Archive for Observer

Crossword Collision

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords with tags , , , , on July 28, 2019 by telescoper

I was thinking recently that it’s been a while since I posted anything about crosswords, and today I got a nice surprise that gives me an excuse for a short post.

As a subscriber to the Azed Slip detailing the outcomes of the monthly Azed crossword puzzle competition, I knew a week or so ago that I’d got a VHC (`Very Highly Commended’) in Azed No. 2456. That’s not enough to merit a prize but at least gets me on the scoreboard for this year’s competition. I have been entering this competition for almost 20 years with decidedly modest success, though I did reach the dizzy heights of 15th place in 2010/11. I stopped for a while when I was at Sussex, as I switched to the Independent whose prize crossword yielded a steady stream of dictionaries. I resumed in 2017 but have found it difficult to get back into the swing of writing clues (at which I’ve never really been very good anyway).

Anyway, Azed No. 2456 was a `special’ puzzle of a type described as `Collisions’. All the Across solutions consisted of two words with one or more letters in common entered in such a way that the two words run into each other. The pairs of words are clued in such a way that the definition part relates to the full word, but the cryptic indication relates only to the part not involved in the collision, i.e. omitting the overlapping letters. Down clues were `normal’, which helped a lot in providing checked lights to help in solving the trickier across clues.

The puzzle was fairly tricky to solve but, as always with the Azed Competition entrants also have to compose a clue of their own. In this case the pair of colliding words was TRACTOR/TORMINAL. My clue (which I don’t think was all that good, really) was:

One feeds paper endless number of gripes threatening to replace Tory with Liberal

Here `One feeds paper’ defines TRACTOR (re: tractor-feed printer); `endless number’ is TRAC (i.e. TRACK with the end missing and with number meaning a track on a record); `of gripes’ defines TORMINAL; the rest is MINATORY (threatening) with TORY replaced by L for Liberal.

You can find the (far better) prize-winning clues here. There’s no actual prize for a VHC – except for a warm glow of satisfaction – but y effort was at least deemed good enough to get my name in this week’s Observer:

But if that wasn’t enough it turns out that I also won this week’s Everyman!

I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve been named in both Observer Crossword competitions. Now that is a nice collision!

P.S. In case you’re wondering the reason it gives Cardiff as my address is that (a) I still have a house there and (b) I’ve had some problems with things being delivered to Ireland from the UK and (c) I recently found a stash of sticky address labels with the Cardiff address on which saves the hassle of writing my address out on each entry.




Crossword Update

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , , on December 1, 2016 by telescoper

I haven’t posted anything for a while in the folder marked `Crosswords’ so here’s a quick update on the situation with respect to my adventures in the land of cruciverbalism.

This morning I received the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement, and found this on the back page:


I like doing this crossword, as it involves an interesting mixture of literary references and more usual cryptic clues. Also, the prize is not a dictionary but a cheque for £40. I’ve actually won this weekly competition three times this year, which means I’ve netted £120 – more than enough to pay for the subscription. Since the TLS is also very interesting to read (once the crossword has been finished), this seems to be working out rather nicely!

I’ve had a couple of other wins recently. This set of dictionaries courtesy of the Everyman puzzle in the Observer:


And this pair of non-dictionaries courtesy of the Financial Times:


This good news aside however I must pass on some very distressing information. It is with great dismay at the accelerating decline of Western civilisation that I have to point out that I think there was a mistake in the latest Azed crossword (No. 2321). The clue at 21 down reads:

Remains of pyre – death of Cleo – packed with African timber? (7)

The checked lights give A-HHE-P, which strongly suggests ASH-HEAP (hyphens are not clued in Azed puzzles). The first part of the clue – `Remains of pyre’ – then parses as the definition. The cryptic part then comprises two parts: ‘death of Cleo’ (suggesting ASP) fits with ASHHEAP if ASP is `packed with African timber’, i.e. if a four-letter word meaning `African timber’ is included within ASP. I can’t find any such word HH-A, but SHEA is a kind of African tree. That, however, would give ASSHEAP which (as well as sounding a bit rude) does not fit with the definition or the checked light at 26 down (HEARTH, i.e. HEART+H).

I’m pretty sure, therefore, that this is a slip by the setter.

Why I’m wearing a poppy again

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , on November 2, 2016 by telescoper

Once again we’re coming up to Remembrance Sunday, an occasion to remember those who have given their lives in conflicts past and present. This is always held on the second Sunday in November in the United Kingdom, which means that this year it is on 13th November, so that it is close to the date of anniversary of the armistice that formally ended the First World War, which happened on 11th November 1918. Another way to commemorate this  is the observance of two minutes’ silence at 11am on 11th November itself. I plan to do that, next Friday  (which is the 11th November). I’ve kept my calendar free at 11 am precisely for that purpose.

Then there  is the wearing of a poppy. The poppy appeal raises money for veterans and their families, but the wearing of these little red paper flowers is something that not everyone feels comfortable with. Some people think that to wear a poppy is to celebrate militarism or even Britain’s imperialist past. I don’t see it that way at all. In fact, if someone asked me to wear a badge to support Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, I’d certainly refuse.

I wrote about my reaction to the horror and futility of war some time ago, so I’ll try not to repeat myself except to say that, to me, the poppy is not about celebrating war or military prowess or imperialism, it’s simply about remembering those who died. In fact, one of the main reasons the paraphernalia of  Remembrance Day observances (the Poppy, the Cenotaph, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, etc) were set up in the first place was to remind not just people but also governments of the devastation caused by World War One. That’s why the Remembrance Day ceremonial laying of wreaths takes place in Whitehall, right at the heart of government. The ritual  was specifically intended to be a warning to the politicians who had brought the conflict about not to allow it to happen again.

As a young lefty student I grappled with the implications of the poppy appeal. The Peace Pledge Union produces white poppies, as an overtly anti-war symbol of remembrance. For a time I wore a white poppy but, although I am against war, I don’t think a policy of non-violence would have helped much against Hitler’s Nazi regime and therefore can’t really call myself an out-and-out  pacifist. One year I wore both white and red poppies, but since then I’ve decided to stick with a red one.

Of course many in the Establishment would like the poppy to turn into a symbol of obedience, a kind of alternative national flag. Some people choose not to wear it precisely because it has that implication. The sight of some hypocritical warmongers wearing the poppy at the Cenotaph on these occasions sickens me, but their betrayal does not make me want to stop wearing it myself. Neither does the fact that so many seem to be so contemptuous of the great strides that have been made over the past decades to try to construct a Europe defined by peaceful cooperation rather than by narrow-minded nationalism and conflict. The parallels between Britain in 2016 and Germany in 1933 seem to me to be frighteningly real,  and I fear very much for the future if we carry on in the direction we seem to be taking. All I can say is that I’m glad I’m not young.

People have  a wide range of views about the poppy and its meaning. There is no “right” answer – every person’s attitude is shaped by a number of factors, not least by whether or not they have lost a loved one in any form of armed conflict.  Some of us wear wear a poppy, some don’t. It’s a matter of choice. The fact that we have a choice is important in itself. I would probably refuse to wear a poppy myself if someone tried to make it compulsory.

Some poppy sellers use the slogan  Wear Your Poppy With Pride, but the original meaning  is much better expressed by the original, Lest We Forget. I’m not sure I wear mine with pride at all, in fact. What I feel is really more like shame, at the wastefulness and stupidity of armed conflict. I count myself incredibly lucky that I have never had to live through anything like that, not only because I’ve had a relatively peaceful and comfortable life, but also because I have never been tested in the way previous generations were. I wear the poppy to acknowledge their bravery and to recognize my own good fortune.  When I stand for the two minutes silence I remember those all who fell fighting on all sides of all wars, and  fallen civilians too.

When the newsreader Jon Snow decided not to wear a poppy on TV, there were angry complaints. I’m sure he didn’t mean disrespect to the cause but disliked the pressure being put on him to conform. I can see his point. It has to be voluntary if it is to mean anything at all.  But in the end I agree with Euan Ferguson’s piece in the Observer a few years ago:

I don’t like pressure being put on people to conform. Orthodoxy and fear are always to be regretted and today’s society is over-condemnatory, swift to its manufactured outrage. But this change seems to have come from below, not been ordered by bullies: the daily reports of life and death in the forces, of the danger other 20-year-olds daily find themselves facing. And is the symbolism of the poppy being degraded as it is customised? No. You can’t do much to the fabulous simplicity of this symbol. And the poppy doesn’t preach: it’s not about “right” or “wrong” wars, but about brave dead soldiers. And the message was, never, Remember in the way we tell you to remember. It is, simply, Lest We Forget.

So, yes. I am wearing a poppy again this year. You can decide to wear one if you wish. You can also decide not to.  It’s entirely up to you.  That’s the whole point really. It’s called Freedom.

Lest we forget.

Collector’s Item

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , on August 21, 2016 by telescoper

I read in today’s Observer an interesting opinion piece by Martin Jacques, who was editor of a magazine called Marxism Today until it folded at the end of 1991. I was a subscriber, in fact, and for some reason I have kept my copy of the final edition all this time. Here’s the front cover:


I note that it says “Collector’s Item” on the front, though I’m not at all sure it’s worth any more now than the £1.80 I paid nearly 25 years ago!

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.


Farewell, Independent, and thanks for all the dictionaries..

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on March 30, 2016 by telescoper

I thought I’d resume blogging activity rather gently with a short post to mark the end of an era. Both the Independent and the Independent on Sunday have ceased to exist, at least in their print editions.  It was about three years ago that I switched from the Observer to the Independent on Sunday, which involved switching from the Azed cryptic crossword to Beelzebub for my most testing weekly crossword challenge. I stopped doing the Saturday Prize Cryptic puzzle in the Saturday Guardian too, in favour of the Independent Saturday Prize crossword in the Independent which immediately paid dividends in terms of prizes!

For crossword aficianados both the Azed and Beelzebub crosswords are composed by strict adherents of the rules set by the great Ximenes and both feature grids with no black squares, in contrast to the more normal Everyman puzzle. Jonathan Crowther, who sets the Azed puzzles is the successor to Ximenes in the Observer; he’s been setting puzzles there since 1971.

Anyway, the last Independent on Sunday was published on Sunday 20th March and it included a list of the winners of the last two Beelzebub puzzles; the very final one was No. 1,358:


It’s a nice way to mark the end of an era! One last dictionary to add to the collection. I’ve completely lost track of the number of books of words I’ve won from the weekly puzzles in the Independent, but it’s certainly more than 50. I’ve given many away but there’s still a large stack in Dorothy’s office.

Anyway, I spent some of my Easter weekend off doing the Guardian  prize crossword (extra-large size, but quite easy) followed by Everyman and Azed in the Observer. I guess that’s my diet from now on…


Lucky Dictionaries

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , on November 17, 2015 by telescoper

Here’s a funny thing.

About two years ago I stopped buying the Observer on Sundays and switched to the Independent on Sunday. That decision was largely based on the cost of the paper rather than the quality of the crossword, but I ended up trading the Observer’s Azed and (easier) Everyman for the Sunday Independent’s Beelzebub and (easier) OUP Prize Cryptic. It’s paid off in terms of prizes – I’ve completely lost count of the number of dictionaries I’ve won from the Independent competitions.

However, two weeks ago I wasn’t feeling very well so I decided to stock up with diversions and for a change bought both the Independent on Sunday and the Observer. And so it came to pass that I did the Everyman crossword for the first time in more than two years. Today I received these:


And a £15 book token to boot. All of which told me that I’d won the prize! Now what’s the probability of that? Maybe I’ll try again in a couple of years…