Me and the Crossword

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There was a time when the crossword was my daily fix. When I never missed the opportunity to add to Mr Murdoch’s inestimable fortune, purchasing a small shrub’s worth of paper every day, just to get my hands on the six inch square that I wanted. By and large I’ve broken that habit now. It became crazy in the end: I often made the mistake of reading the news as well. Now I would be happy if I never read a newspaper again.

Sometimes though, when I have the time, I still reach for the crossword book and I give it a go. I do like The Times crossword. It is a challenge that, for the most part, just eludes me. Sometimes I finish it in hours rather than days and sometimes I would not finish it if you gave me an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of Scrabble tiles to chuck at it.

It is just so frustrating when I cannot see the path that the clue has led me down. When, finally having given up the ghost, I read the answers and think “What? Why didn’t I see that?” Although not as bad as when the answer is a word which I just do not know. “Obviously I was never going to solve that clue, but why didn’t I know that word?” I begin to wonder if other people have noticed the hole in my vocabulary: “Odd, isn’t it, that he never uses the word ‘squrrox*’, do you think he doesn’t know it?” I feel eyes boring into my soul. I curse the inadequacies of the state education system. I begin to search for ways to drop my newly-found phonic into conversations. It is now locked into my dictionary – and it will probably never come up in a crossword again.

And that’s a strange thing, isn’t it? Leave the crossword, walk away, and when you return to it, a solution that has eluded you for hours will pop straight into your head. How does that happen? Is there a portion of the brain that is working on the answer even as the rest of it slips into neutral? Given that most of my brain is stuck permanently in neutral, shouldn’t that make me a crossword whizz? Weird also is the way that you can sometimes know the answer without understanding the clue – or, perhaps that’s just life…

Here’s how the crossword book works for me. First thing is to turn to a new page: I never return to an unfinished grid from the previous day; it merely reminds me of the abundance of my inadequacies. Generally I read right through the clues in order before finding that I cannot answer any of them. I do it again. I decide that my future possibly lies in The Sun’s Quick Crossword. I read through the clues again, searching for key words that might alert me to an anagram. Eventually I will find an answer and then other words begin to slot into place. And then I reach the point where I am looking for words for which I have every other letter and still no idea of the whole. It is a peculiar type of word-blindness and more frustrating than I can begin to tell (particularly with the paucity of my vocabulary). Normally, I look at a stream of letters and spaces: E_E_E_T_R_ and the answer is elementary. Simple. Stick them in a grid and throw in a cryptic clue and it all goes to cock. Normal lexicographic services are abandoned. One of the ‘down’ answers must be wrong. There are no words with that letter sequence. No wonder my teachers thought I was a dunce.

And that leads me, naturally enough, to those who solve the crossword within minutes. Those who complete the grid whilst waiting for the traffic lights to change on the drive to work. Those who do not have gaps in their education; missing pages from their dictionaries; brains that function only intermittently – flashing brightly every now and then, but mostly whirring ineffectually, and I wonder what joy is there for them other than being able to tick off a new P.B. in their diary?

Frankly, I’m not sure that I care. I will continue to toil, sporadically these days, fruitlessly on. And, on the odd occasion that I succeed, I will sit back, content in the knowledge that, given the way my brain is going, I may have just done something that I just will never achieve again.

And I’ll try to work out whether that is a good or a bad thing. There must be a clue in there somewhere…

He respects Owl, because you can’t help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY even if he doesn’t spell it right; but spelling isn’t everything. There are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn’t count. (A.A. Milne) ‘The House at Pooh Corner’

* Squrrox is the word wish granted to Dan Milligan by the author in Spike Milligan’s ‘Puckoon’.