A recent Times (concise) crossword contained a wholly uncharacteristic error. Some may argue it’s acceptable for the clue ‘Group off Land’s End (6,7)’ to return the answer ‘Scilly Islands’, but that would imply the setter had in mind ‘Scilly islands’, as in ‘islands called Scilly’, and I don’t imagine Scillonians would be impressed.
I bow to no man in my admiration for the Times crossword compilers, whose works are models of cunning, wit, obscurity and, above all, accuracy; indeed, it would be hard to find a more eminent group, the finest of their trade. But this certainty in their abilities, my deep faith, led me down an unfortunate path; as the crossword simply could not be wrong, and knowing there was no such place as the Scilly Islands, the only remaining impossibility, as Holmes might have put it, was my own wrongness, or more properly, ignorance.
In desperation, I questioned how the answer to ‘Temperature scale (7)’, whose first letter must be ‘C’ (for ‘Calibre’, being the answer to ‘Bullet diameter (7)’) could be anything other than ‘Celsius’, thus giving the ‘S’ of ‘Scilly’. And if the third, fifth and seventh letters of the clue ‘Against the law (7)’ simply had to be ‘L’, ‘G’ and ‘L’ what on earth could the first be, if not ‘I’? ‘U’? Because if I really was confronted by something other than ‘Scilly Islands’ then… and so on. With a rising sense of frustration, gradually turning to feelings of inadequacy, I conceded defeat. This had none of the quiet comfort in having given one’s all – it was bewilderment, the hollowness of hunger, of being cheated.
The following morning revealed the paradox. You will have guessed already that the answer was indeed ‘Scilly Islands’. So I had failed solely because of my reverence for the higher authority that is the Times flummox (the collective noun for crossword setters); if I’d allowed my base instinct its head I would have gained a victory, grim and tainted it’s true, but a victory nonetheless. With a few swift pen-strokes, ‘S’, ‘A’ and ‘D’ (you see the cruel irony), I would have been home. But no. No, like a trapeze artist I put heart above head. Devotion may have it’s reward, but I’m damned if I can see how.
Despite all this, I feel a bit sheepish about using this sorry tale as a pretext to return to a subject upon which I have touched before, but I fear that things are getting out of hand. If you can talk of the Scilly Islands, why not the British Islands? As an island people, we seem lamentably ignorant of the many small, detached bodies of land that make up so much of our great nation. To the Isle of White, and now the Scilly Islands, should we add the Isles of Men and Eely? Perhaps Eel Pudding Island in the Thames boasts a pub to rival Queen’s Eight? Mull, Muck, Harris and Rum really are not stalwarts of the Hebridean fire brigade, and the Skye Boat Song is not an ad for satellite telly. Islay stop now before I sound Sarky.
Still, at least we have many islands, in stark contrast to Belgium, which used to have one. But in the Middles Ages somebody said, “Onze coastine is erg slordig” and set about tidying it up. Testerep was duly reattached to the mainland, in order to make the maps look neater. A thousand years later they’ve had second thoughts, have decided they want an island once more, and are going to build one. Of course, it would be easier just to re-float Testerep, and almost as cheap to buy one from Richard Branson, but being Belgian they’ve decided to spend billions of euros constructing a sort of giant torch battery in the North Sea.
Devised as a means of storing surplus (surplus!) energy from offshore wind-turbines, this doughnut-shaped delusion will pump water from its middle when few kettles are being boiled, then let it in again through turbines when Strictly comes on. This is the equivalent of charging up your iPhone during the night, and then eating your cornflakes by the glow from its screen.
This being Belgium, where they do things differently, the debate has not been about the industrial or social benefits of the scheme, or whether it will even work, but about the dangers posed to windmills by birds. Yes, you did read that right, birds are dangerous to windmills, and the only surprise is that the BBC hasn’t devoted a season to the subject – Windmill Winter or Turbine Watch.
By the way, the Belgians have named their new territory Domste Eiland, or Silliest Island. And I didn’t even mention the French.