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Australian liberties

21 December 2012

Don Manley finds himself stigmatised a 'classics master'

Puzzled: Secrets and clues from a life in words
David Astle
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WHEN I first read Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson, I was tempted to think "Blooming cheek! We know our country better than he does, and here is he purporting to lecture us!" The same temptation came to me when I picked up this volume by an Australian, who is clearly big news in his own country as a crossword-setter and TV personality on the equivalent of our Countdown.

Anyone who writes a book about crosswords may wish to include three text elements: a survey of clue types, an overview of the crossword world, and some personal anecdotes. David Astle has organised his chapters according to one element (the main types of clue), and padded them out with the other two. His own history will be of more interest to his fans down under, I guess, but his musings on crossword culture are quite illuminating, and he reminds us of some of our favourite stories, such as the one centred around the code-words for the D-Day landings.

Each clue type is explained using a host of examples, including many from his favourite Guardian setters. Readers can also test their expertise with sample crosswords and "quizlings", backed up by solutions and explanations.

There is one telling error, where the author claims that Colin Dexter was a keen entrant in The Listener's clue-writing competitions. Had he been more aware of the tradition of Ximenes and Azed, he would have known that those competitions are in The Observer.

And here we come to a sticky matter. Strict(ish) grammarians (such as myself) who write clues following the tradition of Ximenes are adjudged to be "much like the classics master who demands a clinical translation of Virgil", while others with a more "libertarian" approach are "splashing colour on the canvas to mirror the galaxy that Virgil wrote about". I am afraid that this is poppycock, and I am sorry to say that among a number of the author's good, sound clues (with "colour") there are rather too many poor "libertarian" ones, including some that that are "monochrome" and make little real sense.

Such a flaw makes this beguiling tome dangerous for any would-be Church Times setter. That is a great pity in a chatty book that otherwise offers much to enjoy.

Don Manley contributes crosswords to several newspapers, and is the crossword editor of the Church Times.

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