I had an odd experience while doing The Herald crossword his morning. The clue was “Actress’s brief farewell (7)”. The solution is Swanson. (Gloria Swanson.) A farewell is a swansong so lose the g to make the farewell brief: Swanson. The odd thing was that I didn’t solve the clue through pursuing this, or any other, process of logic, and I didn’t have any letters already on the grid to help me; it was a blank canvas. I read the clue, and for no reason I can think of, I thought, “What was the name of that Hollywood actress Joe Kennedy (JFK’s father) had an affair with?” I was about to dismiss the thought, but past experience has taught me that when an apparently aberrant notion comes into your mind, it often pays to follow it up. So I took a moment to remember, and there she was: Swanson.
Isn’t that odd?
I’ve had a lot of luck over the years with crosswords. Up in Perth a couple of months ago to hear the RSNO present a ridiculously rich smorgasbord of lollipops and seasoned roasted chestnuts, I paused at the entrance to the concert hall to have converse with a gentleman, down on his luck, who was calling out, “Who will be my third buyer of The Big Issue tonight?” I obliged, handed over £2.50, and left him to it. “Who will be my fourth buyer of The Big Issue tonight?” So I did The Big Issue prize crossword – one and only time – sent it off, and won the revised thirteenth edition of Chambers Dictionary, which is a handsome volume and heaps better than the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary which announced itself on the dust jacket as a “Punchy, good-looking trend-setter.”
“Punchy, good-looking trend-setter”? I ask you. The sharp suits have even infiltrated the dusty offices of the scriveners and proctors of 1901 Edinburgh. I offloaded that particular volume to the charity shop.
A month before The Big Issue, I did The Herald’s mammoth “Clootie” which, like currants in a clootie dumpling, intersperses clueless anagrams following a topical Scottish theme. Prize: £50 token. I stuck with the dictionary theme and got Collins German Dictionary. Sehr gut.
And just before that I’d popped into the local village shop to get my morning paper. Unaccountably, The Heralds had not been delivered, so more or less at random I took The Financial Times. I sent off the crossword – one and only time – and won How to Sound Really Clever by Hubert van den Bergh (Bloomsbury 2013), the ideal prize for a smart-arse. I’ve also won a Bloomsbury Concise English, and three Oxford English Dictionaries. I’ve acquired, and passed on, at least six Bloomsbury Good Word Guides. When I was a medical student I sent off The Scotsman Saturday crossword under the name of my then girl friend who had gone up to the north-west for a week. The following Saturday she was coming home and reading The Scotsman on the train. “Oh look! Somebody with my name has won the crossword!”
You’d think I’d be sated by now, but I’m on a roll. Yesterday I sent off The Herald’s “Wee Stinker”. The prize is a “Wee Stinker” T-shirt (S, M, L or XL? I chose L) + a £50 token. I used to have a pint in Curlers on Glasgow’s Byres Rd with a guy who over the years had won ten Wee Stinker T-shirts. Only last week somebody on The Herald’s letters page was complaining they were too embarrassed to wear a T-shirt announcing their Wee Stinker status. They tried wearing it at night but it was too hot. But what would you do with ten Wee Stinker T-shirts? Over dinner in the Lion & Unicorn on Saturday I heard a dear friend’s friend has just bought a grand mansion in Edinburgh with nine bathrooms. I said, “What’s the use of nine bathrooms if you’ve only got one a…?” but I was silenced.
Actually they made a clerical error with last week’s Wee Stinker grid (the punchy, good-looking trend-setters must be in charge) so the prize rolls over and is £100. I posted it on Sunday morning in Sir Andy Murray’s golden letter box on my way to Dunblane Cathedral, so I feel I’m bound to win. Incidentally a couple of weeks ago a parked car’s handbrake apparently failed and the car rolled into the golden letter box and uprooted it. The box was repaired and replaced, the locals said, quicker than the Royal Mail can deliver a first-class letter. For a few days the butcher’s shop opposite was selling “Golden letter-box sausage rolls, at knock-down prices”.
Anyway I took my acquisitive cruciverbalist’s smug complacency into Dunblane Cathedral where, in line with the lectionary, the rich were getting it in the neck. Psalm 49. And then the parable of the rich man who has so much grain he doesn’t know what to do with it. So he knocks his barns down and builds even bigger barns so he can accommodate all his stuff. What an idiot, or, as the authorised version puts it, “Thou fool…” In my extended family we use “Barns, barns” as a short hand for berating one another if we seem preoccupied with the accumulation of junk. I don’t think I’m particularly acquisitive – or if I am, I’ve made a hell of a mess of any pursuit of material wealth. The only thing I have a tendency to hoard is books. It crossed my mind to give them all away to the Andrew Carnegie Library in Dunfermline which is a favourite haunt of mine (the great man did after all pay me through Med School), but a family member counselled me not to do anything rash so I sit here, surrounded by tomes. I have my books! It’s like that Simon and Garfunkel song. I am a rock. I am an island. Anaesthetic and dry-eyed.
But to return for a moment to Ms Swanson, it just shows you we don’t have the first inkling how the human mind works. I watched a captivating programme on BBC 4 the other night all about Game Theory. Two people, a middle-aged man and a young women, were playing “Share or Steal”. They would simultaneously show one another an icon bearing the word “Share” or “Steal”. It’s a kind of simplified version of “Scissors cut Paper”. If they both showed “Share” they would share a very substantial sum of prize money. If they both showed “Steal” they would both walk away with nothing. If one showed “Share” and one showed “Steal”, the stealer would take all. They had a protracted negotiation during which the middle-aged man persuaded a very vulnerable young woman that he would do the right thing by her. So he showed “Share” and of course she showed “Steal”. I wish I could describe the look on her face at the denouement. Quite chilling – but of course completely riveting telly.
Then in the next game one of the contenders appeared to have found a solution to the apparently insoluble recurring question of Game Theory – “What’s the other guy gonna do?” He said, “Irrespective of what you say or do, I’m going to show ‘Steal’. But I promise to share the prize money with you.” What’s the other guy gonna do? If he shows “Steal”, they both walk away with nothing. His only chance of winning is to show “Share”. It looks foolproof.
But is it? Some people are just bloody-minded by nature. They might reply, “I’m going to show ‘Steal’ because I no longer care about the money. I only want to take you down a peg or two. But if you show contrition, and show ‘Share’, I will share with you.
The trouble with Game Theory is that it relies on people thinking and behaving logically. Fat chance. If you want to win a crossword prize, listen to what your unconscious is trying to tell you.
Apropos the Smiths’… (10)
…outburst, take note! (11, 4)