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The Chambers Crossword Manual by Don Manley is now in its fifth edition. In this article I extol its merits, and offer some musings of my own on related matters.

How do you set about learning to solve cryptic crosswords? If you’re as lucky as I was, some of your family will be solvers. If so, you can be introduced to this wonderful pastime at an early age, when the mind is more receptive to learning such things.

My Grandpa introduced me to the idea of cryptic clues. He solved the Times puzzle, and I must have been about ten at the time I first saw him in action. My Gran kept me occupied while Grandpa picked up his Times, stared at the back page for about half an hour, then put it down again without writing anything at all. “Too hard today, Grandpa?” I asked – rather naively as it turned out, because it then had to be explained to me that since he retired, he did the puzzle without filling in the grid to make it last longer! On subsequent visits he’d write the answers in for my benefit, and explain how they worked. Before long I was doing the puzzle with him. Well, what I really mean by “doing” is that Grandpa solved all the clues while I made the occasional totally useless suggestion.

Some time after that I started to do the Telegraph puzzle with my Dad (both my parents were good solvers, especially my Mum in her later years). The Telegraph, then as now, was a lot easier and I made enough progress as a solver that when I left home several years later, I was able to tackle puzzles with reasonable confidence.

The first clue I ever solved unaided was actually at my prep school, when I was about twelve. Our history teacher, who to protect the innocent I will refer to by his nickname, Knocky, did the Times and occasionally tried out clues on his class. I remember the clue, which was

Heggs? (11)

I put my hand up and suggested that the answer was EXASPERATED (eggs aspirated) – and that was the correct answer. As it happens, Knocky didn’t like me very much, mainly because I was far more interested in Dr Who than his history lessons, and I am sure he was quite “exasperated” that one of his star pupils didn’t get the answer!

So I was very fortunate to learn the basics of cryptics from my family (and even more so that they introduced me to my number one love, music). Most people are not so lucky, though, so where do they turn?

This is where the Manual comes in, and without further ado I will introduce its author, Don Manley, whom I have kept waiting during my introduction. Don is one of the most distinguished setters of the day, with many years’ experience of providing puzzles for national newspapers and other prestigious publications. Where pseudonyms are used he appears as a variety of different Dons: Pasquale, Quixote, Giovanni, Bradman and Duck (the last more of a Donald). He is remarkable in that under his various guises he adopts a variety of styles: for example his Quixote puzzles (for the Independent) are usually easyish puzzles which appear early in the week, whereas his Pasquale puzzles (for the Guardian) are generally pretty hard. His clues are a byword for accuracy and fairness (more of that later) and it is his understanding of the needs of solvers at all levels which make him such a suitable author of a book like this.

Now, we all know that nobody likes reading manuals. Most people (particularly the male of the species) prefer to press buttons randomly on the new microwave or dishwasher in the hope that they’ll do what’s required, and only hunt out the manual when the microwave bursts into flames or the dishwasher floods the kitchen. It’s hardly surprising really, as most manuals are incredibly boring to read, especially now that in recent times the first few pages are often devoted to how to dispose of the spanking new gadget you have just bought!

I’m glad to say that the Crossword Manual is nothing like that. The first half of the book takes you from the simple, definition-only puzzle (the “quick” or “coffee-time” puzzle) through the various devices that cryptics use, with one chapter devoted to each. Don’s writing style is clear, to the point and often amusing, and he follows the one rule all teachers should follow: assume no prior knowledge. There are plenty of examples and also crosswords for you to try yourself, based on what you have learned in previous chapters. Since I was already a competent solver before I discovered the Manual (in a previous edition), I can only guess at how novice solvers will respond to this tutorial material, but I honestly can’t imagine a more lucid, interesting or entertaining way of presenting it.

When you reach the end of this section of the Manual, you will be equipped to tackle cryptic puzzles in the daily broadsheets, but it is wise to have realistic explanations. You will need a lot more solving experience before you can finish every puzzle you try, let alone finish them quickly. To expect otherwise would be foolish, and this puts me in mind of a student I remember from a Czech language course I did in Prague several years ago. This student was a complete beginner, and after a couple of weeks she opined to me and a few others that the course was rubbish. When I asked why, she replied “Well, I’ve been learning Czech for two weeks and I still don’t understand everything the Czechs say to each other!”

At this point I should mention crossword blogs. I have mixed feelings about these, because some of the contributors seem to delight in showing off at the expense of setters, with no consideration for others’ feelings. Their posts range from petty, ill-informed carping to the downright malicious, and as a consequence it has been a long time since I posted anything myself on these blogs. I actually wrote an article about this, but it turned into a rant so I pulled it as I felt it was too inflammatory. However, there is no doubt that for solvers of all levels, blogs can be incredibly useful.

When I started solving, the only way to get the answer to the clue(s) you couldn’t solve was to wait for the next day’s paper. In more recent times, some nationals introduced an automated phone line, but these were rip-off 0900 numbers and as always you had to sit through a long-winded announcement which told you veeeeeery slooooowly that you were paying an extortionate amount for the call.

Those days are over. The blogs don’t just give the answers to the puzzles on the day they appear (except prize puzzles), they explain them too. The answer on its own often isn’t enough – you want to know why the answer is what it is. I strongly recommend that once you’ve read the Manual to get a good grounding as a solver, you use the blogs when you start out solving on your own, so that you can understand what is going on in the clue(s) that defeated you.

Some may ask: why bother with the Manual at all? Why not get hold of a few puzzles each day, read the relevant blogs, and pick it up that way? Well, such an approach MAY work, but I’m pretty certain that far from being a short cut, it would actually be more of a slog to do it like this. Here’s another analogy from my linguistic endeavours.

After I’d learned the basics of Czech grammar and the essential vocabulary, I got hold of a few Czech translations of some of my favourite Stephen King books and read these to help me improve. The first of these was slow going and took me a few months, but how much longer would it have taken if I’d tried to learn from scratch this way? If I hadn’t learned vital verbs like “to be”, “to have” and “to go”, along with their conjugations? Or if I couldn’t recognise the past tense or numbers or personal pronouns, not to mention everyday words like “door” and “blue” and “big”? I’d have needed the dictionary and a textbook for every word, and I probably would have lost the will to live after a couple of pages.

The parallel is obvious, I think. As a total beginner, it would be very laborious to try to absorb solving techniques from the blogs without having learned the basic types of clue, and the tricks setters use to indicate (and disguise) them. You would essentially be learning one clue at a time rather than picking up the general principles, and although you may get there in the end, it would take forever!

Let’s move on to the next part of the Manual, aimed at aspiring setters (though useful for experienced setters too). As I’ve said already, one of Don’s trademarks is that his clues are always fair. What I mean by “fair” is that even in his most fiendish clues, the definition and the wordplay (anagrams, etc.) leading to it are staring you in the face, even though it may take you a long time to see it. That is because he ensures that every clue he writes uses English syntax and grammar correctly. What is more, he has done a great deal of good work over the years, like Ximenes before him, to help other setters apply the same fastidiousness to their clues.

There are fewer setters than solvers, so as you’d expect the section for setters is much shorter than the one for solvers. It is still essential reading for any setter, dealing, as it does, with what makes a fair clue and what doesn’t. I will take just one example. Don explains that the clue

I am in the plot, that’s clear (5)

is unfair, while

I will be in the plot, that’s clear (5)

is fair.

Both clues suggest that the letter “I” should be put in PLAN to get PLAIN, but can you see why the second example is so much better than the first? If not, I’m not going to tell you – you’re better off reading the Manual which explains this, and many other common faults relating to cryptic grammar, very well.

As I’ve said before, I had already become a decent solver by the time I got my first edition of the Manual, but I was still quite inexperienced as a setter (this was in the late nineties). I was glad to confirm, from reading the section on fairness and cryptic grammar, that I was doing most things right, but it was incredibly useful to polish my setting technique by learning what my bad habits were and (I hope!) leaving them behind.

It is only fair to mention that not everybody agrees with the principle that cryptic grammar is important. Some people actually seem to take the idea as a personal affront, and pop up with depressing regularity on the Internet to rant against it. It’s very tempting to go into this in depth, but I will resist. The section in the Manual on fair and accurate clueing (or Ximenean clueing, as it’s known) gives examples of clueing which is grammatically inaccurate, and explains how, with a little care and effort, such unfairness can be avoided. It is neither preachy nor prescriptive, and Don recognises that not all departures from Ximenean clueing are bad, and that there are quite a few grey areas. If you’re tempted by the “libertarian” idea and want to become one of those setters who “breaks the rules and is proud of it” that’s fine – but you need to know what those “rules” are before you break them!

There are other sections in the Manual too. There is an introduction to the advanced style of cryptic (Azed, etc.), a case study of setting in which Don takes you through the construction of grid and clues for an entire puzzle, several useful tips for solvers and setters, and a number of amusing crossword-related anecdotes. My favourite of these is that of a lady who took even longer to complete a Times puzzle than I did when I started!

There is also a section which showcases the puzzles of other setters, exemplifying a variety of styles. Here I must declare a vested interest. I would have got the latest edition of the Manual anyway, as my previous edition got lost in my move to Prague, but extra incentive was provided by one of my puzzles appearing in the section just mentioned. I wrote a puzzle for the Independent which commemorated the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth (22nd May, 2013), and the puzzle featured a celebratory message around the perimeter of the grid as well as all the clues being related in some way to Wagner. It was a labour of love, and if any of the puzzles I have written has been any good, it was this one. Even so, I was quite gobsmacked that it should be included in a crossword manual as exemplar material. I don’t get any money for its appearance (boo!) so my vested interest is not financial, but I am very glad that many more people will get the chance to see my Wagner puzzle.

That said, I would still be happy to promote the Manual with enthusiasm even if there wasn't a puzzle of mine in it. It is essential for new solvers and setters, as already shown, but even those with great experience in one or both of these fields will find it entertaining and instructive, and of course there is an excellent selection of crosswords to do! Hats off to Don Manley for producing what must be the most important book about crosswords for the present day.

The Chambers Crossword Manual, fifth edition, is published by Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd, released 2014.