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Posted on 27 Mar 2014 in Non-Fiction |

DAVID ASTLE Puzzled: Secrets and clues from a life lost in words. Reviewed by Jean Bedford

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puzzled‘Fantastic nude profile plastered in central Tassie’: (13 letters)* – if you don’t know where to start, or even if you do, this is the book for you.

David Astle – better known perhaps as the Sydney Morning Herald’s cryptic crossword devil-incarnate ‘DA’ – has been obsessed by words and wordplay since he was very young. His childhood hero was the Riddler, not Batman. He cheerfully admits he drove his family mad by pointing out anagrams and making up puzzles at the breakfast table (Eta mayonnaise contains ‘I annoy a mate’; Ovaltine consists of two colours – violet and tan). In these helicopter days he’d probably be diagnosed as having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, given Ritalin, and we’d have all been spared the Friday brain-ache. When he was six, he says:

… At my local library I dug out jokes and limericks from Junior Reference, riddles and knock-knocks: a menace in search of ammo. I revelled in embarrassed zebras and ducks quacking up. I hoarded elephants in custard and backward-flying bees. Pity my family, each night copping the dandy-lions, the sand-witches and all the other groaners in the book.

A certain amount of OCD is certainly helpful for cryptic crossword fans (‘addicts’ is probably more accurate) – and I admit I’m one. Thinking laterally is one thing, but trying to think upside-down and back to front at the same time is quite another: sometimes the brain does seem to actually hurt. However, as Astle points out in this charming book, people who do crosswords more than four times a week are 47 per cent less likely to get dementia than those who don’t.

Puzzled begins, funnily enough, with a puzzle. Then each chapter takes that crossword’s cryptic clues, one by one, and explains how the questions are variously coded to direct us to the answers. The challenge for the reader, of course, is to solve this puzzle before reading the clue analyses. (I managed it, with some difficulty, by cheating on only one answer.)

The Master Puzzle contains most categories of cryptic clues, and they are discussed and demystified: anagrams, homophones and puns, deletions, codes, pangrams and manipulations, to name a few. Astle also describes the all-important ‘signposts’ – that is, the signals in the clue itself as to what sort of process is required to solve it. For example, phrases like ‘on radio’ or ‘one hears’ mean it’s going to be a homophone or a pun; ‘regularly’ probably means every second letter; ‘twisted’, ‘tangled’, ‘snarled’ and so on point to an anagram. As cryptic crossword people know, the verbs used are all-important and the answer usually refers to the first or last word or phrase in the clue. Word order plays a major part and some words might need to be split up into their components (‘decrease’ to ‘de-crease’ = ‘iron’). Astle warns us that ‘every syllable counts in a cryptic’.

But this is more than a how-to book. Interspersed with the fascinating insights into a cruciverbalist’s bag of tricks are snatches of personal memoir, linguistic erudition and history: Nostradamus relied on anagrams for divination and so did Alexander the Great; Louis XVIII is thought to have had a Royal Anagrammist; the cryptic crossword as we know it was invented in England in the 1920s; cruciverbalists were recruited to work on the Enigma Project during World War II to break the German signals code. (All codes are ‘ultimately crackable’ says Astle. Yeah, right – not on some Fridays.)

‘Seafood nibble causing pains for Spooner (4,5,).’  (You’ll have to read the book for this answer if you can’t work it out.) The chapter on Spoonerisms didn’t help me at all – they’re my least favourite type of clue, involving a guess about a particular phrase, then a transposition of the first consonants, consonant clusters or syllables, rather than simply a process of working out  – though it did make me laugh. It’s clear that many of the malapropisms attributed to Spooner are apocryphal, but it’s still nice to remember the good ones:

To a lazy student, the reverend says, ‘You have kissed all of my mystery lectures and tasted nearly three worms. I must ask you to leave Oxford at once by the town drain.’

At a wedding, he advises, ‘It is now kisstomary to cuss the bride.’

Astle reveals some of the bloomers he’s made – and the fact that the paper is more likely to get angry responses from readers for mistakes in the cryptic than for errors on the front page – as well as his process for compiling puzzles, with his helpers and editors testing each one.

I wish I’d had this book when I first started doing cryptics. I had to learn by practice and by enlisting friends to help decipher the questions. I still remember the joy at solving my first clue without assistance – it went something like ‘Small pig? Shakespearean play or village (6)’. The answer was ‘hamlet’. That question mark really matters – it means there’s a joke or a sidestep here somewhere. My husband remembers the one and only cryptic clue he ever solved, about 40 years ago – ‘What a beast he was to breathe on her’ (panther).

Puzzled was first published in 2010 and reissued this year. If you’ve ever wished you could do cryptic crosswords, or if you do them but would like some extra enlightenment, buy this book.

* Answer: ‘splendiferous’. (The first word, ‘fantastic’, indicates the answer; then it’s an anagram [indicated by ‘plastered’] of ‘nude profile’ + ‘central Tassie’ [‘ss’].)

David Astle Puzzled: Secrets and clues from a life lost in words Allen & Unwin 2014 PB 420pp $22.99

You can buy this book from Abbey’s here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.