Like most crossword solvers, I learned from a
loved one. My late father, who had lots of solving aids on his
bookshelves, showed me some cryptic devices and some tricks, like
how to write out the letters of an anagram in such a way as to make
the secret more likely to yield.
There's an image of crosswords as a solitary
pursuit - the beleaguered commuter or the speed-solving
don; but I find that puzzles are just as often approached in pairs
or by groups, especially at this time of year.
I solve more crosswords than is probably
decent. The Times I try to do at speed. Because
of its consistent style, you can reasonably compare one day's solve
with another. The Guardian and the Independent
are fun if you're in the mood for surprises. I should, of course,
look at the Church Times's puzzle more often, as your
puzzle editor Don Manley goes out of his way to recruit and
showcase interesting new setters.
If I'm in a rush, it's the FT or the
Telegraph, both of which seem to be designed for
people with better things to do. And then there's the
Listener, the bizarre concoction which started in the
magazine of the same name and now appears in Saturday's
Times. You need an inventive vocabulary and a lot of time
for the endgame, which might involve using the grid to do some
origami, or looking for hidden messages pertaining to the Babington
plot among the answers.
I never cheat, though that's largely because I
don't believe there is such a thing as cheating. As the New
York Times's puzzle editor, Will Weng, used to put it: "It's
your puzzle. Solve it any way you want." Certainly, if you've got
an idea for a word that you've never heard of, I can't see that
ferreting around in Chambers and getting to know the
English language better is going to bring about the fall of Western
All the compilers I've encountered share a certain
irreverence - which isn't surprising, I suppose, since
their job is to find ways to make language do things it's not
designed to do, or to exploit ambiguities and uncertainties in the
interest of fun.
Sadistic, no. I imagine that some of the
schoolmasters who developed the cryptic crossword were pretty handy
with the cane. But in solving terms, any decent setter wants the
solver to win - after a bit of a fight. Your setting career
wouldn't last long if there were always unfilled letters in your
grid. The task in compiling a crossword, I am told, is to "lose
Two Girls, One on Each Knee, the title
of my book, is a cryptic clue. It was the one which raised the
biggest chuckle in the Penguin offices, and it was set by Rufus
(Roger Squires), who is one of the most prolific setters. He
calculated that it was his two-millionth clue, set for a crossword
in the Telegraph.
Until recently, many people were carrying
crosswords around every day without consciously meaning to. There
they were in the newspapers, waiting for a day when you couldn't
quite face the news pages. As newsprint sales collapse, it'll be
more of a conscious decision to have a puzzle in front of you, but
I'm sure somebody is working on a touchscreen equivalent that
replaces the satisfaction of pencil-on-newsprint with rewarding
swipes and taps of a tablet or smartphone.
I've probably enjoyed working most on Only
Connect, the BBC4 quiz programme, for which I'm the
question editor. The questions can be much harder than on any other
television quiz, but the job is not unlike that of a crossword
setter: providing little footholds so that the contestants are able
to pull out something they didn't know that they knew.
I'm also a comedy writer - good crossword clues
are often like jokes - most recently on A Young Doctor's
Notebook, which was a comedy-drama based on the gruesome
experiences of Mikhail Bulgakov, who was a medic before he was a
writer. The cast includes Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm, and the
pleasure of seeing your lines read by people that funny is
priceless (though I did ask to be paid for it). And it is gruesome.
I used to see the prosthetics stored in the make-up department . .
. but all that gruesomeness conveys the panic of the young doctor
We ran out of Bulgakov stories for the second
series, which is on Sky Arts now, and the new DVD should
be out in January; but we took the characters and imagined what it
would be like when the civil war broke out. Hopefully, there'll be
a third series.
Daniel Radcliffe just happens to be a big fan of Russian
literature, and went to see Bulgakov's house as a
21st-birthday present to himself, while Jon Hamm chose a lot of
Russian options at school in the 1980s when studying the literature
of "the enemy" was a bit of a different thing to do. We had no idea
when we approached them.
I sometimes daydream about making a multi-part
documentary on the history of information. It'd be good,
wouldn't it? No shortage of material.
My childhood ambitions varied. Whenever I saw a
grown-up doing something, I supposed for a while that whatever it
was might be my future. So I imagined myself most often as a
teacher or television presenter, occasionally an anaesthetist or
haulier, depending on who I was looking at that day.
I live in Kew with my partner and our toddler,
who finds it hilarious that there is a book in the home with
Daddy's face on it. Every so often, he finds a copy, turns to the
back, laughs his head off, and drops it on the floor and toddles
I tend to assume there's no area of knowledge that
doesn't have something of great interest somewhere in it.
Having said that, I idly picked up a book at the National Archives
this morning called West Riding Hearth Tax Volume 2, and it left me
utterly cold. Perhaps I gave up on it too soon.
I'm interested in technology's effects on
language. It struck me that computer spell-checkers have
recently, very quietly, changed the way that they behave.
Previously, they would offer alternatives if asked, and leave the
person writing the email, or document, or book, or whatever, the
choice of whether to pay any attention. Now, they tend to edit what
you write on the fly, silently changing your words unless you
actively intervene. That seems to me a very significant overreach.
I rarely find technology eerie, but that spooks me proper.
Humphrey Jennings has influenced me as a
writer, although his "writing" is more readily seen in his
wartime films for the Crown Film Unit: gorgeous, elegiac
semi-documentaries like Listen to Britain and A Diary
for Timothy, on which he collaborated with E. M. Forster. He
also edited a collection of contemporaneous responses to "the
coming of the machine", from 1660 to 1886, which was later used as
the basis for the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. Neither of these
aspects of his life, nor his work in establishing the Mass
Observation Project, is writing as such, but there's a consistent
authorial voice in the choices he makes.
I'm happiest at bathtime. (My son's, not my
I used to do guinea fowl wrapped in vine leaves for
Christmas, but my aunt got upset and thought they looked
like blankets for the birds, so I need a rethink. I prefer it when
the period between Christmas and New Year is made up of weekdays. I
know we're all told that it's our patriotic duty to work as many
hours as possible, to career around the country on super-fast
trains, and get super-fast broadband installed, but I do wonder
whether we'll ever stop and say: "That's enough growth for
Suddenly having no work - if you're lucky - no
shopping, and even the constant feed of news slowing down, feels to
me a lot more like living.
Nobody has ever said: "Oh no: the toast has just popped
up." That's a sound I like.
Whenever I read Evelyn Waugh, I wish I knew
architecture, as I'm sure he's trying to use its language and
symbolism to tell me more about the personalities in his novels:
probably why they're all so wretched. Most of it is utterly lost on
me. Plus he's funny. So I'd enjoy his company if locked in a
church, even if the feeling weren't mutual. If he's not available,
William Whyte, who writes about architectural history among other
things, certainly knows his reredos from his clerestory.
Alan Connor was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
Two Girls, One on Each Knee: The puzzling, playful world of
the crossword is published by Penguin (£12.99 hardback, £7.99
paperback (CT Bookshop £11.70 and £7.20).