An exchange of cross words (or, why there is no book review this week either)

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.  

Fina seeks solace in alcohol after encountering a particularly fiendish crossword clue.

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About bakersdaughterwrites

What to say? I’m a 30-something year old woman from Sydney notorious for changing her mind. I have a cat named Seraphina Nightingale, whic
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19 Responses to An exchange of cross words (or, why there is no book review this week either)

  1. 1.Iwish Fitzroy and Seraphia could have kittens.2. I figured our the anagrams in my name at 12. Didn’t even need the Generator though I will now go look for better ones. 3. It’s a myth about crosswords and Alzheimers. What I read recently is if you spend a week in a place cunningly designed by scientists to evoke memories of the decade of your 20s, with a gang of peers (as in age, not British lords), all pretending you’re still 22, your mind and body will start believing it and revert. d. My mother will always do crosswords better than me and read more books in a week. e. Commenting on your blog could be even more addictive,especially when I do it on my iPhone from bed.

    • Wow, a five part comment! (I was going to call it a quintella but then found out that was actually a pop group.) Love your reference to British Lords. And I will attempt this startling new restorative therapy you speak of – I’ve always been a firm believer in science.

  2. Grad says:

    This was so, so clever and fun. When I first read The Gold Bug by Poe as a kid, I became enthralled with cryptograms and work them whenever I can find them in the newspaper. I also love Quote Acrosstics. I, too, am terrified of Alzheimers. Years ago I had to hire an expert witness in geriatric medicine for a matter we were handling, I asked her what I could do to help stave it off and she told me to work a crossword puzzle everyday – or a complicated math problem. I think the idea is to keep the little gray cells challenged daily with some complex brain activity. I tend to cheat at crossword puzzles, so I’m not sure how much they are helping me. I do eat blueberries, however. So I feel smugly confident! Great post and keep Seraphina busy with those scrabble tiles.

    • I don’t think I know that short story (I’m assuming a short story?) I’ll have to read it while I’m in cryptic mode. Actually, it might be a good bridge back into the world of literature…

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who worries about Alzheimers. For a really effective guard against it, I suggest eating blueberries while doing a crossword and stroking a salmon on your lap (apparently pets are another good preventative measure. And salmon is also meant to help.)

  3. I would love to see a photo of your cat with the Scrabble tiles. And please feel free to post with questions about the various states, perhaps we can help.

    Also, please tell me you’re joking about reciting the Canterbury Tales? I don’t think I could ever read them, much less recite them from memory!

  4. litlove says:

    Well, I admire you. I cannot do ordinary crosswords and the cryptic ones are so far beyond me that if my life depended on it, I could not solve a single clue. And I am quite, quite hopeless at anagrams, although the ones you mention made me laugh a lot. I think I had better go get me a bumper supply of blueberries… :)

  5. Melissa Romo says:

    Love reading you BDW! I have the same problem at the moment with obsessive Sudoku-doing (do they have these in Sydney?). I was on the NYC subway last night, after a day full of writing and a late critique group. I was too mentally fried to even look at people, so I did a Sudoku. And when I write all day, there’s one thing I absolutely love with a passion: A NUMBER! ;-)
    If you like puzzles (word or numbers), you might like The Solitude of Prime Numbers – it’s a novel I saw in the NY Times Book Review this year – favorably reviewed – and I thought the concept was interesting. I haven’t had a chance to read it because I’m too busy doing Sudoku.
    Also – Margaret – you’re right about commenting on this blog being addictive. ;-)

    • Yes, we do have sudoku in Sydney! They were almost in epidemic proportions a few years ago (I remember the bookshop I was working in at the time had a whole bay devoted to them) but it seems to have subsided now. I’ve never tried one: I’m scared of numbers and really bad at maths (even though people keep assuring me you don’t have to have a numbers-brain to do them.)

      The name of the novel appeals, and I always appreciate a recommendation – I’ll see if I can track down the review. Thanks!

  6. Have you seen the wonderful film ‘Wordplay’? If not, I highly recommend it.

  7. doctordi says:

    Oddly, given my love of words, I’ve never been a crossworder (and the cryptic ones just make me feel instantly and profoundly ignorant and inadequate) but I loved this post, BDW. I share your terror of Alzheimer’s, especially since my nana has it (although she’s caught in an endlessly repeating happy day, which is frankly brilliant when you think of the alternatives), and I am duly intrigued by Puzzled – I think I’d like to read that.

    • You have my sympathy with regards to your Nana, Di – it can be incredibly distressing to see people you care about regressing from themselves, even if they are happy.

      And don’t worry about feeling ignorant and inadequate in the face of cryptics (I’ve been there, sister, she affirms, sounding oddly like a Southern preacher.) I do really recommend ‘Puzzled’ to you though – it’s so empowering in a practical sense – when you see what the rules and conventions of cryptic crosswords are, completing one starts to seem quite a viable option – and it’s such a fun and intriguing read if you’re a word person (which you obviously are.) I intend to give about five copies as gifts this Christmas.

  8. Grad says:

    The Gold Bug is a short story (at least I think it’s classified as one.) When I was eight we went to visit my aunt and uncle in Ohio. Uncle John went up to his attic and piled a bunch of books in a box for us to read on the trip back to Chicago. Famous Mysteries, a compilation of stories from various writers, was one of those. It remains one of my favorite books. Anyway, I spent the trip trying to solve the cryptogram in The Gold Bug, and finally did. I was hooked – what fun.

  9. Grad says:

    I found it! Here is is. Best of luck in solving the mystery of The Gold Bug. The one clue my uncle gave me was, “Look for patterns.” Is there any wonder I named my first-born child after him?
    “53++!305))6*;4826)4+)4+).;806*;48!8]60))85;1+8*:+(;:+*8!83(88)5*!;
    46(;88*96*?;8)*+(;485);5*!2:*+(;4956*2(5*-4)8]8*;4069285);)6!8)4++;
    1(+9;48081;8:8+1;48!85;4)485!528806*81(+9;48;(88;4(+?34;48)4+;161;:
    188;+?;”

  10. Grad says:

    Forgive me. I feel like I’m hogging your comment page. I got the above quote from On Line Literature, but they have an error in the first line. The period in the first line is misplaced. The sequence “26)4+)4+). ” should actually read “26)4+.)4+)” I just spent the last couple of hours re-solving it and realized they had it all wrong.

    • Oh my goodness, Grad – that looks incredibly challenging! And from what I’ve heard of Poe, he wasn’t a particularly nice person so it’s probably even harder than I expect. Thank you so much for tracking it down for me – and for spending all that time resolving it too. I’ll give it a shot tonight when the cat’s asleep so she can’t distract me, and let you know when I crack it (or come wailing to you in desperation when I finally concede defeat. The second’s probably more likely.)

      And you’re not hogging my comments page at all! I still get excited when I see my comments have gone up , even if most of the time it is just my brother kindly informing me that I’m a loser (you’ve got to love brothers.)

  11. Pete says:

    Oh dear, Grad, that looks very complicated. BDW, I loved this post. Thanks to L, I’m improving at cryptics but I also feel woefully stupid when I can’t work out the clues. And those anagrams on Seraphina’s name are so funny. I don’t think the anagram-generator will have much luck with my Joschka (although I could put in the full name when I remember it – damn early Alzheimer’s.)

    If you’re interested in reading a book on the competitive world of Scrabble then I can really recommend “Word Freak”. Those word freaks are brilliant at anagrams and I didn’t realise that being a little weird is actually a requirement to be a really good scrabble player.

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