Like most of late, having time on my hands, The Ericle has spent even more time online. One of my virtual occupations has been taking courses offered by the U3A, (University Of The 3rd Age), including courses on Cryptic Crosswords; one involving a learning session and another where, as a group, we tackle a Times Jumbo Crossword. My skills have grown such that I can now complete about half-a-dozen clues on my own and have begun to recognise some of the trigger words that presage solutions that could involve an anagram, an embedded solution, phonetics, abbreviations, well known foreign words or cockney slang, and ones built round double meanings. Misdirection is also very much part of the cryptic crossword setter’s arsenal; such as the clue above which at first reading may suggest football, whereas our mischievous setter is actually deploying Barnet in the cockney sense of the word – with the answer being, of course (!!!), Bad Hair Day.
Crossword puzzles are very often bracketed with gardening and needlework as time-fillers, particularly for the elderly and, I suppose, it’s a truism that works in my case. (Note: I said ‘time-fillers’ rather than ‘time-wasters’!) Whereas there are virtues in all these occupations, within a relatively short time, I’ve come to regard cryptic crosswords as being a breed apart; an art form, in fact. A well-crafted cryptic clue is a true masterpiece. Not all cryptic clues can, and do, deserve this accolade but when they do it is like drinking an exceptional wine. This comparison is not lightly made – as with many good things in life, one has to invest some time and effort in order to attain a substantive appreciation of them. I have a long way to go but clues such as the couple below are already veritable mood-elevators for me:
Talking Rook might be one! (12,5) Conversation piece
A thousand pounds on small underwear (8) Knickers
Though these are not – by a long chalk – at the more complicated end of the cryptic crossword spectrum, they exhibit the essential ingredient of a good cryptic clue: ‘a word puzzle in and of itself which must also, most importantly, be understandable and attainable’ (Wikipedia). In our group sessions we collectively applaud and condemn. Clues that are ‘rotten’ are ones where the setter has prioritised his own power to defeat above the true brief for clues that can be solved, at least in principle, by deduction without needing leaps of faith or insights into the setter’s thought processes. In this …
… we must expect the composer to play tricks, but we shall insist that he play fair. The Book of the Crossword lays this injunction upon him: “You need not mean what you say, but you must say what you mean.” This is a superior way of saying that he can’t have it both ways. He may attempt to mislead by employing a form of words which can be taken in more than one way, and it is your fault if you take it the wrong way, but it is his fault if you can’t logically take it the right way. [Afrit, Alistair Ferguson Ritchie, crossword compiler]
And when, a setter does this with creativity and a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’, they deserve our sincere thanks, appreciation and applause, for having stimulated and entertained us in equal measure.
I first ran across cryptic crosswords during my short career as a trainee-dealer at The London Stock Exchange, in the employ of Dunkley, Marshall & Smithers of 4 London Buildings, EC4. One of our dealers, George Ellett, would – during moments of calm – purposively unfold his pristine copy of The Times, sit back on his stool and with a ceremonious click of his ballpoint would commence to attack that day’s cryptic crossword. George was a lethal solver of crosswords and could very often polish one off within ten minutes or so. Every now and then, he’d chortle to himself and, very occasionally, he would read out loud one of the clues to offer us mortals the opportunity to appreciate its humour or cleverness. To me, he appeared as an Olympian with abilities far beyond my capabilities then and now. Perhaps, it was for these reasons that I didn’t pick up the challenge until some 50 years later. Today, I still think of George whenever I pick at a crossword; recollecting his discipline, sharpness and wit – the very qualities that any successful cryptic solver needs in order best his nemesis.
The juxtaposition of George, The London Stock Exchange and Cryptic Crosswords is apt, as there is something quintessentially British about them all. Indeed, I am reliably informed by Wikipedia that crosswords are of British origin; the first appearing in the early 1920s. Cryptic clues soon followed and the first exclusively cryptic variant is said to have been set by Torquemada (Edward Powers Mathers) in The Saturday Westminster in 1925. Torquemada’s successor at The Observer was Ximenes (Derrick Somerset Macnutt, 1902–1971), who in his Art of the Crossword Puzzle (1966), set out detailed guidelines for setting fair cryptic clues. Known as “Ximenean principles” and sometimes described by the notion of “square-dealing” – very much in line with Afrit‘s proposition above. All this notwithstanding, the fact that cryptic crossword setters are often identified speaks to the notion that great cryptic crosswords are not only fair but have personality.
Cryptic crosswords are not to everybody’s taste but if you are prepared to invest some time and effort, I believe that there is a good chance that you also will find them to be stimulating, entertaining and educative. With this in mind, allow me to leave you with this slightly risqué gem from The Times of February 2019:
Alternative to banger, maybe displaying zip (3,1,7) Not a sausage.