Feb 24 2013
A few weeks ago a gentle, retired Church of England vicar called John Galbraith Graham revealed that he had terminal cancer of the oesophagus. Graham is in his 90s and by anybody’s lights that’s a good innings, but the outpouring of sympathy and sadness was remarkable – as was the way the announcement was made.
‘Sign of growth (6)’ read the clue for 18 down. Other clues followed, until the reader was in no doubt that Graham was revealing his condition and imminent death through the medium of crossword clues. Rev Graham is known, you see, throughout the crossword-loving world as the compiler Araucaria. It is because of this man that I know that Araucaria is the Latin name for the monkey-puzzle tree, and it is through him that I developed and honed my ability to solve a fiendish cryptic crossword. He is, in the words of my Twitter pal Feexby (himself a professional crossword setter), ‘the Guvnor’.
The dragon parentals tried a number of daily newspapers when I was growing up, and when I was about 8 or 9 years old they settled for The Guardian, which is still my paper of choice. Being a precocious little Dragon I used to tackle the Concise Crossword with my father, but I found it rather pointless and ultimately unsatisfying. One day, when my brain had clearly grown tired of French irregular verbs and dissecting A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (yes, I was that insufferable) I decided to tackle the Big One. The cryptic. I can’t remember the compiler, but I do remember that it was utterly impenetrable; I could make neither head nor tail of it, and threw it down in disgust. But the clues went round and round in my head, and the next day when the answer was printed, I tried to match up the clues with the answers, and figure out how they fitted together. They still, unhappily, made no sense. I was destined to be one of those people who just couldn’t do cryptic crosswords.
The next step was university in St Andrews; and a dull boyfriend who did a degree in statistics and went on to become an accountant. Sitting in his cold, cold flat on City Road (Cammo Lodge, where the toothpaste froze) one afternoon, and needing distraction from the drafts and the turgid, pompous Marillion album which the BF was playing, I picked up a copy of….I think it might have been the Sunday Express. My eyes scanned the crossword clues, and suddenly, a teeny tiny synapse in my brain made the leap. I solved the clue. The resulting serotonin rush was enough to bring a little smile to my frozen lips, and I pressed on. Some sort of breakthrough had clearly happened, and there was no stopping me that afternoon. Fish and his tedious nonsense faded away as I felt my brain warming up like the valves in an old television set. The Sunday Express crossword may not be the most challenging of puzzles (I have no idea as I have never done another since) but it gave me the confidence to start tackling the serious contenders.
As a student I worked in the Victoria Café, where we served beer, deluxe hot chocolates and cheese & tuna croissants to the student population of the town. Being an establishment of quality, the café bought only quality newspapers, which were printed in a large format – none of your tabloid size in them days, folks. Oh Gawd, I’m getting nostalgic about paper sizes. Anyway, if memory serves, we got The Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman, The Guardian and (only in its second year of publication) The Independent. Between microwaving croissants and frothing milk my colleagues and I, and occasionally the regulars, would stand at the end of the bar and put our brains to work. One particular puzzle stands out. It was published in The Times, and it celebrated some sort of anniversary. Five parts of the crossword were published from Monday – Friday, with the whole thing being put together on the Saturday in one enormous cryptic crossword. The prize was a trip to India or a cash prize of £2000. My pal Shane and I tackled it together over copious cups of tea and many roll-ups. Two of the clues went right across the page – one from left to right, another top to bottom, straight down the centre. To this day I can remember the answers: The Across clue answer was ‘What you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts’ and the Down clue was ‘I am a bear of very little brain and long words bother me’. It is no exaggeration to say that Shane and I put our lives on hold for that puzzle – study, work, friends – they all came second to our quest. The final clue that we cracked to finish the crossword was this: ‘Swearing in part of Russia’. The answer is ‘oblast’, and in today’s world of internet wonders, it would have taken me only minutes to find it. In the late 1980s, it took several days of searching through the university library’s thickest dictionaries before I arrived at the ‘Eureka’ moment. We had extra cream on our hot chocs to celebrate. We sent off our completed entry, and didn’t win the trip to India; but frankly, we didn’t care.
Fast forward to a bar job in Edinburgh, where the pub had several puzzle aficionados. We smoked and cursed together over the evil works of Peter Bee of The Scotsman; one regular was convinced that Bee was a woman, as only a woman’s mind could be so devious, he claimed. After a deadlock situation, when we had racked our brains fruitlessly and tried so many workings out that the paper’s margins were a scribbled mess, sometimes only a trip to the bathroom would work. That minute or so of peace and bodily functions could often result in a breakthrough.
My greatest triumph, puzzle-wise, came the very first time I ever solved Azed in The Observer. I cannot begin to describe to you how hard I found this puzzle – but my very-thumbed copy of Chambers Dictionary stands testimony. On the very few occasions I finished Azed I prided myself on joining, temporarily, the elite of crossword solvers. This is the puzzle that Colin Dexter does to give his brain exercise. He noticed over several years that one prize-winner’s name came up time and again – CJ Morse. Thus was Dexter’s fictional detective named.
Although I flirted occasionally with other papers, my loyalties always lay with The Guardian. The puzzles were quirky, funny, sometimes themed. Shed, Bunthorne and Fidelio were gits, and I seem to remember that the latter was actually in prison as he compiled. But my favourite, as with so many people, was always Araucaria. Interviewed on Desert Island Discs, this clever, sweet man revealed his affection for his audience: ‘I have a vague picture in my mind of an idealised solver, who is a combination of everybody I’ve loved’. And that affection is repaid in spades, judging by the reaction to his sad news.
Life has moved on, and due to constraints of time and money, I no longer buy a daily paper. The last time I seriously tried a crossword was a few years ago whilst in hospital, when Mr Dragon brought me a book of Guardian puzzles to keep me occupied. I just never seem to have the time nor the patience now to sit and work it through. The knowledge that Araucaria won’t be around for much longer might prompt me to look out for his last works. And this – picking up last week’s weekend Saturday Guardian, I glanced at the puzzle. It was set by someone new to me, who goes by the name of Bonxie. I might just give it a try.