Monday, August 27, 2012

Crossing Words - And Discovering An Author

As a sometime wordsmith - even if rather inactive these past few months - I take a lot of pleasure in solving crosswords. Just for fun. I have a long history of that, and at one time took huge pleasure (mixed with mental pain) in solving cryptic crosswords. I can even claim to have solved some of the real brain-knotters in The London Times and The Guardian. Although not very many of them. They are really difficult.

I had an interesting start on cryptics. Back in the scarce-remembered days of my youth, I toiled for my crust (as my Brit ancestors would have said) working on Parliament Hill here in Ottawa. That was with the Research Branch (as it was then) of the Library of Parliament. One of my recurring duties/tasks was to work with House and Senate Committees - and occasionally Special Committees, or Joint House-Senate Committees - on issues that fell, sometimes raggedly, into the sphere of "science". That word covers a lot of real estate; agriculture, environment, fisheries, and health; as well as their many and various offshoots.

Anyone who has worked with Parliamentary (or Congressional, for readers south of the border) Committees will know that the hearings can be tedious. One colleague referred to Committee work as long periods of numbing tedium, interspersed with moments of sheer terror. As in, a Member or Chairman wants an answer, and s/hewants it RIGHT NOW! But tedium predominates.

During one such brain-numbing session, I noticed that some of the interpreters - or simultaneous translators, as they are also called - the people who work in the "glass booth", and keep Canada's bilingual federal system functioning, would spend their off-duty time doing crosswords. (They were, if I recall correctly, in the booth for a 20-minute period, and out for the same amount of time.) And not the easy kind of crosswords, but the hard ones. The cryptics. Never having done one, although I had occasionally cast a wary eye over them, I asked for instructions, which they happily gave me. And that started a twenty-plus-year preopccupation with the cryptics. I, even, for a short period, tried my hand and mind at composing them. I was only partly successful. And I never had one published, or even tried. Writing fiction, I later found, was easier.

Here's one of my favourite clues, from years back:

'I am a corn product, served with sauce'.

The answer? "macaroni", which is an anagram for "I am a corn"; and the operative clue for an anagram here is "product". Easy, no? But, I hear you say, macaroni is a wheat product. So, what gives here? The answer is almost as nebulous as the clue itself. Cryptic crosswords are a British invention, and in Britain, the word "corn" is used for all cereals, wheat included.

If anyone is interested, there is even a book, a memoir, on cryptic crosswords, by one Sandy Balfour. The title: Pretty Girl In Crimson Rose.

Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8): A Memoir of Love, Exile and Crosswords

The title itself is a cryptic clue. The answer: 'rebelled'. A 'pretty girl' being a 'belle', and a synonym for 'crimson' being 'red', and the two together - belle + red - being an anagram for 'rebelled'. Meaning 'rose', the verb.

It's really easy when you think about it.

To continue. I have now given up cryptics more or less completely, but I still like a challenge with crosswords. On Sundays, I get to work on the latest offering by Merl Reagle, who is one of the best. His weekly crossword is published in the Ottawa Citizen; and a host of other papers, in the USA and Canada.

You can read about Merl Reagle on Wikipedia:

Reagle's creations are tricky, and often humurous. He likes puns. Sometimes his creations could almost qualify as cryptics, at least in part. He has even appeared as a 'guest cartoon character' on The Simpsons, in an episode titled Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words. In addition to being very entertaining and challenging, Reagle is one of the few crossword creators who actually makes a full-time living at his chosen craft.

Which is not something that I am likely to achieve with my mystery writing.

But to get back to the title of this post, Reagle's crossword this past week had, as a clue:

'Author Zora _____ Hurston'.

That one really stumped me. I had to confer with Google to find the answer. Which is, Zora Neale Hurston. I had never heard of her. And that's really a shame, because she deserves to be known by anyone who takes pride in reading serious literature.

You can read about her here:

And here:


Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1891. She died in Fort Pierce, Florida in 1960. She was 69 years old. She had a distinguished career on several levels; as an American folklorist, an anthropologist, a novelist, and a short story writer. When she arrived in New York city in 1925, she became an important writer in the Harlem Renaissance, then at its peak. Her best-known, and arguably her best, book was Their Eyes Were Watching God:


The book was published in 1937. Although the book did not do well when it was published, and was even severely criticised by prominent African-American writers of the day - including Richard Wright, the celebrated author of Uncle Tom's Children, Native Son, and Black Boy - the book and the author both have earned great respect since her death. A re-issue of the novel in 1978 sold out its total printing of 75,000 copies in less than a month. Time Magazine included the book in its list of Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

Hurston's house in Fort Pierce, Florida, is now a National Historic Landmark. Her life and legacy are celebrated every year in Eatonville, Florida, at the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities.

Happily, the Ottawa Public Library has several copies of Their Eyes Were Watching God, including in electronic format. I ordered my copy yesterday.

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

Thomas, I have a special interest in African American history and loved Their Eyes Were Watching God. I'm writing a book on 19th century Kansas African American politicians for Oklahoma University.