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Two Girls, One On Each Knee

Alan Connor

(London Times)

Timothy West and Prunella Scales met and fell in love over them; Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein used to stop work on West Side Story to do them; Stephen Fry says he used to take cocaine before doing them; and a British parliamentary motion has even been tabled to safeguard them.

The crossword, the pastime still closest to Britain's heart, turned 100 yesterday, and it is about as likely to disappear from the national diet as marmalade. Yet when it first emerged, there was little indication that it would still be popping up in our newspapers a century later, and certainly none that it would have sunk so deeply into the world's cultural make-up.

The first 'Word-Cross' (a typographical error a week later changed its name, forever, to 'Cross Word') was published in the Sunday edition of the New York World, on December 21, 1913. The puzzle's clues, arranged in a diamond-shaped grid, ranged from the patently simple - 'The plural of is' (3), - to the insanely arcane and, frankly, bit unfair - 'The fibre of the gomuti palm': DOH, in case you didn't know. Only one word in the grid had been filled in for the reader: FUN.

Alan Connor's charming, fascinating history of how the crossword went from a space-filler in the back section of an American newspaper to one of the world's most ubiquitous and addictive habits - he estimates that in Britain some 14.7m people do a crossword at least once a week - is as elegantly sprinkled with surprising gems as the most satisfying crossword.

It may have been launched in America, for instance, but the crossword was, hearteningly, invented by an Englishman - Arthur Wynne, who was born in Liverpool in 1871, and migrated at the age of 19 to America, where he began working for William Randolph Hearst's newspaper empire. When he devised his inaugural crossword for the New York World, the paper expected his puzzle to fizzle out after not too long. Wynne asked the newspaper to help him pay for a patent application, but was tartly informed that his invention was 'just one of those puzzle fads that people would get tired of within six months'.

Within years, however, a craze for Wynne's brainchild had swept America. It became so popular that railway companies started furnishing their trains with dictionaries to help solvers - the Pennsylvania Railroad even printed crosswords on the menus of its dining cars.

British newspapers initially resisted taking up America's favourite new pastime. Chief among British concerns was the threat the puzzle posed to working life. In 1924, an article in The Times cautioned that the crossword in America was a 'national menace' that had made 'devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society'.

The following year, the paper warned, Britain faced an invasion by this menace: 'The nation stands still before the blast, and no man can say it will stand erect again.' But by July 1925, The Daily Telegraph had begun printing its own crossword. The Times staunchly held out until 1930, before caving in - though it began by printing it only once a week, in its non-British editions, to save a little face.

By the 1930s, crossword fever had taken over the nation. Dictionaries in libraries were so viciously abused by addicts of the puzzles that they had to be taken off the shelves. In Nottingham, the crossword pandemic was blamed for clearing out cinemas. In Staffordshire, The Tamworth Herald cried that crosswords had 'been known to break up homes'.

But what the crossword had really done, of course, was find its spiritual home. America may have been responsible for inaugurating the puzzle, but it was only once it had arrived in Britain that a cadre of ingenious setters - many of them schoolmasters - began to develop the elegant, often sublime art of the cryptic crossword.

In America, crosswords to this day centre largely on general knowledge. We also have an American, Margaret Farrar, the world's first crossword editor, of the New York Times, to thank for the innovation of ordering clues into Across and Down and for putting the number of letters to the solution in brackets. Britain, however, is where the mind-bending riddle of wordplay and lateral thinking that is the cryptic crossword clue was born.

A crossword's difficulty has almost become its badge of honour - the first puzzle in The Listener, which remains the world's most brilliantly and devilishly complex crossword, was so hard to solve that on its appearance in 1930 it received just a single correct entry. PG Wodehouse became one of the Times cryptic's earliest devotees; but he found it so maddeningly impossible to complete that he was forced to give it up through humiliation at 'only being able to fill in about three words each day'.

No such problem ever confronted M.R. James, the ghost-story writer and provost of Eton. In a letter to The Times in 1934, the MP Austen Chamberlain claimed that James timed the boiling of his breakfast egg by the minutes it took him to do the Times cryptic - 'and he hates a hard-boiled egg'. The claim was almost certainly an exaggeration. But Roy Dean, a British diplomat invited onto Radio 4's Today programme in 1970, managed to perform the feat on air. Presented with that day's Times cryptic crossword, he had it licked in an astonishing three minutes and 45 seconds.

If you have always craved the thrill of solving a cryptic puzzle but have been eternally put off by the baffling arcana that make up the clues, then Connor's book is the guide you have been waiting for. In a single, gloriously decipherable chapter he lays out with perfect clarity the entire range of rules and devices through which cryptic clues work their magic.

But where his book is most thoroughly, consistently entertaining is in the wealth of instances he has compiled in which crosswords have bled into British public life. Most memorably, he relates, MI5 began to notice with growing alarm in 1944 that the solutions for the Daily Telegraph crossword in the months preceding the D-Day landings had contained every single codename for the Normandy beaches. After interrogating the setter, a Surrey headmaster, and finding no foul play, they were to forced to conclude, incredibly, that it had been the product of chance.

Which clearly was not the case in 1993, when a Times crossword, in a tribute to one of the world's most famous fictional crossword solvers, was found to have embedded among its solutions the words Barrington Pheloung, John Thaw and Colin Dexter - the names of the composer, star and creator of the television series Inspector Morse.

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