So much of my time is taken up with doctoring sick prose, and complaining here about suspect advice on grammar and usage, that I thought it might be salutary to take a look, for once, at some good prose.
Here is the opening paragraph from "Josie's Well," an article by John McPhee on Scotch whisky first published in Holiday in 1970 and reprinted in his collection Pieces of the Frame.
The Laphroaig distillery is on the southern shore of Islay, one of the isles of Argyll, in the Inner Hebrides. The buildings are all white and rise among dark-green Scotch pines by the water's edge. A clear burn flows to the distillery through acres of peats, over rocks, more peats, more rocks, more peats, into the buildings, and out in barrels and bottles of the whisky, Laphroaig. The distiller's home is part of the compound and is full of light, for its seaward walls are largely glass. His living room is upstairs and is cantilevered toward a spectacular and often misty view over the pines and the sea. Multiple white couches are covered with pillows in blazing color. The bar is quilted. There is a white grand piano. Two golden retrievers lie on the floor. The distiller, whose name is Wishart Campbell, stands beside a Sony solid-state stereo tape recorder, his hand on the bass control. He wears a sports jacket, and he is somewhat heavyset but nonetheless athletic in carriage, a glib man, quick, fluid, idiomatic. He refers to his wife as "Mrs. C." His whisky is so smoky, so heavy, so redolently peaty that a consumer feels he is somehow drinking a slab of bacon. There is some Laphroaig--a few drops per fifth--in Ballantine's, Teacher's, Dewar's, White Horse, Johnnie Walker, Black and White, Haig & Haig, thirty-odd Scotches in all. "If the blenders want a Hebridean malt, they come here and get it," Campbell explains. "In a proper blend, Laphroaig is the foundation, the real gutsy base." George Gershwin's "Love Walked In" is pouring out of the Sony. Campbell turns the bass control knob as far as it will go, and the Gershwin deepens into broad profundities of sound. Campbell says, "There you have it. That is Laphroaig."
A writer has to be confident of his craft to expect a reader to follow him through a 300-word opening paragraph.
The structure is set up like a tracking shot: the panorama of island and water, then the buildings of the distillery, into the living room, and finally to the distiller standing before us. It has motion, which is also conveyed in the description of the water flowing "to the distillery through acres of peats, over rocks, more peats, more rocks, more peats, into the buildings, and out in barrels and bottles of the whisky."
We see the sea and the pines from the outside and then, balanced, through the living room windows. The white of the distillery buildings is echoed by the white of the furniture and piano in the living room.
The name of the whisky, Laphroaig (pronounced la-FROYG, incidentally), is in the opening sentence, and punctuates the paragraph at intervals, coming down emphatically at the end.
At the midpoint we have Wishart Campbell's hand on the bass control of the Sony, and the suspended action is completed at the end.
We have that lovely, memorable simile, that consuming Laphroaig is like drinking bacon.
We have the names of all those Scotches, to point ahead to further exploration of whiskies in the rest of the article. (Talisker, Macallan, and Glenlivet are still to come.)
This article captivated me when I first read it nearly forty years ago, and I always return to it with pleasure. It is a craftsman's work, the elements in this opening paragraph fitted together in a snug piece of joinery.
Lift a glass in gratitude whenever you find a writer who doesn't make you sigh.
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