lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Cryptic, made difficult

In 1897, Gurazada Appa Rao wrote his play Kanyasulkam for several reasons; for social reform, to popularise vernacular and spoken Telugu over the literary dialect then extant and more. It had a comic first scene where a tutor dictates a list of books to be purchased for holiday tuition. The hilarious dictation goes like this:

"1 Royal Reader; 2 Manuel Grammar; 3 Ghosh Geometry; 4 Bose Algebra; 5 Srinivasa Iyer Arithmetic; 6 Nalacharitra; 7 Rajasekharacharitra; 8 General English; 9 Venkata Subba Rao Made Easy…" and after some dialogue, comes the kicker: "10 Kuppusami Iyer Made Difficult."

When anybody asks me how I solve cryptic crosswords I usually reply, clue by clue. It's that simple. I keep at it until the grid is all filled in, that's all. I've been dying to tell you all about a recent crossword, but since I was taken to task about ujamaa and posting about a crossword the day it was published, I decided to wait until now.

I love alphabetical jigsaw crosswords. Araucaria invented these. Usually there are twenty-eight clues, each starting with a letter of the alphabet, two of them featuring twice. The grid is such that it is obvious where these doubles go. This comes in useful, as the clues aren't numbered and you are instructed to disregard the numbers in the grid. There are only two squares where the starting letter of an across clue and a down clue can meet, after all.

Two weeks ago, the Saturday prize puzzle in Guardian was an Araucaria alphabetical jigsaw. The grid pattern had one across thirteen letters long. This is another useful indicator, since as you solve the long clues there are only four places for them to be inserted and you need only try one or two to arrive at the starting point. This, and figuring out where the doubles go, and you are set. You have to solve the clues first, of course, that goes without saying.

Unlike my regular crosswords, I print the grid and the clues when I do the alphabetical jigsaws. Once I solve the easier and obvious ones, I make lists of them on the sides of the grid, one each for clue lengths. For this crossword, there were ten clues five letters long, four seven letters long, ten nine letters long, and the four aforementioned thirteen letters long clues.

Once you have a few solved, you can figure where they fit in the grid, and that in turn gives a few letters in other clues. If these are the beginning letters of a solution, then you have a bit more filled in.

The clues are listed alphabetically, but solving never is. You solve the ones that leap out as obvious, and the anagrams are quickly figured out. The combinations, where other devices and anagrams are both present take longer. The really tough clues require pondering and research.

This crossword was one of the easier alphabetical jigsaws I solved. The long clues started with J, Q, X and Y. I am tempted to tell you all about all the twenty-eight clues, but I am selflessly restricting myself to the cleverest ones, so write in and say thanks nicely.

C gave me the most trouble, and was the last I solved, really. C. Senior officer's half turn towards danger when surrounded (9)

By the time I reached the solution, I had c-n---r-d pencilled in. CO for commanding officer, I thought. The r-d was red for danger, so I had to figure out the middle part. It had me flummoxed, thinking of army, navy and air force ranks. It wasn't until I thought of commander in chief, or C-in -C that I got it. C in C, half turn, that is 'tu' and red, the whole meaning when surrounded. It is a brilliant clue.

K required some research. K. Job's second piece of work has a lot of green cloth backing (5)

This made no sense at all, at first. I couldn't decide what the definition was. Cloth backing could be stage backdrop. Was there a special name for that? Second piece of work? By the time I reached the solution, I knew it had to be k-z-a, which seemed improbable but the rest of the solutions were all filled in correctly, so it had to be that. Part of work could be k, I decided. A lot of green cloth backing could be most of baize backward, but why? Job as Biblical character perhaps? Second? Research to see how many children Job had and names if any. Eureka! Kezia is Job's daughter. Brilliant again.

T was the wittiest. T. Local officer, zany Saracen to Spooner if American (4,5)

This is pure Araucaria. Local officer is the definition. Spoonerism is a device Araucaria, Paul and other compilers use regularly. Zany Saracen would be 'clown Turk' and here, if American indicates 'as heard'. The solution is town clerk.

U required checking atlases for verification. U. Immortal student leaving island in Gabon (7)

The solution was easy enough, but crosschecking took time. One doesn't fill in the solution in a prize puzzle lightly, after all. So Lundy, an island in Bristol Channel, (sigh) without 'el'; add in, plus G' for Gabon, a republic on the West Coast of Africa. Araucaria bodes signs that he will be, like the solution, undying perhaps undergoing the other option from harps and halos.

But the clue that chuffed me, made me smile and pump my fists in triumph as I solved it was a beaut. It isn't easy compiling crossword clues, it's that much harder doing themes, but to set clues that start with specified letters of the alphabet and to make them fit the grid, to make them witty, to make them work, that takes rare brilliance. Okay, it takes a touch of fiendishness too but I am willing to forgive him.

X was a grand clue in true Araucaria fashion. X. Indicator on plan for decimal currency when St Hugh first topped tyrant (1,5,3,4)

I giggled as I read the clue. It is easier to solve the Zs and Xs and Ys of an alphabetical jigsaw crossword than the other letters. Qs might just cut the ice as breaking into the club of super tough alphabet to start a clue with, of course, but Xs and Zs rule. And this clue rocked.

Indicator on plan is the definition. It is quirky. X for decimal followed by mark for currency, then it gets zany. Saint Hugh first, working out to St and h, heh. And then comes the topped tyrant, despot with the first letter removed. X marks the spot. O frabjous day!

While I was sermonising Solving Cryptic Clues 101 all these months, there's this young man who taught me how to go about it. He taught me how to insert hyperlinks, how to tinker with my template (he tweaked it for me, good grief), and gave more lessons, on anything I thought to ask him. He even scripts spoofs of all popular movies so I needn't see them, but he is considerate that way. Too popular to need a plug, I congratulate you all the same, Praveen. Well done!



Anonymous Anonymous said...

sudoku poduvengala?

3:34 am  
Blogger Alien said...

I guess I have asked u this before??? If I want to start on cryptics where do I start? .. crytic question eh?

3:16 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Madras Only- Illa. I am a numerophobe.

Alien- Yes, ET. You asked me this before and I said it depends on what papers you read. There are a lot of sites where you can solve cryptic crosswords online, or print them and solve them at leisure.

I am a member of Pub Crosswords, which has a weekly puzzle. Or you can try

If it is guides you want you can try

Guardian crosswords and more are explained at

Check them out. :-)

4:13 pm  
Anonymous Ash said...

They will call on you to attest to his miracles when Araucaria gets to be a saint, Lali. Your affection for the man shines out. All that grumbling about harps and halos is just love in disguise.

10:31 pm  
Blogger Sivaram said...

There is a cartoon strip which featured this conversation between Trevor and a Librarian:

Librarian: Reference desk! / Trevor (on phone): I'm doing a crossword puzzle.
/ Librarian: That's not a question. / Trevor (on phone): I've never done one before.
/ Librarian: Okay, how many words have you gotten so far? / Trevor (on phone): None.
Trevor: What's an eight-letter word for "scaly anteater?" /
Librarian (on phone): See here! The reference desk is a resource shared by many of our patrons. I may be sworn to provide the highest level of service to library users, but that does not include solving an entire crossword puzzle over the phone. Pangolin.
Trevor: Mmmm, sounds tasty! "Ancient Sumerian god." Seven letters. /
Librarian (on phone): Zanthor. You're not going to give up, are you?Trevor (on phone): No. /
Librarian: You're going to get me into trouble. / Trevor (on phone): Why does EVERYONE say that to me

10:44 am  
Blogger Lalita said...

Ash- Araucaria rules! Um, so do Paul, Shed, Brummie, Enigmatist...Well, cryptic crosswords rock!

Sivaram- That's was lovely. Which cartoon strip is this, please? I want more of it.

5:47 pm  
Blogger shakuni said...

allo! i have read a few posts and i think it deserves to be said that the whole blog is quite delightful.
i shall have to find time now to read the remainder of your posts :)

4:06 am  
Blogger Lalita said...

Shakuni- Hi, welcome and all that. Thanks, and do drop in again. It is really chuffing that your comment appears on a crossword post, which most of my readers sigh and put up with. Thanks once again.

11:26 pm  

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