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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Dennis Potter binge

Nothing brings out my inner Brit like Dennis Potter. I had already migrated to Australia in when I first saw his TV series Pennies from Heaven, The Singing Detective and Lipstick on Your Collar, which collectively blew my socks off. They almost made me turn again for ‘home’.
I discovered a copy of Seeing the Blossom (as in ‘smelling the roses’) at South Melbourne market the other day, which has the transcript of his final TV interview with Melvyn Bragg, Potter’s last will and testament. He smoked, drank champagne and swigged morphine (by necessity) throughout the interview, telling Bragg how he still managed to write ten pages a day, in spite of the pain, rising at 5am while his energy allowed. He was determined to complete his final two TV scripts (Karaoke and Cold Lazarus), which he did before he died two months later.
Today I told my librarian I was on a Dennis Potter binge, as she swiped my loan copy of Potter’s The Art of Invective. Here is an antidote for the mealy-mouthed writer. And if there’s anything to put some lead in the critic’s pencil, Potter is your man. Just read his opinion of Rupert Murdoch! And if you are tempted, as I am, to explode the highbrow/lowbrow myth, look to Potter for some ammunition to level the ground. For him, the most popular medium of the time, television (his ‘palace of varieties’) was the place to reach people. He certainly reached me. And the actors who played the leads in his plays performed for him at their peak. The characters played by Bob Hoskins, Michael Gambon, Ewan McGregor and Giles Thomas are still clearly imprinted on my memory. Time to revisit those TV series, I think!