It can seem like a century when I stare at a clue, turning it over, upside-down, back-to-front, trying to come to know its secret. Today being celebrated as the hundredth anniversary of the crossword, I thought I would set down my solving history.
I am a poor cruciverbalist, but I get a little better as the years pass. My father used to solve the Ximenes puzzles in the Observer, and I remember one evening, when he was sent to read me a story in bed, I asked him how crosswords worked. He explained. I was baffled. A single-handed GP, he had no time for weekday puzzles, but the Sunday puzzle was his great pleasure. Sometimes he could finish it the same day, sometime over a few days.
A few years later, on an exchange trip to France, I attempted the Times crossword on the ferry to Calais as I ate. I solved a very few clues, until the wine I had ordered to accompany my lunch kicked in, and a habit began.
At university in Canterbury, a group of us met in the Jolly Sailor of a Saturday lunchtime. Crosswords, both Times and Guardian would sit on the table, and in between pints and darts, the collective wisdom would be applied. Here I discovered the link between crossword solving and alcohol, expounded long before I knew it by Flann O’Brien, aka Brian O’Nolan. The crossword is the perfect excuse for sitting in a pub on one’s own. It gives purpose, it says, 'you, other solitary drinkers, may be worthless, friendless souls, but I am a man of intellect. Why, I never noticed that I have beer in front of me, so engrossed am I.'
Later, after my father’s death, the Guardian, especially the Saturday prize puzzles, played an important part in the relationship with my mother. On visits to her house at the weekend, we’d tackle the Saturday puzzle and any clue left would be the subject of our nightly telephone conversations.
Now she’s dead too, and I’m left to my own devices. I favour the Guardian still. It’s rare that I finish one, but every morning I go to fifteensquared to see the answers glossed. As I age, maybe I will finish them more often.