Bedtime Stories

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I can’t remember if my parents read to me at bedtime. If they did, it left not a trace behind. They did, however, pack me off at the age of 13 to a traditional boarding-school where bedtime reading to the new boys’ dormitory was an established ritual undertaken by the duty prefect. By the time I arrived this enlightened custom had degener­ated from the originating housemaster’s lofty ideals. Some of the prefects appeared, even to us, as barely literate. One would read two or three pages of whichever book came to hand. The following night his successor would repeat the process with a random extract from a different book. It was barely a system and did not lend itself to continuity. Some read fluently and with feeling. Some read to us in foreign languages, living and dead. It didn’t matter. We adored it. It was a ritual and we were much aggrieved if it was denied. Perhaps that housemaster was wiser than I give him credit for. Perhaps even the prefects benefited.

Forty years ago I sat, for the first time, at the housemaster’s desk in a traditional senior boarding-school myself. The wheel had come full circle. Loftily idealistic, I resolved to offer my fledglings a sophis­tication on my own experience, with the result that I was kept housebound every evening for the length of my tenure. (I imagine that, once this pattern was established, it was the cue for the rest of the house to decamp to their various hidey-holes and smoke them­selves sick.)

Books that read well aloud benefit from a strong, page-turning plot and a handful of well-differentiated characters. My first choice was John le Carré’s A Murder of Quality (1962) in which George Smiley plays the detective following a murder at a posh traditional boarding-school called Carne. It is the only Smiley book which has nothing to do with espionage, but Smiley is as Smiley, methodically, does:

It had been one of Smiley’s cardinal principles in research, whether among t

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About the contributor

Ewen Campbell was a soldier, then a teacher, and is now a grower.

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