The crossword celebrates its 100th birthday this week. I had been looking for a book about how the humble puzzle has crept into strange places over the past century - espionage, say, and artificial intelligence. But I couldn't find one, so I wrote it myself.
For the title, I borrowed the two-millionth clue written by Britain's most prolific setter, Two Girls, One on Each Knee (7) - the answer is at the end. And it was a delightful world to look at. One of the many pleasures of delving into the history of the crossword is how you find yourself laughing time and again.
A good cryptic clue works like a joke. "Mad, passionate lovers? (7)", by the setter Spurius, never fails to raise a smile when you see that the answer is BONKERS. Ditto "Potty train (4)" by Paul, for LOCO.
Longer clues can be funny too - sometimes because they're just so long and baffling that the only reasonable response is laughter. The only response, that is, unless you're Victor Meldrew.
Victor's problem is, perhaps, that he's being too honest. This is a problem that never afflicted John Gielgud:
Fellow actor David Dodimead once noticed that Gielgud was 'skipping through the clues, neatly filling them in at an amazing pace'.
Was there nothing the great man couldn't do? Dodimead scanned Gielgud's grid and found his eye drawn to one entry in particular. 'Excuse me, John,' he asked, 'what are DIDDYBUMS?'
'No idea,' replied Gielgud. 'but it does fit awfully well.'
Phoebe Buffay adopts a similar approach:
And Reginald Perrin went one stage further. Infuriated every morning by fellow commuter Peter Cartwright's speed at the crossword, he writes into his grid: I AM NOT A MERE TOOL OF THE CAPITALIST SOCIETY and TODAY I AM SEEING MR CAMPELL-LEWISON... MR CAMPBELL LEWISON IS GOING TO GET A LITTLE SURPRISE. He folded the paper up and put it in his briefcase. "Rather easy today," he said. "Damned if I think so," said Peter Cartwright.
When the crossword came to Britain in the 1920s, it didn't take long for it to become part of the commuter's uniform. Think of the tired worker in Madness's Cardiac Arrest, or by contrast the quiet, civilised world of the first-class compartment.
Fans of sketch comedy, by the way, might be interested in an ancestor of this classic Two Ronnies bit, from the 1968 series Beryl Reid Says Good Evening.
And staying on the train but going further back, here's Harold Lloyd in 1925, when the puzzle was still a novelty. The America of the 1920s was crossword crazy, with crossword-themed cigars and earrings, and even a Broadway show, Puzzles of 1925, which featured a scene in a crossword puzzle sanatorium filled with those driven to madness by puzzle fever.
Harold shows us that solving need not be a solitary activity. Prunella Scales met her future husband Timothy West backstage, over the course of what she calls 'a Polo-mints and Times-crossword flirtation', and they are by no means the only couple brought together by puzzles.
Which is not to say that solving in pairs or a group is always an intimate, bonding experience. Witness BBC sitcom The Smoking Room.
Before smartphones and social media, the best way of wasting time in the workplace was hidden inside the newspaper you'd bought that morning.
Cheers! Anyone can be afflicted by puzzle fever, it seems, from Carla Maria Victoria Angelina Teresa Apollonia Lozupone Tortelli LeBec to those charged with national security. Here's how the first episode of The West Wing introduces us to White House chief of staff Leo McGarry:
I asked Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times puzzle about this, by the way. He said that if his puzzle asked for GADDAFI as an answer, it would have indicated that the entry was a variant spelling - perhaps to avoid just this kind of brow-beating.
Shortz plays himself in an episode of The Simpsons called Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words. It pulls off a trick so remarkable that in my book, I have awarded it the made-up but no-less-prestigious award of the Best Crossword of the First Hundred Years.
But every day, all cryptic crosswords contain something to delight and amuse - from Rufus's "Bar of soap? (6,6)", clueing ROVERS RETURN to Nimrod's "Crack construction worker shows up on site (8,6)" for BUILDER'S BOTTOM.
And the answer to the clue in the book's title - Two Girls, One on Each Knee (7)?
It is, of course, PATELLA.
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