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Random Thoughts on Crosswords Cryptic and Concise + Recherché Times Crossword Clues Considered
Janet and I were hoping to exchange contracts for house sale and purchase by the end of August, but after a week of increasingly exhausting phone calls, I'm sorry to report that we've failed. Perhaps that put me in a bad mood for crossword solving, and it's certainly true that by the end of last week I was feeling pretty exhausted. Nevertheless I feel strongly enough about a clue from Friday's Times cryptic (No. 26,189) to break my silence and put hands to keyboard. This is the clue:
Colour shown by maiden, perhaps, with fever (9) [OVERSTATE]
(select between the square brackets for the answer, or read on)
I thought - and still think - that this is a very poor clue. It seems to be following the tendency of some Times setters to scour the outer reaches of the thesaurus for the meanings of the words they use. Here we have two examples: "colour" as the definition of OVERSTATE; and "fever" meaning STATE as part of the wordplay. Even if you can resist the temptation to bung in OVERSHADE - using the more obvious "colour" = SHADE - and come up with OVERSTATE as a word that would at least fit the checked letters, you are (or at any rate I was) still left wondering whether there might not be a less obscure solution.

I've a fairly strong suspicion that a clue like this would not have appeared in a Times crossword until quite recently, and I think it would be better if similar far-fetched meanings were outlawed in the future, at least in the daily Times cryptic. I'm obviously something of a dinosaur when it comes to crosswords, so I'd be interested to know if there's anyone out there who's prepared to defend this kind of thing. I appreciate that there's pleasure to be had from solving a difficult clue, but even though I eventually plumped for the correct answer in this case, it gave me no satisfaction.

Footnote
I found 25ac in Saturday's crossword (No. 26,190) very similar: a far-fetched clue spoiling an otherwise interesting and original puzzle.

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: exhausted exhausted

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In case you were wondering where I'd got to, a good part of my day is currently taken up with the business of moving house. After nearly 37 years in our present home in North Ealing, Janet and I are moving to be nearer Janet's twin sister in West Ealing, and in 37 years we seem to have accumulated an awful lot of memorabilia - or junk, depending on which way you look at it. Janet is much better at parting with things than I am, but I'm steeling myself to the task, and we've at least managed to rid ourselves of enough to make house (and garden) look presentable. All this has left me with a backlog of crosswords to be tackled, but we've reached the point where we've had an offer for the house we're selling and have made an offer for the house we want to buy, so I hope to catch up a little in the period before we exchange contracts. Nevertheless, with all the other things that have had to take a back seat in the last few weeks, it still doesn't really leave enough time to write about crosswords, so that will have to wait until we're firmly settled in our new home.

Wish us luck.

Current Location: Ealing (north)
Current Mood: exhausted exhausted

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(In what follows, select between the curly brackets for checked letters, and between the square brackets for the answer.)

I've been re-reading Roy Dean's account of the 1979 Times Crossword Championship final when he beat John Sykes, which he includes in his delightful Mainly in Fun (see earlier). He describes how his confidence was boosted by playing a blinder in the first puzzle, finishing in 7½ minutes to John Sykes's 13. I remember the second puzzle particularly, because Roy had to guess two crossing answers to clues that would almost certainly (though rather sadly, as far as I'm concerned) be outlawed nowadays. The first was:
Haggard but bright-eyed hero (4)    {‑R‑?}    [ERIC]
whose answer crossed (at the point I've indicated with a ?) with the answer to:
Grantchester latecomers who left no impression (7)    {?‑R‑T‑S}    [CURATES]
I'm pretty sure I didn't know the answer to the first clue, but the answer to the second became apparent once I had a couple of its checked letters in place to jog my memory, and the letter it provided for the first answer put that beyond reasonable doubt. Roy confessed to us afterwards that he'd made his best guess at the Haggard clue and that he was reasonably happy with the clerical answer to the Grantchester clue because he thought the poem referred to was Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard (which just goes to show that even the best of us can have the occasional brainstorm :-).

If this had been the first puzzle, Roy might perhaps have been unnerved, but in fact he'd been buoyed up by his success in the first puzzle, so that, if anything, it was John who was unnerved, as he lost a further ½-minute on the second puzzle. Roy generously acknowledges in "The Greatest Solver: John Sykes (1929-1993)" (another article included in Mainly in Fun) that John was clearly unwell in 1979, so one can only guess how close the result would have been if he'd been in good health. You can perhaps get some idea of the trickiness of the puzzles from way the field was strung out. The four highest time bonus point scores from the regional finals were 89 for Roy Dean, 88 for John Sykes, and 87 for James Atkins and me. We managed to retain that order to claim the top four places in the final, but this time the bonus points were: 86 for Roy, 80 for John, 72 for James, and 55 for me, with only two other finalists completing the four puzzles correctly.

Two years later, Roy Dean made a mistake in his regional final, John Sykes was generously taking a year off, and James Atkins ... I'm not sure what happened to James that year. The only results list I have is for London A, which shows Roy in 8th place but omits James altogether. Perhaps he tried and failed at London B. Anyway, three of the main contenders were out of the way, but that still left formidable opposition in the shape of Terry Girdlestone. This time, however, it was my turn to play a blinder, taking around 10 minutes for the first puzzle, while Terry (who'd admittedly had a bad night) took around 30 minutes. At such an early stage in the contest, the result was by no means in the bag, but I felt it was mine to lose rather than his to win. I expect most solvers nowadays would hate to return to the era of clues like those that could so easily have wrecked Roy Dean's chances in 1979, but they were certainly very good at opening up the field. And maybe they would even give the rest of us a better chance of toppling Mark Goodliffe :-).

I was reminded of all this a few weeks ago by TLS crossword No. 1060, which had just enough of the sort of literary knowledge needed to solve Times crosswords of old that I was able to play a blinder and knock a couple of minutes or so off my TLS PB. But that's another story.

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: nostalgic nostalgic

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I always look forward to Sabre's Listener crosswords, and Coincidence (No. 4326), the final puzzle of last year, provided a most enjoyable post-Christmas solve. It had a fairly ordinary-looking barred grid (10 rows, 15 columns), and the preamble began:
Before entry into the grid, each clued answer must have one letter replaced by another (in two cases, the letter and its replacement are identical). These pairs of letters taken in clue order provide two examples of a coincidence; the unclued entry, when completed, illustrates the cause of the coincidence. Lengths in brackets refer to grid entries. Solvers must highlight in the completed grid a further (4-letter) example of the coincidence.
It fairly soon became apparent that there was something fishy going on as the obvious answers to some of the clues needed one more letter than was available in the grid. Further investigation showed that the upper part of the middle column needed to accommodate two letters in each checked cell, and that if taken in the order they appeared in the clue answers (with unchecked cells filled in appropriately), they could spell out MINUTE HAND and HOUR HAND. This tallied with the two examples that had been emerging from the pairs of letters mentioned in the preamble, SIXTEEN AND FOUR-ELEVENTH MINUTES PAST THREE and TWENTY-ONE AND NINE-ELEVENTH MINUTES PAST MINUTES TO EIGHT, as well as the 4-letter example, NOON. The coincidence of the title was clearly any of the points at which the two hands of a clock (on a wall) lie at the same angle to the vertical.

I've written before (here) about my difficulty with puzzles where two letters have to be written in a single cell, but in this case the theme of the puzzle provided a wonderful "Get Out of Jail Free" card: at the point where the hands of a clock coincide, the minute hand as near as dammit hides the hour hand, so obviously the middle column should contain just the letters MINUTE HAND. What a brilliant coup - so typically "Sabre"!

Except that when the solution appeared, it showed the middle column with HOUR HAND alongside MINUTE HAND, though I was relieved to find that MINUTE HAND on its own was allowed as an alternative. It turns out that the solution with MINUTE HAND on its own hadn't occurred to Sabre as a possibility; however, around a third of those submitting solutions had opted for it, which is presumably why it had been allowed. There doesn't seem to have been a great deal of online discussion of Coincidence (at least on respectable sites). Jaguar (who actually submitted a solution with both letters) wrote on Listen With Others:
I expect Sabre is shaking his head, sadly, that the solution he intended wasn’t regarded as unambiguous after all (I expect he preferred just MINUTE HAND in the middle column, since just because a letter was changed in PREACH (U/N)P before entry doesn’t mean you then still have to enter all the letters; my counterargument to that was that the hour hand is rarely perfectly hidden, as it’s usually fatter than the minute hand.)
(That was my assumption too, but we were both wrong.) On the other hand, Andy Stuart (who thought this was "not one of Sabre's finest") wrote on The Crossword Centre's Message Board:
I'm astonished that an alternative solution has been allowed. I cannot believe that was Sabre's intention. With only MINUTE HAND entered in the central column, the completed grid doesn't illustrate the cause of the coincidence. It also breaches the first sentence of the preamble, one of the consequences of which is that PREACH UP has to be changed to PREACH NP. Nowhere is there the suggestion that this change must be subsequently ignored. Finally, a solver submitting the alternative 'solution' hasn't demonstrated an understanding that the unchecked cells require two letters as well.
None of Andy Stewart's arguments cuts any ice with me, but I can see it would have been better if Sabre had made his intentions rather more clear. And, as someone who feels that more than one letter in a cell should be avoided if at all possible, I'd have much preferred it if he'd clarified things so that the MINUTE HAND solution was the only acceptable one.

Footnote
If you haven't yet tackled yesterday's Listener puzzle (Conduit by Loda, No. 4331), you might like to know that the enumeration for Clue 41 should be (3), as given on the Times Crossword Club's website, rather than (4), as it appears in the printed edition of the paper (at least in my copy).

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: slightly disappointed, but relieved

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Monday's puzzle (No. 25,981) evoked a slightly unexpected response from the TftT blogger, who asserted that the word "must" in 9ac:
Reckon I must have millions invested in property (8) [ESTIMATE]
(select between the square brackets for the answer)
was "just a filler". He was backed up by another (very experienced!) solver who commented: 'I agree that "must" at 9A is unnecessary. The clue works just fine without the word so why is it there?' Of course anyone familiar with Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword will know that the setter almost certainly included "must" to reflect the distinction between the pronoun "I" and the letter "I". Since it's the letter - rather than the setter - that needs the letter M appended, the clue without the word "must" really ought to read "Reckon I has millions invested in property (8)". Although it wouldn't have bothered me all that much if the clue had read "Reckon I have millions invested in property (8)" - indeed I might not even have noticed the solecism - I would argue that the setter (or was it the crossword editor?) was wise to include it, since omitting it would almost certainly have called down the wrath of the strict Ximeneans. The case for "must" is strengthened here because it arguably improves the surface reading, whereas it can sometimes make a clue sound rather artificial.

There are times when I wish Ximenes had never laid down his "rules" for crossword-setting: the archival Times crosswords I've been tackling have almost without exception been great fun, despite providing copious examples of exactly the things he hated. But once his book was published, there was really no turning back, and although progress has been gradual over the past (nearly) 50 years, most modern cryptics (most of the ones I tackle at any rate) follow X pretty closely. And I don't think that's really turned out to be too much of a hardship for setters. I started entering X's Observer clue-writing competitions before his book was published, and learnt quite quickly from his comment slips what sort of things he liked and what he objected to. On the rare occasions when I compose a clue nowadays, I do try to stick to his rules as far as possible. And indeed I have been known to raise an eyebrow if I spot a particularly glaring infringement in a clue written by someone else.

* * * * *

I'm writing this while listening to Kate Gross on Michael Berkeley's programme Private Passions on BBC Radio 3. Her death on Christmas morning was a sad reminder of the fleetingness of life, and that I perhaps ought not to be frittering so much of my time away on crosswords now that I'm in my 70s. And yet it's hard to break an addiction which still, despite my senior moments and ever-slowing pace, brings me a lot of pleasure. As far as this blog is concerned, I'm aware that it's becoming a little predictable, so I've decided to try to write something on the first Sunday of each month (just to let you know I'm still alive :-) and only write at other times when I've something out of the ordinary to say. Of course I'd be delighted to hear from you at any time on any crossword-related topic (or on any other topic you think I might find interesting).

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: busy

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(In what follows, select between the curly brackets for checked letters, and between the square brackets for the answer.)

Friday's Times crossword (No. 25,968) contained the clue:
Risky time for Buzz to rue losing power lines (2-5)    {R‑E‑T‑Y}    [RE-ENTRY]
I took "Buzz" to be Buzz Aldrin, and because there used to be an understanding that the Times crossword didn't include the names of living persons, I assumed that he'd snuffed it and that I'd either missed his obituary or forgotten all about it. Actually I'm not quite sure that the mention of someone in a clue like that really counts, and in any case (as commenters on TftT pointed out), Buzz could refer to Buzz Lightyear of Toy Story (a film that Janet and I started to watch on the earnest recommendation of Janet's granddaughter, but abandoned within twenty minutes as not really our thing - though at least that was enough for me to learn the names of the two main characters). Anyway I looked up Buzz Aldrin, and was pleased to find that he's still alive.

But it got me wondering when the Times crossword's "no living persons" rule actually came in. Certainly the archive puzzles that I've been tackling recently seemed to have no such restriction. The latest one, No. 3,192 from 16 May 1940, contained the clue:
He simply plays the fool (5,4)    {R‑L‑H‑Y‑N}    [RALPH LYNN]
I suspect this would baffle most younger solvers, and maybe some older ones as well. However, my mother used to be very fond of the Aldwych farces, and I've watched several myself on film, so the name of the actor who played the "silly ass" rôles is entirely familiar to me, as are the names of his co-stars, Tom Walls and Robertson Hare. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, I suspect that a couple of phrases that Janet occasionally uses have come from the same source via her mother, as I've otherwise only ever come across "the tale of the old iron pot" and "fiddling and diddling" in Rookery Nook (I think, or it could be some other play by Ben Travers). For the record the answer to the clue still had over 20 years to live in 1940.

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Current Mood: curious curious

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Last week's Sunday Times crossword (No. 4,618 by Tim Moorey) provoked even more bile than usual from Times Crossword Club members. Some of the comments seemed extraordinarily perverse. One person, who claimed to have started solving crosswords 70 years ago, said that he particularly enjoyed the rigour of Ximenes and that, for him, things had gone downhill ever since. I'm not sure when Ximenes started formulating the rules he proposed in Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword (published 1966), but certainly if you compare Times crosswords of 1944 with those of 2014, the latter are unquestionably more "Ximenean". It's possible that fundamentalist Ximeneans of today might find something in Tim Moorey's crossword that went against the grain, but I somehow doubt if Ximenes himself would have found anything in it to take exception to, though he'd have found the style rather different.

Another objection to Tim Moorey's crossword was that it was too easy. For one commenter, this seemed to be connected with the generous prizes that the Sunday Times offers, which might fall into unworthy hands if the crossword didn't provide enough of a challenge. Personally, as one who has a good track record when it comes to solving difficult crosswords, I'd be delighted if the puzzle was difficult enough to whittle the number of correct solutions down to an average of (say) ten a week, but I don't imagine that would appeal to the owners of the Sunday Times, or most of its readers, or the prize sponsors (Cross pens - I'll give them a plug in the hope of encouraging them to keep going, at least until I've won a prize :-). In fact I suspect most ordinary solvers are quite happy that the Sunday Times provides a crossword whose difficulty varies from week to week, though some will no doubt find the tougher ones a bit of a slog. I've written before in praise of easy crosswords, and my comments apply particularly to crosswords in Sunday papers with a large and varied readership. Grumblers should note that the Everyman puzzle in The Observer has been very easy for as long as I can remember (today's, available via the Guardian website, should be a sub-4-minute job for any aspiring Times Crossword Championship contenders), and that's just fine by me. If you want something a bit more challenging, you can always have a go at Azed - or Mephisto in the Sunday Times.

Two of Tim Moorey's clues that attracted especial vituperation were 9ac:
Great presentation showing now (2,7) [AT PRESENT]
(select between the square brackets for the answer)
and 24ac:
Order coming from Strasbourg (4) [ASBO]
Comments included:
"Hidden clue was very poor"
"9ac was dire"
"There is no excuse for the sheer laziness of 24ac".
I liked both of these clues. I suppose it's possible to argue that it would be better not to have more than one hidden answer clue in a 15x15 crossword, but it didn't register with me at the time, and it doesn't bother me now. I particularly like 24ac, since I can imagine UKIP members saying to themselves (or anyone else who's listening): "Yes, damn it. And it needs to stop!" The 2nd and 4th letters (which were checked) called to mind:
First city in Czechoslovakia (4) [OSLO]
I'd be interested to know when this classic clue first appeared. I came across an early example recently in Times crossword No. 6,198 (27 January 1950). Can anyone improve on that?

Current Location: Ealing

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My last two weekends have been interrupted by the unexpected - pleasantly last week, not quite so pleasantly this week - leaving little time for thinking about crosswords beyond tackling those I solve regularly. I'll be back next week unless something else comes up.

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: occupied

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(In what follows, select between the curly brackets for checked letters, and between the square brackets for the answer.)

A couple of weeks ago I tackled a Times crossword from the first 100 (No. 37 from 15 March 1930) for the first time. Or rather the second time, because many years ago I must have attempted No. 1 from 1 February 1930. I can't remember exactly how I fared with the latter, but I'm pretty sure I made heavy weather of it and very probably didn't finish it correctly. Anyway I thought I'd have a go at No. 2 to see if I now had a better grip on the quirky style of the puzzles of those days. And I had - up to a point: I finished No. 2 in just under 20 minutes, but No. 37 took me just over three-quarters of an hour. I suppose I could pull my usual excuse of tiredness for my slow time for the latter, but while that was perfectly true so that I made unduly heavy weather of some easy(ish) clues, I think No. 37 was significantly harder than No. 2, to the extent that I suspect only a handful of today's solvers would be able to complete it unaided. (I reckon there are two possible answers for 47ac; but, apart from that, a combination of (perhaps) slightly arcane knowledge and good guesswork might just get you there. Go on, try it. I dare you ;-)

All the clues I've cited below are from No. 37. It's not that No. 2 wasn't interesting, or indeed fun to solve; it's just that No. 37 seemed somehow a bit more quirky. The first clue is of a type I hadn't come across before in a Times crossword:
Has he gone to Paris (hidden) (3)    {E‑O}    [EGO]
The answer is pretty obvious once you have either of the checked letters, but unless I'm missing some deeper significance, there seem to be other possibilities without them. Anyway, I can see why clues like this would have been abandoned quite early on. That is assuming they were - I'll be keeping an eye open for later examples.

I liked this one much more (though I'd have preferred a semi-colon to a comma):
When my lady went driving she used to wear this, now she has it in front of her (6)    {B‑‑‑‑‑}    [BONNET]
All the letters were checked so I've given just the first one, which I think should be enough, though you may well find the answer obvious enough without it. I'd call this a "riddle clue" as it's really just a riddle, and I'm not sure if I've seen anything like it in recent Times crosswords. Which, if it's true, is a pity - though perhaps it's hard to come up with something original while still keeping the clue reasonably short. Or have recent examples perhaps been less obviously riddly, and I've simply missed them?

Biologists may like to comment on this clue:
A reptile (4)    {T‑A‑}    [TOAD]
I have to admit that my knowledge of this area is shaky, but nowadays I believe "An amphibian (4)" would be more accurate, and would presumably be acceptable in a T2 puzzle. Does anyone know if the original clue would have been regarded as valid in 1930? (Actually I wouldn't be too surprised to find "A reptile (4)" in a T2 puzzle. After all it's not really any worse that (say) "Greek god of fire (6)" for VULCAN, to take a recent "Grimshaw" from No. 6,510 :-)

Finally, here are two clues that I don't fully understand:
Easier to do in name than in fact (7)    {E‑N‑B‑E}    [ENNOBLE]
I've a feeling that the explanation lies in some quotation or saying, but perhaps it's simply an observation about honours, given that Maundy Gregory would still have been relatively fresh in people's memories in 1930. (I don't know if young people nowadays have heard of him, but he was still talked about when I was young.)
It is bad luck to do this and be imprisoned in the end (6)    {‑E‑E‑T}    [REPENT]
I've given alternate checked letters as there were no unchecked ones. The "imprisoned" bit seems obvious enough, but what about the "bad luck"? Any suggestions for either clue?

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: nostalgic nostalgic

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Here's a clue from the first puzzle in the first preliminary of this year's Times Crossword Championship, which was published last Wednesday as No. 25,936).
Female this gaunt would be something above hip (4) [LANK]
(select between the square brackets for the answer)
With the L in place, I'd initially wanted the answer to be LOIN, but when the N ruled that out, I spotted the answer quickly enough, and was slightly surprised to find later that it had given some solvers a hard time, even to the extent of eliminating one who I thought had a good chance of reaching the final. What I hadn't realised until I read the TftT blog for the day is that some people objected to this clue because it broke the "rule" that the definition of the answer had be either at the beginning or at the end of the clue.

I would guess that this supposed rule arose from a suggestion to beginners that if they weren't sure where to find the definition in a clue, then the beginning or the end would be the best place to look, as that's where it almost always is. But has any reputable writer on crosswords ever suggested that the definition can only appear there? (Well of course not - that would automatically render them disreputable!) If I had to make a suggestion to beginners, and even to those who've advanced beyond the beginner level, I'd recommend looking out for the word "this", since it almost always refers to the required answer, and setters often use it to resolve potential ambiguities. This suggestion might have helped some of those who bunged in LENA as the answer to the Championship clue - which BTW I've now noted down as an example which neatly debunks the spurious beginning-or-end rule. But please observe that it is only a suggestion and not a rule: I wouldn't put it past some wily setter to try and fool us by using "this" in some unusual way - though fortunately the most obvious one is unlikely to make an appearance in the Times crossword!

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