What is the most common image of crossword solvers among non-addicts?
The odds are good that most people would see the stereotypical solver as mild-mannered, middle-aged, slightly bookish –
maybe a member of the clergy or an academic – who likes to retreat from life’s little annoyances for half an hour
every day into a world where flowers are rivers, there are more doctors than the NHS could ever hope for, the Queen turns
up a lot too and the 1950s concept of U and non-U is alive and flourishing. Yet take a look at some crossword discussion boards,
and from time to time you will see certain aspects of clueing being debated with more ferocity than one might expect when
the subject is basically a pleasantly distracting word game. Many of those who air strong opinions on this are well-regarded
or promising setters themselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with people showing passion for a hobby – thank
goodness the anti-intellectual “laddism” of the 90s which branded almost any interest other than sex, lager and
football “nerdy” is truly gone, perhaps in part due to the popularity of Sudoku puzzles. But what is it that people
get so steamed up about?
Essentially, many setters and serious
solvers fall neatly into one of two camps. These are the “Ximenean” and “non-Ximenean” factions. The Ximeneans believe that all cryptic
clues should follow the guidelines stipulated in Ximenes’s book Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword (D.S. Macnutt, Swallowtail Books) and other pronouncements on
crosswords by this great compiler. For a brief guide to principles of Ximenean clueing click here. The non-Ximeneans argue that since Ximenes died in 1971 it is surely time to move on and explore new possibilities for pleasantly
baffling the solver. Sometimes this camp is labelled “Araucarian” since the Guardian’s most popular
compiler by far, Araucaria (John Graham, who received an MBE for his work in 2005) is perhaps the most widely known compiler
whose work deviates from Ximenean principles. I think this title is rather misleading since Araucaria is not the only opponent
of strict rules and he has never actually set down an alternative set of rules or principles himself. Of course many
setters and solvers have their feet in both camps. As a solver I do too, though as a setter I’ve tended more and more towards Ximenes over the years, so that only my little toe is left in the non-Ximenean or “libertarian” camp.
When Ximenes wrote Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword in 1966 there was a very great
need for something like this. Look back at old Times crosswords, for example, from the 50s and many of the clues
in them don’t pass muster by almost any standard today. There are anagrams without definitions, plain quotations,
and the literary knowledge required is far too specialist to attract new solvers today – although that could reasonably
be blamed on our so-called progressive education system which shrinks from teaching almost anything about British heritage
and culture. If there hadn’t been some sort of guidelines laid down to ensure that these puzzles gave the solver a fair
chance, crosswords could well have become an activity for an ever-decreasing exclusive group of scholars, rather than the
popular activity they undoubtedly are today.
Yet Ximenes himself
was by all accounts an unassuming and modest man, like many geniuses, and it is inconceivable that he would have intended
that crossword writing should stick rigidly to his principles and his alone. He more likely intended to provide a framework
within which the setter could use his or her inventiveness and entertain solvers for years to come. It does seem, though,
that some of today’s post-Ximenean setters cling so rigidly to what they see as Ximenean rules that they provide
clues which are scrupulously fair but a little...well, dull.
I can indulge myself with one of my many musical analogies here. The two composers Mozart and Salieri were contemporary rivals.
Salieri’s music was scrupulously “correct”, following to the letter the established rules of harmony and
composition of the time. Mozart, on the other hand, followed the rules too, but allowed himself a few liberties in order to
give his music greater expression. How much of Salieri’s music do we hear today?
That is not to suggest that Ximenes was dull – his crosswords were incredibly inventive –
or that all of his adherents today are either. Mr Magoo and Dimitry, who both set for the Listener, and Pasquale, the only
staunch Ximenean among the Guardian’s team of compilers, always provide fresh and entertaining puzzles. However
I can’t help feeling that the Listener and similar puzzles’ (probably necessary) insistence on strictly Ximenean
clueing does sometimes frighten some setters into playing safe to avoid rejection or excess editing, and this is apparent
in some of their clues. I would cite my own first Listener puzzle, Europe’s Ports by Alberich, as an example of this.
I met a well-regarded Listener setter at the annual Listener dinner who told me that “it would be nice if we could throw
away the straitjacket and write some fun clues sometimes” or words to that effect.
I stress that being wary of being too hidebound by perceived “rules” is not the same as
saying “anything goes.” I certainly have no time for sloppiness, and there is a huge difference between a well-considered
new idea and what is essentially poor clueing. I hesitate to use the term “unsound” as it makes it appear there
is only one right way to do things. Yet if I’m sent a puzzle that has “leading politician” as an indication
for the letter P in the first clue I solve, I don’t approach the rest of the puzzle with much confidence. I can see
no justification for “leading” as a first letter indicator, other than it is an ellipsis for “that which
is leading” and like a joke, if you have to go round the houses to explain it, it isn’t much good. Other bugbears
are missing indicators for hidden words or anagrams, redundant words inserted just to make good surface reading, “A
inside B” when B is really inside A or missing capitals. To exemplify the last two:
Fashionable attempt inside goal (6) = TRENDY: END in TRY
This is just plain wrong, although it crops up with depressing regularity, and not just among novice setters.
The wordplay is the wrong way round, rather amusingly described as “arfacese” on the now defunct Guardian talkboards
Create king in west? (4) = MAKE: K in MAE
Should be West as we’re referring to a proper name here, and even taking
into consideration the spread of lower case advertising logos and of course text speak, a puzzle designed to celebrate the
English language should not abuse it in this way. It is a grammatical error, pure and simple.
(While we’re on this clue, I’d say that
surely Mae = West is long due for retirement – how many people
under 40 actually know who Mae West was? It’s not as if she
was Prime Minister or anything, splendid lady though she was.
Same goes for “girl” = Ada or Maud and "yob" =
Ted – nobody talks about teddy boys any more. And although I’d rather stick needles in my eyes rather than
write “u r there? Gr8” in any sort of message, I’d take you =
U any time over the absurdly outdated U = posh/acceptable.)
Let’s move on from the merely sloppy to the more inventive but decidedly
non-Ximenean type of clueing. Two examples spring to mind here:
Beaten, an achievement indeed (8) =
DEFEATED: FEAT in DEED
Walter now is
to change (5) = ALTER: WALTER minus W
The first of these is an
example of what may be the most often debated type of clue. Does indeed equal in deed? The Ximenean argument against it is
that it is an abuse of spacing and therefore it doesn’t, and this a very valid point. However others argue equally cogently
that almost all solvers read clues aloud in their heads and so can easily interchange “indeed” and “in deed”
(or “infer” and “in fer”, or whatever) and thus the clue is fair, especially if there is a question
mark or an “as it were” at the end of the clue. I remember this device being done to death in the Telegraph,
I think it was, in the 70s – there was always one clue that contained “indeed” and you knew to write DE
and ED at the start and end of the answer before even making any attempt to work it out. I don’t feel cheated by this
device, and have seen some novel uses of it, notably the use of “incontinent” in this way to put some letters
inside ASIA. I have not used this trick for a very long time, but I did once provide a tongue-in-cheek clue for a thread
on the old Guardian talkboards, which was:
He probably wouldn’t
have approved of this clue, ultimately mine: “Playing INXS” (7)
prizes for guessing the answer to that one!
As for the second clue,
this is a very different matter. The idea that “now” = no W” is one step too far for almost all compilers,
certainly including me. Reading aloud, “now” bears no resemblance to “no double-u” and although on
the surface this may seem like a clever idea, it is too unfair to be considered a good clue, even when the name Walter is
given rather than the more vague “man”. It’s what I’d call a “yeah, right” clue –
guess the answer, figure out how it works, then mutter rather dissatisfiedly “yeah, right.”
After receiving a communication issued by a petty civil servant, objecting to the ending of
a sentence with a preposition in official documents, Winston Churchill wrote in the margin: “This is the sort of pedantry
up with which I will not put.” Here I hope to show where Ximenean rigour can be taken to extremes. It is considered fair
by almost all compilers, Ximenean or not, that while “colour” adequately defines “red”, “red”
is only an example of a colour rather than a definition of colour, hence this needs to be indicated. “Perhaps”,
“maybe”, “possibly” or a question mark are usually used to do this. Now let’s look at a possible
clue for the word CARPET. It’s not an easy word to define, as “floor covering” is hard to fit into a sentence
and is in any case a bit of a giveaway. So suppose we decide to define by example – using Axminster, one of the most
famous types of carpet. Looking at the wordplay, one obvious way to break the word down is into CAR and PET. Rover is a type
of car and also a popular dog’s name, and of course dogs are common pets. So a possible clue would be
Rover, a dog in Axminster (6)
although that reads well, there is no indication that both elements of the wordplay and the definition also are all examples.
So applying Ximenean principles to the letter, we get
maybe a dog in Axminster possibly (6)
The result is technically
OK, but even if you replace the last “possibly” with a question mark it still sucks, as our transatlantic friends
would say. Let’s change it to:
Could be Rover, a dog in
“Could be” is a perfectly acceptable
replacement for “perhaps” and phrased like this, as a question, the clue reads a million times better than the
previous example. There may be some debate as to whether the “could be” can cover both Rover and the dog, but
the clue is quite solvable and I leave you to decide which you prefer. Incidentally, I saw a clue similar to the second example,
stuffed with “perhapses” and “maybes” in a national newspaper once and remember thinking that it looked
so out of place in an otherwise decent crossword that it must have been an oversight.
This clue raises another point which divides serious cruciverbalists. This is
the use here of the word “in”. Some would argue that as a link word “in” is directional, e.g. that a
clue can only be presented in the form [answer] in [wordplay]. It is true that the answer is to be found in the wordplay rather than the other way round, and some setters (including me, these days) try to adhere to this concept. Yet several other setters – some of them devoted Ximeneans – treat “in” as a bidirectional link word.
I will finish by mentioning a couple of old chestnuts which Ximeneans have
criticised but which have taken on an almost mythical status over the years.
for WATER, i.e. H to (two) O. Is this a brilliant piece of innovation or an absolutely unfair, rotten clue?
I think it’s both! It has no definition. There’s no homophone indicator, and anyway “to” and “two”
aren’t really homophones. Nor does the clue actually mean anything. Yet people remember it many years on, and it has
to be admitted there is a kind of beautiful simplicity about it. No compiler would dare use it again, though!
example that displays all the faults of the previous clue. The answer is EXASPERATED, i.e. “eggs aspirated”. I
have a fond memory of this clue as it is the first ever cryptic clue I got on my own.
However, I can muster up no enthusiasm for the clue
which seems to be
quite popular in some circles. I would never have got it myself and for a long time I didn’t understand the answer even
when I saw it. Eventually I saw an explanation that the answer, SENSELESSNESS, works on the basis that if you take the letters
of NESS from SENSE you’re left with E. Apart from the obvious objection that the letters to be removed appear in the
wrong order and there is no indication of this, I do not think there is enough information here for the solver to have a chance
to solve it. It’s a bit like setting “6” as a maths problem and expecting the student to come up with 13
– 7. Very much a “yeah, right” clue. Perhaps this clue could be rescued to some extent by supplying a definition
along the lines of
E? Absolute stupidity (13)
I still think the wordplay is unfair but the definition does give the solver more of a
chance, and the clue makes a true statement about the foolishness of taking dangerous drugs.
After all this I guess I need to draw a
conclusion – and will do so with yet another analogy (not
musical this time). I once saw an old lady making her slow and
painful way up to the counter in a post office just before one
o’clock one day. The petty, jobsworth clerk stood and watched
as she did this, then as she reached the counter at exactly
one o’clock he pulled down the “Closed for Lunch” sign. I
hasten to add that I am not for a moment suggesting that
Ximenes or any of his present-day followers are in any way
like that horrible clerk – I have met several of them and I am
sure that they would have gladly waited for the old lady and
served her with courtesy. I merely illustrate that following
rules slavishly to the letter rather than the spirit can
sometimes have the opposite effect of what the rules were
actually intended for, and we need to beware of being so
dogmatic that we end up following a set of rules just because
they are there. Ximenes’s guidelines today still give an
excellent indication of what generally works and what doesn’t
in a clue and it is good that there are plenty of people
around who feel passionately about upholding the standards he
laid down. Yet in essence crosswords are there for
entertainment and fun, not precise exercises in some
scientific discipline, and we should welcome original thought
when it is entertaining and doesn’t cheat the solver, even if
we have to relax the rules a little from time to time. Much of
the time this happens anyway – many people tackle Araucaria
with the same enjoyment that they set about the staunchly
Ximenean Azed puzzles – and long may this