Category Archives: My New Book

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!

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