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Crosswords turn classically clueless

A quiet revolution is taking place within one of our most venerable institutions of learning and erudition. The Great British Crossword is not what it was.

Gone are the traditional literary and classical allusions, banished by a new generation of compilers whose sole interest is in wordplay and anagrams. Worse still, they use computers to design their grids and fill in possible answers.

So, has the world of the crossword been taken over by anoraks? Don Manley, who compiles crosswords for the Guardian and the Times as well as the Independent on Sunday, accepts that a change has taken place.

"When crosswords started in the 1920s, the prime people making them up were classicists, typically Eton and Balliol, and the Foreign Office. There were a huge number of allusions to Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan, the classics and the works of Anthony Hope - the solver was expected to know the whole of the Prisoner of Zenda. But in the last 20 years the skills have changed, moving to maths, physics and computer people."

Another prolific compiler, Michael Macdonald-Cooper, agrees that there has been a move from the classics. While not resenting the changes himself, he has some sympathy with the complaint that trickiness has supplanted erudition. "Sometimes complexity is there for the sake of complexity, not for elegance. Abstruseness for its own sake has seduced the person setting the puzzle."

One of his own favourite clues would perhaps now no longer be aceptable: "The wife's mother, (7)" had the answer "Jocasta", but the modern solver might not be expected to know the name of Oedipus's mother even if he had heard of his complex family arrangements.

Even clearer evidence of the move away from knowledge-based clues is the abolition of pure quotations. Until last year, the well-read solver of the Times crossword would race out of his blocks by completing the pure quotation clues.

Jonathan Crowther, who compiles the hideously difficult Azed puzzles for the Observer, approves of the changes: "I never really liked the sort of crossword that depends on specialist knowledge." While the compilers of a generation ago came from a literary background, "today's are schoolmasterly, communications, computer people".

Compilers, says Mr Macdonald-Cooper, can more than make up for the absence of literary and cultural allusions with ingenuity. The ideal clue, he says, should "entertain and tickle" the solver as well as puzzle them. One of his favourites was: "Ca? (4,3)" with the answer "Manx cat" - "cat" with its tail missing.

Crosswords: page 31, Real Life page 13, Review page 74