I solve a lot of cryptic crosswords, including the daily Times (of London, done online) and a number of tough themed puzzles such as the Listener, the Spectator, the Magpie and a few others that cross my path. The Times clues generally have a beautifully smooth surface reading, which is a large part of the aesthetic pleasure of completing the grid – ideally, the clue should read as a fragment of believable prose in its own right, but point you towards a solution by including both a definition and a cryptic indication. Here are a few from this week’s puzzles:
At a country home being entertained (8). This is a beautiful clue which hinges on the periodic table abbreviation for ASTATINE, i.e. At, as the definition; the wordplay is A STATE with IN, meaning ‘home’, being entertained (i.e. included). But the whole thing sends you on a false trail thinking about a weekend with the gentry.
Deposit required for holidays to Wales (4). A nicely misleading hidden word (STOW appears in ‘holidays to Wales’)
Solar orbiter tried to pass vessel (6). Lovely space travel surface meaning, with an allusive definition ‘Solar orbiter’ for SATURN; SAT is given by ‘tried to pass’ (an exam), and the vessel is an URN.
The weekly Listener (which has a different setter each week) is much more variable in style, but given the broad scope for obscure vocabulary and wordplay, setters are free to be much more imaginative.
‘Sabre’, who publishes in the Listener and the Magpie, is a famously audacious and skilful clue composer, some examples being:
Weed with dead leaves ripped off (7)
Aha! Orange Lada hasn’t got its tax (8)
His work showed little independence (7)
He must ring Charlotte’s doctor. At once! (9)
Full explanation hidden below.
Weed with dead leaves ripped off = WIDDLED. Definition is ‘weed’; the letter W is an abbreviation for ‘with’; the letter D is an abbreviation for ‘dead’, and it ‘leaves’ DIDDLED which means ‘ripped off’ (W + (D)IDDLED = WIDDLED). A beautifully misleading use of WEED as if it is a noun rather than a past participle.
Aha! Orange Lada hasn’t got its tax = HORNGELD, which is an old tax based on head of cattle. Here you have to know that Chambers Dictionary lists one of the meanings of A as “(dialect pronoun) he; she; it; they”. So the phrase ‘Aha! Orange Lada’ without the A’s (or ‘its’) gives HORNGELD.
His work showed little independence = HOWDIES, where the definition is ‘his’ (i.e. the supposed plural form of HI), and the solver is instructed to ‘work’ (or anagram) the letters of SHOWED plus I (an abbreviation for ‘independence’). Again, highly misleading wording – hard to conceive that the first word is actually the definition, and you are off on the trail of looking for a particular author or composer.
He must ring Charlotte’s doctor. At once! = HELVETIUM. If you were paying attention to the astatine clue you might have been alerted to the use of chemical symbols, actually very rare in crosswords. Here HELIUM (i.e. He) has to surround (ring) VET, which is apparently a US word for doctor (Charlotte, NC being the geographical reference) to give the solution, which is an old word for astatine.
These are difficult, if not impossible to solve cold, but when the penny drops it is a delight to see how everything works.
Clueing quality is inconsistent in the Listener – recently we had some very imaginative and entertaining offerings under the byline Mango, followed by some rather pedestrian clueing from Dipper.
Here are a couple of Mango’s (some clues were written so that either a letter had to be moved within the text, or omitted, for it to make sense cryptically):
Fat slag interrupts lecture on Getz’s instrument (8). This gives JAPAN-WAX, meaning a type of fat; to ‘slag’ is to ‘pan’, interrupting ‘jaw’, attached to the ‘ax’ (a slang word for saxophone)
So damn lazy up north (5). The answer is SWEIR, a northern word for lazy (the ‘n’ moves to make ‘son dam’, where S is a recognised abbreviation for son, and dam a synonym of weir)
Both give nice mental images while leading perfectly fairly to the required answer.
Dipper’s clues all worked perfectly well, but were just ploddingly dull for the most part. The gimmick here was that each clue contained an extra word, to be disregarded for solving purposes – e.g. ‘Dubious remark in [reviewing] marks creates rows’ for TERRACES (ER in TRACES)
Or ‘Go white when cleaner loses heart to soldier ignoring [National] Front’ for BLANCH (BLEACH with (m)AN for central letters) – too wordy
Or ‘He may look after Guernsey or outlying parts of Brittany on [neighbouring] island’ for BYREMAN, where the definition is ‘He may look after Guernsey’ (i.e. cattle) + RE (meaning on, or about) + MAN (an island). Thirteen words make for a lumpy read.
Or ‘Animals of Monaco [overproducing] anti-tetanus serum’ for TOMCATS (TO + MC + ATS) – what on earth is that supposed to mean?
The Spectator is an odd one. Their puzzle editor, who sets every three or four weeks under the pseudonym Doc, has had over 500 crosswords published there, but I tend to find a lot to criticise in his clueing. From time to time there are actual mistakes (e.g. anagrams that omit or misstate one of the required letters), but my main gripe is about the surface readings – I get the impression that he dashes them off, thinks “OK, that’ll do,” and sets them up for publication. Too prolific, not enough quality control.
I suppose I like:
Misleading surface readings
A natural appearance
Allusive definitions, not necessarily slabs of direct quotation from the dictionary
Cleverness/originality giving a pleasant penny drop when you get the answer
Too much to ask?