Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8): a memoir of love, exile and crosswords
Sandy Balfour Atlantic
This book is at once a travelogue, a memoir and the history of an obsession. At the age of 21, Sandy Balfour, who is now a film producer, left South Africa, partly to avoid conscription into an "apartheid army" but also because he felt he no longer belonged there.
On his travels, he collects a piece of the Berlin Wall, casts his South African vote while in Moscow, dances at a rodeo in Texas and gazes at the stars in war-torn Congo. He eventually settles in London, where he becomes fascinated with crosswords. Balfour has met crosswords before arriving in England but, once here, he delights in the sheer Englishness of cryptic clues. He appreciates how a good clue can provide a cultural insight, quite possibly in a context that has nothing to do with the way in which the clue has to be worked out. He draws parallels between the oddities of life and the oddities of clues, using them to explain various types of clue construction. As he learns how to complete a puzzle, so he begins to solve the puzzle of the country where he now lives.
Anyone who enjoys crosswords will relish how Balfour lovingly describes his favourite clues. The English like being feted by outsiders and Balfour is perhaps here seeking to exploit the Bill Bryson effect.
There is, however, a mystery. He names virtually all his crossword contacts (for instance, I appear as the author of the Chambers Crossword Manual, and as Pasquale and Quixote) but none of his family. The identity of "my girlfriend" is never revealed. Nor are the names of his children. We have a strong central character but his nearest and dearest remain frustratingly peripheral.
As for the significance of the title - well, it is a crossword clue and the answer is "rebelled". If that means nothing to you, read chapter six.