Sometime next year, it will have been fifty years since I first completed the Times crossword, some weeks short of my tenth birthday. For many years it wasn’t just a pastime, it was an addiction, something I’ve written about before, most recently here. Doing the crossword was part and parcel of getting ready for the day, as habitual and routine as having the morning’s first cup of coffee or cigarette.
We used to spend weeks every summer in Madras with my grandfather. Initially it was in Tambaram, at his “Professor of Chemistry” house at Madras Christian College. By the time I was hooked he’d moved to Adyar, and I still remember, vividly, having to make the daily trip to a little newsagent in Luz who carried the Calcutta Statesman, just so I could do the day’s puzzle.
When I came to England I continued with the habit, and even entered the national championships. In those days it used to be called the Cutty Sark; by the time I stopped going I think it was called the Langs Supreme. I made the national finals a few times, when there were still a few hundred competitors left; I never quite made it into the Elite top group. When they stopped allowing people to smoke at the table I stopped entering. Nicotine and caffeine were very much part of my crossword-solving experience.
That was a long time ago. It’s been years since I’ve smoked, years since I’ve had a cup of coffee. Once I’d given them up, I wondered if I’d ever go back to regular crossword solving. I went in for one of the competitions a few years ago just to see what would happen; qualifying wasn’t a problem; the absence of cigarettes and coffee didn’t appear to be an issue; but boy was I rusty. Slow. Ponderous. And so I didn’t get very far that day.
This year I’ve been getting back on the crossword bicycle. And quite enjoying it again sans nicotine, sans caffeine.
A few days ago I was travelling to the US and, while waiting for the plane to take off, polished off the day’s challenge. The topic came up in conversation with a fellow passenger, and I recounted my Calcutta experiences.
That made me wonder whether the Statesman still carried the puzzle, and so, when I returned to the UK, I checked. Apparently it stopped some years ago, although I see the Hindustan Times has stepped in to continue the syndication.
Then, yesterday, a good friend, Rory Sutherland, tweeted me a link to this wonderful article, a fascinating study of the people who solve proper cryptic crosswords, and of the expertise deployed.
And then, today, I came across Rose Wild’s rejoinder to Ian Baird’s concerns on the evolution of the cryptic crossword. [Sadly behind paywall]. It’s about how idiom and slang enter and exit the crossword pantheon.
Looks like stories involving crosswords follow the pattern set by London buses.
Incidentally, the research article referred to by Rory contains two and a half of the answers to the prize crossword in today’s Times.