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Cryptic crosswords
Frogmarch 2002 - Whitby
Cryptic crosswords are puzzles that require knowledge, experience, and intuition to solve. I find a good cryptic crossword to be a deeply satisfying puzzle. Unlike sudoku, or most of the other types of puzzles that regularly appear in newspapers, a cryptic crossword is very human; it emphasises our human characteristics while solving it, in what sometimes feels like a personal contest with the setter.

It would be hard to programme a computer to solve a cryptic crossword, whereas many other types of puzzle can be solved by simple algorithms. Why solve a sudoku by hand, when a computer could do so much more efficiently?

I grew up with my mother and granny doing crosswords, but didn’t understood the process myself, always finding it rather opaque. Some years ago, Kate and I decided to learn how crosswords work, so we bought a crossword dictionary. We spent a couples of months doing the Daily Telegraph crossword each day, checking the answers the following day for clues we failed to get, and making sure that we always understood how the clue got to the answer. Suddenly it clicked, and we could do most of the crossword, most days, without too much bother. (There are always a few clues that stump us, but often Kate can see what I can’t, and vice versa.)

Now, in this post-newsprint age, we subscribe to The Telegraph on our iPads, mainly for the cryptic crossword. This is why I could never want a holiday away from technology and the internet — the first step to enjoying time off work is to download the Daily Telegraph and have a look at the crossword.

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A few years ago I also decided it was about time I got the hang of cryptic crosswords, so I started practicing to see if I could figure out how to do them. I found that the one in the Metro was a good place to start - it's not too difficult once you get the general idea, but it helps you learn the language and the various codes. But I found them a bit unsatisfying - not as unsatisfying as sudoku puzzles, but still not very much fun, so I graduated to the Guardian puzzle after a while.

My favourite crossword setter is the Revd John Galbraith Graham MBE, a 91-year-old retired Anglican priest who sets crosswords for the Guardian under the pseudonym Araucaria, and for some other papers and magazines under the pseudonym Cinephile. (Araucaria araucaria is the Latin name for the monkey puzzle tree or Chile Pine, of which latter Cinephile is an anagram.) He was on Desert Island Discs last year.

One of the many things I like about his crosswords is that the whole endeavour is greater than the sum of the parts - rather than just ending up with a disjointed grid of words, there's often some further connections or overarching theme drawing a lot of the individual answers together. One of my favourites was published a few days after Jeffrey Archer finally got his well-deserved comeuppance, and included a rather deft jibe at that particular arrogant convicted liar.

Poetical scene has surprisingly chaste Lord Archer vegetating (3,3,8,12).

The key to this is that "chaste Lord Archer vegetating" is an anagram of "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester", which is at the same time the title of a poem by Rupert Brooke, and the Archers' main residence. The rest of the puzzle had other elements from the poem, including (if I remember correctly) "honey still for tea" and "stands the clock at ten to three". A work of art, topical comment, and poetry appreciation rolled into one.

One of my other favourites is:

Painting by Liz, admits Orson, is destined for strawberry leaf (6,9).

Painting = Art, Liz = Hurley and Orson = Welles, giving "Arthur Wellesley". This makes slightly more sense if you know that (a) Arthur Wellesley became Duke of Wellington, and (b) dukes' coronets are decorated with gold strawberry leaves.

What entertaining clues! And I like the idea that Guardian readers can be expected to know that strawberry leaves are associated with dukes.

I've tried various other newspapers’ crosswords, and find that I can sometimes make a reasonable stab at them, but I think familiarity with the house style goes a long way towards helping one answer the clues. So I always go back to the Telegraph, which is read by both mine and Kate’s parents. Is the choice of daily newspaper inherited?

Some years ago I had a subscription to the Spectator, and I could never get anywhere with their crossword. I suppose I didn't work hard enough at it.

I like the idea that Guardian readers can be expected to know that strawberry leaves are associated with dukes.
Yes, it pleases me too. I think that some groups of setters (and the Guardian ones are among them) assume particular sorts of knowledge, some of which is reasonably obscure. Heraldry occasionally turns up ("or" for gold is quite a common one), as do Shakespearean references ("prince" can often mean "hal", "king" is sometimes "lear", and so on) and chemical symbols ("au" for gold, "ag" for silver and so on).

Is the choice of daily newspaper inherited?
In my case, no - my parents were Telegraph readers, but I tend to favour the Guardian (although we tend only to buy it at the weekend). This might have something to do with me having not inherited my parents' political views, of course.

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