1,000 TLS crosswords and counting
By MICHAEL CAINES
TLS subscribers will already know that there's one part of the paper that recently reached a significant milestone: the crossword. The 1,000th puzzle appeared last month and, as was noted in the paper at the time, most of this grand total is the work of one man, "Tantalus", "periodically revealed to be Don Yerrill of Dumfries".
It's only recently, however, and most unusually, that I had the chance to appreciate once again what an intricate and particular skill setting such a puzzle is, as, in one of ad hoc situations that sometimes affect a busy office, I had to prepare this week's crossword (1,005) and the solution to 1,001 for going to press. Apologies in advance to any puzzle addicts who find that 1 Across won't be made to tally with 4 Down – blame the stand-in (me), not Mr Yerrill.
At least that gave me the chance to mark that milestone by putting 1,001 online, above (click on it to see the the thing at a more legible size), and its solution (below) on the TLS blog. And if you don't speak the cryptic crossword language, this example may give you some sense of how the game works, and why some people become lifelong addicts.
The basic secret is: the quotations with missing words aside, there are two parts, or a double meaning if you prefer, in every clue, one reinforcing the other, and in the particular case of the TLS Crossword, there's usually (but not always) a literary slant to the answer. "Charlotte", for instance, is the solution to 21 Across, which innocently asks "Did Bates report her quarrel?" (9). The double meaning lies in the last word: in Charlotte's Row, Bates (H. E.) was referring to a row of Midlands houses, rather than any other kind of "row".
There's more thorough guidance and enlightenment on the long history of the crossword – which apparently turns 100 on December 21 – in the recently published Two Girls, One on Each Knee (7) by Alan Connor. This book shows you, among other things, how speaking aloud unpromising phrases such as "Tooting Carmen" and "Servant Tease" can yield obvious answers, and how sociable the crossword is. Of course, it can be tackled alone, and in Brief Encounter, it represents the antithesis of the longed-for romance, but it's also perhaps fun to tackle with two or more heads rather than one. "Crosswords bind families", Connor argues, through the "exchange of texts between geographically distant siblings that accompanies their regular appointment with a Saturday prize puzzle, or the extended clan attempting a group-solve of a Christmas jumbo over those post-Christmas Day days . . .".
In the end, the "social angle" wins out over the old canard about cryptic crosswords being both the preserve of the particularly intelligent and a charm to keep the mind healthy and memory-sharp in old age. Experience, it would seem is more important than intelligence (some setters and puzzlers like to return to the same clues and/or answers, seeing them as "old friends"), and the crosswords-versus-dementia story is popular with newspapers but scientifically unproven. I'd also like to think that the fun doesn't lie purely in the satisfaction of filling the grid, but bashing your brains against each separate, sometimes ludicrous little phrase. "US writer opens philosophically orthodox enigma" (3). What can it all mean?