None of the four busy LISTENER editors in this decade has found time to solve the famous crossword. The weekly enigma (or 'egma', to use Shakespeare's nonce-word) does take time to enjoy. Some readers fight shy of it, claiming it is too hard. But an egma is only a complicated game: the solver or setter need not be a perverse mage. An eye for an anagram is the main requirement as the LISTENER disciple, Stephen Sondheim, has pointed out: directly he saw the new word 'Cinerama', he thought: 'American'. For Sondheim there's a curious hedonism involved.
Those who want a modern guide to LISTENER crosswords might apply to Harper and Row in New York: they published Stephen Sondheim's Crossword Puzzles in 1980, with a useful preface. Better still, though1 if you can get it, is Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword by D. S. Macnutt, published by Methuen in 1966 at 15 shillings. Mr Macnutt composed the LISTENER crosswords by Tesremos - ' Somerset (rev.)' -as well as the famous Observer puzzles by Ximenes . . . Did you know that 'Peter-see-me' is the name of a Spanish wine from a grape introduced by Pedro Ximenes? No? In that case you need Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, the crossword setters' vade-mecum.
Setters still ape Ximenes, or 'X'. In fact, that is the meaning of 'Ape-X'. The pseudonym also serves as an acronym, when Apex sends puzzles to his friends at Christmas: 'A Puzzle Every Xmas'. It also means that he's at the summit.
Recently Apex composed a puzzle based on a LISTENER review of Songfest (by Leonard Bernstein, another LISTENER crossword disciple). Into the puzzle Apex inserted a (quotation from Songfest, which be felt appropriate to crosswords: 'Let us do something grand, just this once, something small and important and un--American.' The clues were of the Definition--Letter-Mixture type: here is part of one clue - ' What did the HERO SINg in On the Waterfront . . . ?' (My capitals.)
Answer: Inshore. (Incidentally, Bernstein wrote the film's music-so we have a sub-liminal clue to the theme in Apex's mind.)
According to Ximenes, the DLM clue was invented by my old classics master, Thomas Melluish or Sumydid of THE LISTENER - 'Didymus (rev.) ' Macnutt was also a classics master. So was Colin Dexter, whose mystery novels about inspector Morse make so much play with the names of Ximenes solvers. Classics masters are used to mastering complex rules and instructions before attempting precision work.. So are words-and-music men, like Bernstein and Sondheim. So is Apex: he is a carpenter, sent around London schools to deal with tricky things like folding doors for classroom partitions.
The more conservative solvers of Times and Telegraph puzzles often get stuck in their groove and won't try the LISTENER one - because it's not so habit-forming: the rules change every week, and they can't bear to study the explanatory preamble. But if you can solve a simple Telegraph clue - ' At the outset, rooks are cornered in it, (5) - then you can understand a simple LISTENER preamble. Sometimes they are rather attractive in their own right. One of Zander's (7 January) began - Four theme-words, A, B, C and D, are all important contributors to THE LISTENER ' All self-important contributors attempted this puzzle. But we were chagrined to discover that the theme-words were 'vestibule', 'tympanum' and so on - all parts of the ear. Our names were not being, in the usual sense, 'dropped'.
Now, why should Egma have called this week's puzzle Provincials'? Here is a clue. My Nigerian pupils were told not to use their favourite word "trickish" in essays, since I held it was not English. But they found an old Chambers dictionary, listing 'trickish (prov.)'. Proverbial? they asked. 'No. Provincial,' said I Then we can use it,' they declared, proud to be provincial, as well as trickish. You can always rely on Chambers.
On my way to visit Apex, Croydon's leading crossword setter, I halted at a Lambeth inn and found the bar-parlour occupied by six silver-haired men all working on the morning's crosswords, Guardian, Telegraph and Times. (Soon I shall be old enough to make up the seven: 'Call me Dopey.') Apex himself is too sturdy and subtle for Snow White; with his moustache, spectacles and carpenter's apron, he belongs in Pinocchio - as Gepetto, the toymaker.
How did Mr Chalkley the Carpenter become Apex? Half a century ago, when he was about six, he was taken to the pictures, and fascinated by a short film always screened in the interval: it showed someone filling in a crossword square with-out pausing for thought. Young Chalkley contrasted this with his father's efforts to win a fortune by filling in the letters of those game-of-chance crosswords, the pre--war equivalent of today's newspaper bingo. Then, years later, Eric Chalkley discovered D. S. Macnutt, Ximenes of the Observer. Apex has a tape-recording of a broadcast in which Ximenes praises him as a worthy chela.
Apex also has some letters about cross-words from another Ximenes chela, Thomas Melluish (Sumydid of THE LISTENER). Headed - The Classical Association: Tel. BRIxton 7926' (for Sumydid was Hon. Sec. that year), the first letter begins, with Holmes-Watson affability: 'Dear Chalkley (we can dispense with the Mr (?)'), Do try your luck with THE LISTENER. They take a very long time to get into print, though... There is what we call the " pipeline " which takes ages to got through.. .' Verb. sap.
Sumydid was busy and prolific, apart from crosswords: on a Macao bus I once saw a Chinese reading his book, Teach Yourself Greek. He wrote to Apex: 'I've been up to the eyes in strange work, three Latin poems for a man's book - an ode on the breathalyser, another on the moonflight and a translation from Ruddigore. Then. I have had a lot of Latin to compose for Acta Diurna . .' Sumydid then goes on about their guru, Ximenes.
Who was Ximenes' own guru? He writes most warmly of Prebendary A. F. Ritchie (Afrit of THE LISTENER). Ximenes wanted Afrit to write a book on the art of the, crossword; but as a headmaster and a prebendary of Wells he was too busy. Here is a Ximenes clue to 'prebend': 'What a bishop may have had before getting a crook.' (My italics.)
Ximenes expected his solvers to know not only about cricket (his clue to 'clench':
'Close, two short chapters about former Yorkshire captain.') but about the Bible and the Church, as if following the enigmatic path of George Herbert's 'Anagram':
How well her name an ARMY doth present,
In whom the Lord of Hosts did pitch his tent.
You won't find many clues as weighty as that. (The last three words refer to the Greek version of John 1:14).
Still, here is part of an enigma sent me by a friend at Christmas. His poem contains 12 anagrams of a missing word: four of them are in these six lines:
... The clamour of dishonest men defying;
These stoned His saints and still
They rose to do His will;
Above those dins of hate triumphant flying,
They bore the Cross in every age and place.
Thus do the sins of men cry out for godly grace
Now, fill in the missing word in the next verse - which begins:
O sons of men, beware!
Ye *********, take care...
Not quite Herbert's level, maybe. But it might be aptly set to music by Sondheim...
These two essays by D A N Jones first appeared in THE LISTENER on the 5th and 12th August 1982.
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