Magpie studies

Stern warnings were given about not leaving shiny things on window sills.

A story was told of a woman taking off her ring to wash the dishes on the kitchen sink, which was in front of an open window, and discovering her ring had disappeared. Days later it was found, with other shiny things, in the nest of a magpie.

No one could ever verify such a story. Perhaps it had happened locally. Perhaps the story had come from another part of the country. Perhaps the story was an enlargement upon simpler tales of magpies being attracted to shiny metal and being known to take them back to their nest.

In retrospect, I wonder why no-one asked why someone was in a tree looking for a magpie’s nest and how they knew the ring had belonged to the woman. Perhaps it was all on the same farm and they had known where to look.

The ability of magpies to spot and collect shiny things always seemed a very useful skill for them to possess. Why gather things you do not want when you were able to spot and gather the things you did want?

It was a useful way of approaching study, or, to be honest, it was a useful way of passing exams.

Realising the need to equip his students for their A Level exams, and realising also that some of them were not the most industrious, Mr Buchanan taught skills that were not dissimilar to those of a magpie. He taught us to read the contents page, the foreword, and the afterword of books. He taught us to read the introductory and the concluding paragraphs of chapters. He taught us to note headings and sub-headings. “If you can’t read the book, at least read the reviews,” he would urge us.

Playing the magpie became a way of getting through qualifications. Most essays and assignments can be completed with an appropriate selection of apposite quotes.

Returning to study in recent weeks, there was a moment of awareness that being a magpie was no longer either necessary or desirable, that there was time to sit and read and read.

Last week, probably for the first time, I read a book from a reading list from cover to cover, making pencil written notes in an old exercise book as I went along. At the end there was a sense of satisfaction, it wasn’t so painful after all. Forty years too late, I escaped being a magpie.


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