Crossword Down

The man popularly associated with compiling the first modern crossword is Liverpool-born Arthur Wynne who emigrated to America at the age of nineteen and in 1913 found himself editing a weekly puzzle page for the comic section of the New York World, called Fun. For the Christmas edition Wynne wanted something new over and above the standard fare of word squares, rebuses, and anagrams.

The result of his ruminations was a diamond-shaped grid built around a central framework of two horizontal and two vertical lines of seven squares. Words ran either horizontally or vertically, and the reader was invited to “fill in the small squares which agree to the following definitions” in what Wynne called a Word-Cross Puzzle. The first and last squares of each word were numbered as was the clue to which the answer related. To start things off Wynne filled the top horizontal with the word “Fun”.

The clues themselves were relatively straightforward, although two – the fibre of the gamouti palm (3 letters) and an aromatic plant (four letters)[1] – caused me to scratch my head. In the centre of the grid there was a blank area, again shaped like a diamond, four squares at its widest and longest.

The puzzle appeared on December 21, 1913, and proved popular, spurring some readers to compile their own and send them in. The grateful Wynne started using them from February 1914. Typographical errors, though, bedevilled the weekly puzzle – not least one that transposed its title to cross-word. Although this error was retained, the hyphen disappearing later, the integrity of the puzzle was so compromised that it was dropped from the pages of the New York World. Protests from the readership led to the puzzle being quickly reinstated.

Wynne also experimented with the shape of the grid, moving to a circular puzzle before settling on the now familiar rectangle with shaded squares used to separate the words or phrases.

Crossword mania swept America in the early 1920s, a phenomenon which was met with characteristic disdain on this side of the Atlantic, the Times even devoting an editorial entitled “An Enslaved Nation” to pour scorn on the American addiction. However, Britain was powerless to resist its attractions, Pearson’s Magazine publishing the first crossword here in February 1922 and the Sunday Express became the first British newspaper to print one in its edition of November 2, 1924. The Daily Telegraph in 1925, the Manchester Guardian in 1929 and even the Times, from February 1, 1930, followed suit.

The first cryptic crossword appeared in the Daily Telegraph on July 30, 1925, and by the 1930s the clues had become much more sophisticated, containing full or partial anagrams, double meanings, and themes. Curiously, it was not until 1968, thanks to the efforts of Stephen Sondheim, that a cryptic crossword made its way to America, first appearing in the pages of the New Yorker magazine.

Non-cruciverbalists have long suspected that there is a deeper meaning lurking within the seemingly innocent grid of light and dark squares, never more so than in May 1944. An Observer crossword compiled by Leonard Dawe contained words associated with the D-Day preparations, such as Omaha, Utah, Neptune, and Overlord. Although Intelligence officers could find nothing linking Dawe with the Germans, it emerged in 1984 that a group of schoolboys, who helped Dawe to compile his puzzles, brought back gossip they had picked up from nearby barracks. Dawe was mortified that he had been an accidental traitor.

Pedro Bartolay’s crossword containing 11,000 squares and 4,225 clues, the world’s largest and compiled in 2013, may have been a tad extreme, but, as a reader in Turkey said about the Times’ first effort, crosswords lift us from our “daily rounds” and allow us to “spend a happy afternoon” tackling them. Long may they continue.

If you enjoyed, check out More Curious Questions by following the link below:

[1] Solution – doh and nard

Driving Test Of The Week

With the pass rate for the practical driving test as low as 46.4% in 2019/20, according to the Driving and Vehicle Standards Agency, is it possible to game the system? This was the thought that struck journalist Constance Kampfner, who had failed her first driving test when she took it in London.

The Scottish island of Mull, where the pass rate was almost 90% in the spring and summer of last year, looked promising, especially as its roads are mainly single-track, there are no traffic lights, and only one roundabout and that is not even on the test route. The ability to parallel park would not be a skill she would have to demonstrate.

The enterprising Constance booked her driving test on the island, a mere five-hundred miles away from her home, hired a Mini from a local health worker who gave her a few lessons in it as there is no driving instructor on the island, and presented herself at the test centre, which was a small car park near the local Spar shop.

With the test underway, Constance did all the things that aspiring drivers do, such as looking in her mirror ostentatiously and showing studious attention to her surroundings. Her strategy came undone when she pulled up at the end of the test, her examiner commenting on her tendency to wander into the middle of the road and summed up by remarking, “I don’t like to talk about people who fail their tests. Think of it as just not passing”.

It is back to the drawing board for Constance, going the extra mile clearly not working this time. Perhaps it will be a case of third time lucky.

Sausage Of The Week

Millie, a Jack Russell belonging to Emma Oakes, had gone AWOL for a couple of days when reports were received that she had been spotted on mudflats at Farlington Marshes, near Portsmouth. The problem was that she was three hundred yards from safety, the mudflats were treacherous, and the tide was coming in, and she could not be reached by any other means. How were the rescuers going to lure her to safety?    

With sausages, of course.

A string of sausages was bought from a nearby supermarket, believed to be Aldi, cooked up by a woman in her sixties, and attached to a drone which flew over the mudflats. The aroma of the sausages was enough to lure Millie to higher ground.

There was a bit of a party atmosphere as local residents kept the rescue team, drawn from Hampshire Constabulary, the Solent Coastguard, kayakers, and volunteers from Denmead Drone Search and Rescue, were plied with food and drink. The operation was so successful that the rescuers are seriously considering using sausage-baited drones again if the occasion arises.

However, that was not the end of Millie’s adventures. Having sated herself on sausage and reached higher ground, she ran off into the woods nearby and then into an industrial area where she was rescued and finally reunited with her owner the following day.

At least she was not a Dachshund.

Eleven Of The Gang

The height of the abstentionist movement in England was in the late 19th century. In 1882 the Blue Ribbon Army was established, who proclaimed their abhorrence of alcohol by wearing a bright blue ribbon on their left buttonhole. Supporters called them Blue Ribbonites but those who were convinced that their proclamation of abstinence was all front called them Blue Ribbon Fakers. Either way, by 1886 the practice of wearing a blue ribbon had gone out of fashion.

Perhaps the goal of ridding the country of the demon drink was the equivalent of looking for Blue Roses. This rather poetic turn of phrase was used to describe something which was unattainable. Other variants used included blue dahlias or a tortoiseshell tom cat.

Bobby is still used as a slang term for a policeman, an abbreviation of Robert Peel’s name, the man who organized the guardians of the law on a more professional footing. In Scottish slang it meant a faithful person, after Greyfriars Bobby. This Bobby was a devoted little dog, a terrier, who faithfully kept watch over the grave of his unknown master in the strangers’ corner of Greyfriars Cemetery in Edinburgh for a dozen years or so. So moved was Lady Burdett Coutts by the dog’s devotion that she erected a little monument in his memory.

Trouble with the Irish Fenians has a long pedigree. In 1868 in a period of especial alarm volunteers or special constables were recruited to augment the police. They were known as Bobby’s labourers as the did the work of the bobbies, the regular policemen.

And before we leave Bob and its variants behind, Bob, Harry and Dick was a bit of rhyming slang dating from 1868, used to describe being sick, usually as a result of over imbibing. Seek out Blue Roses in vain!

Rosemullion Harvest Gin

Autumn is my favourite season of the year. The deciduous trees make a spectacular display with their stunning displays of yellows, browns and reds as their leaves make their last defiant stand before the ravages of the wind and rain send them hurtling to the ground. It is also the time when our indigenous fruits make their appearance. Locally grown apples and pears are the flavours I particularly associate with that time of year. Rosemullion Harvest Gin is an attempt to create the colours and flavours of an English autumn in a bottle and I had to try it out.

Rosemullion Distillery is run by husband and wife team, Andy and Liz Bradbury, and has been operating since 2018. Between them they have forty years’ experience as industrial chemists and so know a thing or two about the fermentation and distillation process which they decided to put into good use at their distillery which is to be found in Mawnan, just outside Falmouth in Cornwall. To date they have produced four types of gin – I tried and reviewed their Dry Gin a while ago – and five rums, a considerable achievement in the space of less than four years.   

The Bradburys’ spirits are very much homemade, with even the base spirit made from scratch, using Cornish rainwater which they collect and molasses. It is no surprise then that the principal ingredients of their Harvest Gin, apple, plum, blackberry, raspberry, and sloe, are harvested from their own orchards. The true essence of a gin, though, is not overlooked, as they also include the holy quintet of juniper, citrus, coriander seeds, orris root, and angelica root. Small copper stills are used to distil the spirit.

There is an element of the mad scientist about the operation. So bitten have they been by the ginaissance bug that the Bradburys are forever experimenting with botanical combinations and flavours with several fermenters and stills on the go. One thing is for certain is that we can expect more spirits which reflect their enterprise and the characteristics of the beautiful area in which they live.

Their bottle is also very distinctive, a very tactile, thin, and rounded clear glass bottle with broad shoulders, a short neck and a very broad black stopper with an artificial cork. There is a very distinctive round label on the front, almost Celtic in feel and style, and the patterning is repeated on the top of the cap. The neck has a tawny brown label with silver lettering. You will not miss it on a shelf, especially as the Harvest Gin has a delightful tawny hue to it.

Aesthetics and authenticity are all very well, but what does it taste like?

On removing the stopper, I felt I had walked into a busy country kitchen with all manner of fruit pies on the stove. The autumnal fruits are there in full force and there is no doubt that if you are a fan of Britain’s autumnal fruits you are going to be in for a treat. However, the more traditional gin elements are detectable, and this is particularly so when the spirit is poured into a glass. I was worried that the fruits would overbalance the gin, but I need not have worried. The traditional gin botanicals were able to make their presence felt and combined with the less subtle flavours of the fruits made for an unusual but definitely moreish drink, with a long, smooth, peppery finish.

It is a drink to savour and appreciate the skill which has gone into producing it, avoiding the mistake that many distillers make of losing touch with the more traditional elements of a gin. Its taste palate succeeds in painting a picture of a British autumn and at 40% ABV the drink is inviting enough to have another glass. If you are looking for a gin that is somewhat out of the ordinary, check this one out.

Until the next time, cheers!