The second of December, 2010: Professor Dawkins, and Marshal Pétain’s briefs

I joshingly suggested the other day that I should write about the Guardian crossword, seeing as little else had happened to me that day. Well, I have spent most of today doing the Guardian crossword and researching (in the new-look online OED) 18th-century terms for the male ejaculate.

I’m going to write about the Guardian crossword.

Actually,  I think today’s crossword is more than worthy of a Clutterbuck place. It’s by Arachne, one of the relatively few female cryptic cruciverbalists. A bit about her:

“Arachne taught Russian at Manchester University from 1979 to 1997 and started setting crosswords some 20 years ago. She wrote a boring book on 18th-century Russian shipbuilding terminology and is now a secondhand bookseller in Manchester.”

She sounds lovely, I’m sure you’ll agree.

I’m not sure where to start, seeing as I haven’t written about cryptic crosswords before. I could, I suppose, start at the beginning. But I shan’t. Instead, I’ll just pick out a couple of clues from Arachne’s masterpiece today, and attempt to talk about them without patronising or boring the pants off everybody.

7 Down Like someone who supports Hull City? (5)

‘Someone who supports’ is a fan. If you ‘hull’ the word City – that is, ‘pick from the encompassing calyx’ (thanks, OED) – you get ‘cy’. Fan + cy = fancy. Which means the same as ‘like’. So ‘Like’ is the definition and the rest is the clue.

18 Down For whom small cavity is source of thrill? (7)

Along the same lines as the above. A small cavity is a dent. The source, origin or beginning of ‘thrill’ is t. The is is hidden in plain view. Dent + is + t = Dentist. In this case, the whole clue provides the definition.

I could really spend all day exploring and explaining these things. Happily, the nice boffins at Fifteen Squared are there to do it for me.

A literary conclusion. First, a bit of Ovid (book six of Metamorphoses, trans. Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al.). The weaver Arachne has been boasting that she’s a better weaver than the goddess Pallas Athena. So Athena turns up, Arachne challenges her to a contest, Arachne turns out to be proper good at weaving, Athena gets mad and beats her up and smashes her loom. But she doesn’t kill Arachne:

“Live; but depend, vile wretch, the Goddess cry’d,
Doom’d in suspence for ever to be ty’d;
That all your race, to utmost date of time,
May feel the vengeance, and detest the crime.

Then, going off, she sprinkled her with juice,
Which leaves of baneful aconite produce.
Touch’d with the pois’nous drug, her flowing hair
Fell to the ground, and left her temples bare;
Her usual features vanish’d from their place,
Her body lessen’d all, but most her face.
Her slender fingers, hanging on each side
With many joynts, the use of legs supply’d:
A spider’s bag the rest, from which she gives
A thread, and still by constant weaving lives.”

This is why we have spiders.

Second, I know I said I wouldn’t be making a habit of this, but I’m going to quote my novel, Trivial, again, this time on the subject of cryptic crosswords. It’s from the first chapter.

On a dry chalky January day I was sitting with crossword and pencil on a park bench by a war memorial. I had eaten my packed lunch. I was four clues to the good and addressing a fifth – Hot cake, by the sound of it? (7) – when she sat down beside me.

I remember that I uncrossed my legs because often when I am filling in a crossword and seated without a table I’m obliged to cross my legs in what might be considered a rather feminine way – in order, that is, better to support the folded newspaper.

I remember that she had in her hand a white cardboard coffee-cup. While I was looking at her – as a man naturally does, if not quite out of the corner of his eye, then out of the side of his face, so to speak, when a stranger sits down beside him (bench, bus, tram, train, what-have-you) – she looked back at me. And not in the way in which I had looked at her: not acutely, not narrowly. No, no, she looked at me quite square-on – she looked me full in the face!

I suppose I smiled. It’s what one does. I know that she smiled.

‘Give us a clue,’ she said.

I remember that I was not immediately able to place her accent.

And I mistook what she said: some people, they’ll say something like ‘Give us a clue,’ or ‘Penny for them,’ or something like that – as a general opener, something to get a conversation started – ‘Might never happen,’ or ‘Anyone home?’ –

Of course these sorts of things leave me at a loss.

‘What? – I – just doing the, the crossword’ – that, or similar, is what I said.

While I gaped and stumbled she averted her face from mine and was fishing in one of the pockets of her dufflecoat.

‘Give us a clue,’ she said again, without looking at me. Then – on locating in the pocket a paper bag, a baker’s bag or something from a delicatessen – she looked up again – at me, again – and there was a sort of a smile there, a puzzled one, half-open, so as to ask, curiously, why don’t you understand? –

And on her looking at me then I did understand, and I said: ‘Hot cake, by the sound of it,’ and she – after a pause, and a squint at the sky while she unscrolled the paper bag in her lap – said ‘Letters?’, and, before I could answer, ‘Stollen.’

I bowed my head, crossed my legs and pencilled in the solution. I could hear her unwrapping the bag. I remember then that I smelled almond.

‘Thank-you,’ I said, on completing the E (an earlier clue had supplied the N). I looked up at her and smiled.

‘My pleasure,’ she said. It was an almond croissant. She smiled back at me and bit into it and then covered her mouth with her hand to hide the crumbs.

Stollen – a cake, a German cake. That ‘by the sound of it’ is a tug of the setter’s earlobe, a ‘sounds like’ – and so, by quasi-homophony, to stolen – or, in criminal patois, hot. Hot cake.

In all honesty I’m not sure I could say that I would have got it without her.

See how I list the words she said, the words I said, the things she did, the things I did – a list of her smiles, a roster, a register – and should I go on, now, to list her kisses, the touches of her hands, to list and codify all these things I remember? If I did not would it mean that I do not remember them? – would it mean, indeed, that they did not happen?

While I am at it, I might as well say that she wore a black dufflecoat with a bottle-green scarf, that she wore indigo jeans and from under the hems of the jeans peeped green round-toed shoes – that her hair was pushed behind her left ear, my ear, that is, the ear on the side that faced me as she sat beside me, on my right-hand side, on the bench – that I still could not place her accent, that she wore no earrings, that her eyes were dark.

All this: just a feat of memory.

She asked me if I was on my lunchbreak and I said that I was; I went on to add, unprompted, that I worked at the library, and in telling her this I gestured to where I – where we – could see the gritstone library tower, across the park, rising above the leafless rowans.

‘Do you enjoy it?’ she asked me.

‘There aren’t many people who can say that they work with Charles Darwin and Mark Twain,’ I replied.

She said that that wasn’t what she’d asked and I said that I’d assumed that she would infer from my answer that I meant ‘yes’. She laughed: either at me or with me, but, ah, I didn’t care which.

‘Girl’s heart is a flower,’ I said, boldly.

‘Iris,’ she said.

‘That was an easy one,’ I said.

I may at some point eventually finish re-writing this novel.

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