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!
*(answer: ‘Have not got a clue’)