The Crossword Council is an occasional feature where we pretend to take ourselves overseriously and consider a potential item in the cryptic toolbox that might be workable – or not.
This time, our subject is workable, which is to say that it’s actively used in cryptic puzzles – if not in British ones.
Here’s an example from the Hindu, which may not yet make sense:
8ac Weak characters from Istanbul can provide it (13)
Or perhaps you can half-see what’s going on? We have a definition (“weak”), some letters to play with (ISTANBUL) and a hint what to do with them (“characters from … can provide it”). So we take the letters A, B, I, L, N, S, T and U and use them to find a 13-letter word meaning “weak”: INSUBSTANTIAL.
They call it the letter bank. (Who are “they”? I’ll explain in a moment.) I spotted the answer in the same way that I would an anagram: by letting Istanbul swim about in my mind.
I made a mental note to bring up the letter bank when Peter Moore Fuller wrote something along these lines in our PINS AND NEEDLES COMPETITION; my pandemic-shattered memory was jogged by a splendid new book from US cryptic setters Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, otherwise known as Trazom and Hot, who give a chapter to the letter bank alongside the reversal, the homophone and so on. Here’s one of theirs:
Existential question latent in Brontë’s letters (2,2,2,3,2,2)
So we take B, E, N, O, R and T and use them to make TO BE OR NOT TO BE. As with INSUBSTANTIAL, there’s an instruction drawing explicit attention to letters – more explicit than an anagram indicator might be.
Bearing in mind that US cryptic setters specify whether it’s even or odd in “alternate letters” clues, it’s not a surprise to hear that this explicitness is demanded, and Trazom and Hot give themselves other limits: the fodder must have no repeated letters and they follow the example of the National Puzzlers’ League, an American organisation that predates the crossword, in making sure the answer is at least three letters longer than the fodder – “otherwise the result feels more like a failed anagram”.
They describe their time setting at the weekly news magazine the Nation:
As time passed, we started using letter banks more and more, and in fact the practice has spread to other constructors. Fraser Simpson now uses them regularly in his weekly puzzle for the Globe and Mail. Cox and Rathvon have used them in the New York Times.
There are further pleasing examples in the book; I suppose I can imagine less pleasing ones, where I might have the slight queasiness that comes when you wonder whether a setter has checked that there’s a unique answer.
That said, there’s perhaps less scope for that worry in the “reverse” kind of letter-bank clue …
Flexible source of characters in Ecclesiastes (7)
… like this one for ELASTIC, yet I find I prefer those where the fodder is shorter than the answer.
Over to you, with a reminder that this conversation is abstract, intended solely for pleasure and carries no editorial weight anywhere in the world. My “Any Other Business” comprises an RIP to Tom O’Connor – host of what I believe to be the only successful attempt to bring solving to the small screen (your thoughts on this and Radio 4’s Cross Talk welcome); a tweet …
… of interest; the latest in our collaborative playlist Healing Music Recorded in 2020-21 to Accompany a Solve or Even Listen to (suggestions very welcome) …
… and our topic from last time: “the poetic definition” – while we don’t have formal resolutions or minutes, I will note that the device seems unlikely to appear in broadsheet cryptics, but lives on happily for those who enjoy it in Wellywearer’s puzzles.
The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop.