Ximenes and so on

Little is more tedious in the crossword world than people droning on about whether things are "Ximenean" or not.

"Ximenes and the Art of the Crossword" was indeed a revolutionary work. Written in the mid-1960s, its primary purpose was to establish some kind of order on what had become almost stupidly anarchic, especially at the top end of difficulty. The notorious Afrit puzzles for The Listener which received no correct solutions because no-one could possibly follow all the setter's bizarre allusions and fanciful constructions were, frankly, taking the piss. By codifying clue types and establishing a coherent grammar for crosswordese, Macnutt brought order and stability.

The reason he wrote it was that there were some compilers out there who were being simply unfair to the solver, and his constant message is fairness to solvers. And I am absolutely in total agreement with fairness to solvers as the Prime Directive.

I also completely agree with him about what constitutes fairness in grid composition. I can stand a few odd-number-letter entries with only the even letters checked, although it's a bit of a blemish (and yes, I perpetrate them occasionally), but otherwise it's something I care about. There are a few prescribed FT grids which don't provide sufficient ways to navigate, in my opinion, so if I use one of them, I'll make sure to have a compound entry or two which provide extra ways into and out of a corner.

What I completely disagree with, though, is the idea that a book written fifty years ago contains the last word on what constitutes fairness in clueing. For a start, the cryptic crossword is founded on the ambiguities in English usage, and it is manifestly apparent that the English we speak in 2015 is not the English that was spoken in 1965. Words which made perfect sense as cryptic indicators 50 years ago have in some cases changed their common meanings sufficiently for their acknowledged conventional crossword meaning to be almost archaic. It is absurd to believe that we can only use antiquated tools and cannot innovate.

And just as English is a living language, so the crossword is a living art form. Fifty years on, it would be amazing indeed if new techniques for achieving various effects had not emerged. Not everyone is going to like them. On the other hand, there are techniques hallowed by customary usage which I think are pretty horrible too. And there are other mainstream techniques which are now so hackneyed that they no longer entertain and are mere mechanical devices which solvers translate automatically.

Of course following Ximenes to the letter will produce a perfectly serviceable puzzle. Just as following the standard rules for musical composition will produce perfectly serviceable pieces of music. And it is entirely possible to produce a great piece of music or a great crossword puzzle by following the rules. But if nobody broke the rules, there would have been no Rolling Stones, no Pink Floyd and no Talking Heads. Sod that for a game of soldiers.

That isn't the same as saying "anything goes", though. The Prime Directive is fairness to the solver, and that doesn't change. But sometimes there is a word where standard clueing techniques don't yield as happy a result as something which falls outside the accepted canon, and if a setter can capture a train of thought in an unconventional way without making the solver think he's being cheated, then that's more than OK with me.

Some devices some people have attempted, including some of mine, range from horrid to unsatisfactory: a pity, but if they didn't get put out there and editors weren't occasionally willing to give them a punt, they'd never get tested. And if they didn't get tested, we wouldn't see some of the inspired zingers which defy Ximenean characterisation but are nevertheless fantastic crossword clues. It gets very wearing if a setter tries to come up with 30 such clues for a single puzzle or flaunts their "unconventional" disregard for such silly things as solvability, but I'm entirely open to a setter who wants to play a new game with me on the odd occasion - and obviously that means that if something like that occurs to me, I may well try it out.

I like to think that if "Ximenean" was true to Macnutt's original intention, then it's simply a synonym for "fair" - and then I'm a Ximenean. But there are lots of people who use it to mean the equivalent of "pedestrian", "pernickety", and "tedious", in which case I'm not. Criticise a clue of mine for being unfair and I'll listen hard. Say it's "not Ximenean" while wrinkling your nose and I'll think you're a twit.