This Article appeared in The Times, page 8, Saturday 9th January 1988
by John Grant, Crossword Editor
Watch out or the Cribs will get you
Crossword compilers may have tortuous minds but by and large they are a harmless, peaceable lot. The exemplar of our craft, I like to think is Adrian Bell, the composer of the first Times crossword, whom I picture walking in his garden and plucking out of the air such felicities as “the cylinder is jammed (5,4)”, SWISS ROLL.
Why, then, has this pastoral scene suddenly become a battle-ground, with enemies everywhere sapping and mining to break our codes and expose our secrets? All sorts of books now purport to tell you how to beat the compiler. There are solvers’ dictionaries that give you lists of famous people, geographical features, the emperors of Rome and so on. One such work even has 32 entries under the heading “Inflammation”, including the word gorget, inflammation of a cow’s udder. (I can tell the publishers here and now the The Times crossword is going to limp along without this common little word, so their book is already seriously defective).
Other books consist solely of computerized lists of words, which enable the solver to discover that the nine-letter word he seeks, of which the third he knows to be L and the sixth he suspects to be A, is BALALAIKA (that’s if it isn’t BALACLAVA). Still others list the codewords used to indicate anagrams or reversals, and all the other conventional signs that have accreted over the years.
What I don’t understand is why solvers should want these short cuts. If they are doing the crossword for amusement, why curtail their enjoyment by using a crib? Is it not like going out jogging for exercise but taking a taxi home?
As Mr R.M. Ward of Solihull said in a letter to The Times last July, apropos of our competitors who solve championship puzzles in less than 30 minutes: “I should be most disappointed if anything like this happened to me.” He prefers to take a couple of hours and meander through his reference books, enjoying the journey perhaps more than the destination. And other solvers are miffed that their hard-won knowledge is now being sold like a schoolboy’s crib.
As a compiler, I suppose I ought to deplore these appalling disclosures. Certainly if any of the suppliers of these cribs turned out to be members of the compiler’s guild I would feel bound to follow the government’s lead and demand a permanent ban on all this Spycatcher material. But as compilers never retire, they are likely to turn informer for any cozening publisher. And anyway I do not think the cribs are going to do us much damage. The English language is so gloriously flexible that Humpty Dumpty may be forgiven for boasting that any word he used meant just what he chose it to mean. By the time the cribber has sorted out which of the possible meanings the compiler had in mind, with any luck his train of thought will have been hopelessly derailed.
I do not think the cribs would give much help, for example, with the three clues that seem to have given most difficulty lately:
“Born to a single parent, that’s a limitation (7)” MAXIMUM. Max Born, 1882-1970, British nuclear physicist and Nobel prize winner.
“Join a shy Lady Jane (4)” GREY. A shy joined — ashy, or grey.
“Water — originally one of the elements (8)” TUNGSTEN. Original letter of water, W, is the symbol for tungsten or wolfram.
A crib might just have helped Dr C.H. Neville-Smith, of Saltburn-by-the-Sea, Cleveland, who could find NYALA hidden in the clue “Tiny alarm reveals presence of wild animal”, but not in his dictionary, which perversely insisted on spelling it INYALA. But then I would have been deprived of his charming plea:
Has anyone seen a Nyala?
No lexicons come to my aid.
Does it squirm through the floorboards in the parlour,
Or flourish in cheap lemonade,
Give rides at the vicarage gala,
Ski at Uppsala, outrun the impala,
Or lurk, like a snail, in the shade?
Has anyone seen a Nyala?
I’m clearly not making the grade.
For those who want to learn how to do The Times puzzles without resort to cribs, but with access to plenty of helpful hints, there is a new and wonderful device. As an unreconstructed paper and pencil man, I have to confess it is beyond me, though it would be child’s play to most of today’s children. It is a computer version of 60 crosswords that appeared in The Times in 1983, available in disc or cassette, for BBC Micro, Master Compact, Electron and Model B machines.
It is a biddable sort of creature that will give varying degrees of help to the solver when he asks for it, from a programme developed by David Akenhead and his father Edmund — my predecessor in this enviable job.