The other day, in search of paperwork for my accountant, I found an old cryptic crossword my father had begun, in The Sydney Morning Herald, dated April 20, 1987. A lover of puns and mispronunciation, he’d stick at those puzzles with all the focus he gave to mending anything broken. Some Sundays, he and my mother would do one together, bent over a battered dictionary and coffees. A child with a big vocabulary and broad general knowledge, I did once look at the clues, but couldn’t follow them.
Decades later, having learnt the difference between semantics and syntax, I found an overlooked book of cryptic crosswords in their house. And, to my surprise, the clues made sense: content is arbitrary; the function of the parts is what matters. Each clue contains a synonym for the answer or a hint as to category – country, poet, animal and so on – along with an instruction: to reverse, rearrange and/or select from what’s left. Soon, on a good day, I could solve a puzzle in 12 minutes – because, unlike the one my father never finished, they’re geared for beginners.
Oddly enough, ‘quick’ crosswords can prove less accessible: take the one at the back of a free local magazine. Out of touch with pop culture, I find some clues meaningless (nor do grammatically mismatched or misspelled answers help), so each month I get stuck. Yet with a cryptic puzzle, once my brain adjusts, I’m an initiate.
Is this a clue to why conspiracy theories are booming? While I don’t care for sport, commercial TV or current music, believers tune out politics, the economy and current affairs, or find them confusing (How do preferences work? Is a budget surplus important? Why can’t the government act on climate change?), so they shun mainstream news and disappear down a YouTube rabbit hole, chasing alternative stories – faked Moon landings, a flat Earth, virus-spreading phone towers and more. Top-ranked conspiracists excel at telling epic tales, often with biblical elements. They perform interpretive sleight of hand by changing chronologies, defamiliarise history by dismissing context.
To solve a cryptic crossword you need context: a fixed number of letters forms each answer, with fewer options as you work more out. The gaps in conspiracy narratives, though, leave room for still wilder theories to sprout. Why would someone intelligent succumb? Large-scale corruption is rife without a doubt; enough gets exposed by investigative journalists to make regular news (no thanks to Murdoch), but conspiracists, in the absence of proof, credit symbols, coincidences and the free-associative logic of self-styled YouTube prophets – until, instead of feeling shut out, obtuse, powerless and worthless, they feel informed, discerning, connected and purposeful… and then, like converts to any religion, seek to spread the word.
At a recent small social gathering, I listened, intrigued, to an anti-vaxxer insisting that Covid-19 isn’t real. And, not having caught it myself, nor personally knowing someone who has, I confined myself to the comment that the atomisation of society and the seductive illusion of choice offered by myriad channels/platforms tends to spawn conflicting narratives, so no wonder we’re too scattered to act collectively on, say, global warming. At which point, the anti-vaxxer informed us that manmade climate change isn’t real either.
I’ve seen this syndrome before, and it’s no less contagious than Covid-19, beginning, if not originating, with a catchy idea going viral. Soon an online shouting match develops between the conspiracists and defenders of consensus reality, some of whom see obsessive notions of a NASA hoax, shape-shifting humanoid alien lizards or a virus created to enforce mass vaccination as dangerous distractions from a need for practical activism.
As I began to prod and probe (Who were ‘they’? ‘Truth’ in what way?), the anti-vaxxer waxed defensive and asked to be allowed to finish. Yet the content remained far vaguer than the syntax. For those who have a stake in every conspiracy theory going, the details matter less than the principle. I heard a version of what I’ve been hearing for 30-odd years from countless New Agers, reducible to a few basic ideas:
· I’m one of the chosen/clear-sighted few (I know more than you do)
· This will shock you but you need to hear it (I need to be taken seriously)
· This is a time of unprecedented change/transformation (I feel fearful)
· We can beat darkness/evil if we all unite (don’t leave me isolated)
Those who, feeling redundant, crave a return of the meaning lost to our culture may be the most vulnerable to such unlikely saviours as David Icke. If this former sports broadcaster had any game-changing intel – like Julian Assange or Edward Snowden, say – wouldn’t he be dead or, at the very least, detained? But Icke’s disciples and their type need something to push against to counter their patent disorientation.
So if that anti-vaxxer doesn’t believe we exist in a simulation (see the 1999 sci-fi action film The Matrix), I’ll eat my metaphorical hat. Speaking of which, cryptic crossword clues make no less sense than conspiracist guesswork. For instance:
· Prime Minister, oddly only first of seven
· An ice wall encircles the Earth’s perimeter
The first is a random clue, 5 DOWN, from a puzzle in a recent Sun-Herald. WTF? But I already have three of its five letters: L_O_S. I’m guessing it’s the name of a former PM, while oddly might mean scrambled, so I rejig only in the most obvious way, which = LYON followed by the first letter of seven: S. Never heard of Lyons, but I look him up and find he was Oz’s PM from 1932 to ’39. Doing cryptic crosswords can broaden your education – I start with something abstract and learn a literal fact.
But an explanation of why the oceans don’t overflow the Earth’s edge into space not only doesn’t expand my general knowledge, it actually shrinks it – because to accept it I have to forget all I know about gravity, mass and so on. Studies show that nutting out puzzles can slow cognitive decline. But is lapping up simplistic grand narratives that reject mind-bogglingly complex scientific understandings a fast track to dementia? If it’s possible that cryptic crosswords, jigsaw puzzles etc. lend comfort, like neatly plotted detective novels that end with law and order restored, then a factor in the attraction of conspiracy theories that posit, say, an evil global elite or ET overlords may be the comfort they offer lost souls on information overload.