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








6 responses to “Chapter Two – The Clueless Life of a Cryptic Crossword Setter

  1. I’d like Paul to know that his puzzle 25,879 in the Guardian 23 Feb 2013 was as good as anything I’ve ever seen. Up to Araucaria. Praise enough. I do not know how he managed 12,5 across. Brilliant.


    • Stuart, for far too long since you wrote this. Please forgive me. I’m slowly catching up on correspondence since the Centenary. To be mentioned in the same breath as Araucaria is a joy – thank you, and thank you for taking the time and the trouble to write.


  2. Hello John. I’m a crossword nut like you (!). A story I think you’ll like: Having LOVED your crossword in the ‘i’ last Tuesday (the one originally published in 2008 with ‘Anagrammatical and ‘Waiting for Godot’ in it, if you emember) I read your old interview on ‘Meet the Setter’ and came to this site. That led me in turn to your first ever crossword, which I downloaded and tackled out of interest, because I’ve just started compiling a few myself and wished to make a comparison. Sadly this was the night before my lovely niece’s funeral and I fell asleep with just one clue unsolved – 21d. In the morning I awoke and was taken aback when I realised the answer – Bryony. Her name, of course.

    • Hello. SO SO sorry for late reply. Thanks so much for writing, and sorry to hear about Bryony. Amazingly, that puzzle was published some time before the birth of my own niece, named…. Bryony!


  3. Hello again John. Two years on and another momentous event in my life – a happy one this time though, as my wife and I took our eldest to University today – the first to fly the nest. Naturally I did the Guardian Prize Crossword en route, although it was trickier than usual with a theme around Latin names of Roman Emperors – one of whom seemed to be called Gluteus Maximus!
    My LOI was 15ac, Hero going after rebel in uprising?: L_I_, and very unusually it was answered by my crossword-phobic wife. Oh, and given the Latin theme of the puzzle, it’s rather pleasing that my son’s name is Leo. 🙂

  4. I meant L_ O_ , of course!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s