So, a Jumbo puzzle has just been completed and sent off for testing, which means at least an hour or so before the next crossword is started. The production line needs to be stopped temporarily. That seems odd, doesn’t it?
Despite the linguistic creativity a setter must use to complete a puzzle, surely it is – at base – a mechanical process? Select or design a grid, fill it with words, write the clues, send it off.
Well, not quite. I’ve always maintained that the reason for a break between puzzles is to let exhausted brain cells recover. While there is truth in that, I don’t really believe it’s the main reason, and perhaps the Jumbo crossword has reminded me of it.
While driving some lavish sports car around the test track, a Top Gear presenter will occasionally say how the vehicle ‘talks to them’ and it sounds like pretentious crap. It’s a machine, for heaven’s sake, which can only do what the driver tells it to do – it isn’t going to talk back.
Maybe not… on the other hand, maybe there is something in it. Keen drivers will tell you how certain cars have character. It’s an undefined thing but, even if it is undefined, if you sense it then you sense it. Crosswords have this same ability to develop a sort of character, and the strange thing is that it goes beyond the setter’s personality which unavoidably drizzles itself across the clues.
It is so hard to explain that I’m not going to try – if I did try it would come across as the aforementioned pretentious crap. All I can do is attempt to describe what the feeling is or, at least, what it resembles.
Ideally, I want to have total control over every part of the process, from grid design to the final clue, but it never happens that way. I may start with one or two seed (for which I’ve already written, or almost completely formulated, clues) answers, and will gradually build up the grid based on further answers that look like they have good clue potential. At some point, though, the choices will narrow and ultimately disappear – for a particular slot only one answer will fit, regardless of whether or not I have any clue ideas. The grid imposes itself on me. The absolute control I desire has been removed.
Of course, I can seek to regain control by stepping backwards, undoing a few answers and block placements, but that’s because I have to, not because I want to, so I’ve relinquished some of the decision-making and I might even have lost a good clue or two in the process. Thanks crossword!
What we now have is a relationship. It began with me doing what I wanted to do and developed when the puzzle said “Well, actually I think you should do it this way”. If things don’t go too badly this relationship will continue for about a day, maybe a day and a half, but in that short space of time it can become the closest to ‘intense’ as you can have between a human being and an arrangement of pixels on a computer monitor. It is at its most intense – well, tense, actually – when an entire quadrant of a grid forces its answers into place and the only remedy would be so much backtracking that some exceptionally satisfying clues would be lost. I don’t want that to happen, so I let the grid have its way and brace myself for half a dozen very nasty looking answers.
This give and take between setter and puzzle constitutes much of what I think of and remember as its character. And for a few hours after completion I’m conscious of what that character was, at least to the extent that if I immediately start a new puzzle some of it will carry over. Ostensibly that’s not a disastrous thing but, for me, it creates a fear that the new puzzle won’t be as fresh as I want it to be.
The oddest thing is the speed with which that memory of character dissolves. It goes after a couple of hours. If I return to the puzzle just a week later, there will be a couple of clues whose answers I can’t remember. Given a few months I may remember only a handful and, by this stage, will have no recollection at all of how long it took to set, exactly when it was set, what the weather was like, or anything else about it. This ‘detachment’ can be quite extreme.
Very recently a crossword editor emailed to say that a particular clue had become his favourite – one to cite if ever he was asked to do so. I couldn’t solve it. I wasn’t even sure it was one of mine. The puzzle was published a few days later, and the clue in question was one I’d edited, on request, to its existing form only a fortnight or so previously.
Harsh as this may seem, my relationship with a crossword goes from occasionally troubled intensity to absolute estrangement in a period which I might be tempted to think of as either unusual or worrying. But maybe it isn’t. Perhaps the only way to stay fresh is to forget previous work as quickly as possible, and to have a completely blank psychological canvas for the next project.
If this is indeed what’s happening, and if this is the benefit, then I’m very grateful. I’m also very lucky, because that process of blanking out old puzzles isn’t something I choose to do. It just happens.
PS: Anax in the Independent tomorrow which I hope one person in particular will remember!