Cross Words

As you will know (if you’ve been paying attention) I do the Guardian cryptic crossword every morning. I’ve got better with practice and can usually spot an anagram at twenty paces, though expert compilers mix it up and have definitions pretending to be anagrams, or vice versa. But it’s come to my attention of late that I do have certain expectations about crosswords and that these plug in to a sense of fairness. I don’t mind a tough puzzle so long as it’s eventually doable, but a couple of crosswords have ruffled my feathers lately. There was a Prize one a couple of weeks back (no prizes are given at the moment, but unlike the daily cryptics there’s no ‘check’ or ‘reveal’ button) where you had to solve the clues first and then put them in the grid wherever they would go – to help you the clues were alphabetical so you had the first letter of each. I know this type of puzzle and I often enjoy them because to compensate for the difficulty of filling the grid, the clues are not too hard. But this particular one was very difficult; I got some clues but the two long ones which I really needed in order to begin filling the grid, eluded me; even when I looked them up I thought What? How the hell did they get that answer? To give you an idea the answer to one was ‘budgie-smugglers’ – the definition, ‘pants’, was not exactly made clear and that’s not a common expression to me either. So to my mind this puzzle was not playing the game as it didn’t really give me a chance.

Yesterday’s was a tribute to Araucaria, a stalwart of the crosswording world, who died a few years ago. I liked Araucaria and was always pleased if I managed to finish one of his. Araucaria is Latin for ‘monkey puzzle’ and so half the answers were on the theme of monkeys. I got the theme fairly early on, but could I finish the crossword? I could not: half the solutions were monkeys I’d never heard of. At this point I usually check the comments to see if others are struggling, and they were – lots of people saying they’d given up, that it was too obscure and no fun. I very rarely give up on a puzzle but I got annoyed with this one and in the end I too gave up. To give you an idea, the ones I didn’t know where sajou, kenken, saimiri, entellus, mangabey, colobus, wanderoo (wanderoo?) and sai. See what I mean? That’s eight new words in a grid of 32, a quarter of the answers – and the clues weren’t exactly easy either. To my mind that’s just not playing the game, so I commented that I’d found this too hard and given up, as did others.

Today the discussion has become, if not heated then gently warmed. One of the compilers (for there were two) was sad that some of us had given up, and others weighed in saying we shouldn’t expect things to be easy and that back in the day you had to sit with a dictionary to do a themed Araucaria. They may be right; so do we have different expectations today? I guess twenty years ago you would buy a paper, start the crossword on the way to work, come back to it at lunchtime and finish in the evening. But I usually finish the crossword before ten, when I start my blog post; it takes a great deal of discipline to leave some of it undone.

Then again perhaps it’s about performance. If I find a puzzle too hard I experience a creeping sense of inadequacy; rather than seeing it as a challenge to which I might rise, I see it as an indictment on my capabilities. This leads to impatience and a desire to find the answers. Nowadays we’re all about ticking boxes, not about sitting with something and cogitating on it.

I do make an exception for the Prize crossword though; we buy the actual newspaper on a Saturday and I sit down to tackle the grid with pen and paper. I think this is an entirely different process from filling it on the computer – akin to the difference between ebooks and paper books – and sometimes I take an entire weekend to mull over clues. Even so I can get a bit miffed if it comes to Sunday afternoon and I’m still – ahem! – clueless.

I daresay OH will comment now that all those types of monkey are perfectly common and ‘everyone knows them.’ We wait to see… anyway, here’s the puzzle if you want to give it a go. I’ve already given you a quarter of the answers – what are you waiting for?

Kirk out