Swiss cheese

William Tell was a touchy fellow and became quite vain about his own legend as a folk hero. At the battle of Morgarten a captured officer was brought to him for interrogation. The Austrian did not recognise him and asked, quite innocently, to whom he was speaking. This so incensed the great archer that he seized a halberd from one of the guards and was about to thrust it into his prisoner's ribs.

The sergeant was horrified at this breach of battlefield honour, and shouted out hurriedly "Don't pike him, Tell!"

A cryptic turnout

People have been asking for explanations of some cryptic clues I have been putting onto Facebook and Twitter.

The general principle of cryptic crosswords
Each clue1 divides into two parts: there is a straight definition of the answer, and some cryptic word play that indicates the exact wording, generally by treating it as a collection of letters to be manipulated.

The definition has to come at one end or the other. Much of the challenge of understanding a clue comes in identifying which end it is.

Solving a clue doesn't need you to read the whole thing as a literal piece of English, and it's easy to find yourself looking only at how to get the answer. But a good clue should ideally make some sense as a whole. This is the wit of the game, and why it remains amusing.

Clues that aren't set as part of a crossword need to be relatively easy, as the solver can't be helped by finding some of the letters. So the aim here was to find a set of topical answers for which the literal meaning of the clues was also topical.

[Answers and explanations in excruciating detail.]

Within seven days, Union's "name in history": Alex Salmond (3,3)
Answer: WEE ECK

The definition here is Alex Salmond. "Wee Eck" is a satirical nickname for him, seen by me especially in Private Eye but also in, say, Guardian columns (and prevalent, I believe, in the Scottish press). Eck is a diminutive for Alex or Alexander, and Wee Eck is a character in Oor Wullie, the cartoon strip.

The word play is Within seven days, Union's "name in history".

Seven days is WEEK. Within indicates that something else will be placed inbetween its letters. Union's name in history is a former name for a union, but we have to work out which one. The EU is a union, and one of its former names is the EC.

Putting the letters EC into WEEK gets WEE (EC)K. Hurrah!

(1) The part "within" is by convention inserted all together. One will never have to parse it weE eCk.
(2) Capital letters aren't significant to the word play.
(3) The quotation marks aren't needed for the word play; they're mostly there for the literal effect. But it would be unfair for the word play to stray across the quotation. Possibly in might be an insertion signifier like within but the analysis can't be Union's name inserted in history.

Leaving cherished Union six days before referendum, town setting pattern? (7)

A question mark at the end of a clue usually suggests that the definition is a bit inexact. Here town setting pattern properly defines a town, and the rest of the definition is a bit tangential. Setting is not a good word for "that is also", though if you set down (the name of) this town you also set down a pattern.

The word play is nearly literal. "One leaving cherished Union six days before referendum" would be a strictly correct definition of Ian Paisley, but without the noun it could only define a sort of leaving, which isn't right.

(1) Every word is supposed to do some work. Setting is a bit weak, and comes close to spoiling the clue. The literal reading justifies its presence, I think. Cherished is unnecessary, but is still doing work in clueing Paisley, so that is all right.
(2) In any case with three routes to the same word it is a fair clue.

Consultation people (among which I) refer to (10)

The definition is Consultation. The PLEBS is the people, among which is the letter I. To CITE is to refer to.

(1) Definitions, either for the whole clue or forming part of the word play, only need to be equivalent in a particular context. The fact that "plebs" can't substitute for "people" except following a "the" doesn't make the clue unfair.
(2) Unlike the previous two clues there is no punctuation separating the two parts. This is allowed.

Year for Parliament to comprehend former Union territory's leaving (9)

The definition is territory's leaving, which parsed "the leaving of a territory" does define a secession. A parliamentary year is a SESSION. To comprehend is another insertion marker; I also thought about "to take in" but it seemed a bit obvious.

Former Union is a bit aphetic for "Union's former name" but we've established that this could be EC already and I couldn't find a better way which didn't disrupt the sense.

It should be becoming clear that the word play divides into words that define, and words that mark how to manipulate. The markers can be whimsical or tangential: any word with a sense of inclusion or insertion can be an insertion marker; anything meaning "jumbled up" or "remade" can be an anagram.

He gambles to win partner for him in (traditional!) Union? No. (6, 8)

The definition is just No. The Better Together campaign is the No campaign.

In the word play, union here stands for "marriage". Historically a marriage is of a him and a her; with the Equal Marriages Act it seemed necessary to specify this. We've had "history" before, so I avoided it, but maybe "historically accepted" would have been better for the literal reading. I had to specify for him rather than "his" (or nothing) because otherwise the partner would have had to have been for the He at the start of the clue and so also a nominative "She".

To win something or somebody is TO GET it or him or her. Note that the to clues itself. And one who gambles is a BETTER.

Vote showing spirit about last part of joint purpose (10)

The definition is Vote. The word showing is a link word between the two halves: the answer "shows" the result of (the rest of) the word play. "Demonstrating" or "for" or "from" would also be allowed as links here. "To get" would be allowed but only if the clue were reversed: from playing with words you can get the object of the definition, but not the other way about.

The spirit is RUM. About is yet another insertion marker, as we write the letters of RUM about the rest of the letters: really too many of these clues work the same way. Last part of is a marker saying that only the last few letters of the word clued by joint are needed. A joint could be a reEFER; if you do something to an END you do it to a purpose

(1) Here the part inserted is made up of several separate parts of the word play.
(2) "Last parts" are very often the whole clued word except for one letter. A fair clue will use enough of the clued word that it is identifiable from the used parts; I think this example is nearing the margins of what's allowed.

Polling official cut short Union, admitting "draw" (10)

Polling is the definition. Official is REFEREe, cut short by omitting the last letter (so better than the other clue). The union here is the NUM, the National Union of Mineworkers so important in the early 1980s. And draw is D (as used in a table of sporting results), admitted to NUM.

I prefer this clue to the other one, both because the word play is a bit tighter and for the unexpected sense of "union".

Bar chat lends vote new nationalist tune (8,3,5)

A nationalist tune. I wanted to have at least one anagram, for which new is a very usual marker; counting the letters of bar chat lends vote shows it's the right length to fill the answer.

Song by Burns? No, just the one. (6,2,8)

This is Colin's clue, and it's very good although (as he says) a bit "crosswordy".

Song is the definition; by a link.

The crosswordy bit is knowing that FLOWER in cryptic convention very often means "river". As in, something that flows. And a Scottish stream is a "burn", so rather than several Burns, a stream OF SCOTLAND is just the one burn.

For the Union, moving on up (2).

The eventual vote NO was a vote for the Union. Up is a usual marker for writing a word backwards (on a proper crossword grid, this makes sense for a Down clue if not an Across one) and if someone is moving "on" upwards it would come in the order NO.

1. Except for those that don't.


Another from the archive, February 2001. Written for and first published in oxbridge.tat, a newsgroup whose sole purpose was distraction. The thread was entitled "Utilitarianism", but it had evidently drifted a long way from there. Let's now call it


I never reared a young gazelle
   To glad me with its soft bright eye;
I never wrote a villanelle,

For when the verse is flowing well
   There are so many forms to try:
"I never reared a young gazelle",

"I do not love thee, Doctor Fell",
   (Although the poet knew not why,
I never wrote a villanelle),

"Send not to know for whom the bell"---
   No! "A nos moutons!" is the cry.
"I never reared a young gazelle..."

...but on the primrose path to hell,
   I start to write, then lay it by.
I never wrote a villanelle,

Ballade or Thesis; now I smell
The fear of those who, dying, cry
   "I never reared a young gazelle,
    I never wrote a villanelle".

Facebook comments (II)

A response to this thoughtful and rather beautiful sonnet on a childhood home no longer owned.

On which, however, a lawyer commented: "Much more creative than any of your former colleagues' tax planning and far more emotive :-)"

The house? It's still our home; it's just
Been transferred to a Guernsey trust---
---The freehold interest, at least.
Because, you see, it's now been leased
As several fractional estates
At plausibly commercial rates
(According to our tame surveyors)
To Cayman Island firms, whose layers
Of cross-held shares and debt make losses
So deep that their respective bosses
Have each of them requested me
To occupy his part, and see
His rivals do not interfere
With what's not theirs. And while I'm here
On business, I can charge a fee,
And use the bits of house for free,
And you, of course, can live with me.
All just a little legal praxis
To save on inconvenient taxes.
So when my soul some day "offshores"
All this, my child, can then be yours.

Facebook comments (I). "Rhyming similarities in the Gruffalo and the Shropshire Lad: discuss."

This comes from a Facebook thread which was mostly about Wendy Cope.

When dark the woods in autumn
Ere lunch I madly strolled.
Through glade and copse I sought 'em,
My dining friends of old.

Though terrible your claws, lad,
And terrible your teeth,
Less terrible your jaws, lad
Than the wart they lie beneath.

Now snug against the winds that blow
Doors underground I shut
Defended by the gruffalo.
But who defends this nut?

Malthus and Doomsday

Arthur C Clarke began the foreword to 2001, A Space Odyssey:
"Behind every man alive stand thirty ghosts: for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living"

This was actually true in 1945. By the time 2001 was published, in 1968, the figure was twenty. In 2001, twelve. Today, according to the UN tool the BBC have put online, below ten point nine.

The long tail of prehistory produces a completely negligible error term. Nor does it matter which hominid you take as the first human.