I found the cat doing anagrams when I came home today. At least I assume that’s what she was doing: the scrabble tiles were scattered about her on the rug and she had a look of fierce concentration on her face. The newspaper lay strewn in pieces around the room. Obviously she had had difficulty finding the crossword puzzle.
I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised: she’s modelling her behaviour on me. I’ve become absolutely obsessed with cryptic crosswords, you see, since going to a talk by David Astle a fortnight ago.
For those not from Sydney, David Astle, also known as ‘DA’, is the Friday crossword compiler for the Sydney Morning Herald. I hadn’t had much experience with cryptic crosswords prior to this session: I got the occasional clue, but in the main part they were just a random jumble of words featuring sinister, gangster-like figures such as ‘Mr P.’ and copious references to American states.
They were something I always wanted to master though. I can remember watching my Grandma doing them and thinking how sophisticated and poised she seemed, methodically filling in each square with a biro (no tentative pencils for her), slicing through the quagmire of clues with the knife of her intellect.
Crosswords are also reputed to be an excellent way of staving off Alzheimers, and I’m paranoid about Alzheimers – so much so that I religiously eat half a cup of blueberries each morning because they’re supposed to prevent it, and panic each time I can’t perform simple memory tasks like reciting the entire Canterbury Tales by heart.
So this session was a godsend. All of a sudden my world cracked open: where previously I had seen only chaos, I now saw patterns, signposts, directions. I knew which words signalled an anagram or container; what abbreviations were commonly used in charades; which part of the clue was the definition and which was the bit to be manipulated (some of the time at least.) I was alert to the possibility of puns prowling about; saw deletions and alternations grinning at me from tantalising thickets of words; kept an ear permanently pricked for homophones and spoonerisms. I was sensibly wary of hybrids and manipulations. And when I saw a rebus, I no longer thought the compiler had got up for another cup of tea and forgotten to finish the clue. I was switched on. (Alright, I admit that I’m exaggerating, that I still haven’t got to the stage where I’m solving rebuses. But it isn’t too far off…)
It’s because of crosswords that my book reviews have been a little thin on the ground lately. While I used to read on the bus to and from work, I now spend the morning commute checking yesterday’s solutions, and the evening commute working on the day’s new puzzle.
If you ever want to be ostracised by your fellow human beings, I highly recommend doing cryptic crosswords on public transport. You should see me: face scrunched up in concentration (all my elaborate anti-wrinkle creams rendered pointless), raking fingers through my hair like a mad scientist, muttering strange incoherent phrases under my breath: ‘Georgia visits Los Angeles, dies beheaded beneath the stars’ (‘Galaxies’ in case you’re interested – I’m quite proud of myself for working that one out.)
I’m not really one for chatting to strangers, but at times I’ve been so caught up in puzzle-solving mania –so tantalisingly close to cracking that crucial clue – that I’ve resorted to asking passengers near me for help. Next time you’re on a bus, try asking the person sitting beside you if they can think of any small dog breeds beginning with an F, or if they’ve ever heard of a town in Switzerland called Usturta. The responses are interesting. Men invariably think you’re trying to pick them up, exchanging smug ‘she wants me’ smirks with other males nearby. (From my experience, the more unattractive and divorced-from-deodorant the man, the more inclined he is to think this.) Women on the other hand are much kinder. If you ask them whether they’re familiar with an animal called the zebu, they’ll simply assume you’re mad and move away accordingly.
This recent crossword fetish of mine has had other repurcussions too. My relationships with friends and family have suffered. When people speak to me, I’m no longer really listening to what they say: instead, I’m mentally counting the letters in the words they use.
I’ve also become obsessed with anagrams. Idly watching Seraphina Nightingale attacking Richard the other day, I suddenly realised that her name contained the words ‘Satan’ and ‘Hitler’. Surely this was more than mere wordplay –this was hinting at a deeper, more instrinsic understanding of her character.
I duly ran her name through an internet anagram generator just to see what it threw up:
- A seaplane hiring night
- A Shenanigan Lithe Prig
- A Shanghaiing Eel Print
- A Phalanger Nightie Sin
- A Hangnail Greenish Pit
- A Pheasant Hireling Gin
Again, astonishingly apt.
I’m embarrassed to admit what I did next: if googling your name is technological onanism, then I can’t even begin to think what running it through an anagram generator might be. But that’s what I did. And then I tried the names of every other person I could think of. And you may as well admit that you’re curious about yours as well (if so, just visit here, or for a quick fix, here.)
…Anyway, to cut a long story short, that’s why there’s no book review this week. I can however tell you that the centre of gravity is ‘v’. That Justin Timberlake is an anagram of, ‘I’m a jerk but listen’. That the thing which links friendship with mozzarella, truth, limousine, hamstrings and the imagination is that they can all be stretched. That ‘set’ is the English word with the most meanings in the dictionary. That British politician Virginia Bottomley’s name can be rearranged to make, ‘I’m an evil Tory bigot’.
I can tell you all this because I finally picked up a book again a few days back: David Astle’s memoir, Puzzled. It’s funny and quirky and clever and sly and full of amazing bits of word trivia you want to immediately share with the person beside you (again, not recommended on public transport.) Most importantly though, it gives you all the tools you need to be a cryptic crossword queen (or ‘conscripted crows query’.) I can’t praise this book enough.
But that’s all I’m going to say for now: I’ve got a crossword to finish.