Opening lines are a good place to start. How did Lady Chatterley begin? Nobody remembers – I suppose in 1960 we were flicking ahead impatiently – but Richard Cohen reminds us that the opening lines were overblown and ‘a little pompous’. His own preferences include those of Lolita (‘light of my life, fire of my loins’) and P G Wodehouse’s The Luck of the Bodkins: ‘Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.’ Both are ‘grabbers’. My own favourite, ‘It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me’ (from Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers), did not make Cohen’s cut.
But these give you a flavour of this welcome, wise and witty book. Even the designer of the pleasing cover deserves a prize. What impelled Cohen to write it was a lifetime spent editing the works of others: Sebastian Faulks, Fay Weldon,