Archive for Crossword

No Azed celebration…

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords with tags , on July 26, 2020 by telescoper

I heard today that the special lunch that had been planned to celebrate the 2500th Azed crossword puzzle has been cancelled. It was first planned to take place in May (to coincide roughly with the publication of the 2500th puzzle), then postponed to September and now cancelled altogether. The venue, Wadham College Oxford, is not hosting any large events for the foreseeable future.

I wasn’t surprised by this news, but it is a shame. I was looking forward to using the event as an excuse for a break. I wouldn’t have gone just for the lunch, obviously, but would have stayed for some time either side.

On the other hand, travelling from Ireland to England and back in September would have been difficult, not least because I might have had to quarantine for 14 days in both ditections! Even without that it would have been a disruption to the preparations for the new academic year.

So I guess I’ll be staying here for the rest of the summer, though I might taje a short break somewhere in Ireland if I can.

Anyway, going back to the crosswords I got an HC (highly commended) in the latest Azed Competition (No. 2508). That was a first for me as it is the first entry I have sent in by email rather than in the post. At least I know it arrived safely. As usual I enjoyed solving the puzzle much more than composing a clue. I’m definitely a solver rather than a setter. Next Sunday will be another competition puzzle so I’ll see if I can do better in that.

Sad about Everyman

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , on January 28, 2019 by telescoper

As if the world weren’t crazy enough, yesterday the Observer served up this as its Everyman Crossword puzzle No. 3772:

The Everyman crossword boasts a long tradition of good cryptic puzzles, going back as far as 1945. It has been set by various people over the years, including none other than the great D.S. MacNutt whose book The Art of the Crossword is a must-read for all cruciverbalists.

Most recently the setter of the Everyman Crossword has been Colin Gumbrell whose puzzles have been consistently enjoyable and well-constructed. They’re not as challenging as Azed, but I always like to tackle the Everyman puzzle as a sort of warm-up exercise before doing that one. Sadly I hear that Colin has been forced by ill health to stop composing crossword puzzles. I’m told that the 20th January puzzle (No. 3771) is to be his last. I send my very best wishes to Colin Gumbrell at this time, as I’m sure do crossword enthusiasts everywhere.

Incidentally, Colin Gumbrell also sets the Antico puzzle in The Oldie, a very enjoyable thematic puzzle that I do every month. I’ve won the prize for that one  a couple of times, though not recently. The Oldie has two crosswords, of differing levels of difficulty, labelled `Genius’ and `Moron’, respectively.

It seems the Observer had to find a crossword setter at short notice, which is some kind of excuse for the offering above, but it’s still the worst crossword puzzle I’ve ever seen in a supposedly quality newspaper.

Why?

As an example of the duff clues, take a look at 1 Across:

Loses hope as spa dries. (8)

The answer is DESPAIRS (defined by `loses hope’) and an anagram of SPA DRIES. But where is the anagram indicator?

Now look at 1 Down:

Adorn a device for measuring up to 11 yards? (10)

The answer to this is DECAMETRE (defined by `11 yards’) and clearly intended to be a soundalike (homophone) for DECK A METER (Adorn a device for measuring…). But where is the corresponding homophone indicator?

The clue to 14 down is

Foreign Miss by design or inadvertently (9)

The solution is SIGNORINA (`Foreign Miss’) and a hidden word, but no indicator thereof.

I could go on. The whole puzzle is littered with such deficiencies. D.S. MacNutt – who was a stickler for fairness and precision in his clues – must be turning in his grave.

And who puts a full stop at the end of a crossword clue? I’ve never seen that before!

If this is the way the Everyman puzzle is going to be from now on, I won’t be wasting any more time on it.

 

Prize Port

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords with tags , , on October 20, 2017 by telescoper

Way back in July I went to the Third Day’s Play of the Test Match between England and South Africa. On the way to the ground I bought a copy of Money Week, a publication I have never read before, as requested by my old friend and regular commenter on this blog, Anton, who got the tickets for the match. During a lull in the play we did the crossword in the magazine, which was a not-too-difficult thematic puzzle. When I got back to Cardiff I posted off the solution, as a prize of a bottle of vintage port was on offer. Not hearing any more, forgot about it.

When I got back from India this week there was a card waiting for me saying that ParcelForce had attempted to deliver a package while I was away. This morning I went to the main post office to sign for it and pick it up. This is what I got:

I don’t know why it took so long to deliver the prize but it makes a nice change from the usual dictionaries!

45 Years of the Azed Crossword

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , on March 7, 2017 by telescoper

I apologize for being a little late to celebrate this publicly, but I noticed yesterday that Sunday 5th March 2017 marked the 45th anniversary of the appearance of the first Azed crossword puzzle in the Observer. The first one appeared on 5th March 1972 when I was 8 years old and the compiler, Jonathan Crowther, must have been even younger.

I should add that in 1972 I didn’t even know that the Observer newspaper existed. The only Sunday paper I was aware of in those days was the Sunday Post which, though published in Scotland, was very popular on Tyneside at the time. I remember the cartoons very well indeed, especially The Broons and Oor Wullie.

I resumed doing the Azed puzzle about a year ago with the demise of the print edition of the Independent on Sunday but I have yet to register any successes in the monthly competition. There have been a few glitches in this recently, such as incorrect grids and wrong instructions, which put me off even attempting some of the recent competitions. And those I have entered I’ve done so cursorily, with little time to think much about it.

Since this Sunday’s puzzle marks a special occasion, however, I think I might try to send in a decent clue this time. I completed the puzzle – Azed No. 2334 – last night so have a few days to ponder on an appropriate entry.

Incidentally, if you look at the across clues in this week’s puzzle you will see that the first letters form an acrostic: “FORTY FIVE YEARS OF AZED” but only if the supplied clue for 29 across beings with “R”. That’s how I realized it was the Azed Crossword’s 45th birthday!

Anyway, as a physicist I particularly enjoyed 25 down:

Particle rapidly showing displacement of neutron (6)

Not too difficult, but rather neat!

There’s also a nice one at 14 down:

Spacecraft may enter it: I soon changed pressure at this point (10)

 

Academic Cruciverbalism

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2016 by telescoper

The other day I came across something I’ve never seen before: an academic paper about cryptic crosswords. It’s in an open access journal so feel free to clock – it’s not behind a paywall. Anyway, the abstract reads:

This paper presents a relatively unexplored area of expertise research which focuses on the solving of British-style cryptic crossword puzzles. Unlike its American “straight-definition” counterparts, which are primarily semantically-cued retrieval tasks, the British cryptic crossword is an exercise in code-cracking detection work. Solvers learn to ignore the superficial “surface reading” of the clue, which is phrased to be deliberately misleading, and look instead for a grammatical set of coded instructions which, if executed precisely, will lead to the correct (and only) answer. Sample clues are set out to illustrate the task requirements and demands. Hypothesized aptitudes for the field might include high fluid intelligence, skill at quasi-algebraic puzzles, pattern matching, visuospatial manipulation, divergent thinking and breaking frame abilities. These skills are additional to the crystallized knowledge and word-retrieval demands which are also a feature of American crossword puzzles. The authors present results from an exploratory survey intended to identify the characteristics of the cryptic crossword solving population, and outline the impact of these results on the direction of their subsequent research. Survey results were strongly supportive of a number of hypothesized skill-sets and guided the selection of appropriate test content and research paradigms which formed the basis of an extensive research program to be reported elsewhere. The paper concludes by arguing the case for a more grounded approach to expertise studies, termed the Grounded Expertise Components Approach. In this, the design and scope of the empirical program flows from a detailed and objectively-based characterization of the research population at the very onset of the program.

I still spend quite a lot of my spare time solving these “British-style” cryptic crossword puzzles. In fact I simply can’t put a crossword down until I’ve solved all the clues, behaviour which I admit is bordering on the pathological. Still, I think of it as a kind of mental jogging, forcing your brain to work in unaccustomed ways is probably good to develop mental fitness for other more useful things. I won’t claim to have a “high fluid intelligence” or any other of the attributes described in the abstract, however. As a matter of fact I think in many ways cryptic crosswords are easier than the straight “American-style” definition puzzle. I’ll explain why shortly. I can’t remember when I first started doing cyptic crossword puzzles, or even how I learned to do them. But then people can learn languages simply by picking them up as they go along so that’s probably how I learned to do crosswords. Most people I know who don’t do cryptic crosswords tend to think of them like some sort of occult practice, although I’ve never actually been thrown off a plane for doing one!

If you’ve never done one of these puzzles before, you probably won’t understand the clues at all even if you know the answer and I can’t possibly explain them in a single post. In a nutshell, however, they involve clues that usually give two routes to the word to be entered in the crossword grid. One is a definition of the solution word and the other is a subsidiary cryptic allusion to it. Usually the main problem to be solved involves the identification of the primary definition and secondary cryptic part, which are usually heavily disguised. The reason why I think cryptic puzzles are in some ways easier than the “straight-definition” variety is that they provide two different routes to the solution rather than one definition. The difficulty is just learning to parse the clue and decide what each component means.

The secondary clue can be of many different types. The most straightforward just exploits multiple meanings. For example, take

Fleeces, things often ordered by men of rank [6]

The answer to this is RIFLES which is defined by “fleeces” in one sense, but “men of rank” (soldiers) also order their arms hence giving a different meaning. Other types include puns, riddles, anagrams, hidden words, and so on. Many of these involve an operative word or phrase instructing the solver to do something with the letters in the clue, e.g.

Port’s apt to make you steer it erratically [7]

has the solution TRIESTE, which is an anagram of STEER+IT, port being the definition.

Most compilers agree however that the very best type of clue is of the style known as “&lit” (short for “and literally what it says”). Such clues are very difficult to construct and are really beautiful when they work because both the definition and cryptic parts comprise the same words read in different ways. Here’s a simple example

The ultimate of turpitide in Lent [5]

which is FEAST. Here we have “e” as the last letter of turpitude in “fast” (lent) giving “feast” but a feast is exactly what the clue says too. Nice.

Some clues involve more than one element of this type and some defy further explanation altogether, but I hope this at least gives you a clue as to what is involved.

Cryptic crosswords like the ones you find in British newspapers were definitely invented in the United Kingdom, although the crossword itself was probably born in the USA. The first great compiler of the cryptic type used the pseudonym Torquemada in the Observer. During the 1930s such puzzles became increasingly popular with many newspapers, including famously The Times, developing their own distinctive style. People tend to assume that The Times crossword is the most difficult, but I’m not sure. I don’t actually buy that paper but whenever I’ve found one lying around I’ve never found the crossword particularly hard or, more importantly, particularly interesting.

With the demise of the Independent, source of many prize dictionaries, I have now returned to the Guardian and Observer puzzles at the weekend as well as the interesting mixture of cryptic and literary clues of the puzzle in the weekly Times Literary Supplement and the “Genius” puzzle in The Oldie. I’ve won both of these a few times, actually, including the TLS prize just last week (£40 cash).

I also like to do the bi-weekly crossword set by Cyclops in Private Eye which has clues which are not only clever but also laced with a liberal helping of lavatorial humour and topical commentary which is right up my street. Many of the answers (“lights” in crossword parlance) are quite rude, such as

Local energy source of stress for Bush [5]

which is PUBES (“pub” from “local”+ E for energy +S for “source of stress”; Bush is the definition).

I send off the answers to the Eye crossword every time but have never won it yet. That one has a cash prize of £100.

Anyway, Torquemada, who I mentioned above, was eventually followed as the Observer’s crossword compiler by the great Ximenes (real name D.S. Macnutt) who wrote a brilliant book called the Art of the Crossword which I heartily recommend if you want to learn more about the subject. One of the nice stories in his book concerns the fact that crossword puzzles of the cryptic type were actually used to select recruits for British Intelligence during the Second World War, but this had a flip side. In late May 1944 the chief crossword setter for the Daily Telegraph was paid a visit by some heavies from MI5. It turned out that in a recent puzzle he had used the words MULBERRY, PLUTO, NEPTUNE and OVERLORD all of which were highly confidential code words to be used for the forthcoming D-Day invasion. The full background to this curious story is given here.

 

Crossed Words

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , on October 28, 2012 by telescoper

I’m still a bit fragile after a sudden bout of illness. Judging by my symptoms – and the fact that the worst of it seems to have passed in about 24 hours – I think it must have been this (i.e. the dreaded “Winter Vomiting Bug”). You’ll be relieved that I don’t intend to go into the details on here.

Anyway, being out of action all day yesterday has put me behind on a number of important things, including the weekend’s crosswords which also reminded me that it’s been a while since I posted anything in that particular file on here.  I did manage to get out to buy yesterday’s Independent, but haven’t started the puzzle yet. Incidentally, I should mention that I recently won the Independent Crossword Prize for the NINTH time. That means I’ve accumulated nine copies of the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus in little over a year. I keep getting envious comments from people who’ve been entering this competition for years and have never won, but I seem to win it regularly every few weeks.  I have one copy of the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus at home, one in my office at work. I gave one to my mum and the rest I’ve distributed to colleagues at work. I’ve even started a waiting list, although I may move on from Cardiff before I can fulfil all the requests…

Anyway, I was cheered this morning when I discovered that I’d won a VHC (“Very Highly Commended”) in the Observer’s Azed Crossword Puzzle No. 2105. This puzzle was a “special” with the theme “Collisions”, introduced with the following rubric:

Down clues are normal. Each across entry consists of two answers which ‘collide’,  i.e. they overlap by one or more letters, the overlapping letters always appearing in  their correct order. Across clues consist of definitions of each of the full overlapping  answers and subsidiary indications of each minus the overlapping letters. Definition and subsidiary indication for one answer precede those for the other, but either  may come first. Numbers in brackets indicate the lengths of complete entries. One  across answer consists of two words. Competitors should submit with their entries  a clue in the style of the other acrosses to the unclued ‘collision’ at 1 Across, which  must be deduced.

I’m always very wary of unclued lights, but in this case it was quite easy to deduce TITANIC/ICEBERG was the combination that went with the overall theme as well as fitting with the other clues. I didn’t think that, for a “special”, the puzzle was all that difficult to solve but I did find it a mighty struggle to come up with a clue in which the join between the two separate parts was reasonably well disguised and which had a reasonable surface reading. My attempt was

Showing sex appeal in leather, very large bird knocked back cold fish

I’ll leave it to the reader to parse the clue and see how it fits with the instructions.

Anyway, with that I’m up to 10th place in the Annual Honours Table, but with only 3 out of 13 puzzles completed there’s plenty of time to fall back to my usual position!

Now, time to see if I can eat something without unwanted special effects….

The inexorable decline of English culture

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , on August 15, 2011 by telescoper

As politicians, journalists and academics struggle to explain the recent outbreaks of violent disorder in English cities, I think it’s time for me to provide the definitive analysis. I believe that the sense of alienation, disenchantment and despair that seems to be sweeping the country can be traced back to a single appalling event, the occurrence of which was surely enough to drive even the most law-abiding citizen into acts of wanton destruction. The enormity of the offence perpetrated against the cultural fabric of our society cannot be overestimated, as it casts doubt on the very survival of western civilisation.

So what is this thing of which I speak? I’ll tell you, although I can hardly bring myself to talk about it. There was an error in last week’s Guardian Prize Crossword.

The shocking evidence for this breakdown of all that is right and good can be seen in stark graphic terms below:

The offending item, which can be found in the bottom left hand corner, is 22 down, the clue to which reads

9’s heart lifted, I gathered, over 7’s opener (6)

The answer to 9 across is BEETHOVEN, which serves to suggest a definition of a piece by said composer. “Heart lifted” is CORE written upside down, “I gathered” means that you stick an “I” in that, and “7’s opener” is A (from ALBION). The answer is then clearly EROICA…

Except – oh the shame of it! – the Guardian setter, Paul, clearly can’t spell and thus it appears in the completed grid above as ERIOCA. I can think of no clearer evidence for the descent of our country into anarchy and chaos.

I rest my case. There’s no doubt in my mind that this outrage was the real reason for the recent outbreak of riots. Or, as Paul would no doubt say, “roits”.

Playfair

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , on February 12, 2010 by telescoper

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about my passion for crosswords, but this Sunday’s Azed puzzle in the Observer was one of my favourite kind so I thought I’d mention it briefly here.

Azed is the pseudonym used by Jonathan Crowther who has been setting the Observer crossword since 1972; this week’s was number 1967. His  puzzles are usually standard cryptic crosswords which, though quite difficult as such things go, are nevertheless set in a fairly straightforward style. Every now and again, however,  he puts together a different type of puzzle that makes a different set of demands on the solver.  To be honest, I don’t always like these “funny” ones as they sometimes seem to me to be contrived and inelegant, but this last one was a type I really like as it combines the normal cryptic crossword style with another interest of mine, which is  codes and codebreaking.

The interesting aspect of this particular puzzle, which is laid out on a normal crossword grid, is that it involves a type of code called a Playfair cipher. In fact, this particular scheme was invented by the scientist Charles Wheatstone whom most physicists will have heard of through “Wheatstone Bridge“. It was, however, subsequently popularized by Lord Playfair, whose name stuck rather than its inventor’s.

The Playfair scheme is built around the choice of a code word, which must have the special property that no letter occurs twice within it.  Other than that, and the fact that the more letters in the codeword the better the code, there aren’t any real constraints on the choice. The particular example used by Azed to illustrate how it works is ORANGESTICK.

The codeword is used to construct a Playfair square which is a 5×5 arrangement of letters involving the codeword first and then afterwards the rest of the alphabet not used in the codeword,  in alphabetical order. Obviously, there are 26 letters altogether and the square only holds 25 characters,  so we need to ditch one: the usual choice is to make I stand for both I and J, doing double duty, which rarely causes ambiguity in the deciphering process. The Playfair square formed from ORANGESTICK is thus

This square is then used as the basis of a literal digraph substitution cipher, as follows. To encode a word it must first be split into pairs of letters e.g. CR IT IC AL. Each pair is then seen as forming the diagonally opposite corners of a rectangle within the word square, the other two corner letters being the encoded form. Thus, in the example shown, CR gives SG (not GS, which RC would give).

Where a pair of letters appears in the same row or column in the word square, its encoded form is produced from the letters immediately to the right of or below each respectively. For the last letters in a row or column the first letters in the same row or column become the encoded forms. Thus IC is encoded as CE. When all the pairs are encoded, the word is joined up again, thus CRITICAL is encoded as SGCICEOP.

The advantage of this over simpler methods of encipherment is that a given letter in the plain text is not always rendered as the same letter in the encrypted form: that depends on what other letter is next to it in the digraph.

Obviously, to decipher encrypted text into plain one simply inverts the process.

Now, what does this have to do with a crossword? Well, in a Playfair puzzle like the one I’m talking about a certain number of answers – in this case four – have to be encrypted before they will fit in the diagram. These “special” clues, however, are to the unencrypted form of the answer words. The codeword is not given, but must be deduced. We are, however, told that the answers to these special clues and the codeword are “semantically linked”.

What one has to do, therefore, is to solve the clues for the unencrypted words, then solve all the other clues that intersect with them on the grid. Given a sufficient number of digraphs in both plain text and encrypted form one can infer the codeword and hence encrypt the remaining (unchecked) letters for the special answers.

It probably sounds very convoluted, but in this puzzle it isn’t so bad because the four special clues weren’t so difficult. These are the following “across” clues:

1.  Footman having to plough yard (6)

which gives “FLUNKY” – “plough” in university slang, meaning “fail” or “flunk” + y (standard abbreviation for yard).

18. Wallaby No. 2 in penalty infringement, right? (8)

has to be “OFFSIDER”, Australian slang for a deputy and hence Wallaby No. 2,  with the cryptic allusion “OFFSIDE” for “penalty infringement” and R for “right”.

19. Staff inadequately blunder – many will conceal this (8)

this is the easiest – straightforward hidden word “UNDERMAN”, meaning “staff inadequately”.

32. Younger mussels one goes for in jar (6)

I think this is the best of this quartet of clues. The answer is “JUNIOR”, with “UNIO” (the genus of mussels) replacing the “a” (i.e. one) in JAR.

This set of answers clearly suggests the common theme that links them to the codeword. Moreover, the geometry of the grid along with the answers to the rest of the clues gives us ten digraphs in plain and encrypted form.

What has to be done then is to try to work out the Playfair square from the letter pairs, work out the codeword and then complete the unchecked letters in the specials in their encrypted form. It isn’t actually all that difficult to find the codeword in this example, by a mixture of induction and deduction. It turns out to be “SUBORDINATELY”, a fine candidate for a Playfair codeword as it is thirteen letters long and doesn’t feature any letter twice.

To enter the monthly Azed competition, however, one generally has to supply a clue as well as solving the puzzle. I’m really not very good at this aspect of crosswords- I much prefer solving the puzzles to setting ones of my own – which is why I’m quite a long way down the annual Azed Honours Table, in 29th place as of this month.

In the “Plain” competition puzzles, one has to supply a clue to replace one which is given as a straight definition.  In this case a clue was requested to the codeword, but I think  I’ll keep my attempt at  “SUBORDINATELY” to myself unless and until I win at least an honourable mention!

 

The Eightsome Reels

Posted in Crosswords, Literature with tags , on March 24, 2009 by telescoper

As an ardent cruciverbalist, I couldn’t resist posting this week’s Observer Crossword just to show you one of the interesting variations that Azed comes up with from time to time:

azed

It’s probably a bit small to read  the clues, or even the instructions, but the point to grasp is that the answers are all 8 letters long and they have to be fitted in the squares surrounding the corresponding number. The trouble is that you’re not told which square to start from, or whether the letters are to be entered clockwise or anticlockwise.

Hmmm.

The only way I know to start one of these puzzles is to solve several adjacent clues before entering them in the diagram and then see if I can find a way to fit them together on a bit of scrap paper. The structure of the diagram guarantees many checked letters (i.e. overlaps) between neighbouring answers so once you have a few then the subsequent ones get easier to fit in. These puzzles are usually difficult to start though.

Fortunately, however, in this one  I managed to get four  answers quite quickly:

2. As seen in bill fluctuating energy’s prone to fuse?

This is “liquable”, from “qua” meaning “as” in anagram of “bill”+e for energy, meaning able to melt.

3. Army regulation, devious blague open to dispute

Is clearly “arguable” (army regulation=ar+anagram of blague, “open to dispute” is the definition).

8. Easily duped once returning ball is eclipsed by Murray’s `gold’?

A little harder, but the word “once” suggests an obsolete spelling so the answer is “gullable” (“ball” backwards in “gule”, a Scottish form of “gold”, hence the reference to Murray).

9. Libel law curiously subject to decree?

Is “willable” (anagram of “libel law”; “subject to decree” being the definition).

With those four answers to fit in the squares around 2,  3, 8 and 9 I had plenty of checked letters and could find only one way to make it work. The remaining clues fell into place eventually, although it took me well over an hour to finish it on Sunday afternoon.

Nice puzzle though.

In the ongoing Azed competition for budding crossword cluers, I’m not doing so well. I did pick up a “highly commended” for my last clue, in competition No. 1918,  for the word PALAMPORE (a kind of Nepalese bedcover, don’t you know), but From the dizzying heights of 28th place, I’ve slipped down the table to 33rd.  Still, the winning clue for PALAMPORE was a real beauty:

Spread – array of two pages or a meal?

This involves an anagram of “pp+or a meal” with two different definitions of spread in the cryptic part. Very ingenious, and certainly better than my attempt (which I’m ashamed to include). Esteem to D.F. Manley, who wrote this clue and who is heading the Azed Honours Table for this year after 9 competitions.

Crucial Verbalism

Posted in Crosswords, Literature with tags , , , , , on December 13, 2008 by telescoper

It’s a cold and rainy day and I’m lacking the inspiration to do anything energetic before making dinner, so I thought I’d pick something to blog about. Looking back over the past three months or so, I realise I’ve at least mentioned most things that I’m interested in, at least those that I’m willing to write about on here. But there is one other thing I haven’t covered yet and which I spend a lot of my spare time doing (especially during seminars) and that is solving cryptic crossword puzzles. In fact I simply can’t put a crossword down until I’ve solved all the clues, behaviour which I admit is bordering on the pathological. Still, I think of it as a kind of mental jogging, forcing your brain to work in unaccustomed ways is probably good for its fitness for other more useful things.

I can’t remember when I first started doing these, or even how I learned to do them. But then people can learn languages simply by picking them up as they go along so that’s probably how I learned to do crosswords.

If you’ve never done one of these puzzles before, you probably won’t understand the clues at all even if you know the answer and I can’t possibly explain them in a single post. In a nutshell, however, they involve clues that usually give two routes to the word to be entered in the crossword grid. One is a definition of the solution word and the other is a subsidiary cryptic allusion to it. Usually the main problem to be solved involves the identification of the primary definition and secondary cryptic part, which are usually heavily disguised.

The secondary clue can be of many different types. The most straightforward just exploits multiple meanings. For example, take

Fleeces, things often ordered by men of rank [6]

The answer to this is RIFLES which is defined by “fleeces” in one sense, but “men of rank” (soldiers) also order their arms hence giving a different meaning. Other types include puns, riddles, anagrams, hidden words, and so on. Many of these involve an operative word or phrase instructing the solver to do something with the letters in the clue, e.g.

Port’s apt to make you steer it erratically [7]

has the solution TRIESTE, which is an anagram of STEER+IT, port being the definition.

Most compilers agree however that the very best type of clue is of the style known as “&lit” (short for “and literally what it says”). Such clues are very difficult to construct and really beautiful when they work because both the definition and cryptic parts comprise the same words read in different ways. Here’s a simple example

The ultimate of turpitide in Lent [5]

which is FEAST. Here we have “e” as the last letter of turpitude in “fast” (lent) giving “feast” but a feast is exactly what the clue says too. Nice.

Some clues involve more than one element of this type and some defy further explanation altogether, but I hope this at least gives you a clue as to what is involved.

Cryptic crosswords like the ones you find in British newspapers were definitely invented in the United Kingdom, although the crossword itself was probably born in the USA. The first great compiler of the cryptic type used the pseudonym Torquemada in the Observer. During the 1930s such puzzles became increasingly popular with many newspapers, including famously The Times, developing their own distinctive style. People tend to assume that The Times crossword is the most difficult, but I’m not sure. I don’t actually buy that paper but whenever I’ve found one lying around I’ve never found the crossword particularly hard or, more importantly, particularly interesting.

As a Guardian reader, I have to say I enjoy their crosswords best, primarily because each day brings a different setter each of which has a different style to the others. Unlike some other newspapers they are not anonymous, but identified by a weird and wonderful collection of pseudonyms (Janus, Rufus, Shed, Logodaedalus, Gordius, Chifonie, Paul, Quantum, Brummie, etc). The best of them is the great Araucaria (whose name comes from the Monkey-Puzzle tree) and who is revered by crossword fans the length and breadth of the country for the brilliance of his clues. Araucaria is such a witty compiler that his clues often have you laughing out loud when you see how they fall into place. He is, in fact, a retired clergyman called John Graham who has been setting clues for the Guardian and other newspapers and magazines for over forty years. In fact, the Financial Times has a compiler called Cinephile who is the same person. (CINEPHILE is an an anagram of CHILE PINE, which is another word for the Monkey-Puzzle tree).

As it happens, today’s Guardian prize crossword was by Araucaria and, as usual, it was fun although it wasn’t as difficult as many of his. He followed a common tactic of connecting several clues together but as soon as you realise that

Writers’ relation to 10, maybe [6]

is BRONTE (note the position of the apostrophe indicating several writers with the same name, cryptic part is “bro” for relation and an anagram of “ten”) then the various references to the Brontes were straightforward. The only really difficult other clue is

Picture rhyme for MC in MND [10]

the answer to which is ILLUSTRATE (MND is Midsummer Night’s Dream, which explains the rhyme reference to PHILOSTRATE, a character in that play).

I also like to do the bi-weekly crossword set by Cyclops in Private Eye which has clues which are not only clever but also laced with a liberal helping of lavatorial humour and topical commentary which is right up my street. Many of the answers (“lights” in crossword parlance) are quite rude, such as

Local energy source of stress for Bush [5]

which is PUBES (“pub” from “local”+ E for energy +S for “source of stress”; Bush is the definition).

On Saturdays the Guardian crossword involves a prize so I religiously send my completed grid in the post. There are many hundreds of correct entries per week so it’s quite unlikely to win – the winner is drawn “at random” from all the correct entries. I’ve won the prize nine times over the years, an average of once every two years or so, with the result that I now have more dictionaries than I know what to do with. I don’t actually think a dictionary is a very good prize for a crossword puzzle, as surely every solver has one already! A few years ago The Guardian used to offer fancy fountain pens and watches, which are more like it. I also won a digital radio from the Financial Times puzzle, but I’ve got out of the habit of doing that one nowadays. The same is true for Salamanca in the New Statesman, which I won a couple of times years ago but have stopped doing since I lost interest in the rest of the magazine. I send off the answers to the Eye crossword every time but have never won it yet. That one has a cash prize of £100.

Anyway, Torquemada, who I mentioned above, was eventually followed as the Observer’s crossword compiler by the great Ximenes (real name D.S. Macnutt) who wrote a brilliant book called the Art of the Crossword which I heartily recommend if you want to learn more about the subject.

One of the nice stories in his book concerns the fact that crossword puzzles of the cryptic type were actually used to select recruits for British Intelligence during the Second World War, but this had a flip side. In late May 1944 the chief crossword setter for the Daily Telegraph was paid a visit by some heavies from MI5. It turned out that in a recent puzzle he had used (quite innocently and by sheer coincidence) the words MULBERRY, PLUTO, NEPTUNE and OVERLORD all of which were highly confidential code words to be used for the forthcoming D-Day invasion…

The current Observer crossword setter is the estimable Azed (real name Jonathan Crowther) who follows in the footsteps of his predecessor Ximenes. On balance I think this is consistently the best crossword I have ever done, although it is often a source of total frustration because it is quite convoluted and idiosyncratic. It is a bit different from other puzzles because it doesn’t involve any black squares like you would find in the standard `Everyman’ type of grid. This makes a very dense and intricate task for the solver, but does have the advantage that clues intersect more frequently than in the usual type. The problem with solving Azed is usually getting started as the clues are quite difficult and the words often very obscure. The one concession is that all answers are usually in the Chambers dictionary, and if they aren’t the compiler gives another hint. I’ve been tackling Azed for so long now that the Chambers has become in my mind a much more definitive dictionary than the OED. I also have several copies at home in different rooms, and one in my office at work.

Solving the Azed puzzle is hard enough, but for the special competition puzzles every four weeks one also has to supply a clue of one’s own. The winners of this competition are selected by Azed himself and there is an archive on the web of successful clues. As well as the winner of each competition, there is an annual prizewinner who produces the most good clues over the set of 13 competitions each year, and a roll of honour of all contributed clues that are deemed worthy. I’ve gradually clawed my way up this league table from 118th in 2006-7 to 46th in 2007-8 and, after four of the thirteen rounds this year, I’m currently in 28th place. I have to admit though that I am envious of the talents of many of the other competitors who routinely produce brilliant clues that even my best ones can’t compete with. For the same reasons that I don’t really enjoy setting examination questions, I don’t really like writing clues as much as solving them. My position in the roll of honour belies the fact that I’ve never produced a single clue that has won any of the individual competitions. I’m always the bridesmaid. You can find some of my more successful clues on the archive here.

Among those who have done exceedingly well in this competition over the years are the novelist Colin Dexter (in the form of N.C. Dexter) and a chap called C.J. Morse who is in fact the man that provided the name Dexter used for the crossword-loving chief Inspector in his famous detective novels. In turns out that C.J. Morse recently had his eightieth birthday and, as a special present, last Sunday’s Azed puzzle included some of his competition clues, which are real crackers. I won’t repeat them here though as you can find them all on the archive. However, solvers were invited to submit a clue to the word MORSE for the purposes of the competition, so at least I can tell you what my attempt was. Here we go:

His signal art no astronomer can comprehend [5]

By way of explanation, anagram of “astronomer” can give “morse” plus “art no”; comprehend is used in the slightly unusual sense of “comprise”; signal in the sense of “remarkable” plus reference to Morse system of signals. In the context of this puzzle, to celebrate the skills of Mr Morse, I also think this overall qualifies as an “&lit”.

I doubt if it competes with the best of the entries but I’m still quite proud of it.