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  1. #1
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    Need a lockdown project? Try the 100-year-old puzzle that only three men have solved



    What was your biggest achievement of the first lockdown? Perhaps you watched an entire box set or perfected a sourdough starter; perhaps you’ll do these things when the second lockdown arrives tonight.

    Comedian John Finnemore, by contrast, solved an 85-year-old, 100-page-long murder-mystery puzzle called Cain’s Jawbone. He had some time on his hands.
    “The first time I had a look at it,” he tells me over the phone from his London home, “I quickly thought, ‘Oh, this is just way beyond me.’ The only way I’d even have a shot at it was if I were, for some bizarre reason, trapped in my own home for months on end, with nowhere to go and no-one to see. Unfortunately, the universe heard me.”
    The puzzle is printed on 100 separate cards. He spread it out over the spare bed and set to work. “Every so often I'd potter in, stare at it till my forehead bled, spend an hour online researching the history of Shrewsbury prison or something, swap three cards, move one back, and potter off again.” It took him about six months to complete.
    Cain’s Jawbone (named for the first murderer and his weapon), first appeared in 1934 at the back of a slim volume called The Torquemada Puzzle Book: A Miscellany of Original Crosswords, Acrostics, Anagrams, Verbal Pastimes and Problems Etc. Etc. & Cain’s Jawbone – A Torquemada Mystery Novel. It’s a whodunit that, due to an error at the printer’s (the “author’s note” regretted), had been accidentally bound in “an entirely haphazard and incorrect order” The reader was invited to reorder the pages correctly, thus solving the mysteries and revealing the identity of six murderers. “How easily murder is discovered!” the prefatory quotation from Titus Andronicus teased, cruelly.
    Sound doable? Imagine if you discovered the correct first page: there would be 99 possibilities for the second, 98 for the third, 97 for the fourth… The total number of possible combinations is staggering. The task only becomes more preposterous when you come face to face with the text itself. It is strange and oblique and largely incomprehensible at the level of basic meaning; surreal, meandering sentences are punctuated with knottily precise references to lesser-known Robert Louis Stevenson novels and 18th-century French murder trials. If James Joyce and Agatha Christie had a literary love child, this would be it.
    No wonder the possessor of the kind of twisted imagination that could create such an object took as his pseudonym the name of an infamous director of the Spanish Inquisition. “Torquemada” (real name Edward Powys Mathers; 1892–1939) was a translator, poet and pioneering crossword setter for The Observer. His were the world’s first entirely cryptic crosswords – inventive, often very funny and always fiendishly difficult. They earned him a loyal following of puzzle addicts; up to 7,000 correct solutions were sent into The Observer each week during his tenure, while untold more were abandoned on breakfast tables and in train carriages up and down the country.




    The infamously private 'Torquemada', or Edward Powys Mathers“He was always searching for things that would test your mental imagination,” says Patrick Wildgust, curator of Shandy Hall, the house where Laurence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy and home to the Laurence Sterne Trust. The strange, meandering nature of one of England’s most famous early novels means that the trust in its writer’s name has a particular interest in any literary work that plays around with traditional form. This is why, in 2019, the Sterne scholar Geoffrey Day introduced Wildgust to Cain’s Jawbone.
    “I said ‘Goodness gracious me – did you do it?’" Wildgust tells me over the phone. “And he said, ‘No! Far too peculiar and complicated.’” Wildgust was intrigued – what was this strange hybrid of crossword and novel?
    Cain’s Jawbone is the apex of Torquemada’s tests. When the Puzzle Book was first published, the publisher Gollancz offered two prizes: £15 to the first correct solution received by December 15 1934, and £10 to the first correct solution received between December 16 and January 15 1935. The prize money amounted to nearly £2,000 in today’s money.
    On March 31, 1935, The Observer printed the results: “Of the very many who attempted to reshuffle the hundred disordered pages of Cain’s Jawbone… only two completely succeeded.”
    The brainboxes in question were a Mr WS Kennedy and Mr S Sydney-Turner. Remarkably, both correct solutions were received on the same day. Wildgust spent months trying to discover more about them. He is now reasonably sure that he has identified one: Saxon Arnold Sydney-Turner (1880–1962) was a civil servant and a member of the Bloomsbury Group, whom Leonard Woolf once described as “an eccentric in the best English tradition who wrote elegant verse and music and possessed an extraordinary supple and enigmatic mind.” He was also a crossword addict and a confirmed insomniac – a more likely candidate for Cain’s Jawbone it is difficult to imagine.
    WS Kennedy has proved more elusive. Wildgust’s only possible lead is one William Kennedy (1878–1957), who the V&A Archive records as a member of the London Stage Society. Perhaps somewhere in the wings of a West End theatre in 1934, an actor whiled away the time between his scenes with a particularly difficult puzzle-book.




    Patrick Wildgust, curator of Shandy HallNearly a century later, Wildgust began to wonder if the historic mental feats of a civil servant and a thespian might be replicated by some equally sharp modern mind. He approached Unbound, the crowdfunded publisher known for its experimental works, and in September 2019, they produced a new edition of Cain’s Jawbone. Alongside the publication, Shandy Hall and Unbound launched a competition: £1,000 for the first person to correctly identify the solution by September 19 2020. It was time to give Sydney-Turner and Kennedy a successor.
    But Wildgust had a problem: how could he recognise the correct solution when he had no idea what it was? Cain’s Jawbone had become a mystery wrapped in a mystery: it seemed that no one – not the Observer editors, not Sydney-Turner nor Kennedy, nor Torquemada himself – had left a copy of the solution for puzzlers of the future.
    “I researched and I researched long and hard, looking into wherever [Cain’s] appears in a collection: on the internet, in every library. I tried to get in touch with as many as possible to see if the answer was written in any copies. It wasn’t anywhere.”
    Finally, he tracked down John Price, a retired headmaster and online bookseller from Marlborough. As keen followers of the Observer crossword, Price, now 80, and his wife had managed to buy an original copy of Torquemada’s Puzzle Book sometime in the 1980s, and became desperate to discover the solution. In 1988, they appealed for information in the pages of the magazine run by the national Crossword Club. Amazingly, they received an answer.
    It came “from an elderly gentleman who lived in a nursing home in Nether Wallop,” Price tells me by email.
    “He wrote: ‘I have seen your “wanted” ad in Crossword, and I am pleased to be able to give you the solution to Cain’s Jawbone, which is on the enclosed sheet together with the correct pagination. You may be interested to know that when the book was published I correctly solved the problem, and I still have Torquemada’s written congratulations.”




    A Torquemada crossword from 1929Who was this sage of Nether Wallop? It couldn’t have been Saxon Arnold Sydney-Turner or William Kennedy – if Wildgust has identified them correctly – since both had died more than 20 years earlier.
    “I do not know whether the gentleman was a prize winner, or whether he also managed to solve the problem, but missed out. In fact no-one knows how many people solved it correctly originally. I do think, however, he might have said that he won £15 or £10 if he had been successful in getting in first,” says Price.
    How many more mid-century puzzle addicts are idling in the shadows of history, the correct identification of the Cain’s murderers scribbled on an envelope in an upstairs drawer? It’s as intriguingly unguessable as the solution itself.
    But Wildgust had his answer. Then in September this year, shortly before the deadline expired, Unbound received Finnemore’s correct solution.
    “I was extremely surprised that there was no other correct solution this time around… I was fairly sure some super-keen puzzler would have got the right answer months ago,” Finnemore tells me.
    He certainly knows something about “super-keen puzzlers”: he writes his own crosswords for The Times, under the name “Emu”. Comedy writing – he has created and performed in countless Radio 4 shows – proved another a useful kind of practice.
    “I’ve struggled with enough plots, and spent enough time taking things that aren’t working to pieces, and rearranging them, to try to make them work. I suppose I was quite used to the physical process of chopping around bits of text to try to make them make more sense.”
    Scratching away at Cain’s Jawbone also proved oddly reminiscent of the mechanics of creating jokes.
    “The most satisfying part of comedy is the pay-off, which requires a set-up earlier. And the bigger the distance between the two things and the subtler you are with your set-up, the bigger the laugh you get and that’s what doing the puzzle felt like.
    “I was going, ‘Oh, I see – this page I kept coming back to for six months, wondering what on earth it had to do with anything – now I see it goes here. Maybe there is quite a link [between the satisfaction of a puzzle] and the delayed gratification of a good pay-off.”

    Need a lockdown project? Try the 100-year-old puzzle that only three men have solved

  2. #2
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    Mendip's Avatar
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    I've already decided what my lockdown project will be.

    I'm going to work for as long as possible but if I do end up locked down in Somerset with my mum, I'm going to learn to play the piano.

    She's got a piano in the house and one of my sisters is a music teacher, so there should be some learner's books lying around.

    I've always thought how great it would be to sit at a piano and play Lou Reed's Perfect Day... but I can't sing and I can't play the piano. I would love to remedy that.

  3. #3
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    Cool tune!

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    Thailand Expat TheRealKW's Avatar
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    That's a worthy goal.


    I've been studying. I hope to get my GCSEs.

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    I've been digging a pond in my garden, just about finished it now. There isn't any lockdown here in Laos, but it's a task that I've been meaning to do for months - only the stony ground and blazing hot weather put me off. The pond is very small, but carefully positioned so that I can see it out of my window when I'm teaching online. I can see the small fountain, hear the water trickling over the rocks, see the many bright butterflies fluttering about, see the small frogs. It's very cathartic.
    Groping women when you're old is fine - everyone thinks you're senile

  6. #6
    Thailand Expat TheRealKW's Avatar
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    As long as it doesn’t breed mosquitoes

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by TheRealKW View Post
    As long as it doesn’t breed mosquitoes
    That's the reason for the fountain >> moving water. Plus the 'wildlife' in the pond should eat the mozzie larvae. Actually, there is a much larger pond right next to my garden already that doesn't have many mozzies, but it's not in my field of view.

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