Required reading when there’s disorder. That was a clue from midyear, and the message felt on point. Fires, plague, The Very Excellent Mr Dundee – 2020 has been a lavish shemozzle, and this clue knew it.
Cryptic crosswords, my own required reading, can occasionally deliver that eerie topicality. Because RIOT ACT, the answer, pales to the clue’s prescience. The surface narrative leaves a deeper impression than the answer itself. Same for a second pun I met in August: Stay-at-home worker? Baseball is the allusion, the gag alluding to UMPIRE, yet the clue’s scenario packed the stronger swat. Four short words had evoked a city of employees banished to their kitchen tables, the junk rooms, the virtual synods of videochat, as if the mystery setter had glimpsed our future.
Crossword voodoo is the slang, when wordplay somehow skewers the solver’s reality. Like the week I was bedridden with genuine man-flu, lifting an eyelid to read: Ultimately feeble with cold and still delirious. ECSTATIC was the solution: E+C+STATIC. A neat charade, but compare that to the clue’s clairvoyance, making me suspect some nameless Londoner had foreseen how non-delirious I’d be feeling come publication. Or the day I read of dwindling icecaps, resorting to the puzzle page for comfort, only to meet this deletion formula: Pitch from film director cutting a lot of ice (5). The answer? Melt berg off Spielberg and SPIEL remains. Once more, random clue and real life had rhymed.
Psychologists would ascribe such flukes to zeitgeist. Or solipsism. Or emphasise how many irrelevant clues occur in the interim. Take this cool reversal clue from Punk: Bird hiding upside-down? (6) Unless I spy on LINNET as a pastime, or just happen to be lamenting my lacrosse team losing ten-nil (a hiding), then the clue is voodoo-free, as most clues should be. Until 2020 shortened the odds. Pandemics can do that. Thanks to a deadly bug, glaciologists and birdwatchers now live in parallel. Umpires and Hollywood types huddle under one umbrella.
In 2020, some 7 billion people became one entity, that synchronicity rife in the wordplay. Look no further than Paul’s deception in The Guardian: Stupefied, practising social distancing? Hardly voodoo if the world is SPACED OUT as a virtual flash mob. Ditto for Bluth – alias comedian Dave Gorman – who concocted this clue: Saw a team keeping two metres apart (5) The secret lies in saw, a synonym of adage. When a soccer team (A XI) divides two metres, you’re left with MAXIM. Just as Skinny, another Indy setter, had fun with scavengers and variant spellings: Flesh-eating virus racoon develops (11). If you think the solution is CORONAVIRUS, you’re close. Try its spooky anagram: CARNIVOROUS.