A few weeks ago, while on holiday in the wilds of the west of Ireland, I found myself out of wi-fi contact. Nothing. Not even a light dusting of 2G. It was, once I was over the shock, frankly blissful. (Ironically, I had to use the “Internet cafe” of the local Post Office before the week was out, in order to rearrange a flight and print out the boarding pass, but the act made me feel like a slave, not a master of the technology.) Anyway, I fell hungrily on printed media, otherwise known as books, magazines and newspapers. The experience took me back to my childhood, when we’d stay in a farmhouse in North Wales, and want for nothing more than a holiday special or a puzzle book. It could rain all it liked.
So, for the first time, I turned to the Times crossword. (It was hit or miss whether there’d be a Guardian in the local newsagent of a morning.) It’s a famous crossword. A member of my family once told me, proudly, that he’d reached the stage whereby he could complete it on the train journey to work. Having subsequently attempted to get into the Times cryptic crossword, I am even more impressed with his achievement.
Back in London, I bought a Times Cryptic Crossword book – Book 13 – as I’d decided that my brain was big and clever enough to crack the code and really start to enjoy the process of untangling those convoluted, misleading bundles of words. The book seemed ideal: I wasn’t going to start paying £1 a day to Rupert Murdoch just to do the crossword each day – and nor am I interested in doing them online – but you get 80 in the book, for £5.99. Good value. Also, the solutions are at the back, and my noble plan was to use this to help me get inside the mind of the crossword compilers. I’d fill in anything I could, and then, one by one, take the answers from the back and work out the route to each one backwards, as it were.
This seemed a stimulating plan. I enjoyed it. Richard Herring mocked me, as did others who heard about my notion via the podcast, but I persevered. I didn’t really want to read a book about how to crack the cryptic crossword. My approach seemed more honest and hardworking.
It has failed. I’m 20 crosswords in now, and, after a misleading great leap upwards, I’m back down to getting around five answers per crossword. Five! Out of about 28! This is rubbish. Some of the answers I was simply never going to get, as the words themselves – sometimes names of literary characters, or foreign shrubs – are not familiar to me. I know the cryptic part should get you there, but if you’ve got two or three component parts and their construction leads you to a word you’ve never encountered, you lack the confidence to fill the letters in. And can thus not progress with words that lead off that word.
By the way, I have bought a smart propelling pencil. It almost cost as much as the book. It is now permanently hooked inside the book, at the page I’ve reached, and I am enjoying clicking the lead into the nib end as it gets worn down. Unfortunately, it’s getting worn down not by me filling in answers I’ve got, but by filling in answers I have had to look up. I was hoping to have improved exponentially by now. I have not. My brain is obviously not cryptically tuned.
I brought the subject up on 6 Music, and threw a few unsolved clues out to the Lauren Laverne massive over the airwaves. Naturally, a number of people cracked them, and explained them. Among these clever folk, @TheEponymousBob, via Twitter, provided us with some bespoke, music-based clues, which we’ve been throwing out daily. I got today’s but it was easy; plus, you know it’s a band name. Most days, I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue.
I’m tempted to burn the book and move on with my life. I considered chucking it into the Irish Sea on the ferry home, but I couldn’t quite extinguish all hope. Maybe I should persevere. It still seems wrong to read articles or books explaining how to do it; I’d much rather teach myself this skill. There are many things I can’t do, but these tend to be physical, or musical. I thought I could teach myself to solve cryptic crosswords. But I’m pretty sure I can’t. Hey, I’m only human. Unlike the Pope, I am fallible.