The world of crosswords has been buzzing for some months now with the news that the Daily Telegraph's Val Gilbert is proposing to save money and improve quality by computerising the crossword puzzles. She plans to abandon the traditional organic methods of production, whereby a lone genius fills up a grid with words and phrases and then makes up clues for them.
Instead, the Telegraph's puzzles will be factory farmed. Ms Gilbert's infernal machine will fill in the grids and she will then supply clues from a database of second-hand Daily Telegraph clues.
Any holes will be filled by former Telegraph setters on a piecework basis, at the meagre rate of pounds 2 or pounds 3 a clue - a bit like writing gags for Max Miller but infinitely less satisfying. Some setters, insulted that their creative endeavours should be reduced to the work of a jobbing cluer, have simply refused to co-operate.
The traditional crossword setter crafts his complete puzzle with infinite care, ensuring a healthy, balanced diet of anagrams, hidden words, homophones and so on. But apart from the sheer variety guaranteed by the human element, this method means that the clues themselves can be interrelated.
Even an ordinary daily puzzle in The Independent can have a ruling motif. Recent ones have included a puzzle packed with references to trees and a special Welsh place names crossword for St David's Day. To imagine that such whimsy and ingenuity can be replaced with a database shows no appreciation for the setter's art. It's like asking 14 poets to write a sonnet. In the home-made puzzle not only are the clues all of a piece, they are also coloured by the personality of the setters, each of whom has a recognisable style.
Even at the Times and Telegraph (where setters have no bylines), you know instantly if you're dealing with the musician or the cricketer or the Scot. Most broadsheet crossword setters are clueing full-time, but their former careers range from university lecturing to managing a blanket factory. Readers take enormous pleasure in spotting an old friend. To reduce that affectionate exchange to a soulless list is to treat both setters and solvers with contempt.
Computerised crossword setting is the kind of cost-cutting absurdity one might well expect from a budget-crazed newcomer to the job, but the strange part about all this is that Ms Gilbert has been editing the Telegraph crossword for 21 years. She, of all people, should know that the creations passing through her hands are more than a mere list of clues.
Crosswords have only been published in British newspapers since the thirties. When the Times first began running them, readers of the Thunderer protested that such a parlour game should be included in their journal.
But today, the crossword seems a quintessential part of a particular type of British life - as much as a warm pint of beer, for instance. How right it seemed that Inspector Morse should spend his time solving puns and anagrams as he supped his ale on a summer's evening. His creator, Colin Dexter, who has compiled crosswords himself, thought it entirely appropriate that the Oxford policeman should do them - although real-life prisoners are often some of the keenest solvers.
People really do buy their newspapers for the crossword on the back of it. The owner and editor of the Telegraph must know this. If they didn't know it before they soon will when the green ink begins to flow from clueless of Tunbridge Wells.
Any solver hates to find alterations in their daily ration of favourite puzzles. The Telegraph crossword is a pleasant enough pastime, and it's perfect for people who don't like a puzzle they have to chew, but as any Independent addict will tell you it is possible to complete the whole thing in your head without the need for a pen.
Ms Gilbert has been dogged in her defence of the computerised crossword (she plans to offer prizes to readers who can spot the difference), but the reaction to the news may well force her to abandon her experiment and accept the golden rule of crossword editing: if it ain't broke; don't fix it.