Posts Tagged ‘cryptic crosswords’

On keeping my brain alive

March 7, 2019

It’s something I never heard anything about when I was younger, perhaps because people hadn’t then tuned into it as an important idea, or perhaps because when you are young, certain things just don’t cross your radar, but as I enjoy my retirement, it’s hard to miss all the exhortations to do things that will exercise your brain, keep you mentally active, and –who knows – perhaps stave off the horrors of eventual dementia. I suspect there is some sense in not vegetating, but I’m not sure about deliberately taking new things on board just in the hope…

Do I keep my brain active? I hope so. I keep up my French and German in conversation groups here, and obviously when I’m travelling, and probably about a quarter of the books and novels I currently read are in French; I also read a monthly current affairs magazine in French. It’s a case of ‘use it or lose it’ as I found in those long years of being a parent, when holidays abroad faded somewhat into the background. I’m still quite proud that the French often have to ask what country I’m from – they can now tell I’m not French, whereas in the years just after I’d graduated, they often didn’t realise… And a few years ago I took up learning Spanish, with the aim of being able to manage some holidays in Andalucia eventually. I’m enjoying the mental challenges and have been fortunate in finding a really good teacher. I’m not sure what particular parts of the brain language learning uses, but I’m still fascinated at the way communication can come out in a different language without my having to do deliberate processing.

As a student, I taught myself to do The Guardian cryptic crossword, and it has brought me endless pleasure; there’s serious and tortuous brainwork involved – anagrams have always been my speciality – and I can do it by myself or with a friend. In my early teaching days a colleague and I had the goal of finishing the Times and the Guardian cryptics before the end of the school day, and succeeded more often than not. I’ve occasionally wrestled with even harder ones like Azed in the Observer, but haven’t the patience for them. My one small indulgence, in terms of actually paying for an app on my phone, is the one that gives me the Guardian cryptic crossword every morning: I download it before I leave the house and use it to while away idle waiting moments anywhere. Sudoku I’ve never managed to wrangle, unlike my other half, who whizzes through it; an aversion to numbers on my part, I thought until I came across Calcudoku, which I now enjoy, although at beginners’ level.

Those are the only ‘mental gym’ type activities I can bear; other than that it’s reading and writing, both of which I enjoy and do a lot. I have a very moralistic attitude to my brain, I realise, along the lines of “God gave you it, so use it!” Certainly, as I’ve grown older, I’ve never ceased to be astonished by how complex and wonderful an organ it is and what it’s capable of doing; reason should be capable of enabling us to live in a rather better and fairer world, but it hasn’t… and it seems a great shame that all those electrical impulses eventually just die away, after all those years of hard work, and accumulation of knowledge and experience.

How do you keep your brain agile?

My A-Z of reading: D is for Dictionary

October 23, 2016

51ah2og2rhl-_ac_us160_When I was ten, I found a pound note in the street. Brought up to be honest, and because it was such a lot of money in those days, I took it to the police station where they kept it for three months, and, after no-one had claimed it, returned it to me! My dad contributed the remaining necessary five shillings and I bought the latest edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (a requirement for the grammar school I was about to attend): thus began my relationship with dictionaries.

The Concise Oxford sufficed until I got to university, where it soon revealed its limitations – it didn’t have enough words in it – and, with an early holiday wage-packet, I treated myself to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in two large volumes. Even though the edition was forty years old, it didn’t matter: the words I was looking up as a student of English literature were a lot older than that, and I held on to those two very useful volumes until a couple of years ago. At some intervening point when flush with money I splashed out on the reduced size, twenty-volumes-in-one edition of the OED. In retrospect, this was an expensive error as it’s had relatively little use, and we were just on the verge of the internet, and the changes to reference works that was about to bring.

Through our local library I have free access to the OED online, on those relatively rare occasions where I come across a word I haven’t met, or need to explore the etymology of a word I do know. It’s one of the great boons of the internet, along with wikipedia.


Crossword addicts will know, however, that in our field, the Oxford dictionaries don’t really cut the mustard; they don’t contain many of the archaisms and Scots words that fiendish compilers like to use. So Chambers Twentieth Century English Dictionary was added to the bookshelves – it had to become the Chambers English Dictionary after 2001, of course – and for my money it remains the best single-volume dictionary of our language, and has been a boon on many occasions when I’ve wrestled with the Guardian Prize Crossword of a weekend or a bank holiday. You see, for crossword completion you need the paper pages to be able to turn them over as you scan for the range of possibilities that might fit the gaps in the grid, and match the definition part of the clue: you just can’t do this effectively onscreen or online.

I also have my own personal mini-dictionary: for many years I have collected the words that are new to me as I’ve come across them in my reading; I’ve added them to my notebooks and eventually jotted down a definition alongside.


My other trusty companion is a recent edition of Le Petit Robert, which is a bit unwieldy but a worthy French equivalent to Chambers and very useful if I’m reading something challenging in French… although reaching for the iPad and hitting the Word Reference app is often a tad easier.

I have three distinctive uses for a dictionary: helping with crosswords, looking up the meaning of a word that is new to me, and exploring the etymology of a word when curiosity gets the better of me. And, as you will infer from the above, online is gradually winning, but won’t help with the crosswords.


March 25, 2016

41cIAiMXYoL._AA160_ 51B5tp4i7fL._AA160_ 51FafGDT8SL._AA160_When I went off to train to be a teacher, I had first to spend a fortnight in a local secondary school observing teachers and students. It was then that I taught myself to do the Guardian cryptic crossword. It wasn’t easy, with a different compiler with their own particular quirkiness every day, but I persevered. The need to decipher the clues, and the fact that when you got the correct answer, you knew it, I found very appealing. For that academic year, I had a fellow student in our house who enjoyed it just as much as I did, so we did the crossword together most days, perfecting our ability. Most days we finished it.

Cryptics seem to be one of those things that, once you’ve mastered, stay with you. In my first year of teaching, as a supply teacher in Hackney, I found a companion in the Head of History: together we aimed to finish the Guardian and the Times cryptic by the end of the school day; most days we had at least one, if not both. And then, in my first ‘real’ teaching post, at Harrogate Grammar, there was the crossword corner in the staffroom, where we rattled through it every lunchtime… anagrams were my speciality.

What’s all this doing on my blog? Well, for a number of reasons, to do with the trivialisation of the newspaper, and its availability online, I only buy a printed paper at the weekend, so now I have turned to books of cryptic crosswords. I’ve exhausted all the Guardian ones, and now I’m working my way through the Times. Yes, I know you can access them online, but any crossword solver will tell you, it’s not the same. You need the paper space alongside to scribble on, working out anagrams, down clues and so on.

The Times crosswords are a bit run-of-the-mill, although demanding; they’re anonymous rather than named, so you aren’t sure who you’re pitting your wits against. And their conventions for clues are a bit looser in some ways, and completely off-the-wall in others, as far as I can make out. The Guardian crosswords are better, often harder, but the compiler is named (with a nom de plume), so you know who you are up against, and who to avoid, if you want to. Monday’s is always easy; the weekend one is often good fun, and there are specials three times a year, at Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, when you may get a themed crossword, an extra large one, a double one or an alphabetical jigsaw (where you get the first letter of the answer but no numbers on the grid and have to work out where to put the solutions – I love these!). You get to like particular compilers and their ways: everyone used to love Araucaria, and my favourite was always Bunthorne (aka Bob Smithies, anchorman of Granada Reports when I was a student, though it took me years to discover that).

You can possibly see that an English teacher would love crosswords: it’s all about playing with words, and knowledge of the language, as well as keeping my brain active. I used to like Scrabble too, but my friends refused to play with me…

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