A girl on each knee at the Rover’s Return
The shortest day of 1913 went that bit quicker for readers of the New York World beguiling the fleeting daylight with the first ever crossword, or Word-Cross as its inventor called it.
It wasn’t exactly cryptic. The first vertical clue was “To govern” (four letters), and the second letter, U, had been supplied. Answer: rule – and we’re off. The horizontal clue No 10 was “A bird”, one of those irritating four-letter birds, in this case beginning with D, if you happened to know that “The fibre of the gomati palm” is doh. Answer: dove. To add insult to injury, the answer to No 19 vertical was dove too.
A forgiving public took to the crossword, and in 1924 came a quantum jump (as a quantum leap was then known, in a coinage new that year). Simon & Schuster’s first publication, The Cross Word Puzzle Book, did for the crossword what the contemporary Broadway show Runnin’ Wild did for the Charleston and prohibition was doing for gin: sent the world mad for it.
It was this American, jazzy, cocktail buzz that The Daily Telegraph embraced on July 30 1925, as the first paper in the world to run a daily crossword. It was modern, just like the Telegraph’s planned Neo-Greco-Egyptian office block with its projecting Art Deco clock thumbing its nose at St Paul’s. The association of crosswords with clergymen and steam trains was yet to come; it arrived when crosswords in which “cryptic” clues were mixed in with clues testing readers’ general knowledge and vocabulary gave priority of honour to those containing only cryptic cluing.
This gave the crossword elite respectability. In the Thirties, MR James, the Provost of Eton, known now as the author of ghost stories, was said to time his egg by the crossword – “and he hates a hardboiled egg”. This kind of cruciverbal cachet gave the pretext for a fishy bit of intelligence recruitment in 1941, resembling nothing so much as one of Conan Doyle’s less-convincing Sherlock Holmes stories, “The RedHeaded League”.
The Telegraph had just published its 5,000th crossword, and a flurry of claims in letters from readers on their speed in solving puzzles prompted a challenge from WAJ Gavin, calling himself the chairman of the Eccentrics Club. He wrote in to say that he’d donate £100 to a minesweepers’ fund if any reader could solve a Telegraph puzzle in 12 minutes.
The editor invited contenders to the Fleet Street office, where, in the words of one, Stanley Sedgewick, each of the 25 found on a desk “two sharpened pencils (B and HB), a sheet of virgin blotting paper and a new India rubber”. The fastest to solve the puzzle correctly was a Mr Hawes of Dagenham, in 7 minutes 57.5 seconds. He received the modest prize of a cigarette lighter (useful to him, since he smoked as he solved).
Mr Sedgewick just failed to make 12 minutes and was surprised the next week to receive a letter marked Confidential inviting him to meet a Colonel Nichols at Devonshire House, Piccadilly. It was the HQ of MI8, the people who ran Station X, or as it became known after decades of secrecy, Bletchley Park.
Mr Sedgewick was to put in years of service there, cracking German weather codes, not realising that his work contributed to the great task of deciphering the Enigma code itself.
The crossword that Stanley Sedgewick narrowly failed to solve in time that afternoon appeared in the paper three days later. It was not deeply cryptic; 1 Down was all right: “Official instruction not to forget the servants (8)”. Solution: Tipstaff. But 3 Down was a simple synonym: “Kind of alias (9)”. I wonder if it was this feeble clue that inspired Chris Brougham to set his devilish puzzles for The Spectator under the name Dumpynose – such a satisfying anagram of pseudonym.
Crosswords today, it strikes me, are better than ever. The motto of the Telegraph’s Roger Squires (our regular Monday setter and the Guinness record holder) is: “Entertain by misleading.”
He told me the favourite clue he had set (admired by Colin Dexter, like Morse a crossword connoisseur) was “Bar of soap (3,6,6)”. Answer, inevitable, once seen: The Rovers Return. That is the challenge and joy of the cryptic crossword: it says what it means, but doesn’t mean what it appears to say. Every setter is a spy, every solver a Bletchley decoder in the comfort of their own home.
Roger Squires set his two millionth clue in 2007: “Two girls, one on each knee (7)”. This has been taken, with permission, by Alan Connor for the title of his new book on cryptic crosswords, chatty and informative. The answer, by the way, is patella. The Queen, we are told, begins the day with kippers and the Telegraph crossword. Long may all three continue.
Morse code: detective, monarch and MR James, all crossword fans; the solution to ‘Bar of soap (3, 6, 6)’