The ways of the central nervous system are a mystery to me.
Last month I was laid up in a hospital bed, blindsided by ‘multiple trauma’ after falling downstairs, and the only activity I was capable of was cryptic crosswords. Forget reading – my brain could not drag itself from one sentence to the next. I managed just a few pages of The Tao of Pooh in the six days I was there. But my brain could do flip-turns and spark up the neurons needed to solve the cryptic teasers set by David Astle and his fellow cryptographers – no problem.
I may have missed my calling. Last week we watched The Imitation Game, the story of WWII British code-breakers, who were selected in this fictional version of events by a crossword puzzle in the Times. With a pang of jealousy I watched Keira Knightley ace the crossword test and help cryptographer Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) solve the mystery of The Enigma machine. Although she was a woman and therefore not officially a member of the team, her neurotransmitters were up to the task.
Why wasn’t I offered this career advice when I left school in the 1960s? Maybe there weren’t too many code-breaking jobs by that stage, but the idea of subterfuge and spying always appealed to me. For women who were good at languages, the only jobs on offer were teaching, interpreting and the Foreign Office. I vaguely remember filling in an application form for the Foreign Office, but the Civil Service wasn’t presented as a glamorous option and I either lost interest or failed the entrance exam.
Instead, I went on to study languages at university, with no career path in mind. I was fascinated by the way each culture develops in tandem with its native language, and the way translation straddles cultures. It would be years before I became a journalist and even longer before I focused on ‘creative’ writing, but this fascination with words has been a constant in my life.
Does anyone remember ‘My Word’, the BBC quiz show? In the highlight of the show, two doyens of verbal wizardry, Frank Muir and Denis Norden, gave their fictional origins of aphorisms or quotations, such as ‘A stitch in time saves nine’ or ‘Come into the garden, Maud’, manipulating the phrase to produce a new one. I was spellbound by these improvised fabulations, a cross between cryptic puzzles and oral storytelling.
It seems that code-breaking plays some part in manipulating language, to translate or author a new work. Writers often talk about allowing the puzzle to solve itself, giving time for the unconscious to sort through the material. I wonder how the synapses and neurotransmitters delegate the tasks. Why could I do the code-breaking before the reading? Does reading require subtler connections?
And where does writing fit in the hierarchy of brain activity and creative thinking? Our everyday language is already there for simple communication, but there is always the possibility of building up new verbal representations of our world, to explore and share our experience.
Can anyone enlighten me?