Chapter Two – The Clueless Life of a Cryptic Crossword Setter

Chapter 2:

Every other chapter, I shall be taking you to the story behind a puzzle, and offering that crossword to you, exactly as published. I shall place the puzzle first each time, so should you wish you can solve it, you can then choose to read on to see if you agree with my comments. Do feel free to offer your thoughts too.  Although I do read and appreciate all your comments, please forgive my not being able to reply to all of you in person.

As we progress through the puzzles, and through the years, there are ideas of which I am proud, and others that leave me scurrying to a place of sanctuary behind the sofa.

I do hope you enjoy having a go at these oldies. Here we go….

April 19, 1995 – first ever Paul puzzle

So, this puzzle took me around five years to complete, for a fee of £88.

Still aspire to being a crossword setter?

In the following pages I shall tell you the story of those 20,000 hours of clue-writing – the isolation, the beer, the drawing of boxes on bedroom walls, the petrol station sandwiches, the unimpressed girlfriends.

But for now, the above puzzle is the end of the journey, the honed puzzle I sent to ‘Araucaria, C/O The Guardian’, for his feedback, hoping it would reach the great man, and that he would be able to dig it out from beneath his mountain of fan mail – and find the time to respond, should he see fit.

Looking at it again, there are plenty of things I tried then that, twenty years later, are proving cringeworthy, although it’s not a bad puzzle on the whole.

8 ac: Knickers. Says it all, really. Start as you mean to go on, I say.

9 ac: ‘Actor’ is loose for ‘Extra’, if not erroneous.

11 ac: ‘it’s on the way’, loose again for ‘Tarmacadam’.

20 ac: would arguably be better as ‘No longer useful to be wandering around alone (8)’

23 ac: nowadays I wouldn’t use partial anagrams from another solution – it’s a bit cheap.

1 dn: I had considered ‘Finish’ should appear with a capital ‘F’. I’m less than sure now, and perhaps could have rewritten the clue.

7 and 13 dn: too much stuff in parentheses’

18 dn: model for T, so very hackneyed. Furthermore, the clue should read ‘Libertine model with hair to adjust in toilet (8)’

As I say, I think it’s not a bad effort, though on its publication I was immediately to become aware of the world of which I had just become a part – my first ‘fan mail’

It read as follows:

‘I am dismayed at the puzzle produced by your new setter Paul, particularly by its subject matter.

First we have ‘knickers’, later a girl being overcome by passion, the politically incorrect mental health issues at 11 and 12 across, the attack on stammerers at 17 across, some ‘straddling’, more filth at 16 down and a model in a toilet.

All I can say is, for those who follow the work of Paul, they are all:

Sad initially to be with American soldier on the way back (6,4)*

Yours sincerely,

Soapy Shaft-Twiglets

I had entered the mysterious world of the cryptic crossword, but hadn’t accounted for the underworld of cryptic crossword solvers. My life was about to change, in ways I couldn’t have foreseen….

*Sexist gits








Chapter One – The Clueless Life of a Cryptic Crossword Setter

Every week John Halpern will be posting one chapter of his book The Clueless Life of a Cryptic Crossword Setter, available by subscribing at the side of this page, or by sending an email to



“I hate you”, he spat, and alighted from the train.

Casting an apprehensive eye at his assailant, the bespectacled commuter had been lost in the swirling mists of cryptic crossword land, wrapped in a cocoon of clues, pen poised over his copy of The Guardian. And I had spoiled it all.

‘Good to see you doing the cryptic crossword’, I chirped, hideously hoping to steer a conversation towards him acknowledging me as one of his favourites.


‘Orlando, he’s good’, I observed, on spotting that day’s nom de plume atop the puzzle.

‘Mmm’, he concurred. I erroneously felt we had connected enough for me to press on.

‘I’m one of his colleagues on the Guardian’.  I’m Paul’.

That was his cue. Gathering himself and his briefcase, the gentleman hurried towards the opening train doors. It was only then that he raised his gaze to meet mine to deliver his terse farewell.

I had heard it all before. It is not always ‘hate’. It is often ‘oh, you’re that b******’’ or some such.

But perhaps this odium is deserved. After all, I have been torturing people for years, behind the cloak of a poltroon.

It’s true, my puzzles don’t deceive by flattery, but I do aim to lose the game to the solver, as gracefully as I can muster.

And there are bouquets as well as brickbats.

‘Since my wife and I stopped having sex, solving your crosswords has been our main pleasure’, being one such.  Or ‘I used to hate you.’

I am told solving my puzzles has become a little easier over the last few years. I have mellowed. I no longer drink, and these days I smoke nothing stronger than the occasional salmon.  I run the odd marathon. I have been on many (I realise now much needed) self-improvement courses.  I am pure of action, if not always of mind. Of women, I am no longer an ‘admirer’ but its anagram, ‘married’.  I have a beautiful son, Aram Paul, at the time of writing a month old. I live by the seaside in the world’s most inspiring city, Brighton. I play games with words for a living. Life is pretty wonderful.

But it wasn’t always like this.

My parents I am told met playing badminton. Frankly, I am suspicious of this sporty encounter, for in all the years of my youth I only ever witnessed them playing pool, or gin rummy.

That said, they were never less than dynamic in other respects. I have a lot to thank them for, and much for which to apologise. I was both a prima donna and a drama queen, a heady concoction. I considered that the world owed me, and during my early ‘adulthood’ would secretly despise having to work on a supermarket checkout counter, in a bank, as a journalist (shudder) and as a quality control assistant in an antique lighting firm.

After all, I was special. Dear readers, for ‘special’ read ‘arrogant’.

Why did I think I was special? It was not down to me, but more down to the hard work of my parents. Their vision, confidence and unceasing drive ensured a comfortable existence in a spacious and inspiring seven-acre Sussex home. This space would surely allow any child to dream in superlatives, to believe they could be the best.

My teenage years saw the Coe-Ovett Olympic middle-distance rivalry. On returning home from school I would run until I was sick. I figured that all Olympic champions ran until they were sick. So how could I improve upon their performances? I would run until I was sick, then run until I was sick again. With regards to role models,, I had been an Ovett man. Coe was establishment. Not only was Ovett from Sussex, he represented the people – he was one of us (like I was working class – yeah right).

So I nurtured the mind of an Olympic champion, though lacking the physique and the talent. My times were pitifully slow.

So if I wasn’t to be an Olympian, perhaps I could be the best at darts? I would spend hour upon hour thudding arrows into the dartboard in the shed at the bottom of the garden. I have a photo of my first maximum score of 180 somewhere. It took me a year. It took me months to get the next one. Maybe darts wasn’t for me either.

Pool then? We owned a pool table, and I’d read in the Guinness Book of Records that the fastest time for potting all the balls on the table was 46 seconds. I got it down to under a minute on several occasions, but could get no further.  I was no hustler.

I did enjoy sport, but was never a team player. I chose one-on-one opponents slightly weaker than me, so I could beat them every time. I particularly remember running my friend Chutney Wales* around the tennis court, keeping him in the rally long enough to leave him exhausted before lobbing him for a winner, smirking as he turned his back to me, wearily traipsing back to the service line. I didn’t realise I was honing the cryptic muscles even at that time, the one-on-one combat, the duel to the death.

In these pages I shall look back at how it all happened. After all, I had wanted to be an astronaut, or a song-writer, so how did crossword setting become my thing?

In these coming chapters we shall look at how a crossword is set, how one becomes a setter, favourite clues and stories from other setters, and of course the book will become the story of the Year of the Crossword, 2013, and all the fun that will become of it.

We’ll meet Araucaria, Enigmatist and Shed etc, champion solvers, examine crosswords around the world, and look at how crosswords can be brought into schools.. We’ll meet celebrity solvers, and investigate the crosswording mind.

It’s going to be so much fun to write, so please join me on the journey, and let me know what you think!

Subscribe on this page to receive your free weekly chapter of The Clueless Life of a Cryptic Crossword Setter, or email saying: I’d like to subscribe

*Throughout this book, names may on occasion be anagrammatised, to avoid blushes – and lawsuits.

Daily Telegraph Magazine – May 5, 1990

May 1990: where was I? Certainly clueless, both cruciverbally and in life. But there were others, heroes in waiting, whose paths I had yet to cross.

And here they were. Buried beneath reams of long-forgotten scribblings, a less than glossy photo of a crossword, adorning the cover of the Telegraph magazine, May 1990. A friend had brought the magazine round to show me.

Superimposed upon an what I’d at first though to be an image of an American-style crossword grid – backroom staff rarely know better – were some of the stars of .the Telegraph crossword – the people who REALLY sell the newspaper. People come back time after time for the headlines, the sport, the obituaries, perhaps a particular columnist – but certainly for the crossword.

Let’s meet the Telegraph setters featured here, under the cutely demoralising headline ‘Six Across Can Get You Down’:

Above, left to right: Ruth Crisp, Ann Tait, Peter Chamberlain

Ann Tait: a teacher of classics, who apparently doesn’t find it easy comp[iling a crossword, sometimes taking up to 12 hours at a time.

Ruth Crisp: A former civil servant, who went on to set the very first Independent cryptic crossword. She had simply decided to ‘have a go’ at compiling, and her effort was accepted.

Peter Chamberlain: Spending some time in hospital as a boy, he became interested in crosswords.  Those who know him stop him in the street to say ‘Saturday was easy’ or ‘that particular puzzle was a lot harder’.

Above, back left, Leslie Stokes; back right, Val Gilbert; front, Bert Danher

Val Gilbert: The then editor of the Telegraph crossword: says ‘the crossword must reflect modern language, but that anyone should be able to arrive at the corect solution by cracking the code.’

Leslie Stoker: Tuesday’s compiler (the Telegraph has a policy of publishing the same setter on the same day every week). Leslie likes the modernisation of the crossword, and believes that any quotation in a puzzle must be one that most people know. He feels the loneliness of us ‘faceless compilers’.

Bert Danher: (aka in the Guardian, anagrammatically,  Hendra, although I always wondered why not ‘Harden’?): Thursday’s setter, the ‘anagram wizard of the Telegraph team’, began his career by setting up blank grids and doing them in his head.

And so to the first Telegraph puzzle, published July 30, 1925.My ignorance had the front-cover grid as an American effort. It was very much British, but 1925 British.

The very first clue is ‘Author of Childe Harold’ – answer Byron.

The second, ‘Author of tales of mystery’ – of course, ‘Poe’.

Solvers were expected to be erudite, and if not, then tough luck. They would not be invited to our club – “and what’s more, don’t come back knocking on our door until you have read the complete works of Joyce, Chaucer and Shaw. Crosswords during this era wielded large sticks, and were prepared to use them!”

Our reporter Christopher Dobson, a long-time addict, had been briefed to call in on the crossword editor, and expected ‘a sardonic academic with leather patches on his old sports jacket’. Instead, he’d been greeted by Val Gilbert, a ‘jolly and voluble mother of three’.

Val describes her favourite clue as: ___ ! (4,3,3,1,4)*

She says: ‘Students tend to specialise more at university, and they learn less general knowledge – that’s whay we have fewer quotations today.’

Interesting she mentions students, almost implying that a university education is a prerequisite for solvers.

Personally I believe this not to be the case. 2013 will bring cryptic crosswords to everyone. Watch this space!

John (Paul)

*(answer: ‘Have not got a clue’)

Everyone Loves Cryptics – but some don’t yet know it!

I’m on a train.

I’m told train journeys are very good for creative thinking.

‘Thinking’ – unlike Henry VIII, who was a fat one.

Getting back on track (thank you for noticing my train journey punning), I’m off to Heathrow. Actually, I once knew a chap who spent 3 years at Heathrow. Or was that on Death Row? What a difference a letter makes. At least that’s what I’ve come to learn, for I used to write to him.

Not sure the letters ever reached him though, as I sent them to Heathrow.

Anyhow, I’m visiting my very good friend Vince, in Ibiza, who has recently moved there from Hackney.

Actually, moving ‘from Hackney to Ibiza’ gives you ’I’m nth fairycake bozo’. Does this matter to him?

Not a jot. I have tried to get him into cryptic crosswords. And failed. I have tried to get every person I’ve ever met into cryptic crosswords. And – usually – failed.

Here is my technique:

‘Oh my god, you must get into cryptics . They’re really brilliant. Wow, they’re so good. Hey, here’s a really great clue for you: ‘Huge deficit in fuel  – eight letters’.

It’s simple. You have to find a word that means ‘deficit’ and place it in a word that means ‘fuel’ to make a word that means ‘huge’.  LOSS in COAL. COLOSSAL! It’s so much fun!


1/ My grin and a pause.

2/ A mutual pause

3/  His ‘do you write su doku too?’

4/ My ‘no, they’re written by a computer, and are humourless.

5/ His ‘oh, oh dear’.


Perhaps I am a better setter than I am a teacher. I really do hope so.

Best wishes,

John (Paul)

Jack of One Trade

Marriage done and dusted. Move to Brighton polished off. First baby has arrived. Time to get back to some crossword composition, and to get working on the Year of the Crossword

One day I really should get a proper job. I am 45, and I worry I may be otherwise unemployable. I want to do voluntary work overseas, but depressingly I have no skills. Could the children of war-ravaged African nations, sand-blasted pencils poised over the gold-dust of a sheet of A4, be aching to know the Ximenean laws of cruciverbalism? That is all I have to give, save hugs and my impression of a bee.

Three years back I was fortunate to spend my mornings in a Brazilian orphanage. My Portuguese is non-existent, my teaching skills absent without leave. So I was a bee. For a month. I would buzz around their yard, for some reason pretending to have horns, until either I puffed to a halt or the children stopped screaming., whichever happened first. I hope they enjoyed it. I pray it enhanced their lives, for those brief apian moments. I had tried homophones on them. Blank faces.

So what would I do if not a crossword setter? How could I apply my anagrammatical skills to the ‘real’ world? I can barely change a fuse, only perhaps to make ‘U SAFE’.

Employers of the world, please consider me. But for the moment crossword editors of the world, please continue to trust that in this one area I (at least most of the time) know what I’m doing.

Best wishes, John (Paul)

Who might live in a house like this?

When you live and breathe crosswords, you just have to reside in a house called ‘One Across’. This week my wife Taline (anagram ‘entail’) and I re-named our home. I’m sure there are some far more brilliant names you can think of for the home of a crossword setter – do let me know – but this name is a bit special to us.

For ‘One Across’ is the name of the subscription-based crossword magazine founded by the legendary Guardian setter, our very good friend and mentor, Araucaria. For those of you new to cryptic crosswords, us setters tend to go by various pseudonyms. I am called Paul, after my late brother, and Araucaria took that name as the Latin for the ‘monkey puzzle’ tree. Shed is called Shed as he tells me he looks like a shed – I couldn’t disagree. Enigmatist apparently was dubbed thus in the school playground. Pasquale’s first name is Don, while Tramp and his ever-faithful Rover reside at 13b Park Bench Manors, Regent’s Park. Or not.

Over the next year or so we shall take you on a personal journey across the wilds of Crosswordland, meeting many of the great and the good, solvers and setters alike. It’s going to be great fun. Welcome to my home, and remember, we welcome knockers, but you may of course prefer the ‘bordello’ (anag).

Take care, (Paul) John

Living as an Insect

Asked to dispose of a chair with a wobbly leg, I set off.

Not my wobbly leg, I should add, but that of the chair. And down the road to the tip, burdened by my four-legged friend, I began to tire a little.

But where was I to lay my weary buttock?

The universe had sent me a gift. Four legs are better than two, and I parked myself, an umpire atop my Wimbledon seat, kerbside, surveying rallies of vehicles, their drivers peering quizzically askance.

A short breather, and once more becoming the six-legged beast, I set on my way.

One more sedate experience, cross-legged beside the number 7 bus, and the tip was in site.

But this outing got me thinking.  Which was it tiring me, chair or walk?

Sans chair, I had no choice but to walk. With chair I could take regular breaks. Wasn’t it worth one’s while to always carry a chair?

So, I have resolved to leave a chair always in the porch, and consider its worth each time I exit the house.

But what has all this to do with crosswords?

Dear solver, don’t you want to suffer a bit? Why pick up the easiest chair that won’t challenge you? And isn’t it more glorious having earned your rest, feet sore and blistered?

I shall continue to torture. I shall continue to hand you a chair, and send you from the comfort of your home, out onto the cruel streets. Walk, solver, walk! I am your chair. And if you don’t like it, well, just keep moving – the council tip is only around the next corner…

Best wishes,

John (Paul)


More Random Thoughts

A super colleague on The Guardian, aka Tramp, recently did an Only Fools and Horses puzzle – or was it Enigmatist? Or was it Birds of a Feather? I evidently don’t recall.

But a thought came into my head yesterday that the character Uncle Arthur was, cryptically, Unclear Thur, or ‘foggy day’. But then I realised that it was Uncle Albert in the every-popular sitcom, not Uncle Arthur.

And I had only been buying lemons in the supermarket.

At least I hadn’t got my lemons confused with my melons. Still, in my head sometimes I am both off my shopping trolley and a basket-case at the same time.

I like supermarkets, if not for the shopping. Much amusement to be had, though it wouldn’t have you rolling in the aisles (boom boom).

Now let’s see, what have I bought today?

Tuna  – a nut backwards, or ‘aunt’ (anag)


Bananas (more nuts)

Coffee -the checkout girl coughed on me, which makes her the cougher, and me the coughee, might you say?

Skimmed milk (or ‘ilk’)

Rosemary (two girls in one)

Dill, which makes many sick.

And then there’s the supermarket. Aldi, hidden in ‘venereal disease’. Did they think this through?

Time to check out.

Best wishes,

John (Paul)

Hippo Bathdays

You can tell who you are by the quality of your friends.

Or by the birthday cards you receive. Today’s my birthday.

First card opened: a face with lolling tongue, vacant stare and a petunia growing from deep within his skull. Second card, a man whose private parts are being struck by lightning.

There are very few more cards to mention – I am forty-five, and aunties tire of the thankless rounds of card-sending.

Instead there is Face Book. And greetings from names I can barely recall, but greetings for which I’m thankful.

And, courtesy of my lovely wife’s kindness,  I’m off to Bruges. Or Brugge, as I prefer it anagramatically.

So I shall be in Belgium. I shall take crosswords, just in case.

We are cruel about ‘I be glum (anag)’. And aside from Brugge, ‘Belgian’ is an anagram of ‘Bengali’, which is neat; ‘Ostend’ of ‘Doesn’t’. A lot going for it, Belgium.

And Magritte, nicely set up with GRIT in MATE. And Tintin translating, arguably, as Cancan.

And I never quite know if Van Damme is the Muscles from Brussels – or the Mussels…

And then of course there’s Audrey Hepburn, born in Belgium.

A lot going for it, Belgium. If only for Audrey.

And if I don’t like it, I can always Bugger off (6)

Clues for things Belgian invited!

Best wishes,

John (Paul)



Crossword Themes

So, what shall I write about today?

a. Wombles?

b. Rivers of Siberia?

c. Men with whom Tracey Emin has shared an art installation?

Nope. They’ve all been done. Especially c.

So what next? Ah, fish.

Fish’s bottom (4); Cold fish (5); Fish – or beef? (4); Fish stank (5).

Been done.


Yellow bird (7); Bird in another nest (4); Bird – or beef? (6); Bird nuts (6)


Hmmm. I’m stuck.

I once asked Araucaria if he ever had experienced writer’s block. His answer, a matter-of-fact ‘no’.

Much like Ms Emin, I get it often.

A friend and published author once told me if I don’t know what to write, just write anything, in order to get moving. ‘Vomit some words onto the page’, he gushed kaleidoscopically.

In my youth, while a member of an ‘anarchic’ band by the name of Xerox, we would contrive acne’d lyrical banalities by selecting random words from a dictionary, blindfold.

‘Clarion mortice fortitude cream lozenge

Walnut endangers plywood whisk hozenge.’

OK, so we may have had to engineer the rhymes somewhat. But it seemed to work, as no-one ever complained. That said, no-one ever listened.

So perhaps I shall write a puzzle based upon a random selection. Here goes:

Dybbuk junk impudent guilder general cassowary

Literae humaniores soprano ethyl acetate massowary.

OK, so where did I put that list of fishes….?

Best fishes,

John (Paul)