‘A Christmas Meeting’ by Rosemary Timperley

I don’t know where I came across ‘A Christmas Meeting’ and I’m not quite sure I ‘get it’. It is quite a wobbly little story that seems to get wobblier each time you try to take hold of it.

Our unnamed narrator – “a spinster with…myopic eyes that once were beautiful” – is spending Christmas alone in her furnished room. She muses on “all the Christmases of the past coming back in a mad jumble” and concludes that “however cynical you are, however irreligious, it makes you feel queer to be alone at Christmas time.” She is not really alone though, for she has “a feeling of companionship with all the other people who are spending Christmas ­­– millions of them – past and present”. She is even less alone – and “absurdly relieved” – when a young man comes to her room in error, and ends up staying for a chat.

I usually share this story with thirteen-year-olds, having spent a few weeks studying Saki, Dahl, and other twisty tale-tellers. When it comes to the last week before the holidays, I reach for ‘A Christmas Meeting’. I read it aloud and let it go, for fear that if I force my pupils to study it proper it will wobble away from them. It isn’t quite the end-of-term treat they want (it’s good, but it’s no Shrek 2!), but ‘A Christmas Meeting’ is usually met with a sort of enthusiastic confusion that I interpret as approval.

First published in Truth, November 1951, widely anthologised, and finally collected in From Another World and Other Ghost Stories, Sundial Press, 2016

Chosen by Matthew Hamblin. Matthew is a teacher and a potter. He works at a comprehensive boys’ school in central London and in his shed. You can read his full Personal Anthology of stories he loves to teach here.


Nobody has ever asked me for advice about how to teach and I don’t think they ever will. But if they do, I’ll say this: If you’ve got a good text to share and some good questions to ask, everything might be fine.

As well as being good and well-written and worthy in their own right I think that these stories are all broadly appropriate for study with 11-18 year olds.  In my experience they ‘work’, either as something fun to read aloud, or as something thought-provoking to discuss.

If you are a teacher and you would like PDFs of the stories, do get in touch.

‘A Table is A Table’ by Peter Bichsel, translated by Michael Hamburger

‘I want to tell the story of an old man, of a man who has given up talking, who has a tired face, too tired for smiling and too tired for frowning’

An old man decides that something has to change, and invents his own language. As he pursues this idea, keeping track in blue exercise books, what was at first odd becomes funny, then suddenly sad.

With very little prompting (“is this just a weird story about an old man, or does it have a deeper meaning?”) even tough-guy teenage boys will discuss loneliness, dementia, immigration, and the importance of friendship.

First published in German 1973. Available on The White Review website, newly translated by Lydia Davis, here

‘The Linesman’ by Janet Frame

 I looked from my window and saw him already working, twisting, arranging wires, screwing, unscrewing, leaning back from the pole, dependent upon his safety belt, trusting in it, seeming in a position of comfort and security.

Not even a whole page! There are lots of things by Janet Frame that I Iike, but I’ve never worked out how to teach any of them. This nicely worked little story perfectly captures the feeling of being young in summer, and is so neat it near enough teaches itself. Nothing happens, everything seems achingly slow, and the last line is a killer.

A nice thing to do is to ask the kids “what happens next” and have them write their own continuations.

Published in The Reservoir, George Brazillier, 1993

‘Hermit Wanted’ by Mick Jackson

‘[Giles and Ginny] created a deer park and commissioned a couple of follies and a croquet lawn with peacocks strutting around it, and employed plenty of staff to do all the cooking and cleaning and to treat [them] with the kids of respect they felt their considerable wealth deserved.’

It’s hard to choose just one story from Mick Jackson’s ‘Ten Sorry Tales’, which was left in my pigeon hole by a much better, kinder teacher a few years ago. The whole collection is worth a look, and it is the book most often stolen from my classroom – high praise indeed.

This story is about a well-heeled couple who decide that the one thing their estate lacks is a hermit. Despite attracting few applicants they eventually fill the position, providing food and shelter with the simple request that their hermit must remain ‘as quiet as the grave’. All goes well until Giles and Ginny find ‘a new distraction’ in the form of ‘an heir to the throne’.

in ‘Ten Sorry Tales’, Faber, 2005

‘Job’ by Roger Robinson

What the hell happened to your eyes, Frank? Don’t tell me you’ve started wearing tinted contact lenses.

When a friend dragged me to some trendy literary event in East London, Roger Robinson towered above the other contributors. I picked up a copy of ‘Adventures in 3D’ for the princely sum of five pounds, and read ‘Job’ to my Year 11 class the next day. Two black men, friends from University, stay in touch as they enter the world of adulthood. With the pressures of work one of the men, Frank, starts to change.

Some of the most interesting conversations I have had have started as a result of this story. Is the author black? Would it make you feel differently if the author were white? How might different readers understand this story differently? How might white readers interpret this story differently from readers of colour?

From the collection ‘Adventures in 3D’, Lubin & Kleyner, 2002

The Vertical Ladder by William Sansom

This is one of the many stories I would never have come across without A Personal Anthology. It was Roland Bates‘ first pick and he introduced it with this:
in 1981 my English teacher read to the class a story about a boy pressed into climbing the ladder on the side of a gasometer. He climbs, his friends kick away the first bit of the ladder, he climbs, they wander off, and he climbs… towards a truly oppressive ending. You could have heard a pin drop.
 What teacher wouldn’t be tempted to give it a go on a rainy Friday afternoon? I can’t say my pupils were quite as rapt as Bates’ mates in 1981, but they did listen, and they occasionally mention the story even months later. Why does Flegg agree to climb? Why does he keep climbing? Is this just a story about a gasholder, or might it have a deeper message?
1944; now in The Stories of William Sansom, Faber. Online here

‘Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’ by Herman Melville

conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness… Ah, Bartleby. Ah, humanity.

This is a bad choice for this anthology. It’s not exactly an unheard-of hidden gem. It’s not even a short story. It’s right on the edge of what you could read aloud to A-Level students, most of whom would fall asleep halfway through. And yet it is irresistible.

A lawyer hires a third member of staff for his small office. While Bartleby impresses at first, it quickly becomes apparent that he has a unique approach to work and a healthy disregard for authority. The narrator grows increasingly unable to manage or understand his new scrivener, whose catchphrase is sure to come in handy for any teacher in a modern school.

First published 1853. Available online here

‘A Sound of Thunder’ by Ray Bradbury

‘It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker’s claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior.’

 Read it. Do the voices.
1952; available online here

‘Charles’ by Shirley Jackson

“Look up,” he said to his father. “What?” his father said, looking up.“Look down,” Laurie said. “Look at my thumb. Gee, you’re dumb.” He began to laugh insanely.’

This is a story about a boy called Laurie who starts school. Most of his stories revolve around ‘Charles’, another, much naughtier boy in his class. His parents are keen to find out more about ‘Charles’, to meet his parents, and to offer the teacher some moral support. It is only when Laurie’s mother attends a parent-teacher evening that we realise the truth about ‘Charles’.

I tend to teach this story alongside Jekyll & Hyde, for fairly obvious reasons. Why does Laurie invent Charles? Do you think Laurie will continue to talk about Charles now he has been found out? Has Laurie changed as a result of starting school, or was he always like this really?

First published in Mademoiselle in 1948. Collected in The Lottery and Other Stories, FSG, 1949

‘Kew Gardens’ by Virginia Woolf

…one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed…

This is a very simple, very short story set in Kew Gardens. As a snail makes his steady way around a flowerbed, a number of groups pass by and we are given a brief snapshot of their conversations. This is not an easy sell, but it works beautifully as an introduction to modernism and provides a valuable opportunity for younger readers to think about the impact (and practicalities of) narrative structures and devices.

Quite a lot of hand-holding is required, admittedly, but once it clicks it really clicks.

Why does the author keep coming back to the snail and the colourful shadows made by the flowers? Would this story make sense if the descriptions of the snail were removed? Can you see any links between Kew Gardens and any other texts you have read? What do you notice about the dialogue? In what ways is it similar to dialogue you are used to reading? In what ways is it different?

First published 1919, collected in Monday or Tuesday, Hogarth Press, 1921

‘The Landlady’ by Roald Dahl

“But I’m always ready. Everything is always ready day and night in this house just on the offchance that an acceptable young gentleman will come along.”

Seventeen-year-old Billy Weaver travels to Bath with work. Having been told to find his own lodgings, he chances across an odd but competitively priced Bed & Breakfast. He receives a warm welcome, has a chat about the names in the visitors book, and joins the landlady for a cup of tea and a biscuit.

I tend to read it for fun at first, then force them to think about the way the story is structured afterwards.

How does the writer prevent us from realising the woman is a murderer until the end of the story? Are there any hints that the Bed & Breakfast and the woman aren’t normal? Look again at the last sentence – is this a good way to end the story? Is it better to know a story is a scary story from the beginning, or is it better to find this out as a surprise?

First published in The New Yorker in November 1959; then anthologised in Kiss Kiss, Michael Joseph, 1960