Monday, June 22, 2020

Bluth Will Out

The video here contains spoilers for those of you who might want to solve a cryptic crossword... so you might want to read the rest of the blog and come back to it. Or not. It's your call.

When I write or talk about cryptic crosswords I'm so eager not to exclude anyone and so aware that to many people cryptics appear to be entirely impenetrable and very-much-not-for-them, that I find myself apologising and peppering my words with little, I-mean-I-know-it's-niche-but phrases to try and make it all okay. Which is silly. Because there's no reason why everything anyone does should be for everyone. It's absolutely fine to like something that others don't and if I was writing about a band I loved I wouldn't think, Oh... I'd better make the people who like other sorts of music know that I know this isn't their thing... I'd just get on with it.

Which is what I'm going to try and do with cryptic crosswords from here on in. I like cryptic crosswords. I started doing them when I was a kid. I didn't like the fact that there was a little corner of the newspaper that didn't make sense to me and so I started trying to solve them. I'd hold on to the paper until the next day and go through the answers and try to work out in reverse why the solutions were indeed the solutions. And slowly it started to reveal itself to me. I'm still not the best solver in the world - not by a stretch - but I can have a fair crack at most that you see in a daily paper.

There are lots of books and websites that try to demystify the process and I think they can be useful - but I think taking them apart and trying to work it out for yourself is still the best way to proceed initially. If you start with the simple premise that pretty much every clue is: Definition + some wordplay to help you work out the answer (or vice versa) you'll probably find you can edge your way in. Even if you simply start by trying to guess as to which bit is the definition.

I did write about cryptics in Googlewhack Adventure , where the fact that I'd won the Everyman Crossword competition one week became a part of the story. After that was published, I was asked to write the foreword to the Observer book of Everyman Crosswords that came out in 2006.

Cruciverbalists find each other out. I first met Mrs Gorman when I was a guest on a radio show that she was working on. When her boss later found out that the two of us were going on a date, he decided to take it upon himself to teach her the ways of the cryptic crossword as he thought it would help us click. The ruse didn't last long. It didn't stop us clicking.

When I was making Genius on Radio 4, the head of Radio Entertainment was a man called John Pidgeon. John was a remarkable bloke. His first career was as a rock journalist. Then there was radio. And then, in retirement he became a cryptic crossword setter. He compiled for the Telegraph under the name Petitjean.

I always fancied I might try and make a go of something similar in my retirement. I've always dabbled with writing clues here and there and while I knew I had a lot to learn, it seemed like the sort of thing I would have a tilt at at some point.

And then lockdown happened. And I had a bit of time. Not enough time to do any proper work as anyone else who has spent/is spending their lockdown with a four year old can probably attest. But little bits of time here and there that allow the mind to wander.

And so, in a sort of forced early-retirement, I shuffled together a sort of crossword and - with nothing better to do - I posted it on Twitter.

It was received far better than I was expecting. A couple of setters I admire offered me advice and encouragement. A special mention here has to go to Tramp who got in touch. He holds a special place in my heart because, around the time we stopped doing Modern Life Is Goodish, he included this clue...

... in this puzzle. If you've read this far, you'll already have a good idea quite how thrilling that was to discover.

Also amongst the replies was this...

Mike is the crossword editor for the Independent. So... I got in touch to see if he'd be happy for me to submit a crossword if I could generate one with a better grid. (And in spite of my introductory paragraph, I won't bore any of the none-crossword types who might still be reading with quite why the grid was so terrible)

Anyway, long-story-still-too-long, one thing led to another and in April I had to come up with a pen name for my first published crossword. I went with Bluth, partly because, I'm told that in Gaelic, Gorm means Blue and An means The (and who needs the es) but mainly because I always loved Arrested Development and was eating a frozen banana at the time.

Anyway... on April 13th, Bluth was born and my first cryptic was published in the Independent. Sadly, petitjean is no longer around to see it - I think John would have got a kick out of me joining him in the field.

My second went in on May 6th.

And a third, last Saturday - June 20th

And this is where it gets a little strange. You see, there's a Youtube channel called Cracking The Cryptics... which I first became aware of when it was mentioned on the excellent Guardian Crossword Blog back in 2017

It's run by two incredibly good solvers, Simon Anthony and Mark Goodliffe - who is a twelve time (and reigning) Times Crossword Champion.

It's a thing. Trust me.

As it happens, over time their channel has become far more about sudoku and its variants than about crosswords... indeed, you might have heard of them recently as they appear to have had a surge of interest during lockdown leading to several news outlets labelling them a YouTube sensation and even a brief mention on Have I Got News For You.

Anyway... on Saturday I was alerted to the fact that they were going to upload a video of one of them solving my crossword. Mark tweeted:
Which is already thrilling. I mean... as I said before, Mark is a 12 times world champion crossword solver... so he knows his onions. But also, unlike with most of my other work, when you write a crossword, you don't imagine you'll get the chance to see how it goes down. And watching Simon tackle the crossword - watching the pennies drop and seeing him laugh as and when he found the humour that's in there was an unexpected joy.

And to top it all... the topical nature of two of the clues has meant I get a mention in the most recent post on the aforementioned, Guardian Crossword Blog.
And there's even this...

I mean... as lockdown projects go, it feels like it's doing okay. And I've no intention of stopping when life returns to normal. Bluth's having a lovely time. And I'm under no illusions that I've cracked it - there's an awful lot more to learn...