Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Crosswords and Me

One of the highlights of my life was solving a thematic crossword puzzle. The instructions seemed easy enough to start with: solve a lot of cryptic clues, jumbling eight of the answers; but some other answers needed to be entered in code - what kind of code? As if that wasn't enough, I had to divine how to "exactly describe the locus in quo" whatever that is.

The square of letters at the center of the grid seemed to be PARD/ONGE/NTLE/SALL and a trip to the local library (this was before Google was invented) led to these lines from the prologue of Shakespeare's Henry V:
... ... ... But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
After some headscratching, the word "ciphers" pointed to the basis for the code: suppose A N D L E T U S maps to TH IS GR EA TA CC OM PT? That would explain how a four-letter answer like SALT could fit into the grid as the eight-letter PTTHEACC.

As for the locus in quo, the title of the puzzle (Squaring the Circle) hinted that the "wooden O" was significant: in the play this refers to Shakespeare's Globe theater, but in crossword terms this meant I should look for wood in a circle. Sounds easy, but those little trees (LANA, BALSA, RATA, SAL) took ages to find.

It turned out that only eight solvers got the puzzle right and after 14 years and a transatlantic move, I still have the very faded copy of my entry. Squaring the Circle was just one of 224 consecutive correct Listener Crossword solutions - with such an outstanding solving record, the only place to go was editing the puzzle, which I did for 12 years.

I'll let you into a dirty little secret: I wrote my own program to search for crossword answers - software that would become TEA Crossword Helper. And the instinct to make life easier for myself meant I couldn't start compiling puzzles until I had written something to fill grids: these efforts resulted in Sympathy Crossword Construction.

Of course, all this talk of cryptic clues and crosswords with obscure themes tells you right away that I'm British. In an amazing feat of prescience, one of the puzzles I compiled concerns the linguistic differences between British English and American English. Little did I realize that marriage would bring me to move permanently to the USA at the beginning of 2007.

Although Americans ostensibly speak the same language, I sometimes feel they might be talking Chinese. It's not just the accent that causes difficulties, but the slew of words meaning something different: football that isn't football, public schools that are free to all and rubbers that aren't for erasing. The differences in spelling are the least of my troubles.

Now that I've settled into this new life, I need to learn about the culture, not least because to become a US citizen (which I can do as early as September 2010), I have to pass a Naturalization Test. This includes questions like "Who is the president of the USA?" [my wife Magdalen tells me this would have been a difficult one to answer in the last eight years (was it Cheney? ... it certainly wasn't Bush)] so I'm trying hard to get to grips with all this stuff.

I recently started doing the New York Times crossword and was shocked at how difficult it is for me: mastery of cryptic crosswords counts for very little it seems. My real stumbling block is the number of cultural references: you're expected to know a lot about US geography and politics, as well as sports and food brands. Then it hit me: crosswords are the ideal way for me to absorb a new culture and I'm going to make NYT puzzles the initial focus of this blog.