The W Factor by Dennis Duncan

Dennis Duncan

The W Factor


Rain is general all over Cornwall. I am in St Ives, on holiday with my family. Outside may be miserable, but inside we have a jigsaw. I think of ‘Pangur Bán’, the ninth-century Irish poem about a clerk and his cat both at work, one writing and the other mousing, the contentment of companied exertion. ‘Day and night, my own hard work/Solves the cruxes,’ the poet wrote, in Heaney’s translation. Three generations – children, grandparents, siblings – come and go, criss-crossing and reconstellating at the puzzle table, an hour here and there, on their way to something else. It is a means of being together but not necessarily talking. Shared attention rather than mutual attention.‘Pangur Bán’ again: ‘To each his own./No vying. No vexation.’

At Christmas we did ‘The World of Shakespeare’, a cartoon map of Tudor London in a thousand pieces. Queen Elizabeth barges down the Thames on her burnish’d throne; Juliet’s balcony is relocated to somewhere round Limehouse. This Easter we had ‘The World of James Joyce’, with the Citizen flinging his biscuit box in Barney Kiernan’s tavern and Bloom – ahem – observing Gerty on the beach. And then I noticed it. Written on the side of the puzzle’s box: ‘Text by Professor Joseph Brooker’. This is a friend of mine, a former colleague. He writes for Literary Review in fact. I text a mutual friend: ‘Look at this!’ They are unsurprised. It is not news to them. They reel off a list of colleagues who have writing credits on literary jigsaws. ‘World of Jane Austen’? John Mullan. ‘World of Frankenstein’? Roger Luckhurst. My head is spinning. A wild surmise. Are jigsaws REF-able?


Joyce, famously, is supposed to have said of Ulysses, ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.’ Recent editors, however, have doubted the veracity of the quote. To my ear, it sounds off key, uncharacteristically inaccurate.

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