Gordius is a piece of cake. Rufus is a breeze. Paul is growing on me. Pasquale, Orlando and Arachne are only slightly tooth-grindingly infuriating. I’ve nearly tamed Bonxie. Chifonie is a sweetie – I think she might be a woman, and kindly. Brummie and Qaos? Hmmm, not too sure of them yet. I thought Araucaria was a witch at first but, like Crucible and Tramp, she (surely a she?) turned out to be challenging but fair. Brendan is diabolical. He goes for the jugular and has so far got the best of me although I came close to knocking him off recently.
|Painting: Garden Wall (detail)|
Only occasionally have I actually completed a cryptic crossword puzzle set by one of these evil, chortling demons, with or without the help of dictionaries, encyclopaedias, thesauri, atlases and books of quotations. The demons inhabit lairs at, or within a broomstick ride of, the Guardian newspaper headquarters and spend their time thinking of ways to tease, mislead and scramble the minds of cryptic crossword addicts.
As time-wasting activities go, it’s reasonable to claim that cryptics are good for the brain if not for the temper. My mother, who did the Times puzzles over lunch in her day and lived past 92, used to remark that you needed a twisted mind to do cryptics. Not for her the easy, one word, definition type of puzzle – she liked to think through and around the quirky traps set by the compilers and emerge triumphant.
That’s what the Guardian demons do – set traps, and plait clues into other clues, and skate close to unfair without crossing the line. They can be downright sneaky and mean. And unlike most other puzzles, foreign words and phrases are allowed, as one might expect from an English newspaper in these European Union times. French, German and Italian are presumably lingua franca over there now, but it’s surprising how much Latin appears. My pocket Latin dictionary is becoming well-thumbed after years of neglect and resident silverfish have had to migrate elsewhere. Another surprise is that even non-words are allowed. For example, the answer to an “expression of cold British basic school skills” was “brrr”.
Some clues are crisp and clever: “Range popular – range popular?” (again). Some are easy, like “I’m flipping plugging the blessed lecture!” (homily). Some are convoluted, intertwined or scattered around the grid: "Oriental leaves circuit, having chanted verses about painful outburst” (lapsang souchong, i.e. lap sang s (ouch) ong = oriental leaves = tea).
Is my mind twisted? More like spaghetti, mushy and limp. Do I cheat? Yes, occasionally, if I can’t bear not to know the answer. More often I scrunch up the paper and hurl it at the wall.