Little Victories


The days are discouragingly short at this time of year.  At the moment we’re enjoying a run of bright, sunny days and chilly nights; when the breeze drops you’ll usually find me on the terrace, soaking up as much warmth as possible before the darkness descends, while either reading a novel or indulging in another favourite activity:

6 down. “A diversion in daddy’s day (7)”   PASTIME (pa’s time).

There have been one or two posts recently in the Spanish expat blogosphere asking what people miss from their home country.  For me, not a great deal – but if there is one thing in particular, it has to be the cryptic crossword.  A regular source of entertainment when I lived in the UK, that infuriating fifteen-by-fifteen grid was the perfect refuge when I’d bought the paper but couldn’t face the actual news just yet.

Unfortunately, my favourite puzzles (those of the Times and the Telegraph) have these days fled behind their respective paywalls.  The Guardian, Independent and FT are still available online, but it’s hard to change brands; they all have their own personalities, instilled in them by their demonic setters.

Anyway, online versions aren’t quite the same.  I liked to fold the newspaper so it sat just right; I devised a desk fold, a train fold, and a sofa fold.  There was ritual.  And ritual and tradition play a big part in cryptic crosswords – a hundred years, they’ve been around, since the first was published in the New York World in 1913, set by British expat Arthur Wynne.  These days I’m forced to make do with paperback collections of puzzles, bought conscientiously on annual trips to the UK and meted out in carefully controlled rations.

It’s said by many that these puzzles only work well in the English language.  Distilled, as it is, from Latin, Greek, and various Scandinavian and Germanic tongues (among others), English is a comical hotch-potch of conflicting rules and exceptions that form the playground for that most sadistic breed of intellect, the cryptic crossword compiler. Foreign students learning English will testify just how irritating the language can be; there are at least two ways of expressing just about every idea.  This very confusion is the principle that underpins the classic cryptic clue.

So every morning I’d turn to the puzzle page of my chosen daily paper, ready to lock horns with that day’s scheduled enemy.  And he’s always a fearsome foe: Batman only had to contend one-on-one with The Joker or The Riddler.  They never teamed up with The Cryptographer and The Downright Smartarse as they do to become my nemesis, going by various names such as Cyclops, Rufus, the late lamented Araucaria, or (whisper his name) the dreaded Mephisto.

There’s always something special about pitting your wits against these torturers. Unlike the tide of automatically generated content currently infesting the media with tawdry and predictable rhetoric, here you can sense the presence of a real adversary.  It’s palpable and animal.  A biological intellect, not an algorithm.

11 Across. “Player quick to take over (4,6)”   FAST BOWLER.

And there’s something frightfully British about it all.  The rules are complicated – devilishly so – but must be adhered to as a point of honour.  The setter’s armoury is limited and defined by tradition; anagrams, containers, reversals, double definitions, homophones and more. Every word has a part to play.  Even exclamation and question marks have arcane meanings.  The grid itself follows complex rules concerning size, symmetry and number of unches.

The whole exercise is complex, time-consuming, steeped in tradition, and ultimately pointless.  It’s cricket without the whites; golf without the comedy pullovers; chess without that irritating Cuban or Russian kid who always beats everybody.

When moving to Spain it never really dawned on me that my beloved cryptic didn’t exist here.  I managed to find only one online example that adhered to the rules while being set in Spanish – and that was compiled by an Australian.

Of course, word puzzles do exist here in Spain too.  There are infernal things called autodefinidos, and crucigramas that display a passing resemblance to the crosswords we know and love.  But in general these are all paltry one-word-for-another vocabulary tests. Educational, I guess – but a puzzle, a game.  Not a war.  In the world of the cryptic crozzy, each grid is a battlefield, and each clue solved a little victory.

9 Down. “Shoddy point made over tea initially” – TINPOT (anagram of point, initial of tea).

So why is this not popular in Spain?  Our Aussie friend has shown it can be done linguistically; the Spanish are the bosses at tradition and ritual; and the culture determines that lots of time is spent, let’s face it, sitting around doing sod all else.

Maybe it’s finally time there were a Spanish Quixote?



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