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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 January, 2005, 12:53 GMT
Why cryptic crosswords are civilisation

By Hugh Schofield

The British are not the only people to have crosswords but nowhere else in the world has the cryptic version - containing anagrams, double-meanings and other forms of elaborate word-play - reached such complexity. For Hugh Schofield these crosswords have become a symbol of British civilisation.

It sometimes happens that I am travelling on a train out to the French provinces.

The UK's first published crossword puzzle appeared in the Sunday Express newspaper in 1924

I settle in my seat in a non-smoking compartment, then draw from my jacket pocket a copy of the now-tabloid Times.

On the inside back page is the crossword. I arrange the fold and, with gnarled biro in mouth, set about deciphering the conundrums of Fleet Street's most fiendish.

At this point a person - it may be old, young, male, female, posh or poor but a French person - occupies the seat next to mine.

He or she extracts from their bag a magazine. It is called Mots Croises or perhaps Mots Fleches or Mots Meles.

The person knits his or her brow and then with a nod and a rustle fills in a couple of blanks.

A start made, they raise their head and glance at their neighbour and at his task.

Unspoken bond

A conspiratorial smile forms slowly across their lips. Our eyes meet.

Where to begin explaining the sheer fiendishness of the British cryptic crossword?

"Aha, Monsieur" - the unspoken message beams between us - "I see we have, how do you say, the same hobby. The love of the language is a marvellous thing, no?"

I am polite and well-brought up so I smile a little conspiratorial smile back, as if to say: "Absoluement, Francois."

But inside I'm thinking: "If only you had any idea."

Where to begin explaining to a French person the complexity, the ironic multi-layered brilliance, the sheer fiendishness of the British cryptic crossword?

It is a slightly unfair question, of course, because it is not just the French who do not understand. If you don't get it, you don't get it and that applies to most English speakers too.

Word games

I pick on the French because I live here and also because they do so love their "mots croises".

Everybody does them - even quite sophisticated people - but let us be brutally honest: what are French crosswords?

Every morning tens of thousands of people strain their grey matter in the same completely useless exercise
They're not even word games.

They are just a series of clues along the lines of "type of tree" or "another word for big". And that is it!

So, when they look across at me doing The Times or The Spectator and think there is some kind of equivalence - well, you can see why I bridle slightly.

They are like penny-whistlers - turning out their simple tunes, blissfully unaware of the existence of Bach or Mozart.


Leonard Rossiter in The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin
The popular comedy character, Reggie Perrin, tried to finish The Times crossword every morning
Lovers of the British cryptic crossword will know that I am not exaggerating.

For me and - judging by the number of people from outside Britain who win the weekly competitions - for many expatriates, they are a link with civilisation.

I would go further: cryptic crosswords ARE civilisation.

Think about it.

Every morning tens of thousands of people, all in their separate homes around the world and totally unknown to each other, strain their grey matter in the same completely useless exercise: a cerebral labour which requires three things - knowledge of an unwritten, evolving and highly recondite book of rules, a grounding in the classics of English literature and an abiding love of the language.


No-one teaches you how to do crosswords.

It is passed on - often within families - from generation to generation. I learned from my mother.

At their best they exemplify the three British Es: elegance, erudition and eccentricity.

Constitution for EU amended (five letters)
Clue in the Spectator crossword

And, though I dread the appearance one day of a ghastly headline "Crosswords dumbed down - not enough solvers", I have to say there is no sign of that yet.

They continue to exemplify - as they always have done - the pursuit of intellectual pleasure via a shared set of rules, and that is surely as good a definition of civilisation as you will get.

I have a fantasy that one day I will turn to my French travelling companion and offer an exchange.

"I'll tell you what," I will say, "I'll do a couple of yours and you do a couple of mine."


And then I'll translate for him, perhaps this gem from the latest Spectator: "Constitution for EU amended (five letters)".

"This is something to do with our Monsieur Giscard?" he will ask.

"Not at all", I'll explain.

"Quite simple really. It's an anagram - signalled by the word 'amended' - of the two words that precede it: 'for EU'.

"Answer: 'fuero' - the constitution offered to the Basques in the old Spanish monarchy."

He will look at me with amazement and I'll say: "Well, you should see some of the hard clues. The answer to 10 across is 'leiotrichous' meaning 'having straight hair'!"

Swallowing hard my friend apologises, grabs his bag and hurries to the next compartment.

Pathetic, I know, but one can dream.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 15 January, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Tales from a cryptic crossworder
07 Nov 02 |  UK News


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