This is a new fad with me. If I allowed myself brain-empty space, I would probably do a lot more, and crytic crosswords, but I’ve taken to doing the quick ones, which I’ve never ever done before. Perhaps I have been influenced by all those brain trainer ads, which have people like Julie Walters saying ‘eight 8s are 64’, and looking very happy. She appears to have bought, not a brain trainer, but a calculator. My mum was keen in her last year on the idea of one which Chris Tarrant advertised, so I bought it for her as a laugh. She couldn’t get maximum points, I couldn’t get maximum points, and my very brainy nephew couldn’t get maximum points. It was a con, and no mistake.

Quick crosswords are just a vocabulary test, but, if you do them in public, as I did in a cafe about a week ago, people think you’re a genius. This is how you tell if you are sitting opposite someone who has never done a crossword: they gawp at you as if you are Einstein. (Or maybe it is the increasing whiteness of my beard. And the way I go on about the speed of light.)

I’ve never tried Sudoku (partly a fear of failure). I used to like jigsaws, but I think you have to live with someone who can see their point, and I don’t. I’ve never really lived with a game-player – and a jigsaw is a game – since living in childhood with my sister (who was a jigsaw fanatic).

Another odd thing is that, when I think the word ‘crossword’ out loud, I often find that I say ‘jigsaw’. Some neural wire crossed. I can’t help it. There’s another one: I say ‘floor’ when I mean ‘ground’. On the other hand, I’ve heard other people do this, so perhaps ‘floor’ is taking on an exterior connotation. It is odd how the brain shorts every so often – comes of not using brain trainers, I expect – for instance, if I am thanking someone for something (anything), I have noticed myself saying ‘Thank you lots’ when I meant to say ‘Thank you very much’. I have also found myself attempting to say ‘Goodbye’ when meaning to say ‘Thank you’.

And then there are the unconsciously-adopted words and phrases, the ones which drift in from other people’s conversations, other people’s verbal tics. In the North-East, where I spent most of last year, people usually conclude a phone call, not with ‘Bye’, but ‘See you later’, or even the full ‘I’ll see you later’. I’ve also noticed a repeated North-East tendency to say, instead of ‘Okay’, the longer ‘Hokey-cokey’. I’m not sure whether this is a South Shields thing (I suspect it is – you’d be amazed how little phrases differ within only a few miles).

Sorry to be tribal again, but North-Easterners are great, self-deprecating wits. Well, Sunderland ones, anyway (it is all very tribal). Here is one of my favourite Sunderland stories. An elderly lawyer, well past retirement, let’s call him Mr. Fortune, still came to the office one day a week, and was allowed, because of seniority, to keep his office. In the morning, he’d shuffle paper; in the afternoon, he’d have a snooze. One day there was a new girl in the office, and they gave her the job of taking him his afternoon cup of tea. She found the old man slumped across his desk.

‘Eee, Gladys,’ she said to her supervisor. ‘I’ve just taken Mr. Fortune his cup of tea, and I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or dead.’

Her supervisor eyed her. ‘Well, pet,’ she said, ‘usually he’s just asleep.’


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