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Crossword blog: barred weekend puzzles


They often sit right next to the normal crossword. But they look different. Bars instead of black squares. And a preamble announcing that some fundamental understanding of crosswords does not apply: for example, maybe every clue contains a deliberate misprint.

Some readers have suggested that 2021 is a good time for them to finally try to make sense of one of these things. But … aren’t they all GCHQ levels of near-impossibility?

They are and they aren’t. I thoroughly recommend them as a prolonged and engrossing distraction. It’s true that you’ll sometimes be writing in a word for an obsolete ancestor of the photocopier, which used a sheet of gelatin, but that’s OK. You’re expected to use dictionaries – and indeed, any method you like – to confirm that a JELLYGRAPH is a thing, or at least was.

You’ll have got there from a combination of the wordplay and that absence of black squares, which means that answers intersect – and unlock each other – much more readily.

So you sit, with Chambers Dictionary

… and slowly fill some squares, remembering whatever the rubric has warned you about, because most likely those misprints will spell out some sort of secret instruction for your next challenge.

Yes: much of the time, the filled grid is scaffolding for an endgame. Already this year, I’ve been asked to regard the grid as a music box and pick out a tune, see it as a box of chocolates, and to replace the contents of some cells with the s and ♒︎s of heavenly bodies. (That’s three different puzzles; they’re not that insane.)

Each newspaper has harder and easier weeks but the gentlest way in for the terrified is probably Enigmatic Variations in the Sunday Telegraph. While they work their way through the clues, solvers can head over to Big Dave’s solvers blog to find out a bit about the setter and get some useful hints – nothing more than hints, mind, as this is one of the few puzzles to currently offer a physical prize, by which I mean a digital book token.

Next up, the lively Inquisitor, in the weekend edition of the i newspaper. The setter known locally as Enigmatist is approaching his tenth year as temporary editor, and explicitly invites us solvers to pester him “at any time” with emailed queries about the puzzles, which are approaching 1,700 in number. There’s also a box with points of interest from the world of crosswords, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, which – since you’re reading these words – you surely are.

Peter Robinson, former first minister and champion of difficult crosswords.
Peter Robinson, former first minister and champion of difficult crosswords. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images Europe

The big one is the Listener, which started life in 1930 in the BBC’s cerebral magazine of the same name and moved to Saturday’s Times when the magazine ceased to exist. When its future there seemed in doubt, MP Peter Robinson tabled an early-day motion

That this House recognises that the Listener crossword, which appears in The Times newspaper every Saturday, (i) is the most challenging and imaginatively devised cryptic crossword currently published in a national newspaper and (ii) gives much pleasure to thousands of devoted solvers; notes with concern that the editor of the Times plans to discontinue this historic crossword from September 1997; and urges him to reconsider his decision, thereby ensuring that the Listener crossword continues to be published well into the next millennium.

… and happily, the series survives. The music box and so on mentioned above are all from the Listener, and we can return to the topic another time and discuss the entire world these puzzles have spawned.

Dictionaries
Dictionaries are available in the Guardian Bookshop Photograph: Alamy

Of course, you may not fancy devoting much of your weekend to an elaborate endgame, in which case you’re directed to two other series. One is the Sunday Times’ immaculate Mephisto, which has a rotating-setter system, including the compiler known locally as Pasquale. Finally, of course, is the Observer’s, which has been going for 86 years and has had just three setters, the incumbent being Azed, who you can get to know in our Meet the Setter series.

For all of these, my advice is:

If you already spend your weekends doing these things, what have I missed, and why do you do this?

The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop.

Here is a collection of all our explainers, interviews and other helpful bits and bobs.





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