Home life · Notes from West London

“Bar snack? (9)” and why I no longer do cryptic crosswords

Like many people, I buy the daily paper far less often than I used to. Sales of most UK titles have halved in the last 10 years, a decline that cannot be attributed to mortality rates alone. I get The Guardian on Fridays and Saturdays, and hardly ever get a Sunday paper. I am back in the habit of paying for The Guardian most weeks rather than taking advantage of the free offer at Waitrose, which I wrote about in 2016.

After a cursory flick through the paper I usually turn to the puzzles page, or rather one of the puzzle pages. On Fridays there is a Sudoku and a Suguru on the back of the Films & Music section and there are two Killer Sudokus (Easy and Medium) and a Codeword on the back of the Journal section. Between them they occupy my attention for an hour or two. On Saturdays there is a Sandwich Sudoku in the main paper and over a dozen different puzzles in the last three pages of the Journal. These typically take up much of my Saturday afternoon, either side of lunch-time, with the radio or TV on in the background: “Pick of the Pops” on Radio 2 from 1pm to 3pm, football, cricket, rugby or tennis on TV depending on the time of year.

I rarely look at the cryptic crosswords, but when I was younger I spent plenty of time attempting (and occasionally completing) them. My father’s newspaper buying habits changed over the years, prompted by the crosswords as much as anything else. He switched from the Daily Telegraph in the late 1970s to The Guardian in the early 1980s, and then The Independent late in the 1980s. I learnt how to do cryptic crosswords at my father’s knee, as it were, but by the time I was in sixth form at school a few of us would take a look at the Telegraph puzzle most days. I didn’t have many dealings with people outside my year group, but did have regular conversations with one chap in the year above me, about crossword clues and nothing else. One afternoon he stopped me in the main corridor and took out the day’s puzzle, which he had ripped out of the paper itself, to ask about the words he was stumped on. It still surprises me that he vandalized the school library’s copy of the Telegraph in that way.

Through university and afterwards, in the mid- to late-1980s I would glance at the puzzle most days, in whichever paper I was drawn to at the time. If I got a few clues quickly I would persist. If I went through all of the Across clues and got no more than two I would be less enthusiastic. During the 1990s I spent less time looking at crosswords but might still devote a Saturday afternoon trying to solve an especially inventive example by someone like Araucaria, the code name for John Graham in the Guardian. I recall a Bank Holiday weekend in the  mid-90s when most of the answers were related to Shipping Forecast regions (Tyne, Dogger, Cromarty and the rest) and once I’d figured that out it all fell into place.

Within ten years of that holiday weekend, Sudokus had arrived in our papers. They, along with variants like Killer Sudoku and Kakuro, and other number-based challenges like Futoshiki, became my day-to-day (or twice-weekly) puzzles of choice. While John Graham (Araucaria) was still alive I would still seek out his puzzles, but otherwise rarely looked at the cryptic crosswords. Since his death in 2013 there have been no compilers whose work I admire anywhere near as much.

It also appears, to me at least, as if the puzzles themselves have changed. The old-fashioned rule about setting clues was that there had to be two parts to each one, usually a definition and an instruction. The examples that come to mind are from at least 35 years ago, like “Type of duck disturbed by a mob (6) and “Is not solaced by rearrangement (12)”. I quoted them both in this “Word of the week” piece about the word “disconsolate”, which is the answer to the second clue., an anagram of “is not solaced”. I noted in that earlier piece: “The tidiness of the clue, and my ability to solve it, made me feel good about crosswords. It still does.” (The answer to the other clue above is “Bombay”, an anagram of “by a mob”.)

These days, however, crosswords seem to be filled with clues that do not make me feel good. They consist of an arch phrase, ending with a question mark, and do not follow the old-fashioned rules. These clues infuriate me so much that I have only memorized one of them, to illustrate my point: “Bar snack? (9)”. The answer is “chocolate”, a snack that comes in the form of a bar. What do you think about that? There’s no anagram, no build-up of smaller chunks to construct the whole, just a two-word question. If this kind of clue appeals to you then you will find plenty of examples in modern-day puzzles.

I still, for old times’ sake, occasionally look at the cryptic crosswords in my Friday and Saturday papers. I usually do this on a Saturday, when the answers to Friday’s clues are easily available. Over the last six months there has never been a puzzle that made me feel happier after I had looked at the answers than I felt beforehand. Last Friday’s puzzle was, for me, a new low. Six of the clues were in the form of a single letter followed by a question mark. Here they are, exactly as printed:

S? (4,2,5)
K? (8)
T? (3-6)
G? (8)
P? (5,4)
O? (5,2,5)

If you want to have a crack at the whole puzzle, it’s here on the Guardian website. You can also reveal the answers, so you won’t have to wait until tomorrow to find out what they are.

If you don’t want to know  the solutions to the six clues above just yet, look away now, but they follow on from this paragraph.

S? (4,2,5) = Head of State
K? (8) = Cocktail
T? (3-6) = Tin-Opener
G? (8) = Midnight
P? (5,4) = Apple Core
O? (5,2,5) = Heart of Stone

Nearly a week later I am still (8, 2, 4) [Shaking my head] in disbelief at these clues, but relieved that I didn’t put any time into trying to solve them. Clues like “Is not solaced by rearrangement (12)” used to make me feel good about crosswords. Clues like “T? (3-6)” do the opposite. To make myself feel better I might have to eat some “Bar snack? (9)” or maybe mix myself a very large “K? (8)”.


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