Astle: Cluetopia

Let me restate my two provisos:

1) As an established setter and solver, I’m not really the audience for this book

2) As an established setter and solver, I’m likely to be incredibly picky.

Retrieving the book from across the room (because, to be frank, that pun in the title induced a sudden horrified reflex), I embarked on an introduction followed by a sequence of 90+ short articles/chapters, each titled with a clue from a different year.  And I’m only part-way through even now, but this is very much that kind of book.  Reading it all the way through is not advised, but a few chapters at a time is really rather pleasant.

Astle is an Australian crossword setter, and also something of a TV star over the Tasman.  I don’t know that he has penetrated the NZ sphere very much.  His idea to celebrate the crossword centenary was to email libraries worldwide, soliciting crossword stories, and then to tie one puzzle to each year.  He skips 1914-21 on the basis that the crossword was still finding its feet – and anyway, there was a war on – but every other year has something.  And it’s a real find in many instances – cryptic clues in Italian and Dutch, and you should be grateful that one chapter title is a picture (unless your Swedish is good).

He starts with Arthur Wynne’s trailblazer, of course.  The one other event he decided upon at the outset was the infamous D-Day landing crossword in the Daily Telegraph, but that then gets followed by a similar, and scarcely-known, coincidence from UK atom bomb tests in Australia.   We see Nabokov trying to invent the Russian word for ‘crossword’ – it didn’t catch on.  He even unearths a puzzle from the penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario – certainly the two murderers I once chatted to there were urbane enough to have started a prison newspaper including a crossword.

Each year has a short list of words that entered the language during its twelve months, as well as a selected number of events.  Some of these events are a little Oz-centric (introduction of cane toads to Queensland) but that shouldn’t put anyone off.  Astle is also a published novelist, and the writing style, although occasionally veering towards the sort of jolly bonhomie that colours a lot of crossword writing (outside the clues, that is), is very approachable.  I’ve heard that it’s due out in the UK at the start of December – meanwhile you can get it here (and it may be the first crossword book where the eulogies include the f-word).  Now – onward to the 1960s…

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