Learning the cryptic way

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:

  1. a precise definition ← like a traditional ‘quick’ crossword clue
  2. a fair subsidiary indication ← word-play
  3. 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. 

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published several books: a four book series following Harry Spittle as he grows from hapless student to hapless partner in a London law firm; four others in different genres; a book of poetry; four anthologies of short fiction; and a memoir of my mother. I have several more in the pipeline. I have been blogging regularly since 2014, on topic as diverse as: poetry based on famous poems; memories from my life; my garden; my dog; a whole variety of short fiction; my attempts at baking and food; travel and the consequent disasters; theatre, film and book reviews; and the occasional thought piece. Mostly it is whatever takes my fancy. I avoid politics, mostly, and religion, always. I don't mean to upset anyone but if I do, well, sorry and I suggest you go elsewhere. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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27 Responses to Learning the cryptic way

  1. Oh that is so funny Geoff – I was thinking of Derrick and wondering if you knew him while reading this – and there it was all because of him! Such a great memory to have of your dad being happy you were interested in something he was interested in [I suspect] ……. and great story about the ‘No, five letters’ corner.

    I’m a cryptic crossword fan too. I used to do them late at night after a full day at school ending with meetings that went on til ten or eleven at night… I would womble in, make a hot cocoa and settle down with the crossword just to defuse the doings of the day and let it all go. Always worked! I stopped doing crosswords when I stopped working out in the world and became self employed and couldn’t afford to buy a newspaper. I’ve recently started doing them again – and am delighted to find I haven’t yet lost the ability 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Another fascinating link between us, Geoff. My version of your Dad was my Uncle Bill, to whom I dedicated ‘Cryptic Crosswords and How to Solve them’. And many thanks for the pointer to my blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jools says:

    I too love cryptic crosswords, though I rarely find time for them these days. Back in the 1980’s, in one particular job, a colleague and I would compete to finish the Telegraph cryptic crossword during our lunch break (in the days when lunch breaks, though they might be taken at your desk, were still – horrors! – a whole hour long, with time to go purchase and consume your sandwich *and* do the crossword). My colleague was marginally better than me, though I improved with our daily efforts – but it was good to be chasing that elusive victory and every now and again – too rarely – I would win. Thanks for reviving this memory of a good time and old-fashioned work lunch breaks.


  4. trifflepudling says:

    That is a really nice post, the way it connects! I am too lazy to attempt cryptic crosswords, same goes for Sudoku, so I admire anyone who does. I liked the way you led on to the name the corner was given, prompting thoughts on family names for things and places and how they got them. There’s one I remember from a Nancy Mitford book, I think, where the upstairs loo was so cold they christened it the Beardmore Glacier (this was around the time of Scott).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. davidprosser says:

    Thank you for such a pleasurable diversion Geoff.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I married into a family of “puzzle people”. They are lifelong puzzle solvers, scientists, inventors, mathematicians, even a rocket scientist ( sister in law.) We are told it explains the clarity of mind of the seniors in that family. During his extensive chemotherapy, my father in law was assembling 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles.☺

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Judy Martin says:

    I love a crossword, but usually prefer to tackle the straightforward version, as have not got the patience nor the brains to try and work out the cryptic ones! I love the story of ‘No, five letters’ corner, I can picture that scenario very clearly. It’s lovely to have had that bond with your dad too 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. gordon759 says:

    And I can still remember your puzzlement at mum not understanding what you were talking about.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Charli Mills says:

    I’m unfamiliar with cryptic crosswords. We always had a daily paper sort of crossword and I discovered logic problems as a kid. My kids like suduko. I learned something new and enjoyed your reflection on your relationship with your Dad. Off to see Derrick’s garden!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Sacha Black says:

    I have always wanted to understand how to do cryptic crossword – unfortunately I am still clueless!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Maybe we should have a Bloggers’ Bash crossword? I’ve never been able to do them, but that may be because I was always trying to help Lara Croft out with her puzzles.

    Liked by 1 person

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