Fifty years of The Spectator crossword

3 July 2021

9:00 AM

3 July 2021

9:00 AM

by Tom Johnson aka Doc

During the early spring of 1971, a package of eighteen unsolicited crosswords arrived in the post at the Spectator’s offices in Goodge Street. These puzzles were compiled by Jac who had already established himself during the 1960s as a challenging and inventive setter for the Listener series. The name John Adelmare Caesar hid behind the pseudonym Jac who had recently retired from the post of Town Clerk for Rochdale, it is believed.

JAC’s first puzzle for the Spectator appeared in the magazine exactly fifty years ago today. In an accompanying editorial on July 3rd 1971, it was claimed that the series aimed to be “the most sophisticated published anywhere”. For ten years Jac presented a weekly puzzle, the vast majority of which included a set of unclued thematic solutions which were referred to cryptically in the puzzle’s title. His first crossword, entitled “To Hell with it” was on the theme of the wines of Burgundy. Many of his puzzles were compiled on 15×15 grids, but during the latter part of his tenure, he moved to the 14×14 patterns which still distinguish our puzzles to this day. Jac’s style was distinctive, quirky and certainly not beholden to the traditional “fair play” cluing style of Ximenes and Alec Robins, say. Consequently a “Jac-pot” was offered to solvers, so that, should no correct solution be received, that week’s monetary prize would be added to the prize for the next puzzle. This happened twice during Jac’s tenure.

After ten years Jac decided to reduce his commitment and so Harold Massingham and I were invited to join him in presenting our puzzles in a three-weekly cycle which began in July 1981. Just over ten years later Jac decided to retire having compiled just under 650 puzzles for the series.

MASS, Harold Massingham, was born in 1932 and after leaving Mexborough Grammar School, he read English language and literature at the University of Manchester. He then settled in the Manchester area and taught these subjects at secondary schools and a tutorial college, before “retiring” to concentrate on poetry, chess and crosswords. He became poet-in-residence in the University of Manchester’s extra-mural department, receiving three national poetry awards. His chess problems appeared various newspapers and he also contributed crosswords to The Independent and The Listener. Before joining The Spectator team. For a spell he and his wife, Pat, moved to Spain, but they returned to north Cheshire for their last few years.

I am DOC. I was born in Birmingham and started my crossword career as a teenager by submitting simple definitional puzzles to the Birmingham Mail’s “Reader’s Crossword” series. My first puzzle appeared in the Spectator forty years ago in July 1981, when Jac invited me to join him and Mass as the new team as from his tenth anniversary compiling for the Spectator. Since when I have compiled just over 650 puzzles, one every third week with very few interruptions. I was appointed crossword editor in March 1999.

After completing my degree, and then my PGSE at the University of Keele, I settled in Nantwich in south Cheshire in 1969 where I taught modern languages at the grammar school (later Malbank School) for thirty-three years. I took early retirement in 2002, when my wife, Jean, and I established our crossword compiling and proof-reading company. Our crossword commitments expanded rapidly and so we now work for various puzzle publishers and I now compile for Prospect, Guardian (I was invited to take over compiling the Bank Holiday Jumbo puzzles which the Rev. John Graham (Araucaria) had made his own for many years), Financial Times, The Cricketer, Daily Telegraph and New Statesman and my first crossword in the Times was published in early June this year. For many of these periodicals I compile under different pseudonyms; Didymus, Maskarade, Gozo, Busman and Anorak. Since 1974 I have compiled definitional puzzles for every issue of The Puzzler magazine, totalling over 2,700 crosswords so far. I have contributed just over 670 puzzles to the Spectatorseries – solvers may recall that the 2500thSpectatorcrossword coincided with our Golden Wedding on Easter Saturday this year. Jean and I have two children, David and Helen, and three grand-daughters, Elsie, Imogen and Cressida. Apart from crosswords, my interests are cricket and classical music, and for a very niche market, I wrote two editions of the Malta Bus Handbook in 2006 and 2011 for British Bus Publishing.

COLUMBA is Colin Gumbrell. After leaving school, he became a bookseller for some years before becoming a biographer and history researcher. In the late 1980s three books of his crossword puzzles for children were published by Puffin, after which Colin looked to hone his compiling skills by entering the Azed clue-writing competition in the Observer and submitting puzzles to the Crossword Club magazine which welcomed contributions from amateur setters. Coincidentally, just after Jac’s retirement, in 1992, Colin sent a speculative puzzle to the Spectator – Mass recognised his name, vetted the crossword and recommended that Colin should be invited to join the team. For the next twenty-five years, almost every third week would feature one of his gracefully crafted puzzles. In addition to this commitment, Colin was invited by our former Spectator crossword editor, Jenny Naipaul, to compile a monthly thematic puzzle and accompanying cryptic puzzle for the Oldie magazine, where Jenny then worked. For the Oldie Colin chose a new pseudonym, Antico. His last contributions to The Spectator were made in the autumn of 2018, giving twenty-six years as his total innings.

ASCOT is Allan Scott who compiled just over one hundred puzzles for our series between puzzles 618 and 1889 appearing primarily every ninth week. The titles of twenty-six consecutive puzzles of his bore the names of girls from A to Z. Allan had enjoyed a career in insurance until 2000, when he began setting puzzles full-time. He currently appears in The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Financial Times. From 1994 to 2015 he was “Everyman” of The Observer. During the 1980s he collaborated with Mass on crossword books for M&S. He lives in Llandudno.

PABULUM is Christopher Brougham. He started solving crosswords in the Evening Standard, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph as a teenager. While at Oxford University studying law in the 1960s, he mastered the Timescrossword and later took part in the first Times Crossword championships. In 1980 his wife showed him the Azed clue-writing competition in the Observer and he has competed in the monthly competitions ever since. In 1988 he was made a QC and also set his first cryptic crossword which was published in 1989 under his pseudonym Pabulum in the Crossword Club magazine and he was also to appear in the Listener just before its demise; since when he has contributed to the Times/Listener series, the Church Times, the Times legal supplement and the Independent magazine. In 1995 Mass invited him to submit a puzzle to the Spectator with a view to him taking over on Mass’s retirement to Spain. And so, his first puzzle was published in the Spectator in February 1996 under the pseudonym Dumpynose which he changed to Pabulum in May 2016. His total of puzzles is currently 278 as of late June 2021.

LAVATCH, James Brydon, has been compiling for the Spectator since 2004, when he was a recent graduate. He owed his start in compiling to Doc who accepted his earliest crosswords for publication in Araucaria’s 1 Across magazine. Encouraged and mentored by Doc, he began to hone his skills, until Doc invited him to join the Spectator team. He thus found his feet by standing in for the legendary Columba when the latter needed a week off. As well as now featuring bimonthly in the Spectator, James nowadays also compiles regularly for the Times, for the Guardian as Picaroon, for the Financial Times as Buccaneer and for the Independent as Rodriguez. He writes the Christmas Jumbos in the Observer and very recently he made his debut in the Telegraph. When time permits, he also writes occasional puzzles for advanced series such as the Listener and Inquisitor. Outside of compiling, he has lived in both Hungary and China, has a doctorate in French Literature, teaches French, German and Mandarin in north London and is a keen pianist. He lives in St Albans and has an eight-year old daughter, whom he very much enjoys taking our for bike rides and accompanying on the piano when she plays the violin.

MR MAGOO, Mark Goodliffe, learned to solve crosswords while at school and university, but did not like taking time off from club cricket and so did not enter the Times Crossword Championships until 1996, when he was thirty years old. By then, it turned out that he was fast enough to do well, and soon he made no mistakes when solving competition puzzles. In 1999 he qualified in first place for the final – and won. After a five-year hiatus in the event, he started a ten-year run of victories in 2008, and won again in 2019, the last time that the competition was held. He also won the short-lived Daily Telegraph Crossword Championship in 2004.

Mark started compiling crosswords for the Listener in 2003 and has seen six of his puzzles appear in print in the feature. Prior to that, in 2002, with Simon Anthony, he founded the Magpie magazine of themed cryptic crosswords. It is still going, though Mark no longer contributes his monthly puzzle to the magazine. He joined the Spectator team in 2010, and is fast approaching his fiftieth puzzle in the series.

His professional career has been as a chartered accountant, not an obvious choice for a Linguistics graduate. Over the years he has specialised in working as a finance director for stock exchanges. He is currently on the Board of Aquis Exchange plc. However his day job has dramatically changed in the past couple of years, as he is now a full-time YouTuber, making daily videos on Sudoku solving (and occasionally cryptic crosswords) on the “Cracking the Cryptic” channel, another brainchild of Simon and his. The channel took off dramatically during the 2020 Covid lockdown, one video having has an astonishing six million views.

As a small child, Richard Browne, FIELDFARE, was fascinated by the Skeleton crossword in his grandfather’s Sunday Express. He filled in the grid as his grand-father solved the clues. His next pleasure was solving the Evening Standard children’s puzzles, with picture clues. Later he graduated to the Telegraph puzzle and in due course to the Guardian and the Times.

From an early age Richard compiled for his own amusement and later for the IBM house magazine; and his wife Marilyn persuaded him to apply to the Times, which he thought a bit cheeky! Nevertheless John Grant took him on in 1986, and he has been a regular ever since, and has created over a thousand daily cryptics.

After early retirement in the 90s, he found more crossword work with the Independent(as Victor) and the Financial Times (as Antares). In 1993 he founded the Times Two puzzle, which he compiled single-handedly for its first ten years. Two years later he won Val Gilbert’s competition to fill the vacancy left by their doyen Douglas Barnard, and became the Telegraph’s Tuesday regular.

In 2002 the Times asked him to become their crossword editor, which gave him the most enjoyable period of his crossword career. When he retired from this in 2014, he joined the Guardian (as Imogen, later also in slightly easier mode as Vulcan). Also, he was invited by Doc to join the Spectator team, compiling his only barred-grid puzzles.

Marilyn and Richard have been married for 48 years, Their son Peter died in 2003, Nick is global director of a Swedish shipping company. Richard’s principal hobbies apart from solving crosswords are walking in the countryside and choral singing, contributing to three Proms and a Grammy award.

LA JEREZANA is Sarah Hayes who graduated with BA and MPhil degrees in Russian Studies from Manchester University, where she also lectured for around twenty years. Her first crossword was published in the Independent Saturday Magazine on 25 May 1996. After setting some advanced barred grid cryptics for various papers, she was hired by The Guardian to help set up their beginner-level “Quiptic” crossword series under the pseudonym Arachne. From there, she got a regular cryptic slot, and went on to set for The Independent (as Anarche), the FT (as Rosa Klebb), The Times, and the New Statesman (as Aranya). Sarah and her husband Nick have a great love for the Spanish city of Jerez de la Frontera, which inspired her nom de guerre for the Spectator.

SMURF, Bob Gregory, has been setting cryptic crosswords for over thirty years, many of them as thematic creations for various special interest periodicals. Bob’s claim to fame is his long association with Saga Magazine, for whom he has compiled the challenging cryptic crossword for well over eighteen years. His other commitment is with the New Statesman where he compiles under his other pseudonym Cullen. He holds a Cambridge degree in Natural Sciences and an Airline Transport Pilot’s Licence from many years of corporate flying. He retired early from a demanding business life, after some years as CEO of a public company. After retirement he was much involved with Antony Lewis in the early development of the wonderful Crossword Compiler program. Apart from setting, he enjoys competitive contract bridge and reading, especially books in German and Spanish in which he is fairly fluent. Unfortunately he is now largely wheelchair-bound, so does not get around much any longer. Being based in Cardiff, he was a founding member of the South Wales Caving Club and used to love walking the Brecon Beacons and the Carmarthenshire Black Mountains, but alas, no longer. Bob is married to Marion and has three children and lots of grandchildren.

The most recent compiler to join our team is CHEESECRACKER who is Professor Mark Kelmanson. He obtained a BSc Mathematics degree in 1980 and a PhD Applied Mathematics three years later, since when he had been a full-time academic applied mathematician until his recent retirement from the position as Professor and former Head of Applied Mathematics at the University of Leeds. His time is now fully occupied with his dogs, hiking, swimming, dry-stone walling and voluntary footpath restoration, woodworking and general DIY, solving crossword and logic puzzles, and dabbling in residual maths projects. Mark began his crossword career by setting very amateur, anagram-heavy crosswords for family and friends during his 1960s childhood, from which he graduated to professional cryptic-crossword setting some time later, in 1992. Since then his puzzles have appeared, primarily under the pseudonym Monk in The Times, the Financial Times, The Times Jumbo, The Independent, The Telegraph Toughie (as ‘Sparks’), The Listener, Guardian Genius, The Independent Saturday Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph (Enigmatic Variations series), Crossword (the magazine of the Crossword Club), The Royal Society Newsletter, The International Maths Challenge Newsletter and most recently The Spectator.

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