Crosswords for mental agility

In my previous blog I referred to an informal discussion with a local GP on the subject of declining powers, and my fears of dementia. One sound piece of advice he offered was to develop new mental skills by taking on new challenges. It gave me the opportunity to raise some concerns I had over my crossword activity. In any other context these concerns would, perfectly correctly, be dismissed as self-indulgent nonsense. My doctor friend was more generous in his response. I expect that he is used to dealing with eccentrics and obsessives.

For over three decades I have tackled, and almost always completed, the AZED crossword in the Observer. It is amongst the most difficult of the crosswords that is set by the same person each week. It has a unique charm. Every four years or so AZED solvers hold an event in Oxford to pay tribute to the setter, Jonathan Crowther, who, before his retirement, was a distinguished lexicographer with the Oxford University Press. Colin Dexter, the author of the detective novels, is a regular AZED solver. Indeed he named his character Inspector Morse after the late Sir Jeremy Morse, another AZED enthusiast.

My efforts with AZED, while richly satisfying in themselves, have brought my limitations home to me. I have entered the clue setting competitions but never appeared in anything but the lowest category. However, and here is the link with ageing and dementia, I seem to be getting better. In retirement I am tackling the even more difficult Listener crossword in Saturday’s Times.

When attempting the Listener, I need to make extensive use of the electric version of the Chambers Dictionary that is available as an IPhone app.   Key in the four character string ‘??jj’ and it produces ‘hajj’ as the only feasible match; even better, key in ‘horsecart’ (or theses nine letters in any order) and it produces not only ‘cart-horse’ but the anagram ‘orchestra’. I’ve often wondered if this should be regarded as cheating – though if so I am only cheating myself.

I ran this trivial moral dilemma past my Doctor friend and was greatly reassured by his answer.   The key thing is to strive to learn new things and, if this technique encourages this activity, it passes the test. I no longer have any concerns and will continue. However I will not enter any technologically enabled solutions for the trivial prize that is offered each week; I would see this as unfair competition.

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