The cryptic crossword is a British invention. The founding father is widely regarded as being Edward Powys Matthews (known by his suitably fiendish nom du guerre of Torquemada) who set notoriously difficult puzzles in several English publications during the 1920s and 30s. Since then, cryptic crosswords of varying levels of difficulty have become an essential feature of many newspapers. Some people claim that they buy them for no other reason.
To engage with a cryptic crossword is to step into a parallel mental universe full of smoke and mirrors, a place of distractions, conundrums and false scents. Each clue contains, as well as a surreal superficial meaning (which is often designed to mislead), a number of carefully constructed deeper interpretations involving matters such as abbreviations, Roman numerals, anagrams, quotations, foreign words and puns, as well as various codes and conventions which might be unique to that particular setter.
At their best they provide a rarified and intensely satisfying intellectual pursuit with each successfully completed answer making one feel like a cross between Alan Turing and Sherlock Holmes. The battle with the mind of the creator is keenly fought and any eventual victory thus deeply satisfying: the actress Olivia de Havilland declared that she would die happy if, while wearing a velvet robe and with a flute of champagne to hand, she had just discovered the answer to the last question in a British cryptic crossword. At their worst they drive participants half insane with frustration to an extent unmatched by any activity except golf or the assembly of flat-packed furniture.
Few of us will reach the heights of Mark Goodliffe who typically completes the puzzles in The Times in about eight minutes (that’s about 15 seconds per clue); or, for that matter, of grumpy old Inspector Morse who solved cryptic clues and murders with equal facility (and whose creator, Colin Dexter, was himself a noted crossword compiler). For many, being able to complete a cryptic crossword at all, regardless of how long it takes, is satisfaction enough. One knows, at least, that there is a certainty at work, however elusive or esoteric it might be. “The good thing about doing a crossword puzzle,” Stephen Sondheim remarked, ‘is that you know that there is a solution.” Many of life’s problems, superficially far simpler, prove to be a good deal more intractable.
None of us is born with an innate ability to juggle, play the tuba or speak Finnish but these skills can be learned. The same goes for cryptic crosswords. This (like the other three examples I’ve given) isn’t something I’ve mastered myself but it’s never too late to start. If I became better at them I might also become better at spotting hidden or lateral connections and so improve my problem-solving skills. On the other hand, it may make me into a cross and frustrated man, moping about the house trying to make sense of ‘Plato walks tall, we hear’ and muttering my half-baked solutions to the cat. Time will tell.
A friend of ours (who has recently won a Daily Telegraph crossword competition) has selected some of his favourites from a lifetime of cryptic-crossword solving. Have a go at solving these yourself. Next month we will reveal the solutions and how they are arrived at.
• Cut fuel for heating hospital (4)
• Bird of prey heading off hunting dog (5)
• Get rid of outbuilding (4)
• The only fish (4)
• Study poetry or the opposite (8)
• Monkey proves a benefit to graduate (6)
• Minute particle to be seen in morning (4)
• Abandons what some plants shed (5)