Cryptic crosswords

Many months ago, my grandmother told me that I should read a short book she’d

just finished. We were on the telephone at the time, and it took a while for

me to get the title straight: Pretty

girl in crimson rose (8) is pretty unique as the name of a book. The

book itself is pretty unique, too.

I can tell you this now, because I’ve finally finished reading it. It’s taken

a long time, but not because the book is a hard slog. Quite the opposite, in

fact: I brought it home from the library less than 24 hours ago. The problem

was that so many other people wanted to read this book that I had to wait a

long time to get to the top of the New York Public Library’s waiting list.

I have a feeling that Pretty girl in crimson rose (8) is one of those

books which is much more popular among the library-going population than it

is among the general public. It’s a memoir built around a theme of cryptic crosswords,

and without that theme it would be thin and meaningless to the point of evanescence.

The author, Sandy Balfour, has certainly had an interesting life: after fleeing

South Africa at the age of 21 in 1983 in order to avoid military service, he

hitchhiked with his girlfriend to London, where he settled down, started a family,

and became a successful producer of television news. He’s travelled all over

the world, to some of the most gruesome and interesting places imaginable, and

has interviewed everybody from Congolese warlords to Tory cabinet ministers.

It takes some skill to turn such a life into little more than filler between

meditations on the art of setting and solving cryptic crosswords, but Balfour

manages it. Worse, he’s constantly trying to draw parallels between crosswords

and life, both in general and his own in particular. Occasionally, when he’s

not talking about crosswords, he can get things just right, as when he talks

about "the number of times I have sat, half asleep, on the Tube from Heathrow

airport, feeling the rhythms of the train, watching the ebb and flow of passengers

climbing on and off, and taking a gentle pleasure from the familiarity of the

way the people look." Much of the rest of the time, however, he will take

advantage of a river trip in the Congo with a satellite phone to learn that

"crossword puzzles hold us together just as surely as telephone conversations,"

or that

Although it is possible to move both ways within the river, the river itself

flows only to the sea. I see now that this is how crosswords work. We worry

back and forth amidst the clues, but in the end there is only one answer.

There is only one way to go, only one place to be.

In the end you are who you are.

Maybe Balfour should give up the TV day job and become a guru on Oprah: he

seems surpassingly fond of such vapid and meaningless psuedo-profundities.

That said, inside this television producer’s personal memoir lurks a great

little book on crosswords. Balfour has spent a lot of time talking to crossword

editors, compilers and solvers, and obviously loves the subject. Clues are scattered

through the text, from the easy to the wonderfully hard. You start off by scoffing

at the old women who can’t solve "Country with its capital in Czechoslovakia

(6)", but end up astonished that so many people can easily solve such wonderful

clues as "Poetical scene has surprisingly chaste Lord Archer vegetating

(3,3,8,12)".

The answer to the former is Norway, since "Oslo" is buried within

"Czechoslovakia"; the answer to the latter is "The Old Vicarage,

Grantchester" – an anagram of "chaste Lord Archer vegetating",

and the title of a famous poem by Rupert Brooke.

As Balfour says, everybody has their own favourite clues. His, it would seem,

is "Amundsen’s forwarding address (4)"; his girlfriend’s is "Bust

Down Reason? (9)". Mine, I think, at least among those that Balfour quotes,

is "Die of cold? (3,4)".

There’s really nothing to compare to the feeling of realising you’ve got the

answer to one of these clues: you want to kill the setter and garland him with

laurels at the same time. The first, a masterpiece of misdirection, is Mush

(clever, eh?), the second is Brainwash (which can be read two ways: to brainwash

someone is to, well, bust down their reason, but also a reason for having a

down bust could be "bra in wash"). The third is simply Ice Cube.

Of course, cluing "Ice Cube" in a cryptic crossword means something

which people put in their G&Ts: it could never reference an American rapper

and actor. That kind of knowledge is too specialised for crossword solvers,

who are tweedy pipe-and-slippers types living in places not unlike The Old Vicarage

in Grantchester. Yet Balfour finishes his book with a reasonably typical Guardian

prize crossword, one which was published for him on his 40th birthday. It requires

pretty extensive knowledge of Robert Louis Stevenson: not only his Samoan nickname,

the answer to 21dn – "Bird on the wing captivating American storyteller

(8)" – but also his fictional heroes: "…Breck, concluding

21′s name (4)" and "21′s David’s a degree over 54 (7)". The answers,

by the way, are Tusitala, Alan and Balfour, respectively.

Balfour (the author, not the fictional character) takes no small degree of

pleasure in the arcane and specialised knowledge required of crossword-solvers:

that, thanks to cricket, "leg" is "on" and "maiden"

is "over"; that "Seaman" is AB or Tar; that "ay"

means "ever". The English cryptic crossword, with the possible exception

of Cyclops in Private Eye, is the last bastion of the Old England which John

Major so hilariously thought immortal when he said that "Fifty years on

from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county [cricket]

grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and old maids bicycling

to Holy Communion through the morning mist".

In other words, crosswords have always been provincial, in the sense that they’re

targeted squarely at a generation of people who might not have gone to university,

but who certainly know their Dickens, Shakespeare, Bible and military rankings.

Not to mention Robert Louis Stevenson and Rupert Brooke. Even Balfour was a

little taken aback by one clue which assumed knowledge of the fact that King

William II’s nickname was Rufus.

For me, however, crosswords are – or should be – more cerebral

than that, and when they range out of genuinely general knowledge and into Anglocentric

trivia, they lose a lot of their attraction. Balfour, an ex-pat South African

who uses crosswords to limn his attachment to his adoptive country, rather likes

their Englishness. I find it stifling, off-putting: cricket, parliamentary democracy

and even the Spice Girls are easier to export than cryptic crosswords.

Tina Brown tried them, towards the end of her time at the New Yorker;

the cryptic crossword at the back was one of the first things to go once David

Remnick took over. The Atlantic has been publishing cryptic crosswords

since 1977. And clearly, among the patrons of the New York Public Library at

least, there is quite a lot of demand for this book. So maybe there is some

hope yet for the successful export of the cryptic crossword across the pond.

But one thing makes me think that it probably won’t ever happen. Notes Balfour,

upon observing some genteel women of a certain age failing to complete a crossword

in early-80s Nairobi:

It is easy to make fun of the little old ladies in the twilight of their

colonial experience. But I realize that it is not necessary for them to be

good at crosswords for them to enjoy them. Being good is not the point. The

point is the ritual.

The English are very good at rituals; the Americans much less so. Americans,

I think, will only take to crosswords insofar as they can complete them. (Anybody

who lives in New York will know what I’m talking about when I say "the

only thing I enjoy more than doing the crossword puzzle is actually finishing

it".) Cryptic crosswords have a steep learning curve, and Balfour, for

one, had years of happy crosswording before he actually finished one on his

own. That’s not the type of thing which is likely to take off in an American

culture of instant gratification.

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One Response to Cryptic crosswords

  1. colon cancer says:

    There is nothing better then doing a crossword. They will definitely make you a smarter person. What a great story.

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