I am a cruciverbaholic.
Yet I take heart. I have joined a support group, courtesy of The Herald. We meet, monthly, in an upstairs room in Curlers, an ancient pub in the west end of Glasgow. My first time, I went with some apprehension. There were nineteen of us – 12 men and 7 women, the age range slightly younger than I’d expected. (Do the demographics surprise you?) Would I be asked to stand up and share with the group “my story”? It would be familiar enough – the long descent from the apparently harmless habit – perhaps acquired in the dentist’s waiting room – of jotting down a few answers to the simple crossword in The Daily Record, towards that Rubicon moment when you first cast your eye over the cryptics – “the hard stuff”. And you take that flight of fancy, much as somebody on LSD thinks it’s a good idea to attempt flight off a rooftop.
Now I am like Monsieur Manette, Lucie’s father in A Tale of Two Cities. He had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and when he suffered relapses he would return to his cobbler’s last and manufacture shoes in much the same way as I solve clues, or pose them, in a kind of fugue state.
I didn’t have to give my testimonial in Curlers. Instead, Myops, the great doyen of the Saturday Crossword, and The Wee Stinker, gave us a lecture on cruciverbalism. Myops’ great hero is Ximenes. I never grappled with Ximenes’ puzzles but I did get entangled with the Telegraph’s Enigmatic Variations, much as an addict might become beholden to a ruthless baron ensconced in some Central American fortress dispensing designer commodities.
Next month, MCC (The Man who was Thursday) had us setting and solving clues. I won a prize. Ah – the lure, the hook. Now I send The Herald clues that are increasingly surreal and bizarre, stretching the limits of cryptography. I aspire to be the Arnold Schoenberg of cruciverbalism.
Elmer an’ them got rhythm. Who could ask for anything more? (5,6)
Next Tuesday we reconvene in Curlers like some occult witenagemot. We will be constructing crossword grids. I have software for this at home, but I think to take it along would not be in the spirit of the thing. I was fascinated to learn that Myops does not use software. Mind you, he’s been doing it for years. Why would he need it?
By way of rehearsal, I attempted to construct a grid of a standard composition, 15 squares squared, with, initially, every second square blacked out on alternate rows and columns. To this basic pattern may be added additional black squares on the clear rows and columns, but they must be added so as to preserve a pattern symmetrical around a single (diagonal) axis.
I fancied the idea of including a solution of every available word length – 2 to 15 letters long. It proved difficult. So difficult, in fact, that I began to suspect it was impossible. Now having 2 letter words on crossword grids is a little infra dig, so I dropped that and stuck with solutions 3 to 15 letters long. It didn’t make any difference.
I have now convinced myself that there is no solution to this conundrum. It is an impossibility. The problem lies in the crossword’s symmetry. Every clue length has to appear twice. You’ve got 13 clue lengths and a combined total of 16 rows and columns. They fill the rows and columns like this:
15, 14, 13, 12, 11-3, 10-4, 9-5, 8-6, 8-6, 9-5, 10-4, 11-3, 12, 13, 14, 15.
All your rows and columns are filled but you have not represented a 7 letter word. You could arrange to represent a 7 letter word, but then you would fail to represent a word of another length.
There is another possibility. Start the alternating black squares on the first square of a row. This means that, while preserving symmetry, there will be a midpoint row and a midpoint column that need not be duplicated. Thus, two words consisting of an odd number of letters, for example, both a 15 letter word, and a 13 letter word, need only appear on the grid once.
It’s no help. There are now only a total of 14 rows and columns available, and they are filled thus –
15, 14, 13, 12, 11-3, 10-4, 9-5, 8-6, 8-6, 9-5, 10-4, 11-3, 12, 14.
The elusive 7 letter word is missing.
You can see why I need help.