‘When I was a kid at home we did lots of wordplay and riddles’, explains wordsmith, David Astle. ‘I realized that subtle subtext and ‘gotcha’ gags had the power to hold court. Everything from anagrams to Dr. Seuss, who was so exuberant with words, became fun’. With his mercurial energy and genuine passion for words Astle has become the go-to word guy and is fondly known by his initials, DA.
I’m fascinated; on a daily basis DA is thinking, talking and writing etymology, hidden meanings, anagrams, reversals and Ninas (hidden messages in the grid). He writes the Wordplay column in the Spectrum section of the Sydney Morning Herald – a weekly column about the curious tangents of language, creates the weekly DA crossword for the Age and Sydney Morning Herald, composes the Wordwit puzzle and Omega for Fairfax, writes bespoke crosswords as well as keeping up with his website where he invites interaction and stimulation with his Word of the Week challenge (WoW), weekly Brainstorms and puzzles. Are you keeping up with me? On radio he speaks on ABC TV news Breakfast once a month ‘where I talk about topical words such as the origins of electoral words or password fatigue’, the weekly news anagram on Radio National’s Sunday Extra with Jonathan Green and ‘every 2 weeks I do ABC Victoria talking about language’. Now that’s a lot of mind games!
Asked where he gets all that inspiration from, DA explains, ‘When I was on the tram on my way to meet with you today I was thinking of crossword inspirations – about the thematic possibilities of The Hunger Games. It comes to me all the time and yes, I do carry a journal and write the ideas down. It’s fun; it’s like being a storyteller – only in words; in crosswords. Just this morning I published a crossword. It’s actually for my wife and my 25th wedding anniversary. She just texted me; I think the penny’s dropped’, he smiles. His joy in his work is tangible and quite contagious; you get caught up in the world of wordplay and perception just talking to him. ‘I’m very grateful for being able to do what I do’.
I loved hearing DA’s take on definitions, ’I don’t like being a hostage to language’. He explains. ‘I’m not a dictionary snob – I use Oxford, Collins, Macquarie. Did you know that there are only some 10 dictionaries out of a possible two dozen that acknowledge the word misfortunate?’ No, I didn’t.
‘My gurus? David Crystal is a wonderful linguist and Julian Barnes is a stylish thinker on the page.’ Turning to the crossword realm, DA muses. ‘In UK it’s Dean Mayer (aka Anax) who is inventive and succinct, plus John Halpern (alias Paul) and the new Guardian compiler, Picaroon. Over in the USA it’s Brendan Emmett Quigley and Matt Gaffney who blaze the trial with inventive meta-puzzles. Then you have the lexical joys of Dickens and Dahl.’ When Astle gets together with fellow wordsmiths, we can only imagine the lively and fascinating debates that those gatherings ensue. Oh, to be a fly on the wall.
DA is also, of course, a published author with best sellers to date Puzzled; Secrets and Clues from a Life Lost in Words; part biographical and part puzzle tips, Wordburger which is a guide to cryptic crosswords for kids, ‘I like keeping it relevant and being a ‘kidult’’, he smiles, Riddledom, Cluetopia, Puzzles and Words and Puzzles and Words 2 which are collections of puzzles and surprising word stories. Watch out for two new books coming in 2017.
With Norman Doidge’s research into neuroplasticity and cognitive health, being socially connected with hobbies such as dancing, music, languages with pattern recognition have been noted as keys to keeping the mind and body healthy. Crosswords dovetail perfectly into these pattern recognition activities and people have realized not only the benefit, but the real joy of a hobby such as doing crosswords and word puzzles. It’s a growing industry. Hope DA has lots of inspiration in that journal of his!
David Astle; http://davidastle.com/