There’s Always a Cross Word

In which The Author sings the praises of Arthur Wynne

I bet that’s a name which not many people know. Arthur Wynne was a British journalist, who was born in Liverpool in 1871 and who emigrated to the USA at the age of nineteen. He worked on the Pittsburgh Press and played violin with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra before moving to New York. While working on the New York World he came up with a very simple idea. In retrospect, you wonder what took people so long to think of it. On December 21, 1913, New York World published this:

200px-First_crossword

Shortly afterwards, a simple typesetting error (what else?) meant that a puzzle was published under the heading ‘crossword.’ The rest, as they say, is history.
The new craze quickly spread on both sides of the Atlantic, and went in two distinct directions. Stateside, they very largely stuck to Mr Wynne’s original scheme, with a straightforward clue leading to a simple definition answer. The first book of crosswords was published by two gentlemen named Messrs Simon and Schuster, and its success laid the financial foundation for the publishing company which still bears their name.
In Britain and our former colonies, the evolution of the crossword quickly gave rise to two parallel traditions: the so-called ‘quick’ puzzle, pretty much along the American lines; and the ‘cryptic’ puzzle, which is what most Brits think of a ‘proper’ crossword.
Initially, cryptics were pretty much confined to the highbrow papers such as The Daily Telegraph, The Observer, and The Listener. However, rather like marriage, these early puzzles were not to be entered into lightly.
The most notorious setters of this era were Edward Powys Mathers, who used the pseudonym Torquemada in The Observer, and Alistair Ferguson Ritchie, who was Afrit (i.e. AFRit, after an Arabian demon) in The Listener. These cryptic pioneers took a very cavalier attitude to both the construction of the grid and the construction of the clues; it’s said that both the Observer and Listener puzzles often received no correct solutions. Clearly, something had to be done.
It is thanks largely to a classics master named Derrick Somerset Macnutt that the modern cryptic took shape during the 1940s and 1950s. As Ximenes in The Observer, he attempted to make sense of the chaos which had arisen over the previous two decades. In 1966 he published Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword, laying down a set of principles which he believed would lead to a fair and balanced cluing style. Macnutt’s ‘rules’ have influenced most of the setters working on the daily newspapers, and many of the Sunday papers, in the UK today.
I’ve been hooked on crosswords for most of my adult life, and (as with quizzes) I owe my interest in them to Dad. He used to buy the South Wales Echo on his way home from Victor Freed’s shop in Aberdare, and would slowly chip away at the puzzle after we’d eaten. After a while I got interested in seeing how the clues led to the solutions – although the modern Echo often seems to be a law unto itself. (Ximenes’ book was reissued in 2001. Perhaps the setter(s) should try and track a copy down.)
When I was in my early twenties I progressed to The Guardian. There, I encountered Crispa, Janus, Rufus, Araucaria, Pasquale, and many of the other setters who have entertained, baffled, infuriated and amused me since I made my first tentative forays alone and without a leader. In those days, solving was a process of trial and (quite often) error. It took me a while to come to terms with the Ximenean principles, usually by reverse-engineering the clue from the solution in the following day’s edition.
I think the first puzzle I completed on my own was one by Rufus (Roger F. Squires, who still holds the Guinness World Record for being the world’s most prolific setter.) I think I needed to verify one or two answers with the dictionary, but it was a tremendous leap forward and a huge confidence booster. Within another couple of years I was (mostly) leaving fewer unfilled spaces than filled ones at the end of the day.
Gradually, new names appeared on the scene – Quantum, Mercury, Gordius, and others – and each brought a new style against which to pit my wits. I dabbled for a while with The Independent when we worked in Aberdare Library, but I found their setters to be greatly more challenging than those in my regular paper, and I’ve stuck with The Guardian since.
I also found Everyman in The Observer to be largely Ximenean and quite accessible. I soon reached the stage where I felt confident enough to start an informal crossword masterclass in The Cambrian on a Sunday lunchtime. I’d sit with a small group of friends and walk them gradually through Everyman. I’d break the clue into its component parts and explain how each element led to the solution by a process of pure deductive reasoning. Sometimes, however, the reasoning let my friends down.
I remember Kerry G. failed dismally to grasp the logic behind one clue, but I can’t remember the exact wording; it had somehow involved ‘fireworks’, and mentioned ‘boiled hams’ as ‘a hearty meal’. Instead of following my heavy hints to the correct answer BANGERS AND MASH, Kerry somehow sidestepped it and made a wild stab at ROCKETS AND SHAM. Cue gales of laugher all round. (Before you ask – yes, Kerry is naturally blonde!)
It took me a while to get to grips with Araucaria and Bunthorne, who represented a quite different approach to cluing. They seemed to disregard Ximenes’ ‘rules’ and ploughed their own peculiar furrows in the crossword landscape. Bunthorne, in particular, specialized in huge anagrams which often ran to forty or more letters, and usually involved every letter of the clue. He also revelled in ingenious typographical tricks, as this clue (my favourite of his) demonstrates: B (6,6)
It took me quite some time and several checking letters before the penny dropped: BOTTLE OPENER.
No soon had I recovered from the enormity of this clue when Bunthorne struck again with this beauty: O (8,6)
This time, I was a bit more prepared for his nonsense. Even so, it took me a little while to get CIRCULAR LETTER.
In the early days, I never even bothered trying to make a start with Azed in The Observer or Mephisto in The Sunday Times, which Louise used to bring into work. Just a glance at the previous week’s solution, containing the sort of bizarre words which only inhabit The Chambers Dictionary or the full-size Oxford English Dictionary, was enough to frighten the casual solver off. It was hardly reassuring that Azed usually signed off his puzzles with the message ‘The Chambers Dictionary [current edition] is recommended.’ (Usually – but not always: some weeks, his rubric might say something like ‘The Chambers Dictionary is recommended, but does not give 17D (in the OED) and one proper name (verified in Brewer.)’)
Clearly, these skeletal puzzles with bars, not blocks, between the answers would call for something more heavy duty than The Concise Oxford Dictionary. When I started working in Dillons, I bought Don Manley’s Chambers Crossword Companion, worked my way slowly through the historic examples, and picked up some useful tips regarding crossword setters’ tricks of the trade.
I only started to make any real progress with the weekend puzzles once I’d acquired The Chambers Dictionary for myself (see A Turn-out For the Books.) It was a vital weapon in my armoury against Azed, Mephisto, Beelzebub, Araucaria, Bunthorne, and some of the other setters for whom everyday vocabulary was just way too confining. It took me several hours over a couple of days to complete my first Azed puzzle, and I remember posting it to The Observer with a strange thrill.
I’d posted a number of The Guardian prize crosswords over the years, and had even managed to get Everyman into the postbox before the Sunday morning collection a couple of times. Even so, my first Azed was a major step forward. I didn’t win the £20 book token at that first attempt, of course, but I figured that the odds of being drawn out of the bag would still be far better than they would be with Everyman. Azed would probably have a couple of hundred correct entries every week, as opposed to a couple of thousand for Everyman and/or the Saturday prize puzzle.
That simple calculation encouraged me to press on, and before long I was able to make considerable progress against Azed before calling for reinforcements. I think I’d only sent about a dozen entries in before I bagged one of the prizes. That inspired me to keep going, although I’ve never attempted the clue-writing competitions, and some of his specials still leave me standing.
One Sunday afternoon in The Cambrian, I completed the entire Azed without recourse to Chambers. By then, I had the latest edition at home, and the previous one lived behind the bar for the weekday puzzlers to use. (Even so, every time I filled in an answer, my mate Chris T. turned my page around and said, ‘That‘s not a word!’)
I progressed with The Guardian as well, developing a tried-and-tested system of tackling Araucaria’s trademark Alphabetical Jigsaws. These featured a un-numbered grid with the clues presented in alphabetical order of the solutions, and the ‘helpful’ note:
Method: Solve the clues and put them in the grid jigsaw-wise wherever they will fit.
In Xmas 2012, when Rowland and I were confronted by one of these beauties, I teased him, Sherlock Holmes-style, that he needed ‘to learn my methods.’ Sure enough, when Gozo in The Financial Times unleashed a double alphabetical puzzle for Xmas 2013, I solved 49 of the 52 clues in the pub the following afternoon. (By the Monday afternoon, we’d finished it between us, by the wonders of text messaging.) It’s all in the technique, you see.
It was another Chris, Chris R. from Penistone near Barnsley, who turned me on to The Daily Telegraph crossword. We met in The Conway one evening, which was our after-work local by this stage. We were all used to the sight of the big guy with iron-grey hair, standing at the corner of the bar with his glasses on, his pint of real ale in front of him, his tobacco and papers at hand, glowering at the puzzle in front of him. He hardly spoke to anyone, except to order another pint, and in order to get to the gents’ everyone had to walk past him.
One evening, I happened to glance at his paper while I was on my way for a piss, and while communing with Nature I realized where he’d gone wrong. On my way back to the bar, I leaned across and pointed at his answer.
‘That one’s wrong,’ I said quietly. ‘It’s a i, not an e.’
I can’t remember what the word was that he’d stumbled on, but he thanked me, scribbled out his mistake, and refused to let me go until we’d filled in the entire grid. Then he bought me a pint to say ‘thanks’ and we started chatting. (If only it was that easy to meet women, eh?)
Like a lot of people I know, Chris often had the correct answers but couldn’t spell them (which is a bit of a stumbling block in crossword circles!) Consequently, we made quite a team. We became firm friends, and our nightly battle against the Telegraph setters became a regular fixture.
One Monday, neither of us were working, so we made an early start. After we polished off the Telegraph in fairly short order, I went to the newsagent next door and bought The Guardian. That was Rufus, a nice gentle start to the week by their normal standards. Chris went next door about half an hour later and returned with The Times; we were on a roll!
By the time our crossword masterclass was over, we were stuck on one answer in The Independent. Chris guessed correctly at stib, which turned out to be a dialect word when I checked the dictionary later. Yorkshire dialect. Go figure…
That Xmas, I couldn’t resist a little piss-take to highlight Chris’s ropey spelling. On Xmas Eve, I walked into the pub and presented him with a small package, neatly(-ish) gift-wrapped. The shape and sound made the contents obvious: it was a bottle.
‘Chris, to mark our friendship, I’ve got you a little something I thought you’d appreciate,’ I said.
Chris’s eyes lit up at the thought of a miniature from the Penderyn Distillery a few miles up the road.
‘Can I open it now?’ he asked eagerly.
‘Yeah, go for it,’ I grinned.
He tore off the packaging to reveal a bottle of Tipp-Ex.
‘You fucking bastard!’ he boomed, before bursting into laughter. His girlfriend Lynda was also hysterical; she’d sat in on many of our crossword masterclasses throughout the year and knew exactly what his handicap was.
I still remember a beautiful clue which had me stumped for ages in work, and all the way home I’d racked my brains over it: It determines the resistance met by soldiers on entry (3-5)
I took it to the pub, where Chris and Lynda applied their brains to it as well. It took us about half an hour before we saw through the fiendishly clever wordplay and found the answer: EGG-TIMER. (Think about it!)
I’ve carried on doing The Guardian crossword since it was made available online. Some days I have a good result; other days, I fail dismally. There’s a new generation of setters on the scene – Boatman, Brummie, Brendan (to pick just one initial letter) – who seem to have taken Araucaria, rather than Ximenes, as their guiding star. It’s going to be a while until I get the measure of them. I occasionally get to see The Telegraph or The Times, but only if someone’s left a paper on a train. I can’t afford to join the subscription-only websites where their online puzzles live.
Azed is still going strong, I’m pleased to say, but it’s been a long time since I sent in a completed entry. Enigmatic Variations in The Sunday Telegraph flummoxes me more often than not, and (like the early competitive solvers) I’ve yet to get a single clue in the Listener puzzle (which has found a new home in The Times at the weekend.)
The Independent continues to be a very mixed bag, and things aren’t made easier by the inherent design flaw in the Java program: whether you complete it or use the ‘cheat’ facility”, it displays the message Congratulations, you have completed the puzzle! right across the finished grid. (Surely I can’t be the only person who’s spotted this!)
The Independent‘s little brother i has a different puzzle from the main paper every day, and that can be hit and miss as well. Josie H. and I had informal masterclass over Phi in i a couple of months ago, and I think she’s got the bug. It might take her a while, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. (Rowland’s American niece Sarah D. was also fascinated by the whole solving process when Rowland brought her into the pub during her visit last year. As I said, cryptic crosswords are largely unknown outside the Commonwealth, so we pointed her in the direction of Everyman and a couple of useful blogs where beginners can see how it’s done.) The last i puzzle I completed was a Quixote puzzle, just after Xmas. Quixote is Don Manley, who also sets as Bradman and Duck when he’s not being Pasquale in The Guardian. (I’m sure you can work out why he chose those particular pseudonyms.)
A century on from Arthur Wynne’s low-key invention, the crossword has evolved in numerous directions, none of which he could have foreseen. Whether you want something which you can knock off during your coffee break, or something which (as John Nash says in A Beautiful Mind) will take you the term of your natural life, there’s something for anyone who relishes a mental workout far more fulfilling than a boring Sudoku grid.
(My own solving record took place with a Guardian puzzle years ago, when I had Maria B. for company on the commute to Cardiff. I was glad I had a witness, as I started it when the bus left Aberdare and finished it when we passed Kwik-Save at the top end of Abercwmboi, less than ten minutes later. See, it can be done!)
Sadly, the undoubted grand master of British setters, Araucaria, didn’t live to join in the centenary celebrations a couple of weeks ago. Reverend John Graham, who had set a remarkably high standard for 55 years, died of oesophageal cancer in November 2013, aged 92. He’d announced his diagnosis in December 2012 in (where else?) a crossword published in 1 Across, the magazine which he founded and edited for many years. In his last months he produced a remarkable late burst of puzzles in both The Guardian and The Financial Times, in which he used the nom de guerre Cinephile. (Araucaria is the Latin name for the Chile Pine, which is an anagram of… See, you’re getting the idea!)
When Bunthorne (Bob Smithies) passed away in 2006, he left half a dozen unpublished puzzles behind. They appeared in The Guardian during the subsequent months, so that he could continue to haunt us from beyond the grave. It is to be hoped that Araucaria has left a similar undiscovered legacy.
I’ll round off by telling you of a daft incident which took place in work some years ago. We used to get The Guardian every day, and I’d work my way through the cryptic during my breaks. If we were on lunch together, Bevington, our security guard, would sit down with me and we’d have a masterclass of our own. Bev was a member of the Zulu nation from South Africa, and he was always delighted with the ingenious wordplay which the setters displayed. (Crosswords are a great way to enrich your vocabulary, especially if English isn’t your first language.) The rest of the gang would tackle the quick puzzle by committee, usually leaving a few stragglers for me to pick off in between putting my coat on and leaving to get the train.
One evening, I glanced at the quick puzzle, which had been left unfinished on the table in the staff room. (Bear in mind that I was working in a bookshop, where you’d assume that your colleagues would be reasonably well-read and/or intelligent.) The first clue which caught my eye was: Cromwell’s revolutionary force (3.5.4)
‘That’s easy,’ I thought, and went to write NEW MODEL ARMY in the grid.
Unfortunately, someone had beaten me to it, with the wonderfully wide-of-the-mark guess THE ROUND HEAD. Yes, that’s right, just the one!
Every time I think of it, I have a mental picture of a lone Parliamentarian trooper, standing on Edge Hill and shouting, ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!’
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