Alan Connor, Two Girls, One on Each Knee (Particular Books 2013)
Let me start with a factoid, a movie anecdote and a memory, all crossword-related:
- Ronald Knox (1888–1957), Catholic convert scholar and single-handed translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible into English, is said to have completed The Times crossword each morning, first the across clues, then the down.
- In the 1961 movie Very Important Person (also known as A Coming-out Party) the James Robertson Justice character arrives in a German prisoner-of-war camp and is left alone in a hut while the other prisoners are all on work details. He sees a copy of The Times on the rough wooden table, and turns to the crossword. His hut-mates arrive to discover that in a matter of minutes he has deprived them of their week’s only pleasure.
- I once did a cryptic crossword in which the answer to each of three clues – referring respectively to a little pig, a village and a Shakespearean drama – was HAMLET.
None of those appears in Two Girls, One on Each Knee. but they could have: Alan Connor gives us a wealth of similar crosswordiana: gossip about famous solvers; scenes from movies, television and novels; great moments in setting. He also tells the history of crosswords, introduces us to some of the outstanding setters, and goes down the kinds of byways you would expect from someone who writes a regular column on crosswords for the Guardian. The book would be a useful guide to someone wanting to find out how cryptic clues work, or a student researching the history of crosswords, but its main mission seems to me to be to communicate the pleasures of the pastime. It fills this mission brilliantly. As something of an addict myself, I found the book immensely enjoyable.
Due homage is paid to The Times crossword, which appears in The Australian. For years I’ve been a fan, and I confess that in the past I have given money to the Murdoch empire in order to enjoy the crossword. These days I frequent a cafe where the staff tolerate me defacing the complimentary copy. I used to wish someone would edit it for Australian solvers, replacing the more parochial London references with more generally accessible ones, but really, it’s not broke so better not fix it.
There’s a chapter on The Listener, the most difficult crossword in the world, which a friend introduced me to in my 20s. The Listener went out of print decades ago but its crossword lives on in The Times each weekend. Though I rarely have access to it, it’s always a challenging pleasure. I’ve even completed it occasionally. The Spectator crossword comes closest to it in my experience, and has the advantage of being available in Australia and closer to humanly possible.
Connor compares UK and US crosswords. I once subscribed to the New York Times crossword online for a couple of months. The difference from English and Australian puzzles was striking. Apart from the shocking way brand names and capitalist enterprises appear with the same nonchalance as cities and famous people, the US puzzles have a very different kind of playfulness. I enjoyed it, but not enough to keep up my subscription.
Just one of the many clues Connor includes is by David Astle (DA), doyen of the Sydney Morning Herald‘s puzzles, and I’m surprised he rated even one, as in my experience when DA and his minions are not being annoyingly imprecise or obvious, they mosyly offer challenging exercises, but little by way of the pleasure that this book celebrates. And what can you say about a quick crossword in which eastern is clued as ‘from the east’ and pensive as ‘nervous’, or a cryptic with surface meaning as awkward and cryptic play as obvious as ‘Spoil in a mooring site (6 letters)’? David Astle’s book Puzzled may have been as much fun as Two Girls, One on Each Knee. I hope so, but I doubt it.
One startling fact emerges from the book: there is no evidence for the frequent claims that doing crosswords, especially cryptic crosswords, is a way of staving off cognitive decline. The same can be said for the book itself: I doubt if there is any evidence that reading it will improve the reader in any way. But like the puzzles it discusses, it’s fun anyway.