On Monday morning, on Radio 4's Start the Week, Andrew Marr was hosting a pretty thoughtful bunch of guests. Terry Jones, keenest of amateur historians, was talking up the barbarians and talking down the Romans. Anthony Beevor was recovering from the shock of finding that his new book on the Spanish Civil War is Number 1 on the best-seller list in Spain. Joan Cheever, an American lawyer, was talking about her book on what happens to murderers when they are released from prison. (Fewer than 1 per cent kill again. But then, as someone said, once you've got rid of the one person you want to get rid of, what's the point of another murder ...?)
The only odd one out was a woman called Val Gilbert. She had no book to plug. She is the Daily Telegraph crossword editor (has been, amazingly, for 30 years) and was there to celebrate the fact that this month the Daily Telegraph is publishing its 25,000th crossword. To encourage us, or titillate us, she had brought along a couple of crossword clues. One of them was as follows. "What a fiancée may flaunt to get fish" (seven letters). I was driving a car at the time, and had not got beyond thinking of the word "trousseau" by the time she said that the answer was "herring".
Of course! Her ring. A fiancée could flaunt her ring. Which spells "herring". Very nice.
But the others in the Start the Week studio were stumped. They didn't see it. And it emerged under questioning that none of the others ever did crosswords. Terry said he had tried and failed. Andrew Marr said the same. They all said they were not cryptic crossword-minded people, because they didn't have that kind of mind.
Apart from feeling very sorry for Val Gilbert, who was in the position of a marriage guidance expert brought along to talk to monks, I realised all over again that humanity is divided into crossword-minded people and the others. I myself am crossword-minded. I like the little word games that are involved in manufacturing a cryptic clue.
I do not actually do any crosswords, though. There was a time, about 20 years ago, when I found myself devoting so much time to tackling the crossword each day that I realised it was a sort of minor addiction, and I resolved to give it up cold turkey. So I stopped. For several days there was a terrible craving to see anagrams in every word, to see words inside other words, and so on, but the withdrawal symptoms did pass away, and now I suppose I am a crossword addict in recovery. I do still occasionally pick up a crossword, solve a few clues, get stumped, move on, forget about it, but the old tic will never quite leave me.
I remember being very struck years ago by something that Mike Zwerin said about going on tour with a band in Russia. Mike is a white American jazz trombonist living in Paris (also the best living jazz writer - see his new book The Parisian Jazz Chronicles) who was once recruited by Earl Hines for a big jazz group touring Russia. It was a mixed-race group, roughly half black, half white, but when they were off the stand and when they split up into small informal groups, it was never along racial lines, he said. Black didn't hang out with black, and vice versa. No, it was the card-players who stuck together, and the non-poker players who did other things together.
There are a lot of fault lines which divide humanity like this, and which we seldom talk about. There are people who accept the rock revolution, and those who blank it out. There are Da Vinci Code people and the others. There are (though this is fading) smokers and non-smokers. There are people who follow The Archers and those who don't. (I did cold turkey on that one as well, once.)
And what we are about to find out in the next month is that there are the sports people, and those who are dreading the World Cup. Those who put pairs of little St George flags on their cars, and those who would rather be dead. Those who know who Theo Walcott is, and those that don't... But I must stop there, before I feel the symptoms coming on.Reuse content