Two Girls, One on Each Knee (7) by Alan Connor: = patella

Cover image If you understand that heading you’ll know what Alan Connor’s book is all about. It’s the crossword’s centenary this year – 21st December to be precise, the date on which the first one appeared in an American newspaper. I’m not a crossword aficionado and I think this proof, which was sent in a bundle by a good friend, was probably meant for H who likes a tussle with the Observer’s cryptic most weeks but when I saw it the old bookseller in me recognised a sure-fire Christmas winner so I had to take a look.

Ingeniously the book itself is structured in the form of a crossword, its grid printed at the beginning with each chapter headed by the answer to a clue. It’s packed with crossword history, much of it fascinating and surprisingly funny, plus lots of tips for puzzlers. For me the best bits were the trivia. The Listener crossword, so arcane that it has occasionally required a bout of origami to arrive at its solution, inspires such passion in its followers that an early-day motion was put to Parliament in 1997, when its future appeared uncertain, urging the editor of The Times to reconsider his decision to cut it. Setters find themselves put right by irate solvers when they get something wrong – one such received a letter from an eight-year-old pointing out that Captain Ahab’s prosthetic leg was not wooden but marble leaving the setter wondering what sort of child reads Moby Dick. Marriage proposals have been made in them; Araucaria, the Guardian’s much-loved setter, announced his terminal cancer in one; setters have been suspected of collaboration with the enemy by giving away battle plans in World War Two – not so apparently – in them and they frequently appear in fiction. A half-finished crossword is reproduced in a Georges Perec novel riddled with wordplay and clues, surely a translator’s nightmare.

I’ve not the patience for a cryptic crossword and, anyway, there are far too many books to read but I can see the satisfaction of a completed grid and I do enjoy wordplay, particularly of the puerile variety,  so I’m going to end with a literary puzzle courtesy of H who found it in Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence (excellent, apparently): why was T. S. Eliot so insistent on his second initial?

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