan bluebottle then?”
Later that afternoon when I found myself watching in thrilling close-up a thrush with a white star marking on its breast bobbobbing about the lawn, stabstabbing with its yellow beak at some insect or worm or whatever for twenty minutes or so, I said to myself, ” Tiens, tiens, mon brave! Sure as hell this is no way for a fully grown adult to be passing his limited spell on earth!”
I decided without further ado to take the effan things back to whence they came. Then I was due to meet up with a man. A man  to whom I was owing a considerable sum of money. A considerable amount of money which I didn’t have and which he wouldn‘t accept that I didn‘t have. A man called Quint. An unpleasant man called Quint with a thick Belfast accent which no-one dared to comment on (…on which etc…)
So, with time to spare  I got the 44 down to the charity shop and there, in the window, propped up against the empty binocular case, was a square of cardboard which said in a big, black felt-pen scrawl:
Now if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s seeing the poor old defenceless apostrophe misunderstood, misused, misplaced, mistreated, so instead of just quietly replacing the binoculars, I purloined a copy of “The Camelgirl” by Emma Waugh which I’d wanted to read for ages. Then I headed reluctantly for my favourite pub, slowing down to listen to the ancient but still talented accordionist who plays (and sings!) French love songs of the twenties and early thirties at the corner of Albany Street and Seven Sisters Road, outside The Izaak Walton where I had arranged (or rather, I had been summoned) to meet Sean Quint, aka ‘The Hulk’, ex-hurling player of distinction (thus the missing front teeth), sometime house painter and decorator,  reliable but expensive, and, at present, coercer and  arm-breaker extraordinaire.
The accordionist ( I had listened to him often enough, I should have known his name) didn’t seem to be doing well. People passed, slowed down but didn’t stop or if they did it was just for long enough to drop a coin into his hat because of his age rather than his performance. Pity. He still had the voice. Still sweet in spite of too many Gauloises. And still the nimble fingers. I’m told street performers can make more than £100 on an average  day.
He was seated on a folding chair, knees akimbo,  accordion resting on his right thigh, green hat upturned at his feet.  65? 70?  Must have been quite a looker when he was young. Still lean as a whippet. 65.
Pity about the accordion though. German. A Hohner Ventura. Wheezy.
I let my handful of silver trickle into his green hat ( a match with his green corduroy jacket). Although I know they usually make sure the hat or whatever is kept emptyish for obvious reasons, all I could see in his hat, apart from my own contribution,  was a dozen or so copper coins. And it was Saturday, a prime time, a prime spot.
Used to have a spot on TV back in the good old black and white days, or so I’m told. Ah well. “Sic transit gloria mundi” .
Big sigh.
If you wanted him to sing any particular song you had to write down its name for him.  Perhaps he was deaf or something. Anyhow, partly to put off the evil hour, partly because it was my sort of music, I tore a blank page from the back of “The Camelgirl” and  printed on it with my short blue bookie’s pen the first line of my favourite favourite song, ”On n’a pas tous les jours vingt ans” which he can perform well enough in his own particular way although I must admit I prefer it as played by Léon Raiter and sung by the incomparable Berthe Sylva.When he had finished “Coeur de Voyou” I handed him the page which he read then handed it back to me, nodding, and immediately began to play  my song as if it was his favourite too:

“On  n’a  pas  tous  les  jours  vingt  ans,
 Ça  nous arrive une  fois  seulement ”                                                                                                                                                                                         

He now had an audience of half-a dozen or so. And you could add to that the three smokers in the doorway of the Walton who had turned to face the music. He didn’t look at anyone as he sang, just occasionally glancing down at his right hand as if unsure that it knew all the notes while his left hand was left entirely to its own devices.
I’d forgotten just how long the song was. On and on and on it went, fine for me but not so for non-aficionados. His audience drifted away one by one till there was only me and the smokers in the Walton doorway left. (..were only I…?)
After a bit, I realised I liked the song as much as ever but not the words, not the message, certainly not the message, “You’re not twenty for ever, that comes to us once only …”. In fact I had never really listened to the words before, just nodded along with the music and the mood. “You’re only young once.“  What about  “You’re only middle-aged once”? Or “You’re only old once”? Didn’t  that make just as much sense? Or just as little? In fact all that made sense was
As soon as he hit the last note, he clipped the bellows shut,  got to his feet and leaning slightly forward,  unstrapped  himself from his Hohner a bit like a woman getting out of  her  bra. Curtain-time again.
He fitted the accordion back  into its big black box, a bit like a giant club foot, straightened up, stretched, lit himself a cigarette. Sad to play to an audience of one; sad to sing your heart out and nobody notices, nobody applauds; sad to be old and unappreciated.
I had clapped but of course he hadn’t heard. Did he hear the songs that he sang? Did he
Nobody watching, I dropped the binoculars into his green hat and  felt  suddenly –  well, perhaps not so much ‘uplifted’ as…..‘reprieved‘… ‘released’…or even ‘relieved’…
Certainly ‘relieved’ of the binoculars.
I waited till he picked up his hat then turned away. By the time he has lifted the binoculars out of his hat, looked at them, smiled, then used them to zoom in on  a passing seagull or whatever, I‘ll be out of sight, out of mind.
What go’s around come’s around,  things work out for the best,  gather ye rosebuds while ye may……
You might as well believe in the effan fairies as in all that guff. I could cope. In my own way  by myself  not needing your helping hand thank you very much I could cope with whatever the fickle fan of destiny might throw back in my face. In my own way, in my own way. Whatever that was. I would find out as I went along. Frank Sinatra did.
Bypassing the Walton (where at this very second Mr. Quint would no doubt be glancing with narrowed eyes at his Rolex ), still trying to work out in my head what made sense and what didn‘t, I went on my  way, head high, big strides, back straight, not exactly rejoicing  but in the zone, as they say, prepared for whatever came to pass, and,  just to be on the safe side, taking more care than usual not to tread on the cracks in the pavement..
And it was a nice enough evening. Almost not raining.



          George Mackay Brown   

The ethos and outlook of the islanders have changed greatly 
since I was a child. People are more prosperous, but the 
community spirit has everywhere slackened, and the
language becomes increasingly impoverished. But sea 
and islands and hills are still there, and I am thankful 
I saw these everlasting things with a child’s eye, 
and the vivd people who lived among them, and their 
ancient benign rituals.

My poetry is a memory and a celebration of such things.

      Rackwick Bay: Hoy

George Mackay Brown 1993

Let no voice idly whisper here. 
Between those strong red cliffs, 
under that great mild sky 
lies Orkney’s last enchantment,  
the hidden valley of light.
Sweetness from the clouds pouring, 
songs from the surging sea. 
Fenceless fields, fishermen with ploughs 
and old heroes, endlessly sleeping 
in Rackwick’s compassionate hills.
 George Mackay Brown 1950