Cryptic Crosswords: Wondrous Wordplay or Twisty Tangled Thieves of Time?
On Monday, finding myself with a rare ten minutes to kill before doing the school run, I picked up the crumpled copy of Saturday’s ‘The Guardian’ and did something I haven’t done in a very long time. I turned to the Cryptic crossword. I didn’t get very far as you can see, but there was a time when such a ritual was an essential part of my morning, continuing at intervals throughout the day, unless it was very easy, or – more likely, too darn hard.
I can’t remember a time growing up when my Mum didn’t start the day with ‘The Telegraph‘ cryptic crossword. It wouldn’t be my newspaper of choice, but as far as cryptic crosswords go, it is a good one to cut your teeth on being comparatively easy. My Mum would read out the clues she’d got, to see whether we could work them out, then she’d tell us the answers so we could see how clever they were. It seems to have been an effective method of learning the ropes, as I must have been about 7 years old when I finally answered my first clue. I remember it clearly. We were on holiday in Burford in the Cotswolds. There was a giant dinner gong in the rustic beam-filled B&B, and a soppy golden retriever. The clue was something about a dog having a sore throat. I said ‘Husky’, and – Boom – the euphoria and satisfaction was all mine and I was hooked.
As a student, I started reading ‘The Guardian’, and discovered the wonderful genius of John Galbraith Graham, or Araucaria, the most fiendishly difficult but sublime crossword compiler of them all. The problem with cryptic crosswords is that they take a lot of time. You have to do them regularly to get good at them, and even then some compilers are just too difficult to crack, but it is oh so satisfying when you work out a good clue. I blame the shabbiness of my first degree grade on too much time spent in the Sussex University library canteen doing the crossword before my finals instead of revising. Still, it was around that time that I completed one for the first time. I was so elated, I wanted to submit it as part of my work, but alas, the University was more interested in how much I knew about Emile Durkheim and his pals.
What I discovered during that time was that people who do cryptic crosswords are like a tribe. When they congregate in the name of cryptic code-cracking, they are of one mind. When the crossword was placed on the table, it didn’t matter that I was sat next to the rudest, most arrogant student on campus (I’m pretty sure the feeling was mutual). We had discovered an unlikely affinity over the crossword, and an unspoken truce was formed.
I’ve never met a cryptic crossword fan who didn’t have a passion for them. They’re crazy about the chase, and go misty-eyed over glorious lovingly-remembered clues of beauty and brilliance. I’ve found myself sitting in a dark, dank 90’s indie club discussing the relative merits of different crossword clues and compilers with a shoegazer from Ripon, only ceasing our debate every now and then to honour Galaxie 500 or Drugstore on the sticky dancefloor before resuming where we’d left off.
A number of years after Uni, having just escaped the confines of an office job, I ran a stall for a while selling stuff I’d made. It was such a fun time. I’d sit outside in all weathers – even snow, immersed in the tangled web of cryptic connections and word play for hours as customers drifted along. Those were the days.
I no longer buy a newspaper during the week, due to time, so I tend to catch up fully at the weekend. the problem is that the Saturday crossword too tough for my rusty cogs to tackle now I’m out of practice. Ah well, at least I know that when I reach the age of retirement, I won’t need to mope over getting old or the loss of meaningful activity, I shall luxuriate in the endless hours of cryptic crossword heaven and be as happy as a ferret in a sandpit.