One hun­dred years of solvi­tude for uniquely Bri­tish pur­suit

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES - NI­CHOLAS LEZARD

IT WAS the mo­ment when I re­alised I was in with a chance.

1 Across of the Satur­day Prize Cryptic Crossword was one of those mon­sters that fills in so much of the grid that it half solves the puz­zle for you. For it was not only 1 Across, it was the 5, 10, 23, 25, and 15 Acrosses. “Num­ber of words from Marx,” went the clue, “as rev­o­lu­tion­ary duo iffy – ha­bit­ual adu­la­tion and du­bi­ous mytholo­gies died away (2, 1, 4, 3, 3, 1, 9, 4, 5, 3, 4, 2, 7, 2).”

Af­ter a cou­ple of min­utes spent bark­ing up the wrong tree, thanks to the cun­ning mis­di­rec­tion im­plied by the words “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” and “du­bi­ous mytholo­gies”, I re­alised that the Marx be­ing re­ferred to was not Karl, and I got it.

Cross­words are 100 years old this week. They started as rudi­men­tary things, sim­ple clues of def­i­ni­tion. The first one, by a Liver­pool-born jour­nal­ist called Arthur Wynne, ap­peared in the New York World on De­cem­ber 21, 1913, and was called a “word-cross puz­zle”.

His pseu­do­nym, which was also printed in the grid in case you won­dered what the point of the thing might have been in the first place, was “FUN”. Sam­ple clue: “to gov­ern” (4 let­ters, _U_ _).

Al­though the de­sign of Amer­i­can cross­words has changed since then – they are now squares rather than di­a­monds, a sea of white squares with a few is­lands of black – the gen­eral prin­ci­ple be­hind the clues has changed lit­tle since those early days.

You are, to this day, essen­tially be­ing asked ques­tions that are vari­ants of “to gov­ern” (4), oc­ca­sion­ally more so­phis­ti­cated, but of­ten not. That is not the kind of crossword we are in­ter­ested in on this side of the pond, in Bri­tain and the Com­mon­wealth.

True, we have our own sim­ple, def­i­ni­tion-based cross­words, con­de­scend­ingly called “quick” or even “easy”, less con­de­scend­ingly “con­cise”, but the king of the crossword (to the ex­tent that when it makes a rare ap­pear­ance in Amer­ica, it’s called a “Bri­tish-style” crossword) is the cryptic, that mean­ing-man­gling of English lan­guage, se­man­tics and syn­tax, where the sur­face mean­ing of the clue is a dis­trac­tion you have to tear your­self away from and ig­nore.

There is some­thing uniquely Bri­tish about the cryptic crossword. Its clues de­mand a look be­neath the sur­face, a look for the puns and hid­den mean­ings that this strangely mal­leable lan­guage, at once so straight­for­ward and so am­bigu­ous, throws up.

The game had a rocky start on both sides of the At­lantic.

The New York Times noted scorn­fully in 1924 the “sin­ful waste in the ut­terly fu­tile find­ing of words the let­ters of which will fit into a pre­ar­ranged pat­tern, more or less com­plex.

“This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport… (solvers) get noth­ing out of it ex­cept a prim­i­tive form of men­tal ex­er­cise, and suc­cess or fail­ure in any given at­tempt is equally ir­rel­e­vant to men­tal de­vel­op­ment.”

That pa­per, re­al­is­ing even­tu­ally that there were per­haps graver threats to civil­i­sa­tion than cross­words, caved in and started print­ing them in 1942. The UK’s own Times had by then been run­ning one for 12 years.

A fur­ther quote is from a cler­gy­man, con­demn­ing the “child­ish­ness” of the pur­suit. And in some sense they have a point: I, too, have felt that sense of fu­til­ity, hard on the heels of the pride that comes with the com­ple­tion of a crossword, and won­dered what on earth it was all for; much as I have felt the glee, whose roots are in childhood, of stick­ing to a de­mand­ing task, tongue stuck out of the cor­ner of the mouth in con­cen­tra­tion, for the sheer hell of it. And then there are those for whom a crossword is no ef­fort at all and you have to won­der what they get out of it.

My great-un­cle shared this abil­ity with the Cam­bridge don and ghost-story writer MR James: that he could com­plete The Times crossword in un­der four min­utes.

James would time his break­fast boiled egg by his solv­ing the com­plete puz­zle. I have seen my grea­tun­cle in ac­tion, and sus­pect he did it even faster than that.

I would not have been able to fill in the grid any quicker had I been al­lowed to write ran­dom cap­i­tals into the boxes as fast as I could.

Cryptic cross­words ap­peal to the lu­dic in­tel­lect: I de­tect in them the spirit of Lewis Car­roll’s word­play – in par­tic­u­lar, Humpty Dumpty’s sense that words can mean what­ever

‘MR James would time his break­fast boiled egg by solv­ing the com­plete crossword. I sus­pect my great-un­cle did it even faster than that’

he wants them to mean (so “flower” can mean “river”, and so on).

Even the won­der­fully scur­rilous mag­a­zine Viz has one, proper sym­met­ri­cal grid and all, but whose clues, and some­times an­swers (set by “Anus”, as you’d ex­pect), are both kosher and foul-mouthed; about the clean­est that I can both find and solve is “old shag like a fat slag, for in­stance (7)”.

This in turn is an ex­trap­o­la­tion from the Pri­vate Eye crossword, whose set­ter “Cy­clops” could use bad lan­guage and po­lit­i­cal scan­dal with greater free­dom than his broad­sheet col­leagues.

There is, al­ways, a de­lib­er­ately ir­re­spon­si­ble and play­ful in­tel­lect at work in both the set­ting and the solv­ing of th­ese puzzles. But, of course, it’s taken very se­ri­ously, es­pe­cially by the set­ters.

“I hope you’re not go­ing to make the mis­take of call­ing them ‘com­pil­ers’,” says Colin Dex­ter, ar­guably Bri­tain’s most fa­mous set­ter.

He de­vised the Ox­ford Times crossword for more than a dozen years. More fa­mous as an au­thor, he named In­spec­tor Morse af­ter his favourite set­ter, Jeremy Morse, who set The Ob­server’s “Azed”.

I spoke to him on the sub­ject. Why, I asked him, do you think it’s such a pe­cu­liarly Bri­tish phe­nom­e­non?

“It’s be­cause of the won­der­ful lan­guage we have,” he said. “The French couldn’t do it with theirs.”

He has a point, and if that raises the ques­tion about why the Amer­i­cans don’t go in for them nearly as much, that in turn is an­swered by Mike Hutchin­son, The In­de­pen­dent’s crossword ed­i­tor.

He di­rects me to­wards the di­a­logue of the Marx brothers’ Duck Soup to show that Amer­i­cans are per­fectly ca­pa­ble of crazy word­play and adds that there are Amer­i­can fans of what they call the “Bri­tish­style” crossword, in­clud­ing, most no­tably, Stephen Sond­heim.

But you can’t help feel­ing that such things are not for lit­er­al­ists. The idea is to bam­boo­zle, to taunt. Look at the names the set­ters give them­selves: Torque­mada, Ximenes, Enig­ma­tist.

In the cryptic, mean­ing be­comes mean­ing­less­ness, and turns back into mean­ing: it is, as the very name “cryptic” tells us, a kind of en­cryp­tion, and it is no ac­ci­dent that can­di­dates for the code-break­ing op­er­a­tions at Bletch­ley in World War II could be given Tele­graph cross­words to solve within a cer­tain pe­riod of time (12 min­utes be­ing the ac­cept­able up­per limit).

That pa­per’s crossword came un­der in­tense scru­tiny just be­fore the D-Day land­ings, when, in the space of a few days, codewords for the var­i­ous land­ing beaches, and of the whole op­er­a­tion it­self, were among the puzzles’ so­lu­tions.

MI5 hauled the set­ters re­spon­si­ble over the coals but, as one of them, a head­mas­ter named Leonard Dawe, put it later, “even­tu­ally they de­cided not to shoot us af­ter all”.

Lately, the world of cross­words has achieved some fame be­yond the con­fines of its prac­ti­tion­ers, with the death of Arau­caria, The Guardian’s most cel­e­brated set­ter (the name is the Latin for “mon­key­puz­zle tree”), or the Rev­erend John Gra­ham, who reached his 10th decade (my favourite clue of his, among stiff com­pe­ti­tion: “of of of of of of of of of of ( 10)”) be­fore an­nounc­ing, at the top of his crossword for Jan­uary 11 this year: “Arau­caria has 18 down of the 19, which is be­ing treated with 13 15”.

The words were, re­spec­tively, “can­cer”, “oe­soph­a­gus”, “pal­lia­tive” and “care”.

Asked why he told the world this news in such a way, all he could say, and all he needed to, was, “it seemed the nat­u­ral thing to do, some­how”.

And so cross­words con­tinue. De­spite my early op­ti­mism about the Marx clue, I never did fin­ish that Satur­day Prize Cryptic Crossword. One day, I will.

I’ve done it be­fore, af­ter all. And set­ters may die, but oth­ers take their place.

In a small way, the puzzles con­trib­ute to the con­tin­ued ex­is­tence of the pa­per ver­sion of the news­pa­per; you can fill one in online th­ese days, but you can’t beat the plea­sure of Biro or pen­cil on pa­per, or the aid to ana­gram-solv­ing that a ring of let­ters in the near­est avail­able blank space can be.

Long may th­ese men­tal tor­tur­ers – th­ese Arau­cariae, th­ese Torqumadas, th­ese Ximenes and Enig­ma­tists – con­tinue to baf­fle us.

An­swers to the clues given in this ar­ti­cle are: “If I said you had a beau­ti­ful body would you hold it against me”; “rule”; “ex­am­ple”; “of­ten­times”. – The In­de­pen­dent

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