Monday, February 3, 2014

The Everyman

Every Saturday I look forward to seven o’clock. Seven, EST, is midnight GMT, which means that the online editions of the Sunday papers become available. There’s only one thing I’m really interested in, however: the Observer Everyman cryptic crossword. That’s the one that appears in the weekend edition of the Guardian, and it’s sufficiently difficult enough to offer a prize for those who send in completed crosswords.

If you don’t know cryptic crosswords, they will make no sense to you. The answers aren’t straight-forward the way regular crossword answers are. That is, the question does not ask a question that produces an obvious answer. Cryptic crossword questions are a refined code whereby a puzzle has to be solved in order to produce, fragment by fragment, a word which is the answer. A good cryptic clue will not only indicate to the experienced solver what the answer should be, but explain how to get there. A good clue will look absolutely impossible while doing that.

If you’ve become familiar with a certain crossword over a certain number of years, you begin to understand the setter’s particular codewords. With the Everyman, for example, certain letters or combinations of letters can be indicated by words such as left (L), church (CH), or worker (ANT). Cryptic crosswords often contain anagrams and parts of clues spelled backwards and embedded in other words. The punctuation of cryptic clues can be entirely incidental. A good crossword takes days to complete, if you can complete it at all. A bad one can be solved in a single sitting.

Most of all, though, a good cryptic clue will provide a measure of reward when solved; like a drug, knowing you got it right and conquered what was, for a while seemingly inexplicable, gives you a mental high.

Before the internet, my parents, long divorced but still friends, and living on different continents, would engage in fierce competition to see who could complete the Everyman crossword first. Although my Dad might seem to have a head start being an early riser and more likely to snag a copy of the paper in Toronto when he went out for coffee than my mother, lying in in London — he was actually five hours behind, given the time zone difference. They would compare clues on the phone, and tease or goad the other into solving clues which had eluded them.

I too, love the Everyman crossword, and not just because my parents did it. I love it for the same reason they did, though: apparently it runs in my family to find the mental stimulation last thing at night soothing. Because I live in Pittsburgh, where getting hold of a physical copy of the Observer is next to impossible, my Dad used to scan his in and email it to me. Eventually, it became available online to download. Then, my parents and I would engage in a devilish triad of one-upmanship; when speaking to my Mom, she’d prod me to give up what I knew of my Dad’s progress and vice-versa. It was our bonding exercise.

My Dad's not with us anymore, but my Mom and I still go at it every week. We may be an ocean apart, but within the world of the crossword, we sit side-by-side. 

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