The Wiki Man

Here’s a clue: we should all be doing cryptic crosswords

13 March 2021

9:00 AM

13 March 2021

9:00 AM

I was once asked by a previous editor of the Timeshow to increase sales of the paper. I was slightly more circumspect, but the thrust of my argument was: ‘Don’t bother with all that news and opinion malarkey — just teach more people how to solve cryptic crosswords.’

My argument was simple. There are now 40,000 different places where I can obtain global news and metropolitan opinion, but there is only one Times cryptic crossword. ‘Play your cards right.’ I suggested, ‘and you can be the Bernie Ecclestone of cruciverbalism.’ Revive crossword-solving as a craze; create apps whereby two people can co-operate remotely on a single grid; run live competitions. Buy your best crossword setters Bentleys and make them celebrities… stage fights between them outside fashionable nightclubs, that kind of thing.

I think everyone who has discovered cryptic crosswords views their newspaper in this way already — a daily crossword surrounded by superfluous text to glance at when you’re stuck on 23 across. Moreover, a crossword guarantees a reader 30 minutes of pleasure from purchasing a newspaper. In terms of the fashionable metric CpEH, or ‘cost per entertainment hour’, the crosswords and puzzles section delivers inordinately more value to the reader than the surrounding pabulum. The only problem is not enough people know this.

My grandmother taught me how to do crosswords. Back in the 1970s it was very difficult to teach yourself — not least because you had to wait a day for the solution to be published, and this came with no explanation. Now it is better. You can Google the clue, if you are desperate. And there are blogs, which not only provide instant answers but explain the workings out.

The same technology which helps to solve cryptics does add slightly to the difficulty. Being rich in acronyms, a solver now needs to know RAM, ROM, ALT, DEL, ESC, APP and a host of other TLAs (I’ve even encountered CPU hidden backwards within the word ‘cupcake’). This imposes an extra burden on the solver, who is assumed to be a colonial-era, high-church Anglican cricketing bishop who enjoyed a raffish youth in the 1920s (‘Rhino’ for money, SA for sex appeal) before developing a late-onset interest in computing at the age of 125. I’m lucky in having a vicar as a wife. Often I have to shout ‘Churchy thing, X letters’ across the house for my wife to reply CHASUBLE, NONES or ALB. She also helped me out when the NONCES in the word ANNOUNCES was clued by ‘Catholic’s, perhaps…’ [Article Catholic’s perhaps written about United States (9)]. ‘Even in the light of the Boston scandal, that seems a bit harsh,’ I suggested. ‘No, you idiot, it’s NON-CEs or “not Church of England”.’

But as well as selling papers, I do believe cryptic-crossword solving is good for the mind. The comedian Dave Gorman, himself a setter, likens it to comedy. I agree. It is an exercise in seeing beyond the obvious. The beauty of a great crossword clue is that it is obvious only in retrospect. But then all the best ideas are like that. The genius of ‘First dose first’, say. Or the superb campaign TOTS (Turn On The Subtitles) which observed that you can hugely improve child literacy by displaying subtitles by default on children’s TV.

It’s good to encourage this mode of thinking. When I met the late Colin Dexter at a party, I explained how my grandmother, who spent much of her life in Tredegar, taught me the knack. ‘It’s one of my favourite towns,’ he replied without a pause. ‘It’s the birthplace of Aneurin Bevan, but also an anagram of A Great Red. Perfect for an &lit clue.’

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