Those, who regard cryptic cruciverbalists as time-wasting clever-cloggs, have a point. Learning the language and conventions of crosswordland’s not exactly a doddle, requires a decent vocabulary, quite wide general knowledge, and, unless you’re a virtuoso, time to spare; and you won’t get anywhere without cunning, self-confidence and determination.
I’m a bit of an addict, but sadly that doesn’t mean much good. Most days I have a go; it’s the Scummagraph cryptic, which claims to be the planet’s most popular puzzle of its genre (British-style), I finish perhaps two or three times a week. Actually I always finish it, but on those unfinished days, when guilt about, or boredom with, banging my head against an impasse prevails, I get help from BigDave44.com. BigDave posts solutions to all clues, but, to save face, gives you hints on how to solve a clue. Only if this fails, do you suffer the humiliation of looking up the answer. I’ll even do that to understand better the infinitely devious minds of our compilers and their duplicitous guiles.
So where does the pleasure and thus addiction lie? A friend once asked me if doing crosswords made me feel clever. It’s not so much that; it’s more the satisfaction of the so-called insight moments, the aha/eureka moments of which, if you solve a whole crossword, there are around 30, delivered hopefully in reasonably short order. Psychologists describe it as a sudden, surprising revelation that appears, unheralded by the conscious mind, bringing a moment of elation and a calm certainty the solution’s right. This is what makes the puzzle so popular, if not addictive; at least that’s the case for me.
It’s a constant source of wonder how the mind can fashion a solution from the chaos of anagrams, acrostics, all-in-ones, charades, puns, homophones, double definitions, reversals, insertions, palindromes, abbreviations, Roman numerals, truncations, lurkers and the rest, and the combinations thereof, that are the stuff of clues. Many’s the time answers miraculously pop into my head for no apparent reason, and then superfluously parsed for verification. Another satisfaction flows from the impasse, which when left to stew for a few hours, will often suddenly reveal a quite different reading of the ambiguous, and throw up an instantaneous solution.
For the benefit of the sane, Ximenes, one of the most famous compilers, was the pseudonym of D. S. Macnutt, (now there’s a name to conjure with) who first set the Observer crossword in 1939, and is described as the ‘Father’ of the British cryptic crossword. His predecessor’s pseudonym was Torquemada. Wittily enough, both are names of successive Grand Inquisitors of the Spanish Counter-Reformation. Ximenes, it seems, was to the crossword what Euclid was to geometry. His exquisitely elegant definition of the perfect clue’s characteristics, and, I understand, the principles of grid layout, are said to be the foundation of the modern puzzle.
As Ximenes, Macnutt, the portly head of Classics at Christ’s Hospital school, had many fans, including Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and P. G. Wodehouse. Colin Dexter, Inspector Morse’s creator, named his hero and assistant after fellow Ximeneans, as they called themselves, prize-winners Sir Jeremy Morse and Mrs D. W Lewis, and Morse’s old inspector was called Macnutt. Such was the power of the aha/eureka moment that a dinner held to celebrate his 1000th crossword, three years before his death in 1971, was attended by nearly 400 nutters.
Then there was, five years ago, the extraordinarily poignant case of The Grauniad’s cryptic compiler, the Rev John Graham, pseudonymed Araucaria (botanical for a Chilean monkey-puzzle). His final crossword, posthumously completed by a friend included, amongst others, these solutions: ENDOSCOPY, OESOPHAGUS, CANCER, CHEMOTHERAPY, MACMILLAN NURSE, and PALLIATIVE CARE. The puzzle was prefaced by a special instruction: Araucaria has 18 down of the 13 across.
18 down: Sign of growth (6).
Solution: an astrological sign: CANCER.
13 across: Food transporter heard to gradually reduce an endless effusion (10).
Solution: a charade made up of a homophone (heard) of EASE OFF (gradually reduce), and a truncated (endless) A GUSH (effusion): OESOPH-A-GUS (food transporter).
It makes you think, as they say; and that’s not just the clues.
There’s huge and siren temptation for obsessive nerdity in all this, of course, especially as it has the sanction of the famous and accomplished, but I keep it under control. (I always try to do what must be done before I try to do the crossword.) It certainly helps as a warm-up to blogging, and I console myself it must help keep the mind sharp, perhaps even dementia resistant. On this the jury still seems to be out, because over recent years successive researchers report quite antithetical conclusions. We shall see.
So be it; but for me, while I can, it’s gonna be:
Clue: Meek man’s route around discovery times (6, 7).
Solution: an anagram (around) of meek man’s route; two words meaning discovery times.