100 down: The crossword marks its centenary

  • 21 December 2013
Crossword grid

One hundred years ago the first proto-crossword appeared in the New York World newspaper. Since then there have been millions of chewed pens and scratched heads.

A newspaper editor once told me the secret of keeping readers happy. You can shift a paper's politics, apparently, and you can get your facts wrong, but don't ever mess about with the crossword.

The Guardian's 1997 redesign, for example, put the quick crossword on the same page as the cryptic. "The resulting telephone calls, letters and emails," recalled crossword editor Hugh Stephenson, "far outnumbered all those on other aspects of the redesign put together." Households with more than one solver "found themselves fighting turf wars over the same section or, worse, tearing it in two".

And when the Daily Telegraph experimented with having its puzzles assembled by computer, using a database of pre-written clues, its setters became a cause celebre, dubbed the Telegraph Six. Deputy editor Boris Johnson hastily changed tack.

"The machine has been condemned for a fatal lack of soul," he announced. One setter responded quietly with the clue "Submit to pressure and return to base (9)" - CLIMBDOWN - and normal business was resumed.

For readers, the crossword is a point of stability, however baffling any individual puzzle or clue might prove. Solvers form relationships with setters which go on for decades.

Araucaria, who died last month and who had set for the Guardian and the Financial Times, had been described by the actress Prunella Scales as "my constant bedtime companion". And television screenwriter Alan Plater wrote that when he and his wife encountered Araucaria, "it was like meeting a semi-deity".

When the paper arrived in the Plater home, he explained "The first thing we check is the authorship of the day's crossword. If we see the name Araucaria, we know later in the day he will help ease the pain of the front page and the sports section."

Indeed, some solvers are known to turn straight to the crossword, then throw the rest of the paper away unread. In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion described the same habit of turning straight to the puzzle page as "the way I had come to read, or more to the point not to read, the paper".

And the affection in which Plater's semi-deity Araucaria was held was made clear in January when he used a puzzle to impart some sad news.

The grid was headed "Araucaria has 18 down of the 19". Nineteen across was OESOPHAGUS and eighteen down was "Sign of growth (6)", which took solvers via the zodiac sign to CANCER. Solvers were shocked and upset - but impressed by the colossal chutzpah.

Most setters never see the inside of a newsroom, preferring to compose their clues in offices lined with reference books or while walking.

But for some readers, their favourite setter is as much an ambassador for the newspaper as any correspondent or columnist, however much less handsomely rewarded. Setters express their personalities through their witty and puzzling clues, and you can feel that you "get" some more than others, in a way that isn't true of, say, sudokus.

Most solvers still prefer paper and pen to tablets

The 100th birthday of the crossword is on Saturday and it has quietly influenced areas of life from espionage to artificial intelligence. I've been looking at the strange stories around the puzzle for a book. For its title, I borrowed a clue which was the two-millionth written by Britain's most prolific setter, Roger Squires. It was published in the Telegraph in 2007 and is the favourite of so many solvers that the experience feels a little like pet-sitting a prize-winning cat. It is Two Girls, One on Each Knee (7).*

While I was aware of the quality of crossword devotion, I looked in vain for clues as to its quantity. In the end, I commissioned some research. There were some surprises. Solving is often associated with chaps, in tutorial offices or in pinstripe suits, but it is disproportionately the pastime of women.

And some results were less surprising - the retired and the childless find more time for puzzles, though not the unemployed.

What struck me most was the total number of solvers - 72% of British adults, with around three in 10 attempting a crossword at least once a week.

Most compellingly, just over one in five says that his or her choice of newspaper has been influenced by its crossword. So that's 14.7 million people solving at least weekly, and 7.3 million making paper-buying decisions based in part on the crossword culture of the paper, from the steady-as-she-goes Times to the unpredictable, puckish Independent.

And these are for the most part pencil-and-paper people.

Given the apparently unstoppable decline of sales of physical newspapers, that might give an editor pause for thought. Especially so since the puzzle is one of the few features that benefits from taking physical form. The news may be superseded by the time the copies arrive at the kiosk, but the grids are there - the original interactive item - patiently waiting to be filled.

So if the puzzle is responsible for keeping the presses rolling, perhaps its centenary would be a politic moment to offer its setters a little pay rise?

*The answer? PATELLA.

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