Quizzical pursuits

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?

 

 

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Tea with the Dames

On Mother’s Day my daughter, who shares my love of theatre, treated me to a screening of Tea with the Dames, a new documentary directed by Roger Michell that records a conversation between Dames Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench, all in their eighties. Four lusty comediennes who may be losing their eyesight and their hearing, but whose resonant, velvety voices are unchanged, as familiar as those of old friends.

One of the roads I almost took in life would have led me onto the boards of the London stage. My theatrical ambition was conceived at the age of eleven, when my mother began taking me to the Old Vic Theatre, to see Shakespeare’s plays. It was there I witnessed Judi Dench’s debut as Ophelia, and later her Juliet. That husky-voice, pert-nosed girl has accompanied me down the years, popping up regularly on cinema and TV screens. As I have zigzagged between my various passions – writing, languages, the stage, music (‘Jack of all trades, master of none’), Judi has stayed true to her first love: the theatre.

The doco is a casual affair, with this great gang of girls sitting round Joan Plowright’s table, in the house she lived in with her second husband Laurence Oliver, chatting, laughing, swearing and sipping glasses of champagne. Prompted by occasional questions from the interviewer, they seem reluctant to talk about their careers, but soon the joy of reminiscing with their close friends takes over, and the anecdotes start flowing. Maggie Smith, with her ascerbic wit, has Judi Dench in fits of girlish giggles, while the astute Eileen Atkins fills in the gaps in their memories. Virtually blind and, at eighty-eight, the eldest of the four, Joan Plowright, presides over all with a quiet authority.

We were shown clips from the early stage shows, the movies, the ceremonies where they suited up for Prince Charles to hang medals around their necks, a few family photos with their children. The videos unleashed a flood of backstage gossip, mostly about Larry (Laurence Oliver), who scared them all.

There is such tenderness between these four women who have all worked hard and continuously for about sixty-five years. They have shared the same stages, played the same roles, appeared in the same films, known the same actors, and are still friends, growing old together.

The film closes with a voiceover of Judi reading, almost whispering, one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. So light, so romantic, after the cut and thrust of his plays. A call to action, to read his sonnets, take comfort and inspiration.

For a day or so, after coming out of the cinema, I was not ready to engage with the mortal souls around. I was still basking in the company of immortals. I wanted to stay buoyed by those familiar voices, those witty and wise women who have, since the 1950s, been holding up the mirror to our lives.

If I envy them, it is in their persistence, their ability to stay on one path all their lives and create a solid work of art, a legacy. No one can forget them.