“In my childhood village when I was about 8, the chap who owned the cycling shop was called Spokes, which I thought was nice,” chuckles John Graham with the characteristic linguistic playfulness that has made him a national treasure and earned him an MBE for services to the newspaper industry.
Paradoxically, although Graham is virtually unknown outside the small Cambridgeshire village where he lives, many people shape their Saturdays around him: almost every weekend he amuses, frustrates, infuriates, engages, and teases thousands of newspaper readers up and down the country. For John Graham is better known by his pseudonym, Araucaria, under which he regularly compiles cryptic crosswords for The Guardian. His pseudonym is taken from the Latin name for the Monkey-puzzle tree, also known as the Chile Pine, from which he ingeniously made the anagram ‘Cinephile’ – his Financial Times pseudonym. It is fitting that in his day job Araucaria is a Church of England priest, because for many crossword anoraks there is something quasi-holy about the man who fashioned ‘chaste Lord Archer vegetating’ as an anagram of ‘the Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ (Archer’s home).
Araucaria is widely acknowledged to be the best setter compiling at the moment – father of alphabetical jigsaws (‘araubeticals’, as aficionados have dubbed them), he’s even had a style of crossword clue named after him – the Araucarian, as opposed to Ximenean, clue prides itself upon being lax with the rules, but always fair to the solver. Responding to repeated requests from fans, Araucaria has set up a business compiling personalised crosswords, usually given as gifts – to his knowledge he’s the only setter to be approached in that capacity.
Many readers won’t have a clue about cryptic crosswords (excuse the pun): they are, as the name suggests, pretty hard to get into. Araucaria is not too reassuring: “I’m sure anybody can’t do it, because you need to have a certain kind of brain. It doesn’t have to be a hugely intelligent one, just one that works in a certain way.” It is true that initiation into the world of cryptic crosswords is difficult: there are so many rules and conventions to be learnt. But once you’ve got the hang of them, crosswords can quickly become an obsession: at age 89, Araucaria thinks in terms of crosswords clues. “It can take over. It’s the default position of the brain. It can be very distracting.” He’s been in the game a long time: “We did it in the cradle, almost. We started playing around, I was about 8 I should think. We set each other crosswords – very amateur stuff. When I was at prep school, the English teacher was keen on crosswords. You can do them very young.”
Now, of course, it’s easier to solve crosswords: the availability of Wikipedia and online anagram solvers make the temptation to cheat hard to resist. In the past, Araucaria was sent a pack of 16 or so grids, which he would have to fill in manually. He would use scrabble tiles when constructing long anagrams. Now, everything is digital; but though he embraces technology, Araucaria does not condone corner-cutting: “you don’t have to cheat – it’s not necessary. You know Wikipedia knows everything and you can rely on it virtually – if you look it up you can find it. But you have to decide how much time you want to spend on a crossword, how much to spend worrying about it. I don’t think ‘I’ve got to solve this puzzle’. I come back to it three times, if I can’t do it I think forget it.” Even if it’s not necessary to be well-read with Google to hand, Araucaria thinks “people ought to be well-read anyway. References to the Bible, Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan – everybody should know this stuff. If they don’t, it’s their fault.”
Cryptic crosswords can seem like a dying breed – the sort of quaint English curiosity that, like red post boxes, cream tea and the Cornish language no long plays a central part in contemporary culture. Yet in Araucaria’s estimation, thousands of people complete the prize crossword in the Guardian every Saturday. One of the reasons for the enduring popularity of crosswords is the link they provide to arcane knowledge: it is necessary to have a seasoned solver next to you, not just to provide tips on conventions and abbreviations but also to fill in knowledge gaps about Gilbert and Sullivan and archaic sayings. “So many things belong to the past. When you’re my age there’s an awful lot of stuff you know which will be totally forgotten by so many people. It’s extremely difficult to know what people know and don’t know from the past.”
In theory, though, a broad general knowledge is not necessary, as “everything should be in the actual word.” Hopefully a new generation of crossword compilers will mobilise modern abbreviations to rejuvenate the tradition. For Araucaria, “anything really odd is good.” His favourite clue is the late Bunthorne’s ‘Amundsen’s forwarding address’ (4)*, or the Enigmatist’s ‘I say nothing’ (3)**.
For aspiring crossword compilers, the news is not great: “It is very difficult to get into. A lot of people are having a go at it – they think they’re good and they’re not. A lot of people are good and still can’t get in. People send me puzzles sometimes and say is this any good? Most of the time it’s not and I have to reply tactfully.” Let’s hope The Oxford Student’s inaugural cryptic crossword won’t disappoint.
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