The cryptic crossword, known outside the UK as the British crossword, is a deviant language where Geg (9,3) means Scrambled Egg, Presbyterians are not people but an anagram of Britney Spears and, HIJKLMNO is Water (H to O). Those who have discovered it are slaves for life. No other puzzle even approaches the beauty of its clues and the discreet, jubilant, elevation of self-respect it inspires in a solver when he arrives at the solution.
But the cryptic crossword is from another age. It has survived for about eight decades as a habitual corner in newspapers. Now, in a world newly obsessed with Sudoku, there is a fear that the cryptic crossword might not survive for long. It has been completely overshadowed by other puzzles. There is more money to be won by solving Sudoku puzzles. In bookstores too, Sudoku is taking up more space than the cryptic crossword. Even before the arrival of Sudoku, the constituency of the crossword was being steadily depleted. Solvers were getting steadily older and the young did not seem to care.
Sandy Balfour, the crossword editor of The Guardian, admits, "The cryptic crossword is not as popular as it used to be." But, he adds, the quality of the puzzles is at its best today: probably never before have the cryptic clues been so beautiful, so tough and so amusing. "The health of the crossword is very good," he says, "But the future seems uncertain." Balfour is in the British Library, researching a forthcoming book on the history of Guardian crosswords. He is better known as the author of Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8): A Memoir of Love, Exile and Crosswords. Balfour was a late entrant to the cryptic. He had graduated by the time his girlfriend showed him his first cryptic clue Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8). The answer was rebelled. Pretty girl (Belle) in crimson (red) is re-belle-d, which also means "rose", the past tense of rise. This clue, though entertaining, is among the easier ones. What would truly satisfy the hopelessly addicted solver is to crack something like this: In Which Three Couples Get Together For Sex (5). The answer is LATIN because three couples equals six, and six is sex in Latin.
Mike Hutchinson, the crossword editor of The Independent, bears the mild disdain that most lovers of the cryptic have for Sudoku. "I can't remember a single thing I learnt from solving them," he says, "I've learnt so much about the world just by solving the cryptic." And of course, Sudoku cannot make you laugh like the cryptic can when, say, you discover PM Tony Blair is an anagram of I'm Tory Plan B". Mike is in Joe Allen's, near the Strand, waiting to lunch with the crossword editors of other papers. Colin Inman, the Financial Times crossword editor, a tall man with droopy eyes, arrives. He says, in a deep, prophetic tenor, "The cryptic will never die. Sudoku will die." But, increasingly, newspapers are finding Sudoku more convenient and rewarding. The Japanese puzzle gets generous sponsors easily and the number of Sudoku fans far outnumber adherents of the cryptic. Even though the crossword has become a British institution, it is actually a very small enterprise. There are about 30 top crossword compilers, most of whom are celebrities among the devout solvers, and they are paid just 100 to 200 per puzzle by the papers. "Do not retire thinking you can make money by writing crossword puzzles," warns Hutchinson.
Like most of us, the compilers want to be remunerated for what they do, but they love the art of creating the cryptic crossword more. "It's like playing in a football stadium," says John Halpern, also known as Punk. "And our game is to lose gracefully." The world of the compilers is a parallel universe where a great old man called Araucaria is a living legend. And there is a galaxy of celebrities like Enigmatist, Nimrod, Pasquale, Bradman, Monk, Punk, Shed, Mudd and Virgilius. A single compiler may have several pseudonyms and probably be popular under them all.
For instance, John Henderson has a following in The Guardian as Enigmatist and in The Independent as Nimrod. The shy lecturer in clinical psychology, at 44 one of the youngest compilers, once used the famous dying words of Lord Nelson to Thomas Hardy, "Kiss me, Hardy" as a clue to encode PECKING ORDER. Another of his memorable clues is, 'The real reason for the meeting between Volkswagen and Daimler (6,6)'. The answer is "HIDDEN AGENDA" because the word "agenda" is hidden in VolkswAGEN DAimler.
Increasingly, he is being approached by people who want him to create the cryptic as a gift. "A girl contacted me to write a crossword about her parents for their 50th wedding anniversary," he says. This is about the only novelty the cryptic has seen in decades. Otherwise, the crossword and what it means to people, has not changed much. He published a puzzle when he was only 15, but that precocious feat is almost unimaginable today. "For some reason, young compilers are just not coming up," he says. This condition is a natural consequence of the fact the young are not taking to the cryptic crossword like their parents did.
Peter Biddlecombe, the current Times crossword champion, has tried to teach the art of the cryptic to those in the dark. "It's chiefly the old who turn up," he says, "Once a young guy walked in but he was filling in for his mother-in-law." Don Manley, one of the most beloved compilers of our times, who is also known as Pasquale, Quixote and Bradman, says, "We are not drawing in that bright schoolboy or schoolgirl anymore." But he is optimistic. "People used to say that the churches will be finished once all the old ladies died. But then the young girls became little old ladies."
As Punk explains, "People who do Sudoku are people who haven't discovered the cryptic crossword yet."