The crossword this time round is an Enigmatic Variations puzzle from 1996 – sufficiently long ago that I decided I should mark the passing of time by updating the descriptive text on the main EV page. The puzzle itself is called Lifts, and it’s one where I looked back at it and thought “Did I really just decide to do that?”. It also has what I think is the longest preamble of any I have put up on the site so far.
Some people grumble about long preambles. There is a lot to take in – but that’s balanced by the fact that you are being given lots of information. You are generally less likely to have to hang around waiting for a penny drop, and you instead have a process to which you have to adapt your solving skills. In the case of ‘Lifts’, it’s a mode of entry twist – there’s a fair bit of boustrephedon work in this one, and I can tell you that here because the preamble also does so. Hence you can plunge in and start solving – though not all answers can be entered straight away. But you have the outlined process to help you spot where an answer might go. I don’t think the puzzle would be solvable without this degree of up-front information.
Some people grumble about short preambles too. Certainly things like ‘A number of clues contain modifications that indicate how the remaining answers, whose clues are normal, are to be entered’ or even the very basic ‘The unclued answers have something in common’ are not letting on a great deal, and you have to dive in and start fossicking around.
There is room for both approaches, surely. Well, actually there often isn’t room for long preambles, while we remain dependent on paper versions. Newspapers have limited space for crosswords, however expansive their websites may be. The original version of ‘Lifts’ did strike me as being in rather small print, though I don’t have any contemporaneous examples for comparison. So the chances are that solvers will see a majority of puzzles of the less informative, wait-for-the-penny-to-drop type.
Last time I was musing on the value of having up-to-the-minute and topical references in crosswords. Almost immediately there was an example in the Independent where the clue referred to a successful pop song from the mid-90s, and a large number of solvers (me included) were left scratching their heads. I also read an interview this week with Chris Riddell, the illustrator and former Children’s Laureate, who has recently brought out a modern version of the two Alice books by Lewis Carroll. He noted that John Tenniel had included a caricature of Benjamin Disraeli in the illustrations for Through the Looking-Glass – this was not an option in the present-day when political reputations rose and fell almost on a weekly basis.
So I remain somewhat against topicality: that’s not to say a clue cannot have it, but it’s going to have to have a surface that persists beyond the immediate relevance, and delivers two clear components – definition and wordplay – that do not depend on the topical context for solving. That strikes me as a hard thing to do.
My own piece of topicality: aside from the usual Friday Independent appearances, there’s a Times Quick Cryptic on Thursday 9 September.