Author Archives: alexanderjbuck

What a Racket!


A name useful to a crossword setter, as an N_D_L alternative entry to
‘nodal’, though only in some newspapers. The Guardian: tick; The Times:

But why? Times cryptic crossword policy dictates all entries must be dead
(except for the Queen, for some reason).

An aside: recently I was dismayed to find, half-way through penning a Times
jumbo, that my entry ‘Gore Vidal’ is very much alive and kicking. Dammit.
Two hours it took to rub him out.

So, we camped out for show court tickets during Wimbledon this year, and
were rewarded with Court 1. Nadal. The match proved a relatively
straightforward straight sets victory, but perhaps it had been worth being
there for some wag’s shriek ‘Go Nads!’

I have generally refrained from tennis references, perhaps due to once being
requested to withdraw a puzzle on the grounds that I’d defined a number of
famous tennis stars as ‘racketeers’, and that might prove libellous.  I can
neither imagine Martina Navratilova, for example, ever A/ doing The Guardian
crossword, nor B/ being upset by it.

Some years ago, a friend called to say they’d heard there was a competition
running on Radio Five, to write an apposite anagram for a tennis player. The
best anagram would win two tickets to the Men’s singles Final. Right up my

Monica Seles, the grunter, comes out as ‘camel noises’. I considered this
pretty good, but the letters are helpful. So I decided instead to submit an
anagram of which I’d been proud, an anagram without an ‘E’ and with two
‘V’s’ – ‘Variant rival to a man’. The chaps at Radio 5 read it out, and
seemed to like it, but considered it might upset the sturdy Martina.

I had been destined not to win. The victorious entry? A rather apposite
‘camel noises’.

Best wishes,

John (Paul)


Midnight snacks

Many years ago, pre-publication in The Guardian, I remember telling the
great Araucaria that I’d begun waking in the middle of the night with entire
clues written, blindly scrabbling for paper and pencil. Nowadays, my
subconscious is kinder to me, and allows me to do my thinking post-cock

But concentration and inspiration are elusive things.

The other night my better half was to stir with an artistic flash of
lightning. She is a painter, and a half-formed masterpiece had evidently

Many somnambulists would have shuffled to the fridge for a chicken leg. A
footballer would perhaps have reached for chewing gum.

At this point, dear solvers, I should unburden myself of a minor confession.
I snore. Occasionally (I like to think). It has never bothered me, but
marrying at the age of 44, as I am to do in just a few weeks, perhaps it has

So my wife-to-be hadn’t been hankering for a chicken leg, but perhaps it had
been the thought of gum that was the catalyst for her next move.

Sometimes the realisation of an error alights like the thud of an
walked-into unopened glass patio door. However, in those magical hours
between dusk and dawn, the enlightenment is a slow burner.

Convenient though this snack may have proved, the wax adorning one’s
earplugs is an unfamiliar and possibly, at least at first, welcome flavour.
At second, it is, I am told, most unwelcome. A considerable amount of
furrow-browed thought had evidently gone into the identification of the
offending nibbles. Perhaps she had been in the world of comparison between
these objects and a gastronomic creation from my own considerable

‘Giving great joy, earplugs in, for chewing (10)’ Pleasuring it may be for
some, but I’ll stick to gum or a chicken leg.

Best wishes,

John (Paul)

Shredded Tweet.

What do birds eat for breakfast?

Tweetabix? Cock pops, quite possibly? Sugar puffins? Or an owl of

And for lunch or dinner?

Chicken chat served with Dijon bustard, a mynah grebe salad and a finch of
salt, all washed down with a swift bittern?

Too much to swallow, perhaps? If I could find an adept cuckoo could pull it
off, the critics would be raven about it!

(Incidentally, one of my favourite clues ever was by the late, great
Bunthorne: ‘Bird, but not a blue tit? (9)’*

But what does all the rest of this have to do with crosswords?

Well, having peeped warily past the dark curtain of the parallel universe
frequented by us despicable setters, I strongly feel it’s time for us all to
join the real world (if indeed there is one).

Tweeting has arrived. Frankly, I don’t understand it. But many lovely people
have been kind enough to follow me, and the least I can do in their honour
is to spend a little time spouting nonsense in a weekly blog.

So do please tell me what you’d like to hear about from the world of cryptic
crossword setting. Thank you!

Best wishes,

John (Paul)


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)