Author Archives: alexanderjbuck

Pen or pencil?

I use a pen. I know, I really shouldn’t. My mum uses one of those special
pens with a little rubber on top, in case of little accidents. Many use a

For me a pencil is joyless. The friction of graphite onto fresh newsprint
leaves me cold. The grey of tedium, of leaden skies, of duty.

But a standard ballpoint? Now you’re talking. In fact, I think I get a
little turned on by the effortless glide of the black – always black -
instrument (I shall refrain from using the word ‘tool’).

All my workings and scribbles adorn the designated spaces beside the grid:
the rings of to-be-rearranged potential anagram characters, the long phrases
by which I check the mechanics of a complex charade or some such; the
occasional oaths spat upon the page to clear the frenzied mind.

And all this leaves a glorious grid into which I can meticulously inscribe
the solutions – only when I am absolutely sure they are correct.

And the joy of filling in that last elusive entry. It is done. I may not be
able to solve all the clues life presents to me, nor even when I have
cracked them am I sure I’ve solved them as they were meant to be solved.

But here, in my crossword, I know. Here is an oasis of certainty. And am I
feeling a little smug? You betcha!

Best wishes,

John (Paul)

Social Media and All That


Twitter feed attended to – ticked.
Weekly blog written – ticked.
Facebook page created – ticked
Emails checked and responded to – ticked
Running and leaping in fields of buttercups with my loved one, unfettered,
breathing in the heady vapours of a supreme summer’s day – unticked
Catching up on favourite Podcasts – ticked

I love connecting with crossword fans across the world, and wish I had more
time to really get to know them more. If I weren’t emailing them, tweeting
at them or throwing Facebook dog biscuits in their general direction I might
actually get round to meeting them down the pub.

And does Mister X on Facebook really have 873 friends? How many of these 873
might actually take Mister X up on the offer of dinner at his place, 7.30pm
Thursday? How many of the 873 would know Mister X’s address anyway?

So, here’s my invitation: see you at 7.30pm Thursday, my place, for dinner
and a natter. Please leave your Blackbooks, Macberries, iPhonies and Kindle
Surprises at home.

Bring a good crossword, will you, and let’s get to know each other.

Best wishes,

John (Paul)

A patient of patience

If only Job had had the patience of my mother.

She did everything she could. I was encouraged as a young man to enter the
world of banking. NatWest survived the experience, but only just. A local
newspaper for whom I briefly worked delighted in my departure. My exit
strategy from a Sussex microbiology company was planned to perfection.
Whichever organisation welcomed me through its gates would rapidly observe
my departure, with my always finding the back door with unerring accuracy.
Jobs in varied spheres came and went.

But I couldn’t have tried anything with more diligence – than my mother’s

Especially on discovering a love for writing cryptic crossword clues.

And so the maternal torture began. Hour upon hour I would hone the latest
batch of cruciverbal offerings, painstakingly penning my efforts on sheets
of A4 atop my mum’s ironing board. Once satisfied I would present them to
the poor woman, expecting her seal of approval. I would loom over her as she
surveyed my offerings, breath bated, a magazine of hissy fit bullets
polished and awaiting dispatch should the words of lavish praise not be
forthcoming at pre-designated appropriate moments.

How could she not see how funny that particular clue was. ‘Don’t you think
that clue’s really hilarious?’ ‘I’m so much better than (insert name of
Guardian setter) don’t you think?’ ‘Can’t you see my genius?’

So here’s my opportunity to thank my mother.

You did a great job. I salute you. I couldn’t have done it without you. You
have the patience of Job – and some. Thank you, Mrs Margaret Halpern.

Best wishes,

John (Paul)

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Playing Footsie.

Football. Switched off yet?

Twenty-two prima donnas, but not an aria in sight.

I once wrote the clue ‘The ultimate character wearing a strip (5) In its
aftermath, my mother did actually ask ‘who’s Gazza?’. And I admire her for

Of course, Gaza is not a strip, but lies within the strip – I should know
better, in so many ways. I was young and foolish. These days I am older, and

Should you, dear solver, be expected to know who Gazza is, though? Well,
perhaps, perhaps not. But sometimes certain subjects lend themselves to fun

The fact that the talented songstress Britney Spears is an anagram of
‘Presbyterians’ is too good to miss, surely? Perhaps some might not have
appreciated the entirely themed Britney songs puzzle in The Guardian a few
years back, including such timeless classics as ‘Baby One More Time’, ‘Born
To Make You Happy’ and ‘Oops!… I Did It Again’.

And another subject seemingly ripe for a Guardian crossword theme, the
British political outfit the ‘Monster Raving Loony Party’ and its
charismatic leader Screaming Lord Sutch. Tragically, Lord Sutch committed
suicide the day after my puzzle was published – selfishly, I can only hope
my work proved not to be the final straw.

And ‘Osama’ and ‘Obama’ are famously only a letter away, but perhaps I
shouldn’t go there either.

As for Manchester United manager ‘Sir Alex Ferguson’ – anagram of ‘ref
using…’ well you can work the rest out yourself.

Maybe I should play it safe and stick to Shakespeare and Chaucer
references…. I only wish I had the erudition!

Best wishes,

John (Paul)


I am often greeted with a blank face.

My opening foray into a conversation with a new acquaintance might perhaps
be to point out that the word ‘desserts’ on their menu reads ‘stressed’

Or That the acquaintance in question’s name ‘Hannah’ is in a select band of
palindromic appellations, along with Bob, Anna, Dud, Eve, Elle and Otto, for

Or that Hannah’s job as a ‘bookkeeper’ is far more alluring for being a word
with three consecutive instances of double letters.

Let me now enter the world of the poor non-solver. He or she has been handed
the last tiles in the Scrabble bag, and has been left with H,E,E,E,E,L,P.

What does one say to a cryptic crossword setter?

‘How interesting. I’d never realised that ‘desserts’ was ‘stressed’
backwards’ – and then what?

I really do make friends easily. And I have it that mine is the most
fascinating job on the planet!

I am an international man of mystery. But perhaps sometimes I should remain

Best wishes,

John (Paul)

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Google v Dictionary

The horny bustard.

Hard to believe, but I can assure you there is such a bird. I ‘think’ I saw
it while on safari in Botswana in 2008 – at least it was pointed out by our
guide, though the fleeting flapping of wings and blur of colour I may have
only imagined. With glee, its name was duly noted, and I waited nervously to
consult Google on my return home.

Only one Google ‘hit’, but sure enough, there was a picture. I hadn’t
imagined it. And so, ‘Horny bustard’ became an entry in The Guardian

But today, three years on, I Googled ‘horny bustard’ again. The ubiquitous
search engine questioned my spelling, suggesting I should perhaps be probing
birds of the un-feathered variety. The bird has flown.

Bloggers on crossword-related sites had originally suggested that I’d tried
to slip one past the editor – as if I’d do such a thing!

And now, no means of supporting my claim.

Which brings us circuitously to whether Googling is valid in finding new
entries for the crossword.

For what it’s worth, I think probably not, but ‘horny bustard’ was just too
good an opportunity to miss. The crossword is simply a form of
entertainment. It is my job to entertain.

Very best wishes,

John (Paul)

What’s in a Name?

I was privileged this last weekend to spend some time looking after the
young sons of the brother of my wife-to-be.

An Armenian family, the two nippers are named Levon and Sevan.

Easy to remember. Both their sons have names that read backwards as real

And their parents never knew?

What sort of parents are they, anyway?

Surely the first thing any loving parent does is play with the names, place
them alongside the surname, etc. Surely.

My sister named her child Alik. Smart Alik. OK, but did she consider what
rhyming names might prove a distraction in the school playground.

Here is my guide to naming your child:

1 Check for anagrams.

If your name is Melissa, think again. Aimless (anag) might drift through

2 Rhymes. Phallic Alik is a no-no.

3 Initials:

Your surname is McDonald? Barney Umberto is not the name for you.

4 And try Googling Tom Mato on Facebook. He exists. Or the similarly fruity
Amanda Rinn. Think, parents, think! My dad had a client with the surname
Conquest. Why oh why oh why did his parents opt for Norman?

If I have saved one child from the humiliation of a scarred life, then this
blog has been worthwhile.

All the best,

John (Paul)

One’s Blue Period.

Let’s talk smut.

I am often told my work in The Guardian is littered with instances of the

I’d included entries in one particular puzzle including… Scunthorpe,
Chardonnay, Mishit, Horsemen, Widow Twankey and Hot Water.  Perhaps this was
unwise, in retrospect.

But the art of creating a cryptic crossword so lends itself to these things.

The indicators we use to suggest the type of clue include ‘insertions’ and
‘penetrations’ (of and by words) and the reversal (or taking from behind) of

Then there are anagram indicators.

Any synonym of ‘drunk’ ‘mad’ or ‘messed up’ may be employed – and the less
puritan of you may be able to think of some naughty examples.

‘Great female performer keen to be taken from behind (4)’ for DIVA is a clue
on my ‘to do’ list, but I expect not to put forward for publication.

One must always make a judgement, but I don’t always get that right, I

Still, I am told that solvers like this stuff – perhaps those who don’t
aren’t writing in, or have defected to other newspapers.

The bottom line is, I’m trying to entertain. I do hope I manage that, at
least sometimes.

All the  best,

John (Paul)

How To Write a Crossword Clue.

Well, tell me – how does one do it? Here’s my guide:

Take a word.

“But which word?”

One you like, and which makes you smile.

“OK, so I have my word. My word is WARTHOG.”

Each to his own. Right. What can you tell me about it?

“It’s made up of WART and HOG.”

Well spotted. What else?

“It’s WAR + THOG.”

More brownie points. OK, but THOG isn’t a word. What can you tell me about

“It’s an anagram of GOTH. It’s also H in TOG. Or H in GOT backwards.”

Getting somewhere?

“Erm, not sure”

If you’re not sure, move on, Right, now you might start looking for a
definition You’ll need a definition, as well as the cryptic part of the
clue. Define WARTHOG.

”  “Animal”. Erm, let me consult my dictionary. ‘Any of a genus of wild hogs
found in Africa, with large wartlike execrescences (whatever they are) on
their cheeks (Chambers dictionary).’ – “African beast”  How about, “it’s
beastly?”   “


“And war is beastly. Hmm, am I getting somewhere?”


“Or I could try a different tack. Shall I put all the letters of WARTHOG in
a circle and see if I can come up with an anagram?”

Why not.

“OK, let me see – A GROWTH. Aha. Warts are growths. And the word ‘beastly’
might suggest an anagram. Got it. How about ‘Animal with a growth that’s
beastly (7)’?”

Pretty good. How did you get there?

“Dunno, I just played around with definitions, the structure of the word,
and all that. I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

And that’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years.

“So you don’t really know what you’re doing?”


Ode To a Brick Wall.

Every writer needs inspiration. Every writer a Muse. I have a brick wall at
which I gaze from my London flat.

I am often asked where my ideas spring from.

Some call on chicks
And flowing water.
For me, it’s bricks.
And mortar.

Whilst you may be out in the sticks
For thought – a
Brick for me…
And mortar.

London offers so much for inspiration, putting the city in diver-city (sic).
On the tube, on the streets, the shows, the dirt, the parks, the buzz, the
fuzz – like ringworm, it gets under your skin. You cannot help but be

Today I invite you to be inspired by anything you see. Water. Verdant