A girl on each knee at the Rover’s Re­turn

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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)’

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