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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Listening to a Laureate

Last night I saw Irish author Anne Enright speak about ‘Family and fiction’ at Northcote Town Hall, Melbourne. In conversation with Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, she rolled up her sleeves and entertained us with her down-to-earth womanly wisdom, her reflections on writing and her wry humour.

She started by reading from her latest novel The Green Road ((2015) in her lilting Irish brogue, with an eyebrow cocked and great dramatic expression. Six whole minutes of being read to by Anne Enright – what a treat!

The only work I’ve read of hers is The Gathering (2007), which put her among my favourite Irish women writers, those friends I like to cuddle up with in bed. I am reminded of Edna O’Brien and Edith Pearlman, but Enright’s humour, bleak at times, sets her apart. That novel won her the Man Booker Prize. Now she is the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction.

After the talk, she signed my battered copy of The Gathering, while I complimented her on her dramatic reading.

‘Yes, I like to ham it up,’ she said, smiling with satisfaction.

If only more writers would take their cue from her.

Talking of humour, and drama, take a look at my review of Lally Katz’s latest comedy, now playing at the Arts Centre in Melbourne:

https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-arts/4094-minnie-liraz-melbourne-theatre-company