By the time you are fifteen there is nothing your father can teach you. The old has-been. Mark Twain had it right when he said:
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
But while that was true for the most part in my own experience, in one area, my father taught me a lifelong lesson for which I remain very grateful.
How to undertake a cryptic crossword.
He taught me the essence of the cryptic crossword clue which can best be summarised as comprising three essential elements:
- a precise definition ← like a traditional ‘quick’ crossword clue
- a fair subsidiary indication ← word-play
- nothing else
He showed me how the setters might indicate a word that sounds like another, or where there might be an anagram. He was patient and engaged, two things that didn’t much feature in our relationship about then.
At that time, in the 1970s, quotes were common as were classical allusions from literature, the Bible and Greek and Roman mythology. He had books to help there, too. I don’t think I’d come across the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations until that point in my life. I wouldn’t be without it today. Happily today this knowledge isn’t so important but I’m glad my eyes were opened to the joy of a good quote.
Dad’s newspaper of choice was the Daily Telegraph. It was, is, moderately to less moderately right wing – a Tory voters’ paper that inclines, at times, to more extreme opinions. I was already finding some of the op-eds galling but the sport coverage remained excellent, cricket especially and it had a cryptic crossword with a prize winning version on Saturday.
We had the paper delivered back then. Dad nearly always left for work before it came so I had the luxury of taking it to school to do the crossword (on the very strict understanding that it would be neatly folded for him when he came home that evening). I was laughed at – a little – but after a while a group of us would settle down in break to do the crossword. All very Dead Poets Society and gilded young things, don’t you think? But we loved it.
At that time, music aficionados read the New Musical Express. It, too, had a crossword though this demanded a wide knowledge of contemporary music rather than the twisted mind needed for a cryptic. On Thursdays when the music paper came out we had a competition to see who could finish theirs first. We cryptics rarely won but when we did, boy were we euphoric.
Doing a crossword is one of those secret pleasures, a time gap filler that requires only the crossword and a pencil. I discovered a deep love of dictionaries while doing crosswords; I enjoyed a different relationship with my father, where for once we had some sort of intellectual past time in common even if we were drifting apart politically; and it was something with which, from time to time the whole family joined in.
That ‘give us a clue’ scenario led to a family joke. My brother was having driving lessons. Mum collected us from school and while he drove under mum’s somewhat nervy guidance I sat in the back trying to finish that day’s crossword. We approached a blind corner as I offered a clue to see if they could help. ‘Musical instrument, five letters.’ Mum, worried about the corner and the Archaeologist’s apparent distraction, barked out ‘Horn’. I was focused on the crossword, not on the driving so replied, rather irritated I must admit, ‘No five letters.’ That corner, on Barrows Lane in Sway in Hampshire will, forever more, be known as ‘No, five letters’ corner.
This little post is a result of reading an ‘about me’ page: that of fellow Hampshire Hog Derrick Knight who I found out was a crossword compiler for 20 years. Please do visit his blog but a word of warning: his garden, which features a lot – or perhaps it would be fairer to say his wife Jackie’s garden in which he lends a big hand – will stun you speechless. The epitome of the English cottage garden.