You’re standing in the shower one day, gazing at the shampoo label, when you notice something odd. GARNIER, you see, is a mixture of EARRING. Swirl the letters further and you stumble on RANGIER, then ANGRIER, and look, REARING. Rinsing away the suds, you suspect that’s where the matter rests.
And odds on, you’re right. To find a fluky anagram, like NEUTRAL in RENAULT, or LIMBO in MOBIL, is hardly destined to change the earth’s course. The moment is a whim, and life moves on.
Most lives. For in one sense I’m still stalled in that shower, rearranging GARNIER and NORSCA and every other brand jammed on the caddie. The day I grasped that any word is pliable—vulnerable as a soap bubble—was the day I succumbed to language. Instead of smoky glass my cubicle is built of alphabet.
For Bob Smithers, that shampoo bottle was a vinegar jar in a Lancastrian fish-and-chip shop. One day, back in the 1940s, a young Bob was waiting for his haddock. To pass the time he reversed the vinegar brand—GARTONS—and sniggered. Soon, the impulse became a virus, and Bob himself became Bunthorne—among the trickiest crossword setters for the (Manchester) Guardian until his death two years ago. Playful downtime shaped a lifetime.
I can’t recall the precise ‘lightbulb moment’ in my own childhood—that vinegar awakening—when the brain went ‘wow’, and the heart said ‘yes’. Was it Dr Seuss? Did Dorothy’s mutt seize my ankle, refusing to let go until TOTO, I saw, held OTTO and TOOT? As Pooh says, ‘Those who have a Brain never understand anything.’
Because maybe there was no moment. Perhaps I was born to this skewed state of mind, a womb-warp dooming my adult self to dabble in pun and jumble to the grave.
From sandpit days, letters have soothed me: their curve, their character, their promiscuity. As a kid I knew that DAVID, the name, could lose its head to become AVID: a ready-made credo. So long as I was losing my head in letters, I felt energised.
Not that everyone in my family shared the enthusiasm. The oldest of four, I tortured my siblings with ad-lib puzzles at every chance. You can’t leave the breakfast table, I ruled, until you find every letter on this milk carton. Or find two colours—using all the letters—in OVALTINE? Well, can you? You’re not leaving the table till you do.
Jumping forward thirty years, I’m now the tormentor of untold strangers across trams, trains, pubs and suburban queen-sizes. Just like Bunthorne, I found a lifelong niche in crosswords. For quarter of a century I’ve been cranking out cryptic clues for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age under the alias of DA. Where else can I challenge solvers to find TAN and OLIVE in OVALTINE? Or HOLY and SATANIC inside STOLICHNAYA?
You name the word and I’ll find some quirk in its composition. It’s what I do, and can’t recall doing otherwise. When Steven Carroll won this year’s Miles Franklin Award, I was ecstatic: here was a homegrown novelist nursing CERVANTES in his first nine letters. Three months later, as a Jamaican named Usain Bolt rejoiced in Beijing as I rejoiced the triple-gold sprinter’s ABLUTIONS.
So quick, before the cortex melts, I’d be wise to commit the affliction to paper, showing you how my madness operates, and throwing some light on the crypts of puzzle-making. But be warned, the more you know, the more a bottle of shampoo or vinegar may change your life.
Safe to say, iron has been discovered. Drifting out of caves, humans devoted an entire age to the element. James Watt built his loco, the farrier his shoe, and King Arthur his Excalibur. Man is harder than iron, wrote Miguel de Cervantes, stronger than stone, and more fragile than a rose.
As a metal, iron has been corrugated, galvanised, pumped, wrought. You can walk into a store and buy Cast Iron Skillet Cooking for Dummies, or a box of Nutri-Grain: Iron Man Food. The stuff, in other words, is common as muck. Even Tiger Woods, iron in hand, can only obey the regulation heft of the club.
On paper, however, IRON can tell a new story. Apply heat, and the letters will make fresh patterns. In real time, the musings below are a fairyland of circuitry burning in the skull. What may seem a furious brain-strain is really more a reverie, a symptom of the mania I own for a headspace. So here goes:
Applying more flame, I note how IRON in reverse reveals NORI, a seaweed source of iron.
Beheaded, IRON is a man, while IRON MAN himself—the movie or the Coolangatta fella—opens with a mixture of MINOR, the legal opposite of MAN.
Weirder still, IRON MAN renders FE/MALE, a truer opposite, and an irony in any language.
Soundwise, IRON mimics ION, its own constituent.
Just as IRON is central to the earth’s ENVIRONMENT, both on the page and on the ground.
Globally, IRON is one country code (RO for Romania) nesting in India’s IN.
Rolling IRON backwards in the alphabet, sliding every letter back three places, uncovers the word FOLK.
Maybe such folk as Jeremy Irons whose surname yields RINSO, another brand in the cleansing line, which leads us back to shampoos …
Sick, isn’t it? I mean that oxymoronically. Sick as in cool (the mystery source of such futilities) and sick as in Help. Please. Get Dr Seuss on the blower.
Reading a novel I meet words asleep in their own skin, and presto, they change. That’s my fix. To see a word waken, dance, transform. Like filings heeding a magnet’s pull, words twitch and realign to this inbuilt force. Creating a clue, inventing a puzzle, I throw a current through the letters to see what they hide. (‘Look, Igor, the odd letters of IGNORANT spell GOAT!’) I scratch the surface to hunt for elements. Though the irony is clear to see.
If the obsession is driven by possession—the joy of owning words newly—then where does the transaction end? Which way is the magnet aiming? For all the cosiness of my analogy, imagining my skull as some freak lodestone capable of influencing letters, I can’t resist fearing that the opposite applies.
Language, in fact, wields the iron fist. Words, brands, suburbs, surnames are not my toys, but tyrants. Where I’d like to see myself as some Professor Crypto, rewiring syllables and seizing new patents, I’m merely a subject going closer to rat, my lab a type of labyrinth with every exit sealed.
Enter crosswords. And Wordwit. And Rubicon. And Radar Trap. And Omega. And every other puzzle I make across your newsstand. As you read this, somewhere in Australia, a solver is chewing a pencil, unravelling an Astle puzzle.
Problems are my profession: the day-to-day biz of dreaming conundrums, from rhymes to codes to the Friday crossword. Every week, for the last twenty-five years, cryptics have been the balm for this constant fever in my blood, the chance to turn the static into music. Where else but a word puzzle can I celebrate a word like CELEBRATE being the blend of islands ELBA and CRETE? Or show how THAT, broken up, can break into BREAKING to make BREATHTAKING?
Even in my teens, cutting teeth on 2-Unit Chem, I knew my calling lacked a booth at Career Guidance Day. At number twenty-six on the periodic table, iron was just one clue to what all twenty-six letters will do when galvanised. I daydreamed. I yearned to perform similar iron-experiments within a newspaper box, daring the public to participate. Unlike Jonas Salk, dreaming up polio cures, I sat in my lab and plotted how the masses may one day catch my disease.
The year was 1974. Cyclone Tracy visited Darwin, and Earthquake—the movie—shuddered us in Sensoround. I was twelve, a moptop tenderfoot in his first year of a Sydney high school. One day Snags—as we nicknamed our English teacher—didn’t turn up for duty. So a Geography guy called Max filled the breach.
‘What class is this?’ he asked.
‘Catcher in the Rye,’ we chorused. Aged twelve, we were sucks.
‘Okay then …’ He scanned the day’s paper, the very rag he’d been planning to read in the staffroom. ‘Make me a crossword.’
Well, I did. Max seemed amazed. His task had been the perfect sponge to soak up forty minutes, allowing him to resume his reading. But a few ticks before the bell some kid submits a 15-by-15 grid, with symmetry, with clues, with a few inside jokes and a twist of anagram. Bugger. Now he’d have to make copies.
Those fifteen squares of fame—a purple Roneo circulating the school—were stronger and more addictive than ecstasy tabs. From memory, Max neglected to run the solution on the same sheet of paper, meaning this black duck had to field enquires from all levels of the academy.
‘Hey Astle, what the fuck is PERFIDY?’
‘How d’ya spell OCCURRED?’
I felt like a king. If this was the puzzle life, I wanted more. To think half the playground was cursing my name, or following my logic, enmeshed in my interlock.
Come day’s end, a long commute opened the way to ad hoc study. I swotted the Herald’s cryptic offerings. I mulled over clues and worked backwards from their answers. My tentative pencil went from adding five entries to filling half the grid.
‘Follow in green suede shoes,’ read one clue. The answer was five-letters long. Its tail was E. My head wrapped in Herald, I changed from train to bus and still had nothing.
To enter the crossword crypt you need to know the code. You need patience, persistence, an iron will, a lateral mind and ideally a mentor to whisper its rules along the journey.
While I never owned a pair of green suede shoes, I certainly followed in my mother’s footsteps, and her mother before her: a dynasty of solvers, making me think addiction must be matrilineal. ‘Look inside green suede,’ said Mum in her best Yoda voice. Seeing the word ENSUE was one of a thousand pennies to drop during my early teens.
By sixteen, a spotty lunk au fait with the cryptic formula, I could distinguish the ten basic clue types and how to unravel them. I conquered more compilers. I understood my errors. I hunted down the Times, the Guardian, the Atlantic Monthly, learning new wavelengths as I went.
I blew my allowance on graph books and rubbers—the stationery kind, which must have flummoxed my parents. I began flexing cryptic muscles with my own clumsy puzzles. Flagrant anagrams. Chestnut homophones. After Year 12 I wangled a place in a Communications course, overtly to study media and George Orwell, but the long-term goal loomed bright and clear. The acrobatics in my head had only one circus ring. At the brash age of twenty I sent a letter to a man called LB.
Lindsey Browne, alias LB, was the first pin-up of down-under puzzling. Before him, the cryptic genre was largely viewed as an Anglicism, some hoity-toity mumbo-jumbo catering to the nobs of Fleet Street. Elliott Napier, a leader writer at the SMH, was a fellow pioneer to challenge Australians with a new cryptic language. Between the wars, this lawyer-cum-poet set a weekly English replica for the Herald. No real surprise, Napier’s puzzle suckled a young LB, a sports-mad polymath growing up in Melbourne.
Himself a journo in his early twenties, LB tried his hand at crafting clues in 1935, chiefly as a means of boosting cadetship wages. Where Napier was high-brow with a cupful of starch, Browne was more funny-bone with a pinch of cheek. His clues, like those green suede shoes, concocted comic imagery, and Australia responded.
Soon a weekly puzzle became a daily. For Lindsay, journalism merged into cruciverbalism, the man responsible for over 40,000 grids during a 68-year career. So cherished was the bloke, LB had puzzles running in both the Herald and the Daily Telegraph, his talents straddling rival empires.
Cabbies tucked LB crosswords into visors, ready to solve on the rank. Barristers had a crack during summations. Bondi trams bristled with chequered squares. My grandmother fell in love, and passed the passion onto her eldest daughter. Through wit and wile and larrikin vernacular, LB had wrenched an English art form out of Pommy hands.
But so runs the pattern of the crossword story. The English, for their part, had swiped the format from the United States back in 1930 or so. (Pinpointing chronology is a puzzle in itself). Though one crossword date is bankable—21 December 1913, the debut of a new-wave pastime called a word-cross in the New York World. The maiden grid resembled a diamond with FUN as starting letters. The feature’s inventor, an ex-pat Liverpudlian subeditor called Arthur Wynne, had spirited the idea as a means of filling a Yuletide gap on the page.
‘Craze’ is too mild a word to describe the reaction to the puzzle. As other papers adopted the novelty, Americans went nuts. Dictionaries were de rigueur on all Baltimore and Ohio trains. A Chicago court heard the case of the Zaba spouses, the wife claiming to be a crossword widow, so fixated was her hubby in this new recreation. (The judge consigned Mr Zaba to a maximum of three grids per day.)
Zoos refused to field enquiries about AIA, ANOA and any other obscure fauna. Check prints dominated Greenwich Village couture. In 1924, two Columbia grads, Richard and Max, printed the world’s first crossword collection, pencil attached, thus launching the publishing house of Simon & Schuster.
AN ENSLAVED AMERICA, screamed the London Times of that year. Lapsing purple, the correspondent feared the Land of the Free was no longer. The crossword was deemed ‘a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society’. According to estimates, five million man-hours were squandered every American day to this verbal scourge.
Such alarmism delayed grids from gracing UK papers. (The Times resisted running a crossword until twenty-seven years after Wynne’s debut.) But is that alarm or postcolonial envy? How dare the bloody Yanks merchandise the mother tongue! The idea was tagged an upstart. A blight. A phase at best. And from this snide crib, the cryptic was born.
The agreed father of this mongrel kid—blending American interlock with wry Anglo clues—was Oxford poet and translator Edward Powys Mathers. Composing under the mantle of Torquemada—a torturer attached to the Spanish Inquisition—Mathers kinked definitions into riddles, puns, allusions, half-quotes. The hybrid took root. Cryptic grids appeared nationwide. England had sufficiently reinvented the invention to brand the puzzle as her own.
Luminaries such as P.G. Wodehouse, W.H. Auden and Alec Guinness fell victim to the spell. Gradually the ground rules emerged, drafted by Torquemada’s successor in the 1940s, a Cambridge scholar aptly named Derek Macnutt, who tortured solvers under the banner of Ximenes (another Spanish sadist).
Macnutt coined the enduring edict of cryptic lore: ‘A cryptic clue must say what it means, but need not mean what it says.’ Confronting a puzzle, solvers must rely on each clue as a means of reaching the answer, yet doubt the multiple byroads the same clue will inspire.
Lindsey Browne kept that maxim at heart, seducing an Australian generation. Thanks to LB, mining magnate HOLMES A COURT still evokes a tennis-playing Sherlock in my head, while JACK OF CLUBS suggests a disdain for pokie venues. Over years—before his death mid grid in 2003—Browne transformed an English adaptation into an Oz celebration. And in 1981 a beefcake with a pocketful of rubbers longed to join the party.
A swanky postcode, Greenwich overlooks Sydney Harbour and the naval clump of Cockatoo Island. Judges live there. Mortgage brokers. And once a man called Lindsey Browne.
Driving down the point’s main ridge in 1982 I nursed the butterflies of a blind date. At twenty-one, an adult on paper, I was due to meet a crossword god, aged sixty-six, in his secret puzzle palace. But really, there was little blindness about our rendezvous. I’d been entering the LB mindscape six days a week for almost a decade, divining clues as personal insights into their creator. I knew the man’s humour (punny), his bugbears (bureaucracy), his loves (cricket, classical music). And to a lesser degree, he knew me.
For the previous twelve months I’d swamped the poor sod with sample puzzles. Raw clues linked to smudged grids, each draft a lexical love letter in search of his approval. One by one he returned the missives, festooned with arrows and ticks and corrections, tips and suggestions. I’d swallowed his advice and sent him fresh fare. Thus our dance continued until this moment, pulling up outside the kerb.
It was house, not a palace. The million-dollar view was a bank of jacarandas against a paling fence. Every inch the mad professor, Lindsey stood broad in the shoulder with twin spitfires for eyebrows. His warmth on the page was his charm as a person. We shared a pot of Irish Breakfast and ate some yoyos. His office was a shrine of battered books and graph sheets by the yard. I felt honoured to share his company, and spooked at the same time.
I didn’t understand that unease till reading a small book, The Secrets of the Setters, by UK crossword editor Hugh Stephenson. One chapter focuses on John Halpern, a former barman whose stellar puzzles appear in the Guardian under the byline of Paul. (The law with a brush, say, is CONSTABLE.) And like me, a raw-boned Paul was on tenterhooks in 1995, the puzzle apprentice poised to meet Reverend John Graham—alias Araucaria—the high priest of English cryptics.
‘My heart sank,’ remembers Paul, waiting at Peterborough railway station for the guru to lob, ‘because in that moment I realised I was always going to be poor. Here was the best setter in the country and he was driving a Fiat Panda!’
As a protégé you sense your future self in your mentor, just as your mother-in-law foreshadows your wife. Yet passion, in both scenarios, tends to quash the doubts. Fatally, I had no choice but to tamper with words. If so-called retirement meant churning out clues to bankroll biscuits—so be it. And perhaps LB detected that mutual flaw, anointing me with a Herald debut in 1983.
SCAFFOLDING was my first 1-Across and I’ve been ‘constructing’ for the Herald ever since. Seeing strangers on trains tackling my antics will always give me a thrill. Not that I stalk the aisles, but in my mind I bank on those smiles, those flashes of breakthrough, the pride that fills a solver’s chest when the final square is inked.
In 1985 that thrill redoubled when I added Wordwit to my caseload. A linguistic riddle, Wordwit asks solvers in Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland to find the oddities lurking in letters, like MOURNER clutching URN, or PORN and EROTICA combining to reveal PROCREATION. To this day I still reckon C.S. Lewis settled on NARNIA the minute he browsed MOUNTAIN RANGE backwards, and Wordwit gives me the chance to share the theory.
Which leads us back to words on paper, the shampoo labels, the vinegar secrets: where do all these words fit into a puzzle-maker’s life, and into his grids? How is a crossword born? Which comes first—the entry or the clue? The pattern or the meshing? And what have I gleaned in half a lifetime of terrorising the general public?
25 x 15 x 15
Stephen Sondheim, composer of Broadway musicals and cryptic crosswords, says ‘The nice thing about doing a crossword is, you know there is a solution.’ Unlike life, a puzzle awaits your understanding. So long as your maker is playing fair, a path through the brambles will emerge. To quote one English setter, ‘Woof, woof.’ To quote another, ‘The secret to making crosswords is the art of losing gracefully.’
Everything you make, in other words, must be unmade. A clue needs to mark the shore where the ultimate treasure is buried. Or sticking with the beach analogy, a crossword might be compared to an eccentric sandcastle contest: no matter your turrets, your pretty shells, the paddle-pop drawbridge—your creation is a failure if it doesn’t eventually collapse.
Occasionally I get that wrong. Looking back on early grids I register clues that don’t play the game by the rules. Silly bug, say, will never mean CHRISTMAS BEETLE, as one clue alleged in 1985.
Likewise a bungled anagram—omitting BANDA ACEH’s third A—or worse a misspelt entry—PETER WIER [sic], I’m sorry—can see me lose sleep for a week. If Freud has his tuppence, I make puzzles to be loved, and those howlers amount to betrayal. No matter the genre, a word-game is a covenant, an exercise in trust between maker and un-maker, and trust we know is perishable.
Same with pencil leads. I wear them to a stump, plotting and erasing my grids each week. Yes, I still work with traditional tools—rubber and graph and Staedtler 2Bs. Laptops can help with anagram engines—helping you see ROYAL BIGOT in OBLIGATORY. Just as software packages can ease the squeeze of tighter corners—to fill the last entry, try GANJA, NINJA, OUIJA or RIOJA. But there’s no substitute for man-versus-box, a battle of nerve and elbow grease. My finest moments arise from the pillings of frantic erasers.
So how is the crossword born? The home office is the obstetric ward, a gutted bedroom overlooking begonias to LB’s jacaranda. For best results, I bash a space clear on the desk. Sharpen a pencil. Fish out the graph book—one of those rare ‘7mm Quad’ volumes I buy in bulk whenever I find them—and draw a virgin square.
Part of a setter’s job is a squirrel-like fetish for storing fresh language. My top drawer teems with lists, words and names and phrases I’ve amassed over the years, each list sorted according to length of entry. In the 5-section, say, I see HI/JAB, P(IX)AR, FSTOP, HITON, ‘MANNA’—words with high play-potential when it comes to clueing.
Often those words have attendant scribbles reminding me of their unique powers: JIFFY (J+IFFY), OZONE (the Tinman?), QUAIL (act like chicken!). This kind of rain-mania pervades al books, all lists, every page: the harvest of raiding novels and columns, websites and billboards, lyrics and conversation. Once listed, any word stands to be the ammo loaded into the next grid.
Patterns are seldom the starting point. (Hey look—STARTING POINT conceals TRAIN SPOTTING. Where’s my 13-list? Hurry, must jot it down before I lose it.) Instead I rely on the latest fodder gleaned during fieldwork. Stuff with the best clueing mojo. Choose the juiciest, with the longer entries given higher priority, and lay it down into a vacant grid. (CASEY STONER—a superbike star hiding ECSTASY in his opening cluster—was the maiden entry in one grid.)
A key rule in composing, no matter what move you make, is to match that move in the opposite quadrant. If you dangle CASEY STONER in the north-west corner, then dangle a phrase of equal length (here it’s HOME THEATRE) in the south-east. That way, always edging towards the centre, avoiding logjams, symmetry evolves.
Logjams are those places where no word fits. You may wangle an elegant lattice across your puzzle, but if the final cranny demands an entry obeying the sequence of _S_O_E_M, then you’ll need to start again, as nothing will ever go click. (Or plump for the LB option, one of his foibles as a setter, and chuck in the artifice of OSLO TEAM.)
Such dread-of-the-undo tends to deplete a compiler’s derring-do. The timid puzzle-maker will frequently pepper his grid with soft letters—the one-point tiles of Scrabble—as these are more likely to offer escape.
Yet speaking as a solver, I can’t abide crosswords that abound in SENSELESS, TSETSE, RATIONALE and every other serial offender. Give me a PAPARAZZO any day of the week. Whack the alphabet over my head and let the lacework dazzle. If this means a bloodier wrestle at drafting stage, I’m equal to the fight.
Hoary clues are the other failing of poor puzzles. The fact that INAPT (a regular guest of crossword grids) is a blend of PAINT leaves me cold. Unless you disguise the anagram cleverly (like PAINTBOX or SPRAY PAINT), a setter needs to think outside the square. Try fresh tacks. Maybe TAIPAN minus A? Or the word hiding backwards in AIRPORT PANIC. Or NAP (a few ZZZs) inside IT (a PC class). Keep pushing the boundaries till you find fresh turf.
Odds are this urge will lead to a tougher clue, but Fairfax is firm on strewing the stable’s eight compilers across the difficulty scale, and DA is happily lodged at the gnarly end. Which doesn’t condone obscurity. (Buy tomorrow’s paper and you should be able to link yesterday’s play to the printed outcome.) Instead I try to sidestep the obvious, take the solver on a magical mystery tour.
Hence a setter lives or dies by the calibre of their clues, and creating good clues takes time. If devising a gird—a trancelike state of Scrabble Zen and rabid erasure—takes an hour-plus (more for themed puzzles), then the clues demand a dreamy few days. Ideas may strike during the interlock, but other words need a gentle stewing at the subconscious level. A typical week will comprise a medley of other tasks—writing and teaching—while the brain’s back room is craving a marriage of elegance and deceit.
My dog is the chief beneficiary. A spare hour, we’ll stroll in Melbourne’s parks, the exercise a means of eliciting sleeker clues. Tim, the mongrel lab, is unfazed by my habitual mumbling. I slump on benches and murmur syllables, or jot ideas on paper scraps, shaving a clue’s surplus words, rooting out clichés, hiding the seam between wordplay and definition, ironing the wrinkles.
Gazing at a word like GYPSIES (the 5-Across entry in the sample grid) I notice I SPY lying backwards—the very game you play to enliven a car trip. And gypsies are lifetime travellers: you look for those gossamer links between solution and the word’s make-up. Craft a clue deftly and you’ll send the solver down the wrong road. Roger Squires, a British setter known to millions as Rufus, began life as a stage magician. He believes the trickster’s art of diversion, getting your audience to look in the wrong direction, faithfully mirrors the art of clueing.
WORTHWHILE is a case in point. As soon as you sniff two canine verbs—WRITHE and HOWL—in the answer’s letters, your clue begins to bubble into life. Add ‘reward’—here a word that serves two masters, the entry’s definition and the canine motif—and soon you’ll have your solver barking up the wrong tree. Reciting the drafted clue—Dogs writhe and howl, getting just reward?—I register a wag from my colleague.
Six weeks on, after a volley of emails from the outsourced subeditors at Pagemasters and the Herald’s own crossword editor, challenging and arguing over individual clues, the puzzle will appear across the eastern seaboard and online to the world. Solvers will howl and writhe. They will devour or savour. For that is the savage pleasure of cryptics, speaking as a fellow addict. Words cannot describe that joy of scanning a favourite setter’s clues, knowing each lean assembly hides a completed grid—yet cracking none at first glance. Add a pint of Guinness (INN in GUESS), and Casey Stoner is not life’s only ecstasy stash.
Chronic junkies will know this nirvana. Rookies are advised to navigate their way though the brain-strain spectrum, the Fairfax family of compilers, from shifty to sneaky, before tackling yours truly on any given Friday. And when you come, I’ll be waiting for you.