In my nursery school nativity play, the Christmas before I turned five, I was cast as the narrator. My role involved sitting on a set of steps to one side of the stage in Silchester village hall, and reading out, from a primitive autocue - a series of large sheets of white cardboard, the text handwritten on them in thick felt-tip pen - the story of the first Christmas, as my contemporaries performed what I spoke. The most thrilling scene for me had nothing to do with donkeys, inns, stables, babies, shepherds, angels or wise men, but was when 'there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed' (not, of course, that we used the Authorised Version). For this, I stamped my way over to the middle of the stage, and declaimed the decree in the person of the Emperor. My costume consisted of a toga, sandals and a laurel wreath, which Imperial get-up I wore throughout the performance. And I was never, and still am not, entirely sure of the extent to which the persons of Caesar and narrator coincided. At any rate, the experience instilled in my childhood self a (not articulated) sense, residual still, that there might be a mystical, if misty, relationship between reading and power.
LRB 25 April 2002 | PDF Download