The Crossword

Monday, July 18, 2011

(Insert standard excuses/apologies for lack of bloggage here.  Long hours at work, lack of inspiration, general indifference, mea culpa, blah blah blah.  Moving on…)

It's a rainy Saturday afternoon, so what better time to settle down with a fresh crossword puzzle?  Failing that, how about a blog all about the crossword?  Or to be more specific: the Daily Telegraph Cryptic Crossword, which is not to be confused with the Daily Telegraph Quick Crossword, or the Telegraph Toughie (or the Times Crossword, or the Sunday Times Crossword, or The Guardian crossword, or, well, you get the idea.  This is a nation that loves its newspapers, and every paper has at least one crossword).  I first encountered the Telegraph crossword while on my trip around the world, and since moving to the home of said newspaper have become a daily consumer of said puzzle.  (Let's leave aside for the moment the awkwardness of being a regular consumer of a newspaper whose political bent is decidedly more right-leaning than my own.  Left to follow my own inclinations I suspect I'd be a Guardian reader.  As it is I feel a bit like those men who read Playboy "for the articles".  Honestly, I only buy it for the crossword!)

Thanks to the determined efforts of my Crossword Coach Patrick - he who introduced me to the pleasure and pain of the cryptic crossword and schooled me in its intricacies - I've reached a level of crosswording proficiency that means that every day there is an admittedly small but still existent chance that I might actually be able to finish the whole puzzle. (Note: It only counts when you fill in the whole grid correctly, without help from any person or website, on the day of publication.)  I've actually managed this feat a grand total of THREE times in my life.

The Crossword Tutor
Coach Patrick, puzzling

For those not familiar with cryptic crosswords, they are similar to their more mundane cousins - the ones where the clues are perfectly straightforward variations on something like "Capital of Peru (4)" (LIMA).  However, with cryptic crosswords each clue is a word puzzle in itself, as opposed to a simple definition.  As Wikipedia puts it:
In essence, a cryptic clue leads to its answer as long as it is read in the right way. What the clue appears to say when read normally (the surface reading) is a distraction and usually has nothing to do with the clue answer. The challenge is to find the way of reading the clue that leads to the solution.
There are several types of cryptic clue, one if which is commonly called the  "double definition"' and is an easy way of illustrating the kind of wordplay that's involved in cryptic clues. Take this simple one for example:

"Attempt rugby score (3)" (The number in parentheses indicates how many letters are in the answer)

Naturally, the answer is TRY.  To attempt is to try, and a try is major scoring play in rugby, similar to a touchdown in (American/Canadian) football.  See how that works?  Easy peasy. Or not. Because cryptics are a mostly British invention they often require knowledge of particularly British things like rugby, or the names of the different positions in cricket, or British slang, or local geography, or nicknames of (English) football teams, or obscure Northern Irish politicians, and so on.  It can be tricky work for a colonial like me.

In addition to the "double definition", cryptic clues can also feature hidden words like this:

"Mad ogler harbours rover (3)"

Here the answer is DOG.  No, really.  The word "harbours" is a clue that we're dealing with a hidden word.  "Ma(D OG)ler" is harbouring the word DOG, which is defined by "rover".  Clear as mud, right?

My favourite type of clue is an anagram, where the letters in one part of the clue are meant to be rearranged into a new word or words that are defined by the other part of the clue.  Anagram clues always include the definition you're after, the letters to be anagrammed, and some indication that things are to be muddled about.  A basic anagram clue would be something like this:

"Stain spoiled fabric (5)"

By "spoiling" (rearranging the letters in) stain, we get a fabric: SATIN.  "Fabric" is the definition, "stain" is the anagram, "spoiled" is the indication of anagram. Tic tac toe, it all hangs together.

There are many forms of cryptic clues - reversals, odd/evens, charades, homophones, containers, initialisms, deletions, abbreviations, and even devious combinations of several forms in one clue.  If you're really that interested, look 'em up yourself.  Or better yet, find yourself an experienced cryptic crossworder and get them to take you through a few clues.  That's how I was lucky enough to learn.  Once you're up to speed you can dive in with my whole daily ritual.  The correct procedure for doing a Daily Telegraph crossword, refined to the point of OCD since my arrival in London, is as follows:
  1. Stop at local newsagent on the way to work and purchase Daily Telegraph for £1.00. (Or, if you are lucky enough to have a housemate who works in a media-related job with access to many editions of many newspapers every day, and who works nights, and who often ends up arriving home with an armload of fresh papers just as you are leaving, simply take the Daily Telegraph that's been thoughtfully deposited on the kitchen table, likely alongside The Guardian and The Independent. That is, if you're lucky.)
  2. If taking the bus or tube, proceed to bus stop or tube station. While waiting for bus/tube to arrive, remove the useless Business Section and discard in an appropriate recycling bin. The Business Section is like one's appendix - largely unnecessary, and to be excised if even slightly irksome.
  3. Glance briefly at front page, and then turn over the whole section to reveal the crosswords on the back. Carefully fold back the top of the paper, just above the mid-point.  Then fold the right side under the left side, leaving the pristine crossword perfectly positioned for puzzling. At this stage you can also examine the quality of the "working out" side of the paper, which is the section of ads opposite the puzzle.  Good ads contain lots of empty, light-coloured space for noodling about with anagrams and potential answers.  Bad ones have large dark areas or cram in lots of stuff and leave no proper working out space.

    Stupid AdThe WORST ad for working out space, which appears with dismaying regularity.  Honestly, there's barely room for a four-letter anagram in there, and besides that it's a particularly poorly designed and ugly offering.  (Dear HSL Chairs: Please reconsider your advertising strategy.  Yours peevishly, Pam. )

  4. Count the total number of clues in the puzzle, which will generally be between 28 and 32.  Write the total, surrounded by a small box, in the bottom right hand corner of the space under the puzzle grid.  This is your goal.
  5. Scan the clues for multi-word answers and add appropriate marks to indicate same on the puzzle grid.  Grumble slightly if there are no multi-word answers, since they seem to be slightly easier to figure out..
  6. Start with 1 Across, and proceed from there.  (Getting 1 Across right away is a good omen.)  When you get an answer fill in the grid in capital letters.  Make a small dot next to the completed clue in the list, and make a tick mark under the puzzle to keep a running tally of the total number of clues completed. The correct method is to use pen; use of "The Pencil of Shame" is a breach of crossword honour, as declared by Patrick the Crossword Coach.
  7. When you have completed half the clues, honour is satisfied (according to Patrick). Pause for a brief moment of satisfaction, and note the time at which this milestone was achieved in the area below the puzzle.
    Annotated Crossword
    A properly annotated crossword in progress
  8. Take breaks.  Progress often comes in fits and starts, so be prepared for long dry spells.  It's usually best to set the puzzle aside every once in a while so you can come back to it with fresh eyes.  A few hours away allows a sort of gestation time which often means you can come back to a clue that previously seemed utterly impenetrable and is suddenly glaringly obvious.  This is one of the joyful/maddening things about the cryptic crossword.  The "Time Away Factor" is also handy if you happen to be saddled with something so inconvenient as a full time job, or the need to buy groceries, or do laundry, or bathe, or sleep.
  9. Carry on until one of these things happens:
  • You finish! In which case note the time of finishing, add exclamation points if desired, do a little dance, send a tweet, and generally feel smug.
  • DT 21-10-10
    The first puzzle I ever completed all by myself, on October 21, 2010, finished at the astonishingly early hour of 11:20am. (Yes, there's Liquid Paper at 18 Across, but that's what happens sometimes when you eschew The Pencil of Shame.  There is no disgrace in the Liquid Paper of Reconsidered Cleverness.)
  • You get fed up, the hour is late, and decide you need a bit of help.  Just on ONE clue, mind, and just a HINT.  In which case, you go to Big Dave's Crossword Blog, a brilliant site that gives hints (and cleverly hidden answers) for both of the Telegraph cryptic puzzles every day. The beauty of Big Dave is that he gives hints in a way that usually makes it easy to figure out the answer, but is just slightly less than cheating.  He also explains the logic behind the clue, which is highly instructive.
  • You go home and leave the unfinished puzzle on the kitchen table, from whence it will be taken up by your newspaper-fetching housemate who is making dinner in preparation for leaving for work that night, and who will glance briefly at the unfinished clues while chopping onions or mashing spuds, and will fill in at least half of them without breaking a sweat, or even pausing politely.
    So what is it that I like about the crossword?  You might have gleaned from the slightly obsessive routine noted above that I like the ritual of the thing - folding back a fresh paper, counting up, diving in.  And even though I'm a huge consumer of technology and a confessed gadget freak, I like that it's a physical chunk of newsprint, and a real ballpoint pen. (A Space Pen, if course.  I could do the crossword underwater, upside down, or in the vacuum of space!) I also like the challenge, and the fact that because you can tackle each clue from a couple of different angles, in some ways it’s easier than a conventional crossword.  I mean if you don’t know the capital of Peru, you just don’t know.  But if the clue also mentions something about chalky horrible little beans, or is, perhaps: “Capital initially looms in meal abhorred (4)”, well you’ve got a fighting chance, right?  Also, it makes me feel kind of cozy to be sitting on a train, or a double decker bus, or at a cafe along the Thames with a Daily Telegraph crossword.  And yes, there is a sense of superiority to feel that I'm bending my mind to that somewhat esoteric task instead of zoning out to an iPod.  

    The crossword has also been a catalyst in a few rewarding social moments. For instance, it's been my habit to arrive a bit early at hash runs when I can.  This leaves a moment to relax in the pub before the run starts, and allows some excellent crossword puzzling time.  This fall at the Green Man pub in Putney I ended up striking up a conversation with a guy standing at the bar who had just started working on the day's Telegraph puzzle.  We ended up chatting for much of the evening and finished the puzzle together.  He's now in my cell phone under the name "Dave Telegraph Crossword Green Man", and we spent a pleasant while texting back and forth in the suceeding weeks with messages like "Do you have 15a?" and "How did I NOT get 29d?" and such.  It was a nice thing. (I should really get in touch with Dave again.  I wonder if he got 16 Across today...)
    More importantly, when I first came to visit the happy house in Brixton to meet its inhabitants and allow them to determine if I might be a suitable housemate I was careful to take the crossword puzzle with me.  I thought, "I want these people to know that I am the kind of person who does the cryptic crossword.  Or at least the kind of person who ATTEMPTS the cryptic crossword."  It turns out this was a good move because I think casually displaying the crossword, and professing modest Scrabble skills, were a couple of the things that put me over the top, allowing me to move into the place I now call home, which has been one of the most consistently happy things about my life in London.

    So thank you Patrick, for giving me the Daily Telegraph Crossword. I owe you a drink.

    And finally, of course:
    "Oy! Walk past vile, gory, confused website (2,4,4,4,4)"

    P.S. Anyone who can't unravel this elementary clue is not allowed to read the blog anymore.


    Kathryn said...

    Geez - glad I got it! Would hate to be banished!
    Now you must watch "Wordplay" - one of my favourite documentaries of all time. I did the premiere for it at Sundance. You'll thank me.

    Jill said...

    I learned something today! Maybe I will have to try a cryptic crossword again, I always though I was really dumb before but clearly I just needed a bit of a lesson.

    Also, any wait that there may be between blog posts is always worth it in the end. I love hearing about your experiences and what makes living in England fun for you.

    Mark Soto said...
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    Personal Trainer Lady St John's Wood said...

    Clearly you're a real crossword master! Really enjoyed reading this excellent post!

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