Crypto fascist

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.


36 thoughts on “Crypto fascist

  1. I mourn the day you discovered crosswords, as it marked a new low in the C&H podcasts (crosswords on t’radio, it’ll never take off). Haven’t been able to bring myself to listened to any since then. You swine.

  2. Simon, when you say a “new low” that suggests there have been previous lows. That’s fair enough – we make no claims for the podcast’s high artistic merit, it’s just us talking for an hour a week without planning (we didn’t plan the crossword bit, for instance). But why persist with listening to the podcast at all if it hits so many lows? It’s not compulsory.

    Still, thanks for letting me know that you don’t approve of what we do.

  3. I rather enjoyed the crossword edition of the podcast, it lended a slightly ambient feel to proceedings.

    Out of interest, where in Ireland did you go for your holidays?

  4. I just want the answers to the clues you gave in the podcast. The only one I could get which you didn’t was “restart”. The rest I am afraid I also failed to solve. I too do not have a cryptically tuned brain (although my husband may disagree)

  5. A little defensive there Andrew. I didn’t say there had been “many” lows, although 132 was somewhat akin to listening to paint dry. Would you only prefer fanboy feedback? Nowadays RH seems to be thoroughly fed up with the whole thing.

    • I don’t expect fanboy feedback. Just seems a bit mean-spirited to tell us we have reached “a new low” – or indeed that a particular podcast was like “paint drying” (there you go again) – when these things are made up, on the spot, once a week, and thrown out into the ether without editing. They are what they are, and always have been since Podcast 1; sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re not, sometimes they’re both in the space of an hour. You don’t have to listen to them all the way through; they cost you nothing.

      If I wanted fanboy feedback, I wouldn’t have published your comment. But I did. One’s allowed to be defensive when attacked. If you don’t want me to be defensive, don’t attack me, however casually.

  6. Completing the Times cryptic crossword in fifteen minutes has long been a goal of mine. As a regular Private Eye reader I started on their oft-smutty one, and despite hours and days of dedication I’ve only every completed it once. I love the way that when an answer reveals itself to you it’s unequivocally correct. I’m nowhere near my goal, but I’m not dead yet.

    P.S. Haven’t yet heard the crossword podcast. I’m a bit behind.

  7. Five clues solved out of 30 seems perfectly alright to me given that you are trying to solve these puzzles from first principles. For which I admire you.

    As someone who writes cryptic puzzles – including crosswords – I see things from the other side of the stage as it were. The thing you have to realise is that puzzles are a kind of war between the setter and the solver in which the setter has to ultimately always lose – but not so easily that the solver doesn’t feel any sense of satisfaction. The important part is that the solver should always be able to understand the answer once they see it (and then hopefully wonder why they didn’t see it before.)

    It’s also worth noting that crosswords have the grid to help you out. The clues are not intended to be solved on their own – they interlock with other answers, providing helpful starter letters that can often prompt an answer on its own. That’s why there are usually a couple of “gimme” clues in any puzzle, because you really do often need that assistance.

    (I would like to say however that crosswords are in a whole different league to things like Sudoku. Although I enjoy those type of puzzles, once you have learned how to do one, you can pretty much do them all. Whereas I find I learn something new from every crossword I do.)

    — David

  8. I’ve never been good at cryptic crosswords, not sure what the other type are called (quick maybe?), but those I can do, usually. Is this because I don’t have the “right” kind of brain for cryptic? Or just because the others allow you to research the answers? I don’t know, maybe you do . . .

    Oh and while I’m typing why is it that those who attack you always seem to be surprised when you become defensive? Do they expect you to meekly say yes sir and move on? Are they so arogant they expect you to say damn sir your right! I’ll alter myself to your specification at once!

  9. personally I liked 132; i found the schadenfreude of you failing to answer the crossword clues rather cathartic.
    Just to warn you though, you might be ill-advised to allow this to become a regular joke on the podcast, because the “audio cryptic crossword” is a path already very well-trodden by Andy Zaltzman in the Bugle podcast

  10. There’s always someone who doesn’t like something no matter what that thing is, but personally I rather enjoyed the crossword clues in recent podcasts. It’s a new element, and I don’t listen to the podcast expecting it to be sparkling comedy all the time. Sometimes it makes me laugh like mad, sometimes it’s just ambient chit-chat accompanying my walk to work. Either way, fine. It’s free.

  11. Don’t know if it’s of interest (and yes it does mean buying it) but the Suns crossword comes with a normal set, and a cryptic set of clues – can help get you into the mindset of the cryptic ones without feeling you have to cheat so much.

    Keep up the good work with the podcast etc!

  12. A few probably patronising (sorry) random observations:

    1) Always read the clue. As a sentence. That sounds obvious but when you read one clue after another you start to just see words. Step back and look at the sentence. Why is it worded that way? You can sometimes determine which bit is the synonym by thinking about why the setter had to phrase the clue in that way.

    2) There are some odd things you either know or you don’t. When I started doing crosswords the word ‘horse’ did not automatically associate with the word ‘arab’ in my head. Now it does. And if I’m honest I still don’t really know why. Are sailors ever known simply as ‘AB’ (able-bodied)? I don’t know. Artist? RA. Obviously. I had my sister to get me up to speed with these things. She had my dad. There’s no shame in reading a book if it helps. It’s not going to unlock an ultimate secret that makes all crosswords easy; it’s just going to equip you with some tools for the job.

    3) There is no secret that makes all crosswords easy. That’s why people who can finish them still do them every day. But you do get better with practice, as your toolset grows.

    4) Go back to a puzzle you got stuck into earlier in the day and you’ll probably get another couple of answers. I think that relates to the first point – you read the clues with fresh eyes. Also, tiredness will render a crossword virtually impossible. Around midday is quite a good time to attempt one.

    5) I haven’t done the Times one for ages, but I have done it in the past and I often found it a bit illogical. The clues weren’t always as tight as they should be. Apparently my dad used to say the same thing. I like the Independent one (I would), which I think is actually harder, but the clues are better. And it’s less reliant on what we might term esoteric knowledge – you’ll have heard of most of the answers. (I’m also prejudiced because I remember clues in the Times in the eighties that would begin with something like “Swarthy stranger…” and the answer would be Pakistani.)

    6) Friday’s puzzle is easier than Monday’s.

  13. Aw, I admire your perseverance. The only crossword I have ever managed with anything approaching professionalism is the one in Uncut magazine. It’s all a matter of bands, albums and remembering lyrics of songs. Usually of a certain vintage. I know my limits.

  14. My mother (a former intelligence officer) started teaching me how to do cryptic crosswords when I was about eleven. She used to tell me that it takes a warped brain and apparently I’m lucky because that particular quality of ‘warp-ness’ runs in the family.

  15. Hey Simon
    If I was genuinely fed up with the podcasts I would stop doing them. We do them for free because we enjoy them. Some days especially when I did 11 podcasts in 12 days in Edinburgh it may be difficult to be enthusiastic for every one. Sometimes I wish I had been funnier. But there is always something in there that excites or interests me, even if it is a failure and if you’ve read my blog you would see how much I was getting out of them. They are experimental and genuinely dangerous (in performing terms) and it is an astonishing achievement to have done 150 of these things with no script at all. Sometimes, as with the crossword one, it is fun and dramatic to play with boredom and tedium. Lots of people liked that. I did too. It was a weirdly downbeat end to a podcast, becoming almost like a Samuel Beckett play (admittedly a shit one). I may be wrong but I don’t think we even started on the crosswords until after 1 hr 06 35 and so in terms of the old podcasts that was just some bonus material. If it bored you turn it off. If there are more boring moments for you than interesting ones seek your entertainment elsewhere. If that happens to me, I will do the same. But it’s easier, whilst the vast majority of people are enjoying what we’re doing for the audience to self-regulate and make their own decisions.
    I will gladly read people’s opinions on it and if 100s of people said the same thing I might even change what we were doing, but enough people liked the bit you didn’t like for us not to worry too much.
    I can tell you that you are wrong in your assessment of how I feel about the podcasts – I am in character a lot of the time and playing around both with you and with what the character can do – I am actually much more into doing these now than I have been for ages. Some don’t work, but that makes the successes all the more real and impressive.
    I think you shouldn’t listen to any more personally though. Why put yourself through it?

    • Can we have some more ‘ive just drunk a lot of liquid and really need to go for a pee’ podcast? For some reason they always come out the funniest especially if RH tries NOT to go to the loo.

      It all gets a bit frantic near the end. 🙂

      I hope we also get another ‘in the car on the way to wales’ podcast (or maybe on the way back) it;s nice to picture the M4 with you chaps as I travel it most days

  16. “I personally think you shouldn’t listen to any more” is what I was driving at. You can listen to them personally. In fact I think you have to.

  17. Don’t give up. Cryptics are great. And I enjoyed the podcast where you did a few clues. I was shouting out “State of the union” to one of them. Cryptic answers are always obvious when you get them, and baffling when you don’t.

    I got the bug several years ago, and love doing them. Unfortunately I just don’t have (or is it make?) the time to do them regularly, and I find I really need to do them regularly to be even half competent.

    I went for an instruction book on how to do them, which you don’t seem to want. I really think that’s needed if you don’t have an old hand to teach you. As other commenters have said there are tricks and principles out there you’re not going to guess. Reading one of those books won’t make you good at cryptics, but they’ll give you a foothold so you can get good at them.

    Telegraph crosswords are a good way to start I find. They’re a bit easier than The Times, though you’ll want to move on to the more enjoyable Guardian one in time.

    If you will insist you won’t RTFM, here’s a book about crosswords you might enjoy.

    IMO you should just not engage with people criticising the podcast non-constructively on your blog. Life’s too short. You were perfectly aware during the podcast that it would hardly be enthralling for many listeners. I’ve been bored of certain bits of your podcasts, but even the bits I find boring are generally aimiable. If I wasn’t prepared to get through those bits in order to get to the bits which make me double up on my walk home from work I’d probably stop listening. And not post a message on your blog about it.

  18. Hi Andrew – Can the cryptic crossword become a part of the show like the plugging of events and venues? I actually thought it was inspired. Maybe a few clues a week?

    I am in the same boat as you in terms of my inability to do them – I even got a booklet guide of how to solve cryptic clues way back when it came free with the Independent or Guardian newspaper. Since then my limit is anagrams pretty much.

    All the best with future shows and podcasts

  19. To be fair to Simon, he did say he hadn’t been able to listen to the podcast since the crossword one. Of course, that might have been a joke. But then so might “a new low”? In a world where everyone is a cunt, it’s hard to know when an insult is an insult and when it’s just a bit of banter. I worry that we’re all in character nowadays.

    Try the Everyman crossword in the Observer, Andrew. It’s pretty good and, well, the clue’s in the name.

  20. Learning to do cryptics the hard way is fun as long as you don’t mind progress being slow. It’s worth spending time working out the reasons behind the answers – if you can do that for the clues you don’t solve, you will learn things that help with future clues.

    It’s part of the way to telling you how to do it, but if you move on to doing current puzzles, have a look at the various solving blogs – the one I run called “Times for the Times” covers the cryptics in the Times and Sunday Times, and has links to others which do the other UK broadsheets. The reports will show you how the clues work as well as what the answers are, and reading them after your own attempt should speed up your learning.

  21. My partner and I can usually finish or get within a couple of clues of finishing the Observer Everyman every Sunday. I have no idea of the comparative strengths of the two, but I will point out that it’s taken us about 5 years to get to that point. See it as a work in progress, you’re never going to have a road to Damascus moment after which every crossword will fall before you. I just find it a good way to waste Sunday afternoons.
    Also, leaving it in the loo for the rest of the week seems to work!

  22. Well said Andrew, as a C&H stalwart and paid up member of the ‘nerd army’ since episode 2 or 3 I loved the crossword bit, just made me laugh, sometimes silence is very funny, it’s a shame people don’t appreciate that. It was post modern, unfortunately i couldn’t help in any way with that particular crossword, I’m useless with them. For the second time I am working my way through the C&H archive again, Richard is demanding everyone buy your book to embarass you (so he hoped) and threw a wobbler (in character) when we didn’t comply and wanted to buy it for good reasons only and subsequently ranted as to how he was not going to do the podcast anymore. I for one will continue to listen for free…..thank you

  23. I find both cryptic crosswords and yours and Richard’s podcast excellent fun. The two things combined was therfore sublime. Keep it up.

  24. Re you’re continuing struggles with crosswords and in particular C&H podcast 136. The three clues for which you had answers but no idea why can be explained as follows.
    AENEAS – ‘oddly’ is an indication that you should take alternate letters from words in the clue ‘A kEeN ?E? AlSo’
    THEATRE – the articles referred to are THE and A, about is RE (abbreviation for ‘in reference to’), these are put around the end (ie last letter) of WesT.
    TRANSPORT – Richard was sort of getting there on this one. It is a double definition. Transport can mean ‘bear’ (verb). A trap is also a form of transport.
    Keep at it, it will be worth it in the end. But please switch to the Guardian crossword. I know you got scared off by a Saturday puzzle but there is a sliding scale of difficulty from Monday (easiest) to Saturday. With the Guardian you find out the setter’s name which helps when you become familiar with clueing styles. You also have the glorious clues of Auracaria who is undoubtedly the greatest setter working today. You can do them online for free. And finally the answers with explanations are available online at, so no more frustrations over why an answer is the answer.

  25. I thought Simon was joking. Just shows what I know about humour.

    Glad you enjoy the ‘Weshhht’ of Ireland. One of my favourite places in the world. Mind you that’s probably connected with first proper kiss and general meeting-of-girls.

    Ahhhh just one whiff of burning peat on a fire and I’m 17 again.

  26. Just heard podcast 136 and had to let you know why ‘HEAD’ means ‘NESS’: it’s a reference to Eliot, the leader of the ‘Untouchables’. Fifty years ago when Robert Stack was on the telly every week, most people would have forgiven that but, as with so many of these crossword clues, they’re now very obscure and only by buying a guide to crossword-solving will one understand. For example, would you have known that ‘ARTIST’ means ‘R(oyal) A(cademy)’?

  27. To give a different take to Brian above . I think the ‘NESS’ ‘HEAD’ connection could also come from ness being the Germanic word for promontory or headland, found in Northern European placenames. Good examples in the UK include Orford Ness and Dungeness.

    I have really enjoyed hearing about the crosswords in the podcasts, although in my case there’s the laughter of recognition as I’m a fortysomething who has also began muddling his way through learning how to do the Times cryptic as well. (Is it a midlife thing? What next?) I must admit its been really hard going but the feeling of satisfaction as you slowly get more clues each time is very rewarding. So I hope you keep going.

    Can I also recommend the Times for the Times website mentioned above. Its really helped me learn some of the tricks of the trade.

  28. Nice idea Brian, but ‘Ness’ means head as in headland or promontory. And Andrew, tread carefully with the Guardian Auracaria set crosswords. If you think the Times is hard, I promise Auracaria will drive you quite mad. He’s the one where the clues refer to the answers to the other clues and such like… and that’s when he’s in a good mood….

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