Friday 28 May 2010

Afrit’s Armchair Crosswords

“You need not mean what you say, but you must say what you mean”

Afrit's Armchair Crosswords - A Book for Leisure Moments Afrit's injunction to setters, which beautifully sums up the essence of cryptic clues, first appeared in his 1949 book Armchair Crosswords. This book is rare today and had been out of print for several years. With the efforts of Derek Harrison and Rendezvous Press, its publication was revived in 2009.

I have recently finished reading/solving the puzzles in Afrit's Armchair Crosswords. Sharing with you some background about the book and my impressions of it.

Who is Afrit?

Afrit is the pseudonym of crossword compiler Alistair Ferguson Ritchie (1890-1954), a predecessor of Ximenes. He set puzzles for The Listener (which, the book says, "were extremely difficult, often securing no correct entries") and easier ones for The Sketch. In 1949 he published 40 of these puzzles in the collection called Armchair Crosswords.

Inside the book…

This is a slim 104-page volume, with a preface by Ximenes and a foreword to the new edition by Derek Harrison.

Then follows Afrit's introduction – a landmark essay on the ethics of crossword composition. The bulk of the book is its 40 puzzles, the solutions to which are listed towards the close of the book. At last is an appendix to this edition – a write-up about Afrit, and some rare photographs of him.

The Famous Introduction

Armchair Crosswords is best-known for its introduction, in which Afrit talks about cryptic crossword rules – words, their arrangement and types of clues.

Having read quotes from the introduction here, there and everywhere, I had expected the text to be more expansive. On first look I was rather taken aback to find it only three pages long.

After reading it, I'm surprised no longer. This is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to cryptic crosswords but an expression of their philosophy. Afrit's prose has an epigrammatic quality; sentences like "Words can be divided into two classes – those which are hard work for you, and those which are hard work for the composer" stick long after you've read them.

Afrit was perhaps the first to set down rules for clue fairness. He says:

…[the setter] may attempt to mislead by employing a form of words which can be taken in more than one way, and it is your fault if you take it the wrong way, but it is his fault if you can’t logically take it the right way. 

Afrit's ideas were later expanded by Ximenes in his 1966 book Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword.

The Grids

Afrits-Grid-Portion Most of the grids are 14x14 blocked. One of them has six black squares in a row, symmetrically positioned in the four directions, with the word BEAUTY written across each row. There are five 12x14 grids that use a mix of blocked and barred styles.

One aspect of the grids that is odd by modern grid design standards: at many places, two letters occur side-by-side and they don't form a clued word. This was initially very distracting but I soon learnt to ignore such letters.

The Clues

Afrit's clues are quite unlike what we're used to in modern cryptic puzzles, and can be bewildering at first. Solving gets easier after cracking the first few clues. (Checking is very good, which helps.) The trick is to read the entire clue and identify what it means, rather than mulling over each word in isolation as we might do with modern cryptic clues.

To give you an example:
You won't get fat out of this, though the char-lady does (6) CLEANS

"the char-lady does" is the definition, and you won't get FAT out of this => you will get LEAN.

This clue - and many others in the book - do not meet the Ximenean standard of having wordplay for every letter in the answer, and at the other extreme, many give out large portions of the answer as-is in the clue. Other forms of unXimenean-ness such as indirect anagrams are also to be found.

In an age when we place a high premium on economy of words, Afrit's clues strike you for their unabashed wordiness. Clues are sprinkled with "you see"s and "of course"s, definitions run into several words and a word count of > 15 per clue is not unusual.

Many clues use puns on misspelling, incorrect grammar or speech. I loved such clues.

If Peeping Tom had knowed more, he'd have – well, not got the Pip! (8)
Very insidious drug; you may have heard a bhad report of it (5)

The answers are SEEDLESS and BHANG.

Special mention for Puzzle No. 25 which has clues in couplets (in Afrit's era, kororareka's rhymes would surely have stood a chance as cryptic clues).

One such clue for the word REFUSE:

"I don't do this" just means "I will,"
And "Rubbish", too, would fit the bill (6)

I could not solve the extra clue of "True Lover's Knot" in this puzzle, and don't understand it even after seeing the answer. (The answers are not annotated. For some clues, I wish they were.)

Closing Notes

Cryptic crosswords have come a long way since the days of Afrit. Modern clues are tighter, more sophisticated, yet the discerning eye cannot miss the wit and talent behind the puzzles in this book. Going through Armchair Crosswords was an experience similar to watching a great film or reading an excellent book from a bygone era. The intercuts may be choppy, the language archaic, but that does not dim the brilliance of the work.

"The genius of Afrit merits a wider audience", says Derek Harrison in the book's foreword. I could not agree more. I hope you will pick up this book too and enjoy it as much as I did.

Solve These

Two clues from Afrit's collection. Try solving. Answers tomorrow.

Most trees are after the Fall; certainly Adam and Eve were before the Fall (8)
You may not agree with him, but he will consider your taste. He has the wherewithal to write in water (8)

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Chaturvasi said...

Most trees are after the Fall; certainly Adam and Eve were before the Fall (8)

The answer for above is LEAFLESS.

I don't have this book though Ximenes's has been in my library for decades.

Anonymous said...

1)Most trees are..LEAFLESS

Shuchi said...

LEAFLESS is right.

Hint for the other: The whole of "You may not agree with him, but he will consider your taste" is the definition. The wordplay is container-content type.

@Chaturvasi: This book is a must-have, add it to your collection soon!

Raju Umamaheswar said...

It took me only a second to get the answer :; Leafless:: but the second one eludes me for a quick response. Need to sleep it over. An accompanying grid can certainly help, as I had commented earlier.

Shuchi said...

@Raju: I hope the hint will help with the second clue.

The point of the "Solve These" section is only to give a feel of the style of certain clues, and not to reproduce full crosswords. I take care to pick clues that I think can be solved without the grid. Usually they get solved on the blog/twitter within minutes; if not, hints are given.

These clues are quoted from copyrighted work with permission. To get the accompanying grid, you have to go to the book.

raju umamaheswar said...

The second answer could be:


If it is, it is too convoluted !!

I understand and appreciate that copyrights have to be respected.

Shuchi said...

You may not agree with him, but he will consider your taste. He has the wherewithal to write in water (8) C _ _ N _ _ _ L

Shyam said...


Shuchi said...

You got it, Shyam!