Suspended sentence

2013-08-22 00:00

モIT was raining at Shongweni.ヤ That was going to be my opening sentence for an article on the first Test in this yearメs BMW Polo Series played at Shongweni last Sunday.

I had composed the sentence well in advance, thanks to keeping an eye on the television weather forecast every evening the preceding week: sunny until Saturday, rain on Sunday.

But it didnメt quite work out like that. Sunday dawned in Durban with plenty of bright sunlight shafting through scudding clouds but no sign of rain. By the time I had driven up Fieldメs Hill, and beyond to Shongweni, it was certainly colder, thanks to a combination of altitude and a wind cutting across the cane fields on the far side of the adjacent N3. But when South Africa took the field against Chile at around 2.30?pm, there was definitely no rain. Pity, I was particularly attached to that sentence because it was a variant-cum-homage to one of my favourite opening sentences: モIt was raining at Manipurヤ, which begins Monsoon Victory by Gerald Hanley, published in 1946 and which, according to the blurb on the back of an old paperback copy, モtells of the epic struggle of the East African Rifles in helping recapture Burma from the Japaneseヤ.

Hanleyメs brief foreword is more specific: モThis is the story of the advance down the Khabaw Valley to the Chindwin. It was the first time we had advanced in the monsoon, and the East African Infantry Division was picked for the job.ヤ

Hanley was a special war correspondent with the rank of captain, and he wrote the book, mostly an eyewitness account, while flying back to Europe aboard a Dakota. He went on to be a novelist who would record the twilight of the British empire in a series of novels set in Africa (The Consul at Sunset, Drinkers of Darkness, The Year of the Lion) and India (The Journey Homeward, Noble Descents).

During the fifties, Hanley was a rising literary star, compared with and praised by Ernest Hemingway, but, since his death in 1992, he has largely faded from view, although his autobiographical travel book, Warriors and Strangers, especially the first half set in Somaliland, has come to be regarded as a classic among aficionados of the genre.

Monsoon Victory turned up recently as a primary source book for David Killingrayメs Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War. Over half a million Africans served with the British Army as combatants and non-combatants during World War 2. They served in east and north Africa, the Middle East, Burma and Italy. Most of these men, and a few women, were recruited from Britainメs colonies in west and east Africa, as well as from Sudan, Somaliland, Swaziland, Lesotho and South Africa. According to Hanley, the soldiers of the East African Rifles were モdrawn from the country between Nyasaland (now Malawi) far south, to the barren deserts of Kenyaメs northern frontier and even from the banks of the Nileヤ. One soldier came from further south: モThere was even a grey-haired Zulu who worked in the stables of Johannesburg. How did he join the East African division?ヤ ponders Hanley.

Apart from my affection for Hanleyメs first sentence, it also has an added bonus in relation to last Sundayメs polo international, as Manipur played a key role in the history of polo. According to Wikipedia: モThe modern game of polo, though formalised and popularised by the British, is derived from Manipur (now a state in India), where the game was known as Sagol Kangjei, Kanjai-bazee, or Pulu.ヤ

There are plenty of famous opening sentences to books?ラ?Leo Tolstoyメs: モHappy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own wayヤ, from Anna Karenina immediately comes to mind.

Or how about: モThe past is a foreign country: they do things differently thereヤ, from L.P. Hartleyメs The Go-Between.

Most agree that the all-time greatest opener is モCall me Ishmaelヤ, from Herman Melvilleメs Moby Dick.

For a more recent candidate: モIt was the day my grandmother explodedヤ, courtesy of Iain Banksメs The Crow Road.

My favourite: モI was born in 1927, the only child of middleヨclass parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria.ヤ How can you read that and not devour the rest of The Magus by John Fowles?

However, none of the above, suitably adapted, is going to provide stand-ins for a non-raining day at Shongweni. Quite what my opening sentence will be, I donメt know as I have yet to write the article, which is scheduled to appear tomorrow. モIt wasnメt raining at Shongweniヤ simply ainメt going to cut it.


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