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Recording date:

Hear from David Astle as he plunges into the realm of riddles. In his latest book, Riddledom: 101 Riddles and Their Stories, he uncovers stories, wordplay and linguistic deceptions from Pompeiian walls to Dothraki warriors, clay tablets to icy pole sticks. 

Audio transcript for author talk, Riddledom by David Astle

Location: National Library of Australia

Speakers: George Dunford and David Astle

Date: 12/10/2015


DAVID ASTLE: Is it that time?


DAVID ASTLE: Oh okay, the microphone works.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Hello and welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land before we started, I’d like to thank their elders past and present for caring for this land which we are now privileged to call home. Tonight we’re fortunate to be joined at the National Library by David Astle. He’s known to many cryptic crossworders of the Sydney Morning Herald as DA which many say stands for don’t attempt.

DAVID ASTLE: Far too many.

GEORGE DUNFORD: He’s a writer of several books including Puzzled and Cluetopia and now Riddledom, an Exploration of the World of Riddles. He also has a forthcoming book which takes the story of word play to children called Word Burger. Please welcome David Astle.

DAVID ASTLE: Thanks George.


DAVID ASTLE: Thanks very much.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Just to keep things a little bit lively we’ve got an ask it basket which today if you’ve got some riddles that you’ve been thinking of that you want to pose to David we’d like you to write down your question and your name and then we’ll pick a few and I believe there’s a prize involved but don’t write the answer down because it’s up to the riddle master here to see if they can solve your devious riddle but yeah, the best or the weirdest will win a prize so it is worth doing but that’ll just float around as we chat. And if you are tweeting today don’t forget to include and also the hashtag riddledom which is the title of David’s book. David, perhaps we can kick off by talking about how you found yourself in the world of riddles. I believe it was through a particular book.

DAVID ASTLE: Yeah, I was ... I think I told Jo on ABC radio that I was atrocious and precocious as a child and in that order. I pity my mother and in fact you almost need to have children ‘til you really understand the burden of parenthood and I certainly was more of a burden than most because I was obsessed by word play, puns, riddles, anagrams even as a kid just growing up in Balgowlah and ... in Sydney and seeing owl sitting inside Balgowlah know ... and I also loved you know Winnie the Pooh so there was one of my favourite characters, the wise old animal who couldn’t spell ... and riddles, I followed quickly along, I became obsessed by riddles and a particular book of riddles just won my heart as a seven-year-old. That book was called One Thousand and One Riddles because my mother and father were exasperated and they wanted their wonderful little boy to shut the hell up so they bought this book of riddles as a means of just keeping me quiet for the best part of five minutes but of course I read that book avidly, memorised the book and then spent the best part of the next two years asking a thousand and one riddles of my family so they were glad that I finally left the house when I was you know 20.

GEORGE DUNFORD: It was the game boy of its day to keep you occupied but probably more annoying.

DAVID ASTLE: Yeah, it was a more annoying version of game boy. Game boy with sound effects you couldn’t turn off.

GEORGE DUNFORD: And that book was A Thousand and One Riddles and it’s sort of a little bit of the inspiration for your book, isn’t it? To draw out the diversity of riddles, I suppose.

DAVID ASTLE: Well I ... the eureka moment for me as a writer you know it ... only sort of a few years ago was thinking back on that very book and it was a real touchstone book for me growing up and realising that in fact ... that riddles were the kind of prototype or the precursor to cryptic clues. I mean they’re little bundles of deception just like a cryptic clue crossword so I suppose it was a bit of an apprenticeship just you know gorging on riddles as a child. And in fact you could almost say that it was a ... riddles are a bit of a gateway drug for cryptic crosswords and that’s certainly was the case in mine you know the first ... you know the first taste is always free.

GEORGE DUNFORD: So Riddledom is really an exploration of riddles both as a universal phenomenon, things that you see around the world and there are some great examples of riddles in here. My personal favourite is the Brazilian riddle which is so much more than just a question and answer, it’s a courting ritual, it’s a pickup line, and it’s a dance.

DAVID ASTLE: Well yeah when you think of riddles you normally think of that kind of boom, tish, double entendre sort of playground smut or a little bit ... it’s that kind of clever pun where a six-year-old can hold court and say how do you make an octopus giggle? With 10 tickles and we all go that’s very lovely now you know you can ... could you please pass the salt? It’s kind of like they’re just cute diversions. Or the Christmas cracker corn, that’s what most people think of riddles and for ... and you know really that is the most ... by the most part that is the content of the book that I loved as a child but it’s when you start looking further afield that you find something like the Brazilian riddle songs, these were riddles that were in ... exported from Africa in the 1500s with the Africans themselves. They were kidnapped by Brazilian coffee plantation owners, kidnapped from places like Gabon and Sierra Leone over to Brazil and they were put to work for no pay at all as slaves on these vast coffee plantations and he way that they kept sane and also kept their culture was through music and these songs are called puntos which is Portuguese for not because they are riddle songs. And each song is a riddle and the pur ... what’s so fascinating about these puntos is that they are syncopated to the rhythm of digging and they’re also codified with a mixture of Portuguese and the sort of Bantu language so that the masters couldn’t understand what was being said.

And that they were also required the call and response as you’re quite right which is very important part of a work song, that there is this sort of yell from one party and a response from the other, it’s almost like checking that you’re still in rhythm. And they’re amazing, they’re amazing pieces of cultural history and that is just one example of the kind of 70 other bizarre and remarkable riddles that I’ve found that are anything but you know the Christmas cracker corn so it was ... and the fact that the sacred totem of these African coffee slaves was the armadillo that they call Tartu which is a Bantu word for an anteater and Tartu was sacred for two reasons, one was an armadillo is a digger so it was almost an embodiment of their privation, that he also spend his life digging, but the other thing that they found that they loved about Tartu was that the armadillo I’m led reliably to believe is quicker when it runs backwards than when it runs forwards so in other words its retreat ... it’s a bit like the Italian army ... its retreat is actually well rehearsed. And for them, for the African people this was actually a great symbol of optimism and hope because it meant that they could always return to their ... to mother Africa. So here was this digger who could move quickly backwards just as their songs would take them back because they have this beautiful African rhythm to the songs and a mixture of Portuguese and Bantu that are basically enshrined riddles through all the lyrics.

GEORGE DUNFORD: And of course perhaps a little bit closer to home you mentioned the corny riddles that we all know, that there’s of course the chicken that crossed the road which was really the meme of the 19th century, wasn’t it? It kind of evolved and kept going for years.

DAVID ASTLE: Yeah, you’re right, I mean when it came to ... I mean once I’d thought okay, 101 riddles which was a kind of distilled version of this corny book I grew up with, 101 riddles, that’s the tactic so I’m going to basically look for 101 delicious riddles from around the world. There were certain mandatories, I mean if you write a book about ... if you write a book about toys of the 20th century Lego’s got to be the first one in, okay, get the Lego out of the way, get the Etch-A-Sketch, it’s kind of when you know there are some things that have to be included. Chicken crossed the road, that is the kind of first response, it’s the kneejerk riddle and you’re right, that came out in about 1830 was the first written record and there were others that were just as important to include. And the Lewis Carroll would have been one of those and the Oedipus myth which is the classic sphinx riddle, they were the three and of course others bullied to be included but the ... they were the three that were the first sort of locked into the matrix.

GEORGE DUNFORD: And the Lewis Carroll riddle came at a time when there was a real riddle mania on, wasn’t there? And he rather cheekily doesn’t give you an answer to the riddle within the book. Do you want to tell us?

DAVID ASTLE: It’s a lovely story because in fact to be fair to Lewis Carroll you could always argue that you know he had intended to give the answer but it was the mad hatter’s riddle after all and hatters being mad did refrain from you know sharing the answer with Alice who was infuriated. So this was the riddle that the mad hatter asked the tea party which is why is a raven like a writing desk? And Alice was you know she was intrigued and she tried to work it out. The mad hatter meanwhile had derailed himself off on other topics, talking about you know nonsense and twaddle. And then Alice insisted what is the answer? And the mad hatter being mad reneged and while the book was beloved you know when it was first came out in 1865 and went into multiple editions there was this real backlash amongst readers of how dare you, sir? You have broken the covenant, a riddle must have an answer, that is one of the kind of you know pre-conditions. You ... I mean otherwise it’s just a nonsense question. So they lobbied as best they could. There was this you know kind of twitch you know this sort of twitch fork backlash, there were letters flooded into the writing room of Lewis Carroll who acquiesced, he finally gave in. There was so much umbrage that he said that in a future edition, he put a foreword in that provided an answer.

But the catch to this is that the answer was underwhelming, his answer was a raven and a writing desk are the same because though they both ... they both produce notes even though they are flat and they can ... and never ... you can never put the wrong end at the front. And the li .. you know the readers though eh, what? That’s kind of not even funny, I mean even from a mad hatter’s point of view that’s ... now there were two things that really fascinated me about that answer, one is that you can have an answer that still does not satisfy you know the populace. The second thing was that he wrote ... Lewis Carroll wrote nevar ... n-e-v-a-r ... deliberately punning with the anagram of raven where you can nevar put the wrong end at the front and if you do that you create raven. But a copy editor, an editor looked at this and thought oh that’s a misspelling and corrected it and we are indebted to a Lewis Carroll scholar by the curious name of Dennis Crutch in 1980 who came across this correction in the folio and alerted everybody but they still weren’t satisfied, it’s a lame pun, it’s an anagram so in the end the crowd sourcing has won over, everyone has been working on a better answer for the riddle and in 2005 in a chatroom called IO9 there was some ... an anonymous poster who came up with a brilliant answer and has since become the default answer. A raven is like a writing desk because a writing desk is a rest for pens whereas a raven is a pest for wrens. And Lewis Carroll, you could hear him applauding from the grave, thank you for taking that albatross off my neck. It’s always good to have a redraft a hundred years later by someone else.

GEORGE DUNFORD: I think the other sort of must inclusion in terms of riddles was ... is in The Hobbit and you kind of don’t quite go there, you talk instead about the ... now I'm going to pronounce this wrong ... the Hawara, a Norse epic which has some ... Tolkien’s borrowed heavily from it.

DAVID ASTLE: He and it’s ... was interesting, I mean Tolkien you know he did push hard to be included and I felt obliged because we know the riddle so well but the fact that we do know the battle between Bilbo and Gollum so well, at least through the TV series if not through the books ... the TV series, the movie franchise ... so I thought well that’s ... it is well trodden territory, what can I tell differently about this that would open the eyes of the readers? And what I found out is that Tolkien was indebted to this Norse saga from the 1100s called the Hawara saga and it is the story of ... I mean it’s the great you know mythology compendium of Norse legends and there is a ... I mean there are many characters’ names that are ... double up both in the Norse saga and in Tolkien’s books including ... is it Dwalin, the dwarf? There is also Mithril which is the kind of mythic metal is also replicated in both books but the other thing that is there is this beautiful riddle tradition where Odin often, the sort of superior god, dresses up in human form and just reminds humans of how he is still the boss in the house because he can ask these riddles that defy solving or easy you know easy solutions and that ... so riddles are for him ... emphasise his power and s ... and really that is the other reason why riddles are so ubiquitous because they are little vehicles of power because I know the answer and you don’t so you need to prove yourself to save your life or to belong to the inner circle or to you know to win my heart. So that idea of power ... which is why they’re so intoxicating to children because finally they get to sort of you know wear the boots and the pants because they can you know sort of hold the floor.

GEORGE DUNFORD: And speaking of intoxicating Odin’s riddle was mind-whacker, word-thwarter and speeder of speech which the ...

DAVID ASTLE: The oosh, maybe you know can anybody work that out? What is a mind-whacker, a word-thwarter and a speeder of speech? Odin’s great riddle. Come on, what are you going to have when this session is over? You’re going to have a drink, it’s alcohol.

GEORGE DUNFORD: It’s alcohol. A reminder that refreshments are provided afterwards as well. Which may speed your speech a little around riddles. The Norse has a really interesting sort of culture around this too, they talk about riddles as kenning, don’t they? Which is also the word for understanding which has created the Scottish word to ken, to understand. And they’ve got some really good sort of riddly words, they talk about a sword as a wound hoe and ...

DAVID ASTLE: A wound hoe, how beautiful is that for a sword?

GEORGE DUNFORD: A long boat as a sea steed. There’s something of that in riddles too, isn’t there? The ha ha funny riddle isn’t necessarily the tradition that exists in other countries and for me the Mongolian riddles are really interesting. Could you tell us about the ... some of those?

DAVID ASTLE: Yeah, look it’s ... you’re quite right, there’s this ... there’s a sort of metaphorical school of riddles that are just bewitching because they’re not funny, they do revolve on that idea of seeing something truly. In the same way that ken, which is to know, the Norse knew these riddles as kenning because they’re kind of foxy metaphors and it’s the same as ... in Mongolian riddles they don’t have question marks attached, they’re just an elliptic and lyrical way of perceiving something. For example a swamp frog with nine sinews is a saddle and you think wha ... I beg your pard ... because it is brown and low just like a swamp frog and the nine sinews are the various straps that attach to the horse in the same way that an anvil with four geese below is an udder and what it teaches you is a different way of seeing the world and kenning means to know because if you can see something and allegorise it it’s almost as though you have seen something truly and possibly for the first time. And it’s a wonderful exercise for children and that’s there ... is born out in African riddles called bird riddles cause it teaches kids to be aware specifically of animals in nature, to be able to come up with a metaphor that meets each animal in nature, means to understand the world around you. So riddles are as much vehicles of teaching you to see as they are of power.

GEORGE DUNFORD: And there’s a great long history of riddles too. I think the earliest example you have is the Babylonian riddle but probably the most notable one is the riddle in Pompeii that was captured on the walls there.

DAVID ASTLE: Yeah, most of us think of Pompeii as ... when it comes to graffiti it’s usually ... we think of the filthy stuff, there’s some very ... there are ... there’s some great filthy stuff but there’s also curses and there’s sort of anguished pleas. Bear in mind that Pompeii roughly speaking as best they can manage ... there were censuses at the time ... had a population of roughly 10,000 people. Now in the area of Pompeii, not the complete city as yet but in the area of Pompeii that they’ve excavated they’ve since found 13,000 pieces of graffiti so if you do the maths that’s basically ... everyone has scrawled at least one message on the wall. And one of them they found in the basilica, was the most ... the most kind of intriguing of them all, it was entitled aenigma which is Latin for riddle and it was deemed to be a piece of scurrilous kind of boy love. It referred to a ... it was from a male’s point of view saying I’m looking at the woman with the child, I wish the child was mine, I cannot have the child, I desire the child but the child does not desire me.

And most people for centuries had presumed that it was essentially a kind of ... an anguished look from afar of a male looking to a young boy, for some reason there seemed to be a sort of salacious element to it. But then ... the key word here is the word fructus which is Latin for fruit and also offspring but it’s also ... and a very fine shampoo that has sponsored the book ... but it’s also the word for interest in the same way that when you give a loan to someone you then get fructus from that loan which is how the money grows. The money that you lend grows into interest and what is ... has since been you know speculated and more and more people have ascribed to this idea is that it is as much as ... it’s a kind of cry of class. This person is looking at the woman who has the ability to make money, to grow her money. He desires that money but the money can never be his and he ... it’s really about the kind of fiscal gap that existed and was a severe gap in Pompeii society, in Roman society so it has since been dignified as rather than some ribald piece of urinal verse, actually just a kind of Cri de Coeur from the underclass.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Yeah, there’s a real sort of ... riddles are really locked in a culture, aren’t they? And sometimes you know with the fructus example there’s a really good you know understanding that it might not be understood outside of its time. There’s an example of that also I think in your book, Puzzled, isn’t it? No, Cluetopia, I think.

DAVID ASTLE: Oh yeah, yeah.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Which is ... if you haven’t read it it’s a survey of a hundred years of crosswords and one of the crosswords I think comes from 1927 and it is a very odd clue that could only make sense to people at the time. Can you tell us a little about that?

DAVID ASTLE: Yeah, it’s ... this is why I'm so intrigued by ... essentially there are ephemera, I’m really ... I do love ephemera. I almost like to defy the .. yeah, the wording of ephemera which you know literally means lasting a day. These are things that just slip through our fingers, they might be theatre tickets, they might be just you know receipts or shopping lists, notes that we leave on kitchen tables and I ... for me they’re ... I try and turn them into ephemerals, I try and add value to ephemera. And crossword clues are exactly that, they capture the zeitgeist of the time and in 1926 there was a clue that I found in The Yorkshire Post which was a young hostess and the answer was six letters. And I had presumed that the answer was geisha because I had a few letters and it was six and I thought all this worked out but I solved the crossword from 1926 and found the answer to be Ishbel and that made no sense at all to me. So then I started digging into who Ishbel could have been and here was a you know the story of Ishbel McDonald gives me gooseflesh because she was a young woman who was a household name in 1926 for a very good reason because when her father Ramsay McDonald made prime minister his wife had died only a year before he was running for office. He went to 10 Downing Street with his four children and Ishbel who was only about 16 at the time was essentially the young lady if I can use that term ... sorry, not young lady, she was the young lady first lady of Great Britain for nine years while Ramsay served his time and so consequently she was beloved of you know by the nation and she was ... would have been in several crosswords and several other pieces of ephemera but her name has become ephemera, she has left the historic consciousness ... not the record but our focus. She died childless in 1979 you know vale Ishbel McDonald and if it were not for a cryptic clue or a clue I would never have known of her, nor would many of ... other people, I would imagine.

And it has been the same with riddles, I have found the names of people within these riddles and it’s been fascinating to research who these people are. Just as when we have news stories and it might be something as tasteless as the Azaria Chamberlain story or the Michael Jackson story they turn very quickly into riddles, we know how this happens. I’m not defending whether they’re you know tasteful pieces of frippery but I’m just saying that they do capture as much idiolect of a society and culture as they do the sort of you know transient heroes and villains of that culture.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Idiolect could probably be a Scrabble word, couldn't it?

DAVID ASTLE: It’s a good Scrabble word.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Around crosswords so you’ve been setting crosswords for how long now?

DAVID ASTLE: Okay, I think I did my first one in 1983 so I was just at uni, just out of uni actually and I have been ... it was a kind of cameo job, I think they basic ... it was kind of Stockholm syndrome, they said alright look you ... I had been stalking The Herald for years and sending them my undergrad stuff and very kindly Lindsay Brown mentored me so my tormentor became mentor and I’m indebted to Lindsay. And ... although it was very telling when I went to meet him for the very first time, I felt as though I had ... I knew him because having solved his crosswords for so long, and Lindsay was the you know he was the turbine of crosswords for years in The Sydney Morning Herald and I went to meet him when I was still at uni so would have been something like 1981 and there he was in his pyjamas in a kitchen surrounded by you know his cookbooks were his dictionary, he had a farty bulldog called Monty and I was essentially meeting my future self you know with a couple of variations to that. But it really ... it’s hardly as though I walked into this career of crossword maker with eyes closed, I knew that that was my destiny, to sort of live in my pyjamas and two-day growth but I just love crosswords so much I couldn’t resist.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Because you progressed from riddles to crosswords and I believe your mother did crosswords and ...

DAVID ASTLE: Poor soul.

GEORGE DUNFORD: ... and that ... speaking of you know the tormentor, you chased her with riddles and then you chased her in crosswords as well.

DAVID ASTLE: I know. I mean look this book is actually dedicated to my mum because you know she put up with ... she put up with my wordy ways you know from the start. And it’s true I bugged the hell out of her with riddles and then she was just ... she had this ritual 6:00 every evening a tall Gordon’s and tonic and the crossword, that was her moment of reprieve. And then I started envying the rapture that was ... she was you know displayed in these crosswords and became curious in them and even that I gate-crashed and wanted to know more and next thing you know I was solving and we were racing, getting two papers then I squeezed the fun out of it all over again.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Maybe just turning back to riddles again there’s the block in a riddle, isn’t there? The sort of ... the turn that you don’t expect which you called in the book the uporia.

DAVID ASTLE: Yeah, that’s important, it’s ... uporia which is a Greek word for ... I mean we know portal and it’s essentially saying no portal so it’s saying there’s no exit, there’s no way out of here so that’s the ... I suppose my working definition for a riddle is that it’s an evasive question with a preloaded answer. They seem to be the sort of two working elements but I’ve since found that there’s plenty of cultures that defy those rules and go down their own separate laneways. But the Greeks knew it quite purely as uporia, lack of door and that is an important element in most Western riddles, that there is this ... there’s a block, you don’t ... the question does not seem to make sense. Let’s think of an example so if I said to you ... I could actually use a beautiful Burmese riddle. A glass of milk spilt across the countryside. There’s something that’s not logical about that. Even though it’s not a question there’s ... what does that mean? I mean you ... a glass of milk and there’s milk everywhere and I don’t ... that makes ... and it’s again a metaphorical piece of subterfuge and the answer is moonlight. So it’s a beautiful way of looking at moonlight but there’s a deliberate block to you perceiving that immediately. And in fact I was reminded that riddle ... even though I brought it up in a kids’ session yesterday it all came back to me as I was having a walk around Kingston and it ... I thought it was snow, all those kapoc seeds and I just thought wow, it’s a gorgeous cup of milk that’s been spilt across Canberra.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Whereas I think they call it study snow, don’t they?

DAVID ASTLE: Study snow, yeah, I’ve since found that out, very interesting.

GEORGE DUNFORD: And one of the greatest finds I think of the book is the Gamiliraay people who ... an indigenous Australian people who have some riddles that are part of their culture.

DAVID ASTLE: Well the great block that I’d encountered with this book was I was determined to find an indigenous riddle. I mean I found plenty of curious and fascinating historic Australian riddles you know one that is almost like a pirate map from northern Tasmania, another one that tells about political intrigues in Melbourne but the one that I found ... that I could not seem to find was an indigenous riddle and I would have pestered everyone at the Linguistics Department at ANU, everyone in the Koori Heritage Trust in Melbourne, I became you know a real pest just trying to find if there was a riddle and I was told in kind of general terms it’s more of a western conceit and having done so much research I thought well it’s not, there is just different ways of interpreting what a riddle is. And I was just so jubilant when I found ... in fact it was a professor here at ANU called Murray Gard who said very much there are riddles in indigenous culture in the Gamiliraay people and I found this ... this story was amazing because we have record of these riddles thanks to a woman called Catherine Langloh Parker and she was rescued as a young girl by a young Gamiliraay woman in the Darling River and they become tight friends.

And when Catherine moved to out near Walgett on the Narran River she was ... she basically became very close with the local tribe, the Euahlayi tribe, and they let her into their rituals and their culture and Catherine wrote about it at length and became like a lexicographer and anthropologist and amongst her writings in this book, the ... called The Euahlayi Tribe which was a bestseller in 1905, there was a series of skipping songs that ... so they had this incredible skipping ritual using you know these long pieces of twirled bark, they had lullabies and they had riddles, they were called Yubbil which is interesting cause it actually has a very western sound to it and I wonder if that was a word that maybe Catherine had applied or it had somehow been corrupted. They were called Yubbil, they were indigenous riddles and it was such a ... such a joy to find and you know it’s one of the ... it is one of the treasures of the book.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Yeah, it’s fantastic. I’ve noticed that the ask it basket got snagged by someone there. Maybe we’ll just have a look at some of these questions now before we turn to your questions from the audience.

DAVID ASTLE: Okay, random choice here, random choice. Okay oh maths riddle, that’d be right. Everyone’s always disappointed when I arrive and there’s no lily. What do you call a boiling kettle on top of Mt Everest? Oh dear, okay. Well I know that’s ... there is such a thing, that’s where we get the word ebullient, it comes from boiling ... I know this is not a word question ... and that the explorers, the Australian explorers used boiling as a means of measuring altitude. But that’s just foxing around and stalling. What do you call a boiling kettle on top of Mt Everest? Okay. Steam, I'm thinking steam, I’m think ... I’m trying to work out, there’s a pun here.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Something to do with K, K12 you know ..?

DAVID ASTLE: Yeah, K2, maybe it’s K1, the first kettle. We ... it’s also called a maths riddle which makes me think there is a kind of numbers payoff here. Who wrote ... who composed this riddle? Who is the culprit? Yes. Are we close any ... with our mumblings?

AUDIENCE:   No, no.

DAVID ASTLE: Nowhere near. Does it have a mathematical answer?

AUDIENCE:   You’re reading far too much into ...

DAVID ASTLE: Oh okay. A boiler ... a boiler on top of the world. Anyone want to have a guess before ... yes?

AUDIENCE:   High pot in use.

DAVID ASTLE: High pot in use. Ahh ..

GEORGE DUNFORD: A high pot in use. Very well done. Do you want to grab another one?



DAVID ASTLE: I reckon boiling billy would have been fairer. It’s a very good riddle. Okay, here we go. What is the meaning of life? Please. Did you hear the question? I think that doesn’t have a prescribed answer but we might be wrong. What is the meaning of life? Forty-two, isn’t it?


DAVID ASTLE: Yeah, 42. Or if you’re perverse, 24. Okay. Let’s have a look. Paul, what walks on four legs then two then three? Now that is the sphinx riddle, Paul. But what’s wonderful about the sphinx riddle or the one that Oedipus solved is that when he solved it with man it actually sealed his fate, he thought it actually avoided death but in the end it was a fate worse than death because he became that man and the walking stick that was the third leg in his twilight was in fact his father’s sceptre, the man that he had killed unwittingly to then obliviously marry his mother. So it is the perfect you know sort of celestial gotcha and that’s why it has become such a surviving myth, that one. But that is the very riddle. So I think we should have one more. Why did the traffic light turn red? Oh it’s because it ... maybe it saw a car changing lanes? It’s something to do with that, isn’t it? It’s about a ... someone getting changed. Oh it saw a ... it saw something that is potentially embarrassing.

AUDIENCE:   Changing gear.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Oh a car changing gear.

DAVID ASTLE: It saw a car changing gear.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Is that yours, sir?

DAVID ASTLE: You might win it for coming up with an answer, a little like you. Are we close? That sounds like we’ve got the answer.

DAVID ASTLE: What is the answer?

AUDIENCE:   You would too if you had to get changed in the middle of the road.

DAVID ASTLE: Oh okay, getting changed in the middle of the road. Alright, well done. I do like changing gear, though, very clever, sir, well done. Alright, we’ll come back to a few more, they’re such a clever audience.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Alright, they are.

DAVID ASTLE: And they’re very ... there’s a lot of them, as soon as I mentioned prize they were just ... this basket fill up. The rat and the cat and Lowell, the dog, rule all England under the hog. Okay. A saddle? No. The rat and the cat and Lowell, the dog, rule all England under the hog. Wow.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Is it LOL, Loll, the dog or is it ...

DAVID ASTLE: It’s Loll as in Robert Lowell. Well, Lowell, the dog. The rat and the cat and Lowell, the dog rule all England under the hog.

GEORGE DUNFORD: I think this gentleman actually had a few goes so ...

AUDIENCE:   Are you giving up?


AUDIENCE:   I'm surprised you don’t know, it’s Richard III, it’s a reference to people ... Richard III and Lowell and Radcliffe.

DAVID ASTLE: Fantastic so you’ve distorted the ... the kind of synopsis of Richard III. Gosh, is that an original riddle or are you just ... you plucked that from some obscure you know book of torture that you may have come across?

GEORGE DUNFORD: I don’t think we’ve got much Shakespeare here in the National Library, he’s not Australian.

DAVID ASTLE: Thanks for lifting the you know the erudition, appreciate it.

GEORGE DUNFORD: This gentleman had several, I think, when the basket was put down there and left unattended he raided it and wrote several cards so ...

DAVID ASTLE: Richard III fashion, I thought.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Maybe we could throw to your questions a little bit. We have some roving microphones going around and we’ve just lifted the house lights a little bit so you can be seen. Put your hand up if you’ve got a question for David and I don’t think David answers what was four across from…

AUDIENCE:   My question’s a very practical one. All the people who are not here tonight are home watching Letters and Numbers ...


AUDIENCE:   It’s the semi-final, we’ll watch the grand final tomorrow night but has there been another series made since 2011 or is there going to be another one?

DAVID ASTLE: Oh there really should be, shouldn’t there? We should leave a petition there at the door. The answer is no and no, I’m afraid. There was ... it did ... yes, you’re right, it was last filmed in 2011, that was ... we did ... made about 18 months’ worth of shows and SBS has been you know doing the best to get the you know the sort of use of those episodes. I mean it’s lovely to see it being reprised at least and it is wonderful at least to see these finals too because they are excellent games, great players but yeah look it’d be lovely to get back on the ... to the studio but I understand that that’s you know the furthest thing from SBS’s mind, I think the set has you know since been dismantled and all things like that but who knows? What it has rekindled is a lot of you know affection for the show and a lot of new fans of the show.

It’s incredible how many people ... I will tell you that I was walking to ... walking the dog early one morning, came across a ... one of those communications officers who was attached to a road-working gang. He had stop and he had slow and it was sort of half-light and he warned me, he said pots as ... so I was walking on so I was looking for potholes and then I realised hang on, pots. I walked all the way back to him and I said post with his stop sign and he went tops. And he said love the show, love ... absolutely love the show and I said my name’s David, what’s your name? And he said Gordon and I said anagram of drongo. And then he said okay, that’s ... you said that aloud, you know that? But yeah, that to me you know symptomizes just how much broad affection there is and was for the show so I would love to think one day that they green light more episodes, all three of us would, we had so much fun making it and great vehicle for kids as well you know with all this talking about their fading numeracy and literacy skills. Also a wonderful drinking game I’ve been told reliably by several uni students.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Do we have any other ... oh maybe just the lady just there.

AUDIENCE:   When I was a kid my dad used to drive us bananas with an imaginary riddle or an impossible riddle, why does a duck when it sings? Because the higher the fewer. And we used to say but it doesn’t make sense, it’s not even a riddle, it ... do you know anything about the history of those and where they came from?

DAVID ASTLE: Well it’s funny you should bring it up because I .. when I did a shout-out in the word play column that I do for the Sydney Morning Herald, when I first launched into this safari trying to find riddles I did say please tell me any riddle stories or your favourite riddles and this duck, this duck came flooding back. There were so many variations on the duck because there’s another one about why’s ... why is a duck’s ... one leg of a duck longer than the other leg? And the answer is just as nonsensical, I can’t remember preci ... does anyone what the answer to that one? Do you know that riddle? It’s just ... it’s almost like a quizzical version of a dad joke, it’s just designed to drive kids mad. And I think that’s what it is, it’s a piece of nonsense that is about short-circuiting your kind of logic. For that reason I think it’s something to celebrate but I don’t think it’s ... it defies deciphering, it’s just something to ... look what riddles do is they do enforce you, oblige you to think differently, to think sideways and that’s another example of just don’t expect an easy sort of ... an easy closing of the deal, there’s still work to be done.

GEORGE DUNFORD: And they’re a long way from the dad joke, aren’t they? Although both don’t have to be funny.

DAVID ASTLE: Well I mean the dad jokes ... I mean a dad joke so long as it has a question and answer is a riddle after all but that’s kind of falling more into the western idea. When you look at what else riddles can be I mean in Borneo they’re used as tools of arbitration you know when there are warring parties in a Borneo village they bring them together in this sort of tribal council and the elders will put riddles to them. And what these riddles do is that they affirm the morays and kind of cultural ways of the village and if you can’t answer it it’s a means of highlighting the fact that you have wandered far from the playbook of that culture. So ... and that’s just one version of riddles, there are riddles that are ... that were used in ... that are in song, there are riddles that were created by a Scottish robot. This was in 1995 in Aberdeen, there was a thing called the JAPE software which is a joke analysis and pun engine. And what it proved you know sort of astonishingly well was that riddles are really only something that humans can make up because the JAPES riddles were so lame that ... even lamer than dad jokes. One that comes to mind is what shout has pixels? I mean that’s just a ridiculous question but then again most riddles are but it needs to have a sweet answer. This was worse than the mad hatter’s answer, it’s a computer scream and you think really? That’s the best you could come up with? So that gives us all comfort that ... from both clue-makers and riddle-meisters that the machines can’t you know play the game just yet but they’re still developing the JAPE software.

GEORGE DUNFORD: It’s a very good answer around you know western riddles being expected to be funny. I think for your dad you know perhaps he should retort you know well I don’t want to play to those western expectations around jokes, that they have to be funny, you know?

DAVID ASTLE: I mean the reason behind the JAPE program is fantastic because it’s actually teaching kids who have learning difficulties, severe learning difficulties so it’s giving them the potential to hear words being put in different contexts and understand that words can be flexible and duplicitous. So actually there’s a wonderful reasoning behind the whole JAPE software program but the fact that they’re so lame gives me you know enormous amount of solace. Yes down the front here.

AUDIENCE:   I watched a documentary on Phyllis Diller and she had a magnificent index filing system for her jokes. Apropos that is there any reason why you don’t have any indexes?

DAVID ASTLE: Oh. Well I know, in fact I think ... I gave a keynote speech at the Editors’ and Indexers’ Conference here in Canberra in May and when they heard that I was doing this project they said oh that’ll be a terrific thing to index. And it’s true, it is ... it did weigh on my mind as something as something that had to be done I thought that the contents page is quite detailed and does display the riddle and quite clearly ... every chapter head is the riddle itself. I thought that was a pretty useful tool and I was hoping a useful tool enough but I’ve since found when I’ve ... wanting to go back and find a particular riddle that it’s not as you know foolproof as I was hoping so it does take still a bit of finding a riddle but I opted out because I thought the contents was ... had a thoroughness to it. But it’s a fair question.

GEORGE DUNFORD: The other thing is ... in the book that it’s ... you’ve really packed in a lot of riddles because you’ve got you know a question on this on the footer of this page and then its answer on the other page so there is loads of riddles there.

DAVID ASTLE: Dad jokes and others’ included.

AUDIENCE:   Do you have your own filing system for your jokes?

DAVID ASTLE: I don’t, no, look, I ... in fact one thing I ... and in fact I have been using ... when it comes to coming up with crossword clues, cause this is another area ... you know you can’t rely on memory all the time cause I’ve been making crosswords for 30 years now ... I can’t remember precisely whether I have used this clue, I may have used the word before, what option did I take? So I’ve started to file just the cross ... not in a kind of any thorough way but just putting all the clues and all the answers into this one document so I can keyword it ... it’s essentially a file ... to ensure that I’m not duplicating clues so I have started to do that with my clues which I suppose are my riddles professionally, yes.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Is it true that you actually wrote a crossword for Jimmy Barnes once?

DAVID ASTLE: I did, it’s true. I met Jimmy Barnes during a story for Sunday Life ... this is about seven or eight years ago ... and he ... his wife, Jane, is a very keen crossword-solver, cryptic crossword-solver and so Jimmy ... it was her 50th birthday coming up and he wanted to give her something that no one else, no other rock star could give his girl. He’d already given her some you know ivory you know MG pearl you know some pearl grey MG. That was her ... for her 49th so the 50th had to be special. So he turned to me and I was trying to get you know it was a fascinating story because he’d just come off the heart surgery table and he was going to test out his lungs belting out Khe Sanh and you know cheap wine at ... in the Queensland outback. So I was there, he was giving me gold on the proviso that I gave him a crossword and he crossword had all these you know touchstone words in Jane’s life, her first dog, the you know the lyrics, how they met, everything had been laced into this particular crossword.


People still solved it, it was published in Sydney Morning Herald, people still enjoyed the crossword but it was this huge private joke between Jimmy and Jane and I understand that he bought every Sydney Morning Herald at Mascot Airport, he flew over to ... and she thought he was going insane ... they flew over to Bali and it was the day after her birthday and he then put this one crossword in front of her and said happy birthday, babe. And she said this ... this is ... really? This is it? And then she started solving the crossword and then ... and she was in raptures so yeah, I do occasionally stitch in ... if some ... if it’s a special milestone for you know someone who you know I mean it was a you know absolute pleasure to do but I’d done similar things but always there is the pleasure to be had for the general solver, that’s important.

GEORGE DUNFORD: I think it’s in Puzzled too where you talk about some of those stories about couples who’ve met over your crosswords and a couple met and got married over your crosswords, didn’t they?

DAVID ASTLE: Yeah, I was in Brisbane for the Brisbane Writers’ Festival about a month ago and I met this couple and they came up to me and they were both very starry-eyed because they’d just been married and you know they were still in the honeymoon stage, you could still the you know the joy coming from their faces, it was so lovely to meet. They were in their sort of late 20s and they said oh DA, you’ll never believe it, we got married on a Friday and I said that’s ... congratulations ... I’d never met them before, I said congratulations. And he said no but we got married on a Friday because that’s when your crossword is published and we met over one of your crosswords a year ago and I ... oh you’re killing me and so I said ... and we saved up your crossword for our wedding night and I said please tell me you did a few other things too and I went ... he said yeah, we did.

But anyway so they were ... and they’re still you know it was just ... I have met that many people, I suppose the most wonderful story I’ve come across in my kind of cross wording day you know times is I came ... a young woman from Melbourne, she explained to me in an email, and I’ve since met her, that she had this enormous rift with her father where they had this massive falling-out ... I can't remember what it was about, I don’t think she told me but they didn’t speak to each other for about six years. But then slowly you know week by week they used the crossword as a means of reconciling cause they both enjoyed the crossword so they started doing this you know a kind of email correspondence that then thawed into a sort of ... occasional phone calls and when I met them they were both there, holding hands saying thank you for saving our relationship so you know I do what I do for moments like that.

GEORGE DUNFORD: No pressure, you just got to bring relationships back together with a ..


GEORGE DUNFORD: ... one down.

DAVID ASTLE: .. bringing people together you know one week at a time.

GEORGE DUNFORD: This gentleman here.

AUDIENCE:   Yes, you can take this as a comment, definition of an optimist, somebody who tackles a David Astle crossword without a rubber.

DAVID ASTLE: That takes us back to a honeymoon night, doesn’t it?

GEORGE DUNFORD: Gentleman just there.

AUDIENCE:   David, your story of Ramsay McDonald’s daughter as his hostess is a very personal one but it’s also of the time and I’m reminded of that ... or by that of a rather macabre riddle that went around the world very quickly when the ... one of the space missions for NASA blew up and killed the astronauts, it was immediately what does NASA stand for?

DAVID ASTLE: That’s right, need another seven astronauts.

AUDIENCE:   Need another seven astronauts.

DAVID ASTLE: I remember that as well and that’s a good example of how they can be very tasteless and yet they capture some you know moment in time.

AUDIENCE:   Indeed but if it were put into a riddle today nobody would really know what you’re talking about because it’s gone.

DAVID ASTLE: It has gone and that’s a good example, I mean we ... it does highlight how quickly they slip through our fingers and how essentially what riddles are, they are these cultural relics. They’re almost ... what they do is they eavesdrop the culture of the day. Folklore by definition is an oral culture so when we get these written vestiges of riddles and stories what they do is they capture what is being said and what has caught the public imagination of the day so delving into riddles, I’ve felt riddles from ... you’re right, five you know 7,000 years ago and what it has done essentially is helped us hear what was being said, helped us understand what made hearts race, what was sacred, what was taboo, what was deemed important and what was not even mentioned.

And in fact the cultural translation of riddles has been as much the block that I’ve had to contend with as the riddle itself. I’ve had to come ... I’ve ... the Filipino riddles are all about this dog that jumps over 24 holes, reaches the wharf and leaps into the sea. That’s the riddle and you’re thinking where do I start with that? And then scratching into how this means what does it mean? Who is this dog? What are these holes? And finding out that it’s a board game that was imported from the Arab world in the ... 800AD into the Philippines, a board game called sungka and sungka was this ... it’s a little bit like Chinese checkers and the dog is the main counter, the 24 holes are the pits, it collects marbles wherever you land, and the wharf is the finishing point and to leap into the sea means to end the game. So all this makes sense once you decode but you need to get into the culture and understand the kind of ... the ... you need to translate culture as much as you need to translate language. That’s .. and thankfully these riddles have been capturing, overhearing and finally now in this book, I hope, murmuring to you lost worlds and lost cultures or cultures that we can’t easily penetrate.

GEORGE DUNFORD: There’s ... I think the crossword puzzles are also very rooted in the culture too, aren’t they? And there’s a ... Geoffrey Rush I think is a great fan of yours and has referred to DA as the Sergeant Pepper of cryptic crosswords.

DAVID ASTLE: Whatever that means. I’ll take it as a compliment.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Well it’s a ...

DAVID ASTLE: Or a comment anyway.

GEORGE DUNFORD: But you’ve got .. there’s a story that Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp are sitting ‘round on the set of Pirates of Caribbean trying to do one of your crosswords and ..

DAVID ASTLE: And there were bragging rights attached, I mean it ... again it’s one of those stories why you do what you do and ... cause I was lucky enough to meet Rush when I was doing a piece for Sunday Life again and I knew that he was a Scrabble fan as well as being a crossword fan so I thought let’s play Scrabble but we don’t score and we can flip any tiles over at any point and we called it Story Scrabble and whatever words you made had to prompt a story. And amazingly I think he got a word like atoll or something in this third go and he said ... and that was his pirate story and he told this story about how they had these crossword races, he’d download it from The Herald, he’d photocopy it off ... cause clearly there was a Xerox on this Caribbean island ... he’d photocopy it off and there was you know Bloom, Depp you know Rush all there saying you know trying to spy on each other and yeah, whoever got the crossword out first was the true you know was the kind of captain of the ship.

GEORGE DUNFORD: And Johnny Depp proved to be rubbish, didn’t he?

DAVID ASTLE: Yeah, he was rubbish, absolute rubbish however you know Bloom with his you know Pommy ... Pommy heritage, he did have ... he cottoned on pretty quickly.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Do we have any other questions there? Sorry, we’ll just wait for the microphone so we can ... thanks.

AUDIENCE:   You comment it reflects the culture, what do Australian riddles reflect and say about us?

DAVID ASTLE: Good question, in fact the one that I alluded to earlier from ... it was a Christmas cracker book, it was one of those whacky almanacs and they were very popular in the late 1800s, it ... this came out in 1887 and it was ... the riddle was ... see, this is the thing, you come across a crossword or you come across one of these chat books or books of you know miscellany and they would have things like magic tricks in it and funny stories and drawings, a little bit like Cole’s funny picture book. But this one was called ... predated the Cole books and it was called Christmas Crackers and I went through ... it had a couple of riddle pages so I’m sifting it through and I’m thinking chestnut, chestnut, chestnut, heard it before, yeah, know that then there was one riddle that said why is Colin Street like the river Murray? And the answer was because there’s the Bank of New South Wales on one side and the Bank of Victoria on the other.

And I thought that’s lovely, that will be my riddle for this moment in time but then I thought while it does capture a streetscape it doesn’t necessarily capture culture as well as another riddle that I since found in the same publication that said when is Henderson Africanis like Sir Graham Berry’s bandy leg? So that’s the riddle I chose because I chose the riddles that made the least sense. Little bit like your Richard III riddle, I would have settled on that for sure cause I just wanted to get ... and what it call came down to was Henderson Africanis, he was this charismatic figure that was a newspaper salesman in his day working the streets but he was also by ... on the weekend ... his name was actually Christopher Henderson, he was from Jamaica, larger than life and possibly one of the very few Caribbean figures in Melbourne at the time so he was well known. He then went by the name of Henderson Africanis on the weekend because he became a kind of political polemicist, a tub-thumper, he would occupy a soapbox along the Yarra and he would make promises about how to fix up the government and the economy because it was going through a really tough time.

Sir Graham Berry was the premier of the day and they were in this impasse between the two houses of legislature, the council and the assembly where one was blocking supply to the other so magistrates were retiring. The whole thing was called Black Thursday; our culture was you know in jeopardy, the sort of ... what we understand democracy was teetering on the edge. So how does this relate to Henderson Africanis? It all got down to the fact that Sir Graham Berry threatened to go over to the UK to actually change the constitution to get rid of all these dogs in the manager in government so it was purely just the assembly who would make the decisions, forget the checks and balances, get you out. But what the opposition did was they made fun of Sir Graham Berry and they also brought out the xenophobic side with Henderson Africanis because when is Henderson Africanis like Sir Graham’s bandy leg? Is when the knee grows out so what that tells us is A, they are terrible at making puns, B, they are racist, C, they are very political and they ultimately are about political point-scoring, so many riddles cause they do betray your colours and your sort of partisanship. But it tells us so much about Australian culture 110 years ago, 20 years ago, is that they are political, they’re punny, they’re xenophobic all in that one riddle and that just you know you can dig up any history book you like but sometimes a riddle or a crossword clue tells us best.

GEORGE DUNFORD: We’ve got time for maybe one more question, if you’ve been sitting on a question and too afraid this might be the chance to ...

DAVID ASTLE: Alternatively a middle from my ch ... riddle from my childhood ... what did the gas meter say to the shilling? Okay, gas meter say to the shilling, you turn me on? What did the gas meter say to the shilling because I’m presuming that you had to put a shilling into the gas meter.

GEORGE DUNFORD: What’s the sign for a shilling?

DAVID ASTLE: You and I really click? It’s Greg, it comes from Greg. Does anyone want to have a theory on Greg’s riddle?

AUDIENCE:   Light my fire.

DAVID ASTLE: Light my fire, yeah. You’re on fire there, sir. You’re not Greg by any chance, are you? Greg, who ... can you relieve us? Yes.

AUDIENCE:   I thought this was hilarious when I was five, I'm not so sure now. What did the gas meter say to the shilling? Glad you popped in, Bob, I was just going out.

DAVID ASTLE: Oh ... glad you dropped in, Bob, I was just going out. Well you know what? That applause probably says something. Even though the hypotenuse was very ... I reckon we might have found ... that ... also there’s a childhood association, that got the warm applause, that’s a ... I think we’ve found our winner, that is a lovely riddle.

GEORGE DUNFORD: Alright, we’ve got our winner there. Ladies and gentlemen, David Astle will be signing books in the foyer as well as joining you for light refreshments. Please join us upstairs for a drink and join me in thanking David Astle for a very generous session, thank you. Thanks very much.

DAVID ASTLE: Thanks George.


End of recording