Archive for the ‘Crosswords’ Category

Crossword Culture

Monday, November 1st, 2010

That ‘Groundhog Day’ in last Tuesday’s crossword and ‘Trekkies’ in Wednesday’s caught my eye confirms what I’ve felt for some time: contemporary terminology is all too uncommon.

I made my first frustrating attempts to solve cryptic crosswords in the school library as an alternative to A-level revision around the time the Beatles were beginning to impinge on a wider public consciousness than the minds of teenage pop fans like me. Aware that this was an adult activity, I was unsurprised by the lack of references to my kind of culture. Coming across ‘John and Ringo alternately missing from home up north’ (3) would have been as unexpected as catching the headmaster whistling ‘She Loves You’.

Besides, I enjoyed the erudite world into which crosswords drew me. Greek mythology, opera, literature, language, history, concealed in a coded formula that was a challenge to crack: learning made fun. Almost half a century later, however, setters are still marooned in the same pre-1960s world. Recent crosswords have clued Alan Ladd and Leslie Caron, whose acting careers peaked in the 1950s, and Leslie Charteris, who created The Saint in 1928, while Wednesday’s puzzle, alongside its nod to Star Trek – which, on second thoughts, has probably been attracted pointy-eared obsessives since the original sixties series – had Ustinov, dead just five years, but whose presence in my memory is as a goateed wit on black-and-white TV.

40 years after the Beatles broke up, pop remains underrepresented, despite Wednesday’s crossword cluing Sisyphus with Rolling Stone, inviting an ageist joke that I’ll resist. Observer Everyman solvers might classify January 18th’s Simply Red reference as contemporary, not least because Mick Hucknall won’t leave us in peace, so it’s worth pointing out that his imminent world tour marks a 25th anniversary. Lulu makes occasional appearances, not that she’s relevant 45 years after ‘Shout’, but ‘backing singer’ does lead amusingly to ‘ululant’. Indeed, so rarely do pop names crop up that I clearly recall a Listener puzzle from the early nineties whose solutions included not only the Beatles, but Led Zeppelin, Def Leppard and INXS.

Not that I’m proposing modernity at any cost. I won’t advocate the introduction of text speak – hevn 4fend! – or suggest that cryptic crosswords should dumb down (and across). I don’t want to abolish the old. I know infinitely more operas from crosswords than from childhood visits to Covent Garden, can correctly name flora and fauna, and first identified words like avatar, carpel and grampus (all in Saturday’s puzzle) in the dictionary I searched for verification. I certainly don’t want crosswords to be easier. Those occasions when I write the answers as I read the clues are only briefly satisfying. Like all solvers I want to engage in a battle of wits with the setter, succeed, then tip my metaphorical hat in acknowledgement of a clever clue set fairly. And yet, were I twenty years younger, would I find myself inserting words not because I knew them (or their clued components), but only because I knew they must be right?

In the world of crosswords, Sam Browne, whose inventor died in 1901, is still a belt and John Bull an Englishman, while Mae West lives on as a lifejacket. Who, under the age of 50 recognises these terms? I’m not urging setters to embrace Big Brother, nor would I welcome ‘French gamble on goalkeeper found in gossip columns’ (5,6). Deferring to convention, my goalie is not James or Given, but a keeper who last pulled on an England jersey two decades ago. Why is the footballer in crosswords invariably Best, Law or Pele. Give us ‘Australian long jumper born at Yarra’s source, represents England’ (6) or ‘Overpaid Brazilian Nottingham Forest defender never overdrawn’ (7).

In boxing, expect Ali, not Hatton, behind the wheel Moss or Hill (senior, no doubt). Post Beijing, have Bolt, Hoy and Cooke entered the lexicon? Not that I’ve noticed. Monty remains the hero of El Alamein, not Montgomerie or Panesar, because golfers are Hogan or Snead, and cricketers Dexter or Grace, for goodness sake, who hit his last century more than a century ago. And before anyone writes in, yes, I did notice Viv Richards, a scant 15 years retired, in Thursday’s puzzle, which also included the most Googled name of 2008: Sarah Palin. Gordius clearly has his finger on the zeitgeist. What next? Britney Spears? Lindsay Lohan? Miley Cyrus? No thanks. But Obama would make a change from Abe and Ike.

The crossword, let’s face it, is an old person’s pursuit. Trying to book youngish guests for a crossword series on Radio 4 a while ago, the producer found just one – Simon Russell Beale. His passion for crosswords might define him as old before his time, but he wouldn’t get a look-in as ‘actor’ – not as long as there’s a Kean (1789-1833) and a Tree (1952-1917). Which is a missed opportunity, because he gives good clue: ‘unreliable slimeball with complex neuroses’ and ‘versatile, obese, insular, embodying unnatural smell,’ to slander him just twice.

I must have heard the one crossword joke I know more than 30 years ago. A commuter is doing his daily crossword on a crowded train. Beside him, a passenger with no newspaper of his own sneaks look after irritating look. Eventually the first man murmurs thoughtfully, “Busy postman…” “How many letters?” comes the eager reply. “Bloody hundreds – now leave me alone!” These days a commuter chewing on a pen while staring at a folded newspaper is more likely to be tackling sudoku, but the joke doesn’t work when the first line spoken is, “I think you’ve put that seven in the wrong square.”

Not long ago I saw ‘Pluckley’ defined as ‘one stop from Ashford’, and concluded that solvers’ numbers must be in such serious decline that setters were tailoring clues to specific commuter routes. Clearly that’s not the case, but what is apparent is that unless the crossword nudges itself into the 21st century and updates its less than topical references to connect with younger solvers, it will become as endangered a pastime as morris dancing.

(Originally published in February 2009)