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Changing crosswords provoked cross words

WE are fast approaching that dolorous time of year when editors of newspapers such as this one wake up with their heads in their hands.

The problem is not a hangover - heaven forfend! - but white space and how best to fill it.

Nothing, it seems, is happening either in the wider world or on one's own doorstep.

Politicians, who are usually good for a splash or two, have disappeared from the radar, retiring to their but and bens to reacquaint themselves with their families or gnaw bitterly at their nails over their lack of progress up the parliamentary beanstalk. Meanwhile, ne'er-do-wells, who can always be counted on to lead a page, appear to have gone into hibernation. As every bobby knows, the perfect antidotes to criminal activity are plummeting temperatures and a drop of the wet stuff.

In such circumstances, what is an editor to do? This was the dilemma facing the great Herbert Bayard Swope of the New York World. The year was 1913 and Christmas was just round the corner. In his hour of need, Mr Swope turned to one of his hacks, Liverpool-born Arthur Wynne, and commanded him to invent a new game for the paper's entertainment section.

It is not, I suspect, the kind of commission many of us would relish. No one teaches you at journalism school to do such things. Shorthand, yes. Making sense of impenetrable council minutes and government announcements too. But coming up with a new game? You're having a laugh!

Mr Wynne, however, was undaunted. Knowing it was professionally unacceptable to deny the wishes of his boss, he produced what is widely acknowledged to be the first ever crossword, which appeared in the New York World on December 21 100 years ago.

I cannot help but express regret on Mr Wynne's behalf. I dare say that when he died in 1945, aged 73, fulsome tributes were paid him. But he has not entered the annals as have, say, Alexander Graham Bell and John Logie Baird, great inventors both, but far inferior surely to Mr Wynne, whose original, simple, diamond-shaped puzzle was the spark that ignited a pastime which has killed many an empty hour.

For much of this information I am indebted to Alan Connor, author of Two Girls, One on Each Knee (7), which no crossword addict, be they a compiler or a solver, can ignore. I did not know, for instance, that the esteemed publisher Simon and Schuster was founded on the strength of the first book of crossword puzzles, which appeared in 1924.

Nor was I aware Bill Clinton likes to do crosswords, as did PG Wodehouse and as do the Queen and Sepp Blatter. Other famous - if fictional - solvers include Inspector Morse, George Smiley's comrade-in-arms Connie Sachs and Victor Meldrew. Indeed, as Mr Connor reminds us, it was Mr Meldrew who, in an episode in One Foot In the Grave, looked at a clue such as "Mad poet mugged by banjo player sees red when eating pickles" and muttered: "I don't seem to be able to do the crossword today as I appear to be temporarily out of mind-bending drugs."

Many's the time I might have said the same. For I, too, was hooked on crosswords for longer than I care to remember. How I kicked the habit I know not, there being no organisation like Alcoholics Anonymous for the afflicted.

I spent days suspended in frustration, not eating or drinking or venturing outside until I had found the elusive solution to a clue set by some fiendish setter such as those who enjoy torturing Herald readers daily.

Of course, no one should ever underestimate the importance of crosswords. While working elsewhere in this inky trade I was instrumental in moving the puzzle from one section of the newspaper to another which led to a barrage of acidic complaints. I was accused of nothing less than destroying the moral fabric of the nation. When I asked for an explanation, I was told that since the section containing the crossword left the house in the morning when husbands went off to work, their wives, bored witless and underemployed, had no alternative but to seek amusement elsewhere. Need one say more? Was there ever a better definition of "clueless"?

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