Gathering of the most efficient contributors to the national grid? (5,9,12)
19.10.2011 - 23.10.2011 12 °C
Sartor Resartus, manciple, James Agate, madrepore, Cherubini, hippocras, Arethusa, and mor. Who would want to suggest a link between the words in this unlikely list? How many people would even claim to know the meaning or origin of each of them? Unfortunately, as a crossword enthusiast you are at the mercy of the compilers, who will thrust you into at least tangential contact with hundreds of words and names that you have never encountered before - which in my case includes all of the above. That is part of the pleasure of crosswords. That is also part of their curse.
October has rolled around again and I find myself once more in the finals of the Times Crossword Championship. Reaching this stage is no great feat, as I suspect that anyone who submits a qualifying puzzle - no matter how incorrect - will be eligible to appear, but I am keen to improve on last year's showing, when I came 49th in my heat (one of two) after making four mistakes. My preparations this year have been similar - I bought two compilation books of Times crosswords back in July and have steadily worked my way through their 160 puzzles over the last three months. Though this is the same preparation that had such meagre returns last year, analysis of my completion times shows that my speed has definitely improved, even if my propensity for filling in wrong answers hasn't. My goal for this year's finals is to finish everything correctly.
The venue this time is in London, versus Cheltenham last year and perhaps a sign that the budget for the competition has shrunk even further. The precise location is the offices of the Times, near Tower Hill and close to St Katherine's Dock. It's an area I haven't visited for nearly twenty years, and it's a surprise to exit the Tube and immediately be confronted with the Tower of London, flags flying under a warming sun. Just beyond is Tower Bridge, a structure that's only familiar due to its image being in countless tourist campaigns - this is maybe the third time in my life that I've set eyes on it in person. Looking back, I catch sight of 30 St Mary Axe, aka the Swiss Re building, aka the Gherkin - the last time I was in these parts, it wasn't even built. Like with many cities that I've traversed predominantly underground, I still find it hard to piece together a coherent picture of London's geography from the assorted snippets that I've seen in isolation from each other.
I'm too early for the start of check-in, so I have a quick mooch around the area while I wait. Though Tower Bridge is already swarming with tourists, St Katherine's Dock is pleasantly quiet, its gently bobbing yachts and large outdoor cafes yet to show many signs of life. In fact everyone I see appears to be either going to a nearby gym, popping into Waitrose, or looking for the Times' offices - I recognise a few faces clearly engaged in the latter, faces familiar from either last year's event or the previous one I'd attended back in 1998.
After checking in, I loiter in the lobby with some of the other contestants. It's a very similar crowd to before, mainly men in their 50s and older, with few young 'uns and few women. I wonder just how many teenagers even think of looking at a crossword these days, what with the competing attractions of Playstations and XBoxes, not to mention the bewildering spread of formulaic puzzles such as Sudoku. It probably doesn't help either that txtspk is taking up a greater percentage of people's "written" communication. I don't dwell on this for long, as a Times employee directs us to the bank of lifts that then whoosh us up to the 13th floor.
There are two heats to be conducted, with the fastest twelve from each going forward to the afternoon's Grand Final. There are about 85 competitors in each heat. Many of the people know each other from previous finals, or from participating in online crossword forums, but I'm not the only one who stands around idly, enjoying the excellent views over east London.
I'm in the first heat, starting at 11AM. I'm sitting just across from Tony Sever, who I recognise both from last year and from his avatar on the Times for the Times blog. David Levy has again been the organiser for this year's competition, and he takes us through the rules. The procedure is much the same as last year - exam conditions, three puzzles to be completed in one hour, instant disqualification if your phone rings. The standings are determined first by how many answers you get right, and then by how quickly you do them. The hour begins. [Note that unfortunately I don't have a copy of the clues ...]
It's always nice to stick in a long answer, especially if it provides the initial letters of seven other answers, so I'm pleased to whack in CONSERVATOIRE in the first few seconds. In fact the whole of this first puzzle comes out pretty easily, apart from a screw-up on my part in first entering ILL-MOONED instead of ILL-OMENED. I'm left with two clues, one _N_O_Y which is something to do with a beagle (which concerns me as I fear it might be some obscure breed I've never heard of), and E_E_E_T, whose clue doesn't seem to fit either of the potential words I can think of (EVEREST and ELEMENT). Not to worry - best to plough on with the other puzzles then come back to these clues.
Puzzle two comes out even easier. I'm left with just I_E_A_T, which I want to fill with ITERANT even though that doesn't fit the clue. I leave this too, heading to the final puzzle. So far I've spent barely 20 minutes.
Puzzle three starts off horribly. I have to go all the way down to something like 28 ac before I can fill in my first answer (though there is a school of thought that says it's best to start at the bottom of the grid, as those are the clues that the compiler will have probably written last and hence may have lost interest by that point in constructing fiendish teasers). Barely a couple of answers later, I notice a hand go up somewhere off to my right - people are starting to finish. I feel a sense of urgency that is frustrated by the slowing of my progress, but then remind myself that my goal is to complete all the puzzles correctly, and I still have over half an hour to do that.
Puzzle three gradually yields, though I don't do myself any favours by first filling in NATIONAL LOTTERY for an answer that I know must end in LOTTERY - subsequent clues mean I have to revisit this answer and finally end up with POSTCODE LOTTERY instead. Since I rarely fill in an answer unless I know it's correct, it's most unusual that I've failed on that score twice in three puzzles. I almost do a third, when my collection of Roxette albums tries to force me to enter LOOK SHARP when I have L_O S_A__ in the grid, but fortunately a crossing letter gives me a final T and the correct LOOK SMART goes in instead. I'm left with an answer which I'm almost 100% sure must be REPTILIAN but I don't understand the clue, as well as A_O_T (ABOUT? ALOFT? AFOOT?) More hands are going up.
Returning to puzzle one, the wordplay reveals the beagle as - of course - SNOOPY. I then understand why ELEMENT is the correct answer to the other clue, as it is using it in the sense of "in his element". Puzzle two's solitary unanswered clue jumps out at me as INEXACT, so I'm left with the remaining two in puzzle three. I put in REPTILIAN as the wordplay indicates it must begin with REP, the definition fits the answer, and I can't think of any other words that are REP_I_I_N. I stare at A_O_T for what seems like an age. AFOOT seems the likeliest of the words that will fit, but I don't entirely get the clue. None of the alternatives seem any better so I figure that, with only 15 minutes left, I'm unlikely to have any brighter ideas. I fill it in, raise my hand, and my answer sheet is taken away from me. Now I can only wait.
David Levy announces a five minute warning and then again when the hour is up. Since the fastest people were handing their papers in from barely 25 minutes into the hour, the top 12 finishers are already known and their names are read out. Even with my limited exposure to the finals, I can recognise many of the names as serial Grand Finalists. Everyone applauds.
The top 25 finishers in each heat will also automatically qualify for next year's finals, and though the remaining 13 of these are not all yet known, Levy reads out the ones that are. The first name out of his mouth is "J. McCabe". That's me! I'm gobsmacked. There's obviously the possibility that there's another J. McCabe in the competition but it seems unlikely. I'll have to wait until the results sheet is pinned up, at which point I can then see if this J. McCabe has my desk number, but it certainly looks as though I've not only met my goal of completing all the puzzles correctly, but have also ended up right on the cusp of a spot in the Grand Final. I'm inordinately pleased by this.
Contestants have already started to gather for the second heat, and I head out. I intend returning for the Grand Final at 3PM, so I figure I can wait until then to get the official results of my heat. I decide to take a stroll across Tower Bridge, which seems to have recently been painted - its blue girders are matched by a welcoming sky. The views up and down the Thames are clear on this sunny October day. My mood is good.
I then wander over to the Gherkin and explore its surrounding streets - not many pedestrians but plenty of traffic. I wend my way back to Trinity House and then realise I could do with some lunch. None of the fancier cafes particularly appeals so I seek out a smaller venue and take my time savouring the life-shortening tastiness of a greasy fry-up.
Returning to the Times' building, I find an official results sheet which does indeed confirm that I came 13th (actually joint 13th) in my heat. Unfortunately, and unlike previous years, there is no indication of how many minutes I was behind the 12th-placed person - the timing aspect has been summarised simply as "finishing order". However there are still some interesting facts revealed by the results:
i. More than a third of the contestants completed all three puzzles correctly.
ii. Timewise I actually finished joint 21st, but eight people ahead of me made one or more mistakes, i.e. there are plenty of people faster than me at doing the puzzles but, at least today, some of them are more careless than I am.
iii. One competitor finished one puzzle correctly, got nothing right (or didn't attempt anything) in the other two, and handed their paper in 7th - I have no idea how such a situation could arise.
iv. Apart from the competitor mentioned in iii, the lowest score was 31/90 - this speaks to my earlier comment that I suspect that anyone can qualify for the finals simply by entering the qualifier.
I also find the answers (though not the clues) for the second heat, and I get the impression that the second heat was harder. Similar to the first heat, 7 of the first 12 finishers made one or more mistakes.
Spectators are allowed for the Grand Final and are also able to do the puzzles at the same time as the competitors. This exercise demonstrates just why it was a good idea that I didn't qualify for the Grand Final - I don't finish even one of the three puzzles correctly, and in fact I only answer correctly 73 of the clues in the entire hour (16 of the 24 finalists get everything right, with the 24th competitor getting 75). To no-one's great surprise, the winner is again Mark Goodliffe, rattling off the puzzles in just 24 minutes. He is presented with the winner's cup by Peter Biddlecombe, a previous two-time winner but now ineligible due to being the crossword editor of the Sunday Times. This is Mark's fourth win in a row, a streak that seems unlikely to be broken any time soon as his speed is simply a level above anyone else's. Everyone applauds.
Overall, I'm extremely pleased with the day's events. Having set myself the goal simply of getting all the puzzles right in my heat, I've done that as well as doing them at a speed faster than I could have hoped for. The next target is obviously to reach the Grand Final. Though I was probably only a couple of minutes away from reaching it this time, that was also due to a number of faster competitors making mistakes, which is not a state of affairs that I can rely on every year. Plus my performance on the Grand Final puzzles would have placed me last, and that was while doing them as a pressure-free spectator. As ever, this means more practice, more reading, more analytical development, in preparation for next year.
One consolation is that I know I've been a part-timer compared to many of the top crossworders. I've bought a newspaper on average once per month this year, and that has usually been the Independent, meaning that my exposure to the Times has been simply the two books of crosswords that I bought in the summer. Thus I can easily up my game by doing the Times puzzle on a regular basis, though it is a tad annoying that the only newspaper that charges for its online crosswords is ... the Times. Of more concern is that many of the best people are also regularly doing harder crosswords such as the Listener, or even working as compilers, and I don't know if I have the time (or, frankly, the ability) to immerse myself to that extent.
With the championship being in London, this gives me an excuse to do some sightseeing as well as catch up with friends who, for reasons unknown, have all resisted the invitation to visit me in York. Much as I love these occasional trips to the capital, they always remind me why I never want to live in London again - exhibit A is the Tube, which is just awful with its horrendous crowds and stuffy atmosphere.
Fortunately the weather is nicely crisp, meaning I can walk instead. I pop into the Natural History Museum for the first time in many years - in fact, the interior is so unfamiliar that I question whether I've ever been inside. The building itself, inside and out, is as much an attraction as the exhibits, in particular the sculptures of living and extinct animals that sit majestically near the roofline. However it's awash with school groups first thing in the morning and I soon move on.
The Royal Geographical Society has a temporary exhibition showing comparative photos of glaciers in the Himalayas. The "before" photos are from a hundred years ago or more, taken in black and white by the early European explorers of the region. The "after" photos were taken by David Breashears, a well-known climber and documentary-maker, in the early noughties. It's clear that there has been tremendous shrinkage of the glaciers in the interim.
I haven't yet found a decent dim sum joint in York, so I take the opportunity to visit one of London's recommended restaurants. Leong's Legend has three branches throughout the capital and their speciality dim sum is the soup-filled xiao long bao. I can not get enough of these things, and am fairly certain I could eat them breakfast, lunch, and dinner for several months before tiring of them.
My brief stay all too soon comes to an end and, on the coach journey north, I resume the learning process that will be necessary if I am to improve in next year's Times Crossword Championship. Bohea, Richard Dudgeon, bis, orfe, sorosis, Tom Towers, rouge dragon, ...
[Note: it's debatable whether this entry should be on a travel blogging site, but my blog here relates to any and all trips that I take away from home for whatever reason. As such, it qualifies. My apologies if you were hoping to read something useful about London.]