Baby’s First Saturday Times Crossword Completion
I missed cryptic crosswords for a long time after coming here. They’re right there alongside the straight (“concise” if you’re British) in all the British dailies, but completely absent from any American paper I’ve seen.
The first thing to note with American grids is how spare they are. British grids, concise and cryptic alike, are tight lattices with many shaded cells and very few checked letters. (I have a memory of my father doing a crossword in, I think, The Telegraph, with no shaded cells, where you had to fill them in yourself too. It was horrifying. No idea if they still do that.) A cursory look at one of the Times’ grids suggests an insurmountable challenge. I think I’m right in saying every single letter is checked and there are few shaded cells, which makes things harder and easier; more checks, but also more words, ridiculous 3-letter words. The rotational symmetry and escalating difficulty through the week are still there, but very little about The Times crossword seems familiar at the outset.
So it was a nice surprise to find unexpectedly cryptic clues in The Times. Even if they don’t really go past simple wordplay, and all you really have to do to spot them is keep an eye out for question marks — if the signifiers were that easy with cryptics I’d have a lot more hair. This may in fact be quite common in straights, but I never bothered with the British ones, having cryptics to amuse myself with instead. The clues are not even close to being as artful as even the worst cryptic clues (“HIJKLMNO (5)” gives you WATER, which is actually pretty good, but fuck you, whoever came up with it), but it’s an odd relief to not need to keep a spare eye out for anagrams (“Unimportant point made over tea initially (6)” gives you TINPOT), homophones, reversals (“Returned beer fit for a king (5)” gives you REGAL), embedded words, and other ridiculous things (“Opening numbers: 500,000,000,000? (7)” gives you NOSTRIL). Cryptics are exceptionally hard work and it’s a surprising relief to tackle such a relatively straightforward puzzle. The trivia clues, predictably, tend to be total roadblocks for a British person, but the abundance of checked letters helps with that.
The Times’ Saturday cross is a fucking bastard, though, and I’m stupidly proud of myself for completing one, in what is a good time for me. (Spoilers ahead.) It’s the hardest they publish all week (Sunday’s is bigger, but steps back the difficulty a little). Lots of clues with seemingly obvious answers, answers that fit!, that you won’t notice are completely wrong until much later, by which time you’ve filled other clues with seemingly obvious answers that are also wrong using the previous clues’ filled letters. I almost had to start fresh with this one after putting JOHNNYAPPLESEED for 37A (“Names on some Apple products”) quite early and filling in a bunch of downs completely wrong based on that, and made it much worse with a wrong answer in 41A. But clues like “Attempt to reach a post-departure plane?” (SEANCE) and “One making a bank deposit?” (SPERMDONOR) are hard not to smile at.
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