ONCE upon a time, there were seven houses, each with seven rooms, and each containing seven rooms. . . Thus begins a text, dating from three millennia ago, which is evidence not for the existence of eccentric spinsters in ancient Egypt, but for civilisation’s ceaseless fascination with puzzles. As Chris Maslanka, presenter of Two Thousand Years of Puzzling (Radio 4, weekdays) put it, puzzles are not trivial: they are an indispensable characteristic of human intellect.
Puzzles stimulate us to reimagine physical and metaphysical worlds. Thus the labyrinth is a symbol of the soul’s progress through the cosmos. In Germany, the Guild of Shoemakers would, in the Middle Ages, begin their feast-day procession in the centre of a labyrinth before finally entering the cathedral.
The strong bond between religion and puzzling might furnish a series in itself. The great Alcuin of York is just one example of a cleric who saw the benefit of training young scholars using mathematical problems; and the medieval Christian poem The Dream of the Rood is teeming with poetic riddles. Indeed, it seems appropriate that Radio 4’s Today programme should have taken to scheduling, in a slot that mirrors Thought for the Day, “Puzzle for Today”.
Mind and soul are both generously catered for in The Verb (Radio 3, Fridays). The Verb is at its best when it allows its guests the opportunity to talk about the nuts and bolts of their craft. Line breaks, the size of paper, and handwriting versus word-processing: these are the mechanics of writing which pass below the radar of most literary criticism, and hearing poets relax into these conversations is a testament to the atmosphere created by the presenter, Ian McMillan. A particular pleasure in last week’s show was encountering pastiches by George Szirtes, in which renowned poets were imagined going to the gym: Betjeman relishing his newly discovered abs, Rilke imagining an existential transformation, and Plath cursing her fascist gym-shoes.
Lego is, I am told, supposed to contribute to your sense of well-being through creative engagement and problem-solving, although anybody who has had to work through the detailed instructions on how to build a Death Star might demur.
The World Service marked the 60th anniversary of Lego with an edition of Witness (Friday) in which Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, the son of Lego’s inventor, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, recalled the moment when his father moved from wooden blocks to plastic bricks connected by little tubes. A few decades later, 75 billion pieces are being sold every year, which is ten pieces for every person on the planet.
It is not, however, all good news: there have been redundancies, and the theme parks have been sold. The unassailable rise of computer games is to blame; and, frankly, when you get to stage 27 and realise you have mispositioned one of those small black connector pieces back at stage 3, you can understand why.