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The miscellaneous collection of a magpie mind

Anita Roy | Updated on July 14, 2020 Published on July 14, 2020

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In her closing piece, writer Anita Roy takes stock of the column where she talked about books and being human

* We live our lives forward and make sense of them backwards

I began writing this column six years and six months ago. How time flies. Here we are, 71 articles later and ready with our ribbon and bow and scissors to wrap it up and wave goodbye.

Yes, it’s time to call it a day. It has been a privilege and an honour, often a hoot and sometimes a grind, to have an email land in my inbox each month with a fresh deadline. (I do love deadlines. As Douglas Adams puts it: I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.) Back in 2013, when Nandini Nair and I first hatched the idea, we toyed with calling this, essentially literary (or at least book-related) space ‘Shelfish’. I fancied myself as an exoskeleton-bearing invertebrate bottom-dweller, sieving the water for nutritious titbits of phytoplankton to share with my readers. But we finally plumped for ‘On the Shelf’. It’s a dismissive phrase used to describe women past their sell-by date in the marriage market, which I proudly reclaim as an unmarried, single middle-aged female person who is very happy being on the literal and figurative shelf: Browsing, lending, sharing, borrowing, reading and occasionally pontificating about books.

We live our lives forward and make sense of them backwards, so they say. And this year there has been a lot of both. Capturing the Covidian zeitgeist perfectly was Tomos Roberts, aka Tom Foolery’s sweet bedtime story The Great Realisation, which offers a message of transformation and hope, ending with the words “that’s why hindsight’s 2020”.

So taking a leaf out of his book, I looked back over the past 70 columns, using hindsight and 2020-vision. It’s a miscellaneous collection of my magpie, or possibly monkey, mind: Books for children and books for adults, poetry, adventures, romance, books on climate change, novels, nature, psychology, Time with a capital T, philosophy, physics, some old, some new, some borrowed, some even blue. That’s the thing about the format — columnists are allowed to be anecdotal and chatty, and my approach has been less as a reviewer or critic than as an enthusiastic friend sharing their latest recommendations.

In July 2015, I wrote about a battered second-hand copy of a book I chanced to find, entitled The Eloquent Silence, by WP Hodgkinson. Apart from that it was published in 1946 by Hodder & Stoughton, there were few facts to glean about the writer or his place. He renamed the village where he lives, and the people that he encounters because, as he explains in his preface, “it is not my job to record, but rather to invest with mystery the things I see; not to describe the commonplace, but to robe the ordinary in the splendid vestments of the unusual.”

Being a dutiful columnist (and shrimp-like bottom-dweller), I did the usual internet trawling, but the Net came up pretty much empty. As I wrote at the time, “in this age of information overload, there’s something quite delicious, quite rare and precious about this paucity of hyperlinkage”: It upped the mystery quotient deliciously, and draped the book even more in the splendid vestments of the unusual.

How delightful, then, just the other day to find in my inbox, a message out of the blue from a lady who had stumbled across my column on Hodgkinson on the web and got in touch. “His name was Wilfred and was born in our village and the book based here. He was 6 or so years older than my mum and she was very taken by him. Her copy of the book is very worn but much loved.”

So much of what we put out there will find its way back to us in unexpected ways. Pebbles in a pond, rippling outwards, but the ripples also bounce back, finding us at the shore trying to make sense of the overlapping patterns.

The lady and I are now in touch with each other, and perhaps one day I’ll be able to go to the village and meet the person whose mother was so taken with my mystery man.

The paucity of hyperlinkage is sometimes to be celebrated, for sure, but — as we have all found out during lockdown — the internet is also a marvellous lifeline. I rail against technology often, like the good little hippy that I am, but what would we do without it? We have all been adjusting to ‘the new normal’ of social distancing, virtual meeting and reduced travel but people will always need — and therefore find, discover or invent — ways to connect. We are already finding new ways to bring intimacy and connection into our lives, using screen and mouse and fingertips — and sometimes what we discover are the necessary prompts to re-engage us with the natural world. We down tools, close our screens and perhaps even answer the call of the wild.

Looking over the pile of my old columns — which makes me sound like a human Acropolis — some themes do emerge: Death and mortality, nature and the environment, the world viewed from a child’s perspective and that of an adult — ultimately it’s all about what it is to be human, simply that. Making sense or nonsense, thinking and feeling, stumbling, falling and getting up again. Talking — connecting — wondering — sharing — playing with language and ideas. I have enjoyed writing these columns so much, and thank you to all the readers who have told me that they’ve enjoyed reading them over the years. Though we may not be able to touch, we will, I am sure, be in touch.

From the bookshelfish to you all: Happy reading.

(The column concludes)

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Anita Roy is a writer, editor and environmentalist; www.anitaroy.net

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Published on July 14, 2020
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