Illustration: Asia Martusia King.
Illustration: Asia Martusia King.

The Sunday EssayApril 2, 2023

The Sunday Essay: Confessions of a cryptic addict

Illustration: Asia Martusia King.
Illustration: Asia Martusia King.

Doing the cryptic crossword isn’t simply a hobby. It’s a way of life, a love affair – even a full-blown obsession.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Asia Martusia King.

Clue: Mafia boss consumed first dish free of charge (7)

Answer: Donated (Don) (ate) (d-ish)

Some years back, while lounging on Taormina, the beautiful Sicilian beach subsequently made famous by The White Lotus, I was approached by a blonde woman in a thong and bikini top. She said, in English, “Would you mind looking after my handbag while I swim? You hear so much about the Mafia in Sicily.” The beach was packed with Italian families enjoying the mezzogiorno temperatures. I peered at her over my shades. “Mi dispiace,” I said with a perfected Italian shrug. “Non parlo inglese.” She was thrown but, to her credit, recovered. “Sorry,” she said, clasping her bag to her chest. “I thought you were English.” I smiled and went back to reading The Guardian.

It would have been polite to have agreed to watch her bag – a fake Gucci tote – and not unreasonable in a glitzy tourist town where opportunists are rife. But I was annoyed by her assumption that every Sicilian was a member of La Cosa Nostra.

She had also disturbed my train of thought in tackling a cryptic clue.

Clue: Evangelist heartily converted sinister character (8)

Answer: Svengali (an anagram of the heart of the word ‘evangelist’)

I can’t remember the start of my affair with cryptic crosswords. As a journalist, words are my bread and butter. I have always done quick crosswords to pass the time. As an editor of a (then) evening paper, puzzles were a welcome late afternoon antidote to the angry calls from readers offended by a story or – more commonly – a missing crossword clue. I came to understand the importance of the ritual in many readers’ lives.

But I still regarded crossword puzzles as something to be done in moderation, like drinking shots.

That changed when I watched my mother-in-law complete the cryptic crossword in the Listener, a pastime enjoyed after she had checked the week’s television listings and before she read the cover story. The crossword compiler at the time was R.W.H (Ruth Wallace Hendry), who produced a weekly puzzle for 50 years until her death in 1997. At my in-laws’ house, the Listener would be stored in the magazine rack until it was burned or put out with the bins.

One day I picked up a copy and noticed a clue was left undone.

The rest is history. My part-time leisure activity became a compulsion. In waiting rooms, I thumbed through magazines to the puzzles page, hoping someone hadn’t got to the grid before me.

I sometimes stole to feed my habit (with a flat white on the side), tearing pristine puzzles from newspapers left for customers at cafés.

I hoarded copies of crosswords for long-distance travel. Abroad, I stocked up on English-speaking newspapers. The Guardian Weekly became my fix in Italy when I worked as a WWOOFer (Worldwide Worker on Organic Farms) in remote parts of the country. Without a dictionary or internet connection, the puzzles were testing and time-consuming. Each took a week to complete.

The Guardian employs 25 cryptic setters with distinctive modus operandi, which devotees come to appreciate as they might an author or songwriter. Over time Paul, Vlad, Rufus. Sphinx and Pasquale have become my friends or dreaded enemies. Their wit knows no bounds. Compiler John Graham, aka Araucaria, who died, aged 92, in 2013 – a century after the first cryptic crossword was published – flagged his impending death from cancer by filling in an answer in his final crossword: Time to Go.

One of his most celebrated clues was:

Clue: Of, Of, Of, Of, Of, Of, Of, Of, Of, Of (10)

Answer: Oftentimes (Of) (ten) (times)

At around the same time I became hooked, I also become an evangelist for puzzlers.

In the 1980s, at an editorial conference in Nelson, the theme was ‘scenario building’ – a form of storytelling creating narratives about what different futures might hold. (Curiously, one of the scenarios was that media consumers would one day stay in their rooms and live in a virtual reality without contact with the outside world which delegates poo poohed).

The keynote speaker was David Kirk, Oxford scholar and former All Black captain. At the airport following the conference, we sat next to each other in the departure lounge. He leant over my shoulder and said, “Ah, a cryptic crossword. Way too hard for me.”

So I taught him, in the time before our flight took off, how to get the answer by deciphering components of the clue. “Actually, it’s easier than you think,” I said.

Kirk’s response is common. “I can’t see how they work,” say many.

Clue: One sister needs to go steady with flood (8)

Answer: Inundate (I) (nun) (date)

It’s simple. Chris Lancaster, editor of UK newspaper The Telegraph’s puzzle section, likens it to learning to juggle, “which anyone with basic level hand-eye coordination can achieve in half an hour or so.”

He believes cryptic crosswords are easier than quick crosswords. “In a quick crossword, clues may comprise just one or two words,” he says. Hence a clue such as “dog” with 7 letters could be “terrier”, “spaniel”, “pointer” or “whippet”.

By comparison a cryptic clue normally contains two elements: a definition of the answer, plus a ‘wordplay’, which tells the solver what the correct answer is. Like a simple equation, one end of the clue (the definitive) is equal to the other (the cryptic components).

Thus, the cryptic version of the quick crossword above might be:

Clue: Nepalis upset dog (7)

Answer: Spaniel (an anagram of Nepalis)

Unlike other addictions, there are benefits in getting a daily cryptic quiz.

Melbourne puzzle compiler David Astle, author of Rewording the Brain, contends they are an excellent workout for the brain, especially for older folk of which I am one.

“What cryptic crosswords in particular and puzzles in general help us do is think in different ways,” he says. “So many of the challenges that we face in life we often tackle in the same default thinking mode.

“It’s called a focal fixedness … but if we’re doing more and more of these sorts of puzzles like cryptic crosswords that dish up anagrams and homophones and puns, you can’t afford to think like that.

“What puzzles encourage us to do is to think in both a logical way and in a creative and intuitive way. If you can think in both those spheres and have those two modes interconnect so that there is this constant crossover between the two, it creates more agile and adaptive ways of not just solving problems but also living your life.”

Other benefits noted include the capacity to analyse, reason, problem-solve and think on one’s feet, an aptitude for cryptographic or mathematical thinking, and the ability to retrieve words from long-term memory to match synonym definitions. (Sidenote: Cryptographers employed by the British War Office as code-breakers at Bletchley Park during WWII, were recruited on the basis of their skill and speed at solving cryptic crosswords.)

A study by the University of Exeter Medical School and Kings College London analysed data from more than 17,000 healthy people aged 50 and over and found similar evidence. The more regularly participants engaged with word puzzles, the better they performed on tasks assessing attention, reasoning and memory. They calculated people engaged in word puzzles have the equivalent brain function of someone 10 years younger, on tests of grammatical reasoning speed and short term memory accuracy.

Clue: Rascal assembled dementia equipment (11)

Answer: Impedimenta (Imp) (edimenta-anagram of dementia) 

Whether puzzling can delay the onset of dementia, is not so clear cut. A study by the University of Aberdeen concluded that those who started off early in life with higher intellectual abilities tended to engage more with puzzling; and that a higher level of puzzling seemed to be associated with higher mental abilities later in life. “But,” the researchers added, “this mainly seemed to be because puzzlers started with the advantage of a higher cognitive starting point, from which decline was then observed. The actual trajectory of decline was similar for both puzzlers and non-puzzlers.”

There is, however, no disputing the pleasures cryptic puzzles bring. Astle says when a clue is solved, “the endorphins spike and the cortisol and the adrenaline drops – so there is this real general and genuine wave of pleasure.”

I know those feelings.

But there are downsides. Like all addicts my moods can be affected. I can be a right cow if I am interrupted mid-puzzle (refer to Taormina).

I loathe it when people fill in an answer on my uncompleted puzzle. (Husband take note)

Cryptic crosswords take time away from books.

I wrestle with sleep when I wrestle with a clue.

I am immune to the allure of new suitors like Wordle.

I get twitchy if I don’t have access to a puzzle or a working pen.

Addiction can also seep out beyond the grid. The other day I was introduced to someone called Aline. My first thought was that’s an anagram of ‘alien’.

Clue: Man given new life to be idle mostly before a short dash (7)

Answer: Lazarus (Laz-y) (a) (rus-h)

Keep going!