Cross Patch

29th November 2008

Jill Glenn rhapsodises about the pleasures and challenges of cryptic crosswords.

You know the scenario. Two or three of you, huddled over a half-completed black and white grid… a pile of reference books to one side, a sheaf of torn up notepaper for anagrams and helpful doodling – and a complete lack of inspiration. “If 11 across really is ‘bristle’,” somebody says slowly, “then that means 5 down ends in ‘i’…”. You read over the clue again. You pause in different places to see if new meanings come to light. Suddenly there’s a cry of glee: “It’s ‘okapi’; of course...” – and there follows a complicated description of how this apparently unintelligible set of words disentangles itself into such an easy answer.

Or perhaps you do your crosswords alone… quietly, logically, no need of works of reference or second opinions – in which case you’re probably one of those truly irritating people who sits down on the tube or train, folds back The Times and spends the next twenty minutes unhesitatingly filling in the answers, with little more than a smug smile as a concession to those of us less linguistically gifted. However (and wherever) you do crosswords, if you’ve got this far into this article, there’s a good chance that you’re a fan – if not an addict – and you’ll know why crosswords often mean cross words!

Of course, I’m not talking about straightforward ‘quick’ puzzles, entertaining as they might be, but about cryptic crosswords, where the intricacies of the language and the lateral thinking skills of the setter coax feats of Poirot-like unravelling from tortured solvers.

I can still remember the first cryptic clue I solved: “Wheelright puts his workmates’ point of view (9)”*. I was only young, idly looking over my father’s shoulder, and the answer came to me in a flash; it was sheer luck (and years before I solved another), but in that moment I appreciated what crosswords were all about – and since I took them up seriously I’ve never looked back. Crosswords have seen me through my studies (great way to relax and keep your brain awake at the same time), through long rail and air journeys, even through dull business dinners (jot a clue or two down on a piece of paper in your pocket, and you’ve something to consider in tedious moments...).

If you’ve never tried a cryptic crossword, then pick up a useful guide (such as How to Solve Cryptic Crosswords by Kevin Skinner, or Secrets of the Setters: How to Solve the ‘Guardian’ Crossword by Hugh Stephenson) and give one a go. Before you know it you’ll be muttering about ‘double definitions’, ‘& lits’ and ‘reversals’ without any need to ask, as I always used to, “but what’s it going to mean…”

Cryptic clues genuinely are much easier than non-cryptic, because there’s only ever one answer, unlike a quick clue (say ‘tree (3)’, where the answer could be ‘oak’, ‘elm’, ‘ash’ etc). With cryptic clues there’s always a logical format; it’s hard to get it wrong (you might not know what it is, but you’ll know what it isn’t!).

Advice on how to get started differs… solve the long clues first, work through them all in order, aim to complete one corner or look out for an easy anagram. If you aren’t making progress, then the best option is to get the following day’s paper, look at one or two answers, work backwards to see how they’re put together and use that to kick start the process. It’s not cheating; it’s a helpful learning experience that will help you get inside the setter’s mind. At least, that’s the theory…

If you can’t wait until next day, then you need to check out (motto: Never knowingly undersolved), where answers to the tougher crosswords, including The FT, Guardian and Independent appear each evening, along with a helpful deconstruction of the clue. It’s a site worth bookmarking.
Happy solving…

* [answer: spokesman]

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