Friday, July 29, 2011

Interview: Anax / Loroso

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DeanMayer Mind-bogglingly inventive, fiendishly tough - nothing is as it seems in a Dean Mayer crossword. His fans delight in his skilful play on words and his wicked sense of humour. They also marvel at his ability to stay perfectly fair while being wily.

Best known as Anax (The Independent) and Loroso (Financial Times), Dean Mayer is one of the friendliest setters around. He's reachable on his forum, he blogs, he is just a tweet away. But for all that, do we *really* know Dean Mayer?

I learnt a lot about him in this extremely candid interview. I'm sure you will too.

Q1. When and how did you get interested in crosswords?

Anax: My family moved to England from Canada when I was very young and for the first couple of years we stayed with an aunt who was a keen crossword solver. As far as I remember she didn’t do newspaper puzzles, but she had one of the Evening News books of crosswords. These were definition puzzles based on highly cross-checked 13x13 grids, and as I watched her solving I’m not sure if the fascination for me was just the novelty of words crossing each other or a more advanced appreciation of this happening in such a spectacular way.

There’s no evidence that at my age then – 4 or 5 years old – my ability with language was anything other than average. In fact in the earliest years I can remember of primary school I seem to recall one instance of really struggling with a 2-letter word; I think it may have actually have been ‘it’! But certainly within a couple of years of starting primary school I’d found English to be my favourite subject, probably because it was inherent to the fascination in my aunt’s crossword books.

Q2. How did you get into setting crosswords?

Anax: Because I was so young it’s most likely that I was far more suited to setting than solving. To read someone else’s clues and try to work out their answers would have been far beyond my abilities, so making my own grids and filling them with what few words I knew would have been the only avenue open to me if I wanted to develop the interest.

...this was at the age of 4 or 5. A brilliant age to start. It’s true, really – at that age you’re far more likely to want to create something than to utilize something already created.

I didn’t even start with proper grids. I just drew a big grid outline, thought of an answer and then, in the top left corner, drew the appropriate number of boxes (just mirrored L shapes butted up to each other) and put the number 1 in the far left cell. I then wrote ‘1’ underneath the grid and tried to think of a definition – the majority of those babyish efforts seem to have started with TABLE clued as something along the lines of, but perhaps simpler than, ‘Piece of furniture’ (oh, by the way: none of the answers actually appeared IN THE GRID so I had to try to remember them as I built up the puzzle. This wasn’t a strange sort of forgetfulness – I imagined the finished thing being a puzzle to solve, so it would be silly to put the answers in).

So, as I mentioned, this was at the age of 4 or 5. A brilliant age to start. It’s true, really – at that age you’re far more likely to want to create something than to utilize something already created. That’s what Lego was for; the finished toy was almost irrelevant compared to the enjoyment of building it.

Why I didn’t follow the predictable course and see crosswords as a passing fad before finding another interest I have no idea. We moved out of our aunt’s house and she was the only person in the family with any interest at all in crosswords, so that influence disappeared. It would have been very easy to drift away from it, but I just didn’t.

Lack of technology meant that everything I did was by hand, but I put together a collection of a dozen or so puzzles while at grammar school, and the ‘production department’ kindly turned these into what was at the time a pretty sophisticated mini puzzle magazine which was sent around the school. It even had a prize crossword offering the princely sum of 10p to the lucky winner – easy to scoff now, I suppose, but back then it was probably enough for a pack of ten Rothmans. Which is probably where it went.

There were no cryptics in that little collection, but my interest in these had started. That was thanks to my form teacher, a guy called Frank Dart. If he had any awareness that I was interested in crosswords he’d never said so, but in perhaps my penultimate year, during one of the annual school trips just before the summer break, he sat next to me on the train and put a copy of the Telegraph on the table, crossword side up.

I joined the Post team, and promptly burned out. It took a couple of years, but I just used up all of my best ideas far too quickly and found myself unable to create new ones at the pace I was using them up.

I can’t remember exactly which way round this next bit was; he either gave me the clue and asked if I had any idea about what it might mean, or he gave me the answer and asked if I knew how its clue worked. Whatever, it was the way he asked me that was all-important, because it made me actively think – for the first time in my life – about how a word can be broken down into different bits which can then be strung together to make something misleading. It was the first time I’d ever examined a cryptic crossword clue.

The next stage was pretty rapid. From that moment I was hooked on this cryptic crossword idea and wanted to know as much as I could. I began solving puzzles in the Manchester Evening News (at the time, set daily by Roger Squires although I didn’t know that) and used my scant pocket money to buy Alec Robbins’ “Teach Yourself Crosswords”. This spotty 14-year-old just devoured that book – honestly, within a year I must have read it ten times, cover to cover.

The rest of it is just practice, practice, practice, spread over something like the next ten years.

I moved to Birmingham to set up a band with an old buddy – we’d learned to play guitar/bass together – but I needed an income boost, so I tentatively sent off a puzzle to the Birmingham Post, not really expecting anything but…

Guess who was in charge of the Post team? Roger Squires. Who I still didn’t know about. That crossword was, on reflection, a bit ropey, but Roger was amazingly encouraging about it. He highlighted the errors and – most significantly – asked me to re-submit. So I joined the Post team, and promptly burned out. It took a couple of years, but I just used up all of my best ideas far too quickly and found myself unable to create new ones at the pace I was using them up. Something about my approach was fundamentally wrong, so I did the decent thing and retired while I re-assessed the way I was setting clues. I needed discipline and it took almost twenty years to properly mature. Oh, they were busy years. Nothing at all in terms of published crosswords, but masses of background work.

It wasn’t until about 2007, after Neil Shepherd put a new puzzle onto his Free Crosswords Online site, that I rejoined the cryptic community. That puzzle got noticed by Peter Biddlecombe and – guess who? – Roger Squires, and they recommended that I approach either the Times or FT. I chose the former, and the ball started rolling.

Q3: Which publications do you currently set for?

Anax: Mostly frequently it’s for the Independent as Anax (twice a month), the FT as Loroso, and I’ve just joined the Telegraph Toughie team as Elkamere. My crosswords for the Times are rare at the moment, but there’s nothing sinister in that. After a couple of puzzles that needed too much editing before being right for publication it was clear that my style was going awry. Remember, Times puzzles don’t appear under a pseudonym, so solvers don’t get that ‘signature’ feeling. It’s a house style, not an individual one, and it’s very easy to step outside the discipline that such a style demands. When solvers come up against a Loroso or Anax they have a fair idea of what to expect.

So for now I’m going through the same sort of discipline process that I did prior to 2007. I’ll be back, but not until I know I’m getting it right.

Outside the quality newspapers I set a variety of puzzles for monthly magazines, one of which is a two-way 15x15 crossword with cryptic and definition clues to the same answers.

I may be joining another quality newspaper series very soon, but for obvious reasons it wouldn’t be right to give details of that just yet.

And then, finally (at last!), I set the weekly concise crossword in the Sunday Times TV listings magazine.

Q4: You set for a variety of broadsheets with their individual styles and difficulty levels. How challenging is it to adapt your crosswords to suit different rules?

Anax: Well, the Times is a case in point. Yes, it can be very hard. Having said that, if we take the Times out of the equation we see that, really, all of the quality daily cryptics are developing more of a blend of Ximenean and Libertarian puzzles. The division isn’t quite as pronounced as it used to be. Thus John Henderson’s puzzles as Elgar (Telegraph), Nimrod (Independent) and Enigmatist (Guardian) are full of his trademark devices, yet one would expect the Independent to be far more Ximenean than a typical Nimrod puzzle. Yes, it is… but there’s a healthy editorial policy from Eimi which basically says “Look, chaps, this is Nimrod. You know what an Elgar/Enigmatist puzzle is like – why should a Nimrod be vastly different?”

...my background was to start setting after very little experience of solving, so that’s the only thing I know. Can I imagine there’s a difference in setting style based on those two types of background?

It’s probably fair to say that the labels Ximenean and Libertarian now apply more to individual setters than to newspaper crossword series, which is a good thing because those series end up with a far wider variety of crossword styles. For me it means that switching from e.g. Independent mode to FT doesn’t require a fundamental shift in technique, although sometimes I get caught out when it comes to which abbreviations are allowable.

Q5: Do you think it is necessary for a setter to be an expert solver?

Anax: I’m absolutely unqualified to answer that. While I’m sure that solving crosswords is a great help, my background was to start setting after very little experience of solving, so that’s the only thing I know. Can I imagine there’s a difference in setting style based on those two types of background? Well, it seems likely. I’d guess that if you are self-taught (in that you’ve not really done much solving) there’s less influence on the way you write clues so, potentially, you develop a highly individual style.

I’d also guess that setters who have done a great deal of solving are far better positioned to write accessible – perhaps entry-level – puzzles, which of course is absolutely vital. Being highly individual is nice in its own way, but you do run the risk of making puzzles which only the most experienced solvers can tackle with any degree of success.

Q6: What is your process of setting? How long does it take you to set a regular 15x15?

Two long answers can have a profound effect on how the rest of the puzzle builds

Anax: It depends largely on whether or not I want to incorporate a theme, stated or blind. Theme-wise I’m not particularly imaginative so it can take quite some time to come up with an idea. Once I’ve done that, the nature of the theme will dictate how easily it can be exploited in the grid and thus how long it will take to do the fill. I always bear in mind that if I’m trying something pretty ambitious, perhaps ten theme answers plus a modest Nina (hidden sequence of letters) to help explain it, there’s a chance I’ll get 75% through the grid fill and have to scrap it and restart. It does happen, and it can account for several hours.

For a plain puzzle it’s patently more straightforward, and the filling process follows a set pattern. It starts with a full grid design, then I’ll pick one of the long lights and invoke the word search facility to see what will fit. I’ll be looking for answers from which wordplay ideas jump out – it can take minutes, it can take an hour, it just depends on how fully my brain is engaged. I try to tackle those long ones first and make sure I’ve got good clues for them before proceeding.

Two long answers can have a profound effect on how the rest of the puzzle builds, but the process of word and wordplay searching stays the same pretty much throughout. By the time the grid is full there are usually about a third of the clues written, and an open Word doc with a few notes about potential ideas for some of the others.

There had, in fact, been previous occasions when a grid re-build, combined with some really nasty, intractable answers, had led to a single puzzle taking 4-5 days

So for a 30-answer grid, I’ll have ten clues written in an hour or so. Then I look at the notes and tackle those ideas, so the next ten clues may take another couple of hours. The last ten tend to be the problem children where no ideas have immediately sprung to mind, and of those ten there are usually three or four little monsters which, on their own, can take up to an hour each.

So all of this is suggesting that it’s not rare to complete a puzzle within a day – and that is absolutely the case, but it wasn’t until perhaps two years ago, when a puzzle could easily account for 2-3 days. It’s quite strange – certainly unexpected – the way this change has come about.

When I joined the Times I knew I was quite capable of having the hours available to satisfy a second spot somewhere, even if the puzzles were taking a long time to complete. It was the Independent which followed on from the Times. After favourable Anax reviews on FifteenSquared, when Virgilius retired from his fortnightly spot it was offered to me, which was fantastic news but it made me slightly nervous as well; this was a commitment to stay inventive at least once a fortnight! That typical setting period of 2-3 days actually represented ‘puzzle set with very few problems’. There had, in fact, been previous occasions when a grid re-build, combined with some really nasty, intractable answers, had led to a single puzzle taking 4-5 days!

And, of course, following the Independent there was the FT slot… and then the magazine puzzles… and then me approaching the Telegraph for yet another position. Wasn’t this a potential case of ‘suicide by hourglass’? By this time, of course, setting had become my sole income (when I started on the Times and for the first year or so of the Independent slots, I was also working full-time) but having the nine-to-five available is no guarantee of being able to fill it with an activity which is mentally so intense.

But this is the odd thing. I’ve not burned out again. On the contrary, it doesn’t seem to take as long to spot something in an answer that can help the clue along. Even more weird, it’s not as if it’s becoming easier/quicker because over time I’ve found myself in a better position to rely on clues and devices I’ve used before – but I just don’t do that (unless I’m really, really desperate!). The last trio or quad of really tricky-looking answers seem to throw something at me without that interminable hour or so each of head-scratching and coffee overdosing. I have to say that, given the way I used to set puzzles only a couple of years ago, this fundamental change still feels like it defies logic.

Q7: Of all the crossword setters I know, you are easily the best-networked on social media. Does connecting with your audience personally make a difference to how they connect with your puzzles?

For the cryptic crossword community, the Internet offers a channel through which solvers and setters CAN communicate, but there’s no obligation. For me, I actually think it would be a bit hypocritical not to be involved.

Anax: I think that’s only true if they’ve met me and we’ve engaged in face-to-face conversation. Whatever we choose to do in terms of setting up blogs, Facebook accounts etc etc, there remains something not entirely personal about those media. It’s true, isn’t it, that when you speak to someone you’ve never met on the phone, your brain instinctively creates a physical image based on how they sound? Similarly, a photograph – even a very well taken one – can still make you completely fail to recognize someone when you meet them in the flesh. Online presence is generally along those lines; whatever they make you conjure up, whatever assumptions they guide you towards, they can be uncannily inaccurate! So I doubt that solvers who haven’t met me would gain a solving benefit simply because they’ve seen me online in some guise or other.

Funnily enough John Henderson and I were talking about this recently at a Sloggers and Betters meeting in Birmingham. He made the very good point that it’s easy to go too far; you can become such a focal point that the degree of resulting communication detracts from the time you need to do what you’re being paid for. On the other hand…

Traditionally there has always been this air of mystery about cryptic setters. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, and there should certainly be no obligation on any setter to thrust themselves into the public gaze. Crosswords are not a celebrity thing, and many setters simply enjoy what they do and would prefer to be private. However, that mystery tradition was only in place because, prior to the Internet, there simply wasn’t a viable channel of communication. Yes, one could write to the editor to praise or castigate, and perhaps as a result there might be a direct communication with a setter, but that was always one-to-one; there was never an opinion-forming forum in which others could make a contribution.

The solving blogs, the easy access to setting up Facebook accounts, personal webpages and so forth, all of these are only significant in that they are available to those who wish to you them. I made that choice.

Actually, just thinking about it, no I didn’t. My puzzles website was in place long before I joined the Times team, so as far as communication goes I was already there.

How can I, as a setter who has only become successful because of people exactly like Sil, just say “Thanks, nice puzzle” if I’m in the position to recommend him to a crossword editor?

For the cryptic crossword community, the Internet offers a channel through which solvers and setters CAN communicate, but there’s no obligation. For me, I actually think it would be a bit hypocritical not to be involved. It was thanks to the Internet that I started commercial setting; it’s thanks to bloggers and commenters that crossword editors feel confident enough that I can set puzzles to the standard they require. Basically, I owe. Let’s be realistic and look at the various outlets where I now appear; prior to 2007, nada. 2011, almost everywhere. Am I brilliant?

At the highest volume I can possibly shout using a keyboard, “NO!!!” My Times debut came about because of websites/blogs which were only a couple of years old. I just happened to get into the loop at the same time as the Internet began to offer the sort of exposure no budding setter would ever have enjoyed ten years ago.

I’m delighted to be part of it and I take every opportunity to communicate with people, not least to thank them for putting me where I am now, but most importantly to offer the same sort of encouragement I received.

Sil van den Hoek. Boaz. Radler. Who? Who indeed. Well, these guys represent some of the most outstanding unpublished setting talent around, and we should all be enjoying what they do. The puzzle Sil set (as Dalibor) for the weekend’s Sloggers and Betters was simply sensational. OK, there was a non-dictionary (albeit gettable) dictionary phrase which I fear would fall foul of the editor, but the clues were magical. And as you may have guessed by his name, Sil’s first language isn’t English.

How can I, as a setter who has only become successful because of people exactly like Sil, just say “Thanks, nice puzzle” if I’m in the position to recommend him to a crossword editor?

I’ll do it – and that is exactly what the online community and the ability to engage in meaningful contact is all about.

Q8: You are known to be a fiendishly tough setter. Do you enjoy that reputation? If the editor asked you to create a really easy crossword, will you find it hard to do?

If a crossword clue is a linguistic journey from A-B, then it’s conveniently analogous to any journey. If you’re driving a car to a destination you’ve never been to before, along roads you’ve never traveled, it can be hellishly difficult.

Anax: It would be murder. The reason hard crosswords are hard is that the setter is almost unrestricted in the devices he can use, the way they’re used, how abstruse definitions can be. The easier the puzzle, the more of those freedoms are limited, or even taken away entirely. It can be like starting a military campaign with, instead of an army behind you, two rusty pistols and a toy catapult in your pocket. As a setting exercise it’s a great challenge, and it’s why we should more fully appreciate the easy setters who often start the newspaper week. Firstly they are helping to bring in new solvers, without whom crosswords die. Secondly they are doing something which is technically extremely difficult.

Being a tough setter isn’t really a reputation that thrills me – it’s just an inevitable result of the way I go about setting, namely trying to express things in new ways. A recent puzzle had an answer with the dreaded IOUS suffix and I was desperate to avoid a chestnut such as ‘promises to pay’. After some thought I unearthed ‘notes from short people’, which I hadn’t seen before and which worked nicely in the context of the rest of the clue. As a solver, if you’d never seen IOUS indicated that way you’d likely find it very tough to crack; but actually it’s pretty straightforward isn’t it? Unfamiliarity is what tends to make original clues appear harder than they really are.

If a crossword clue is a linguistic journey from A-B, then it’s conveniently analogous to any journey. If you’re driving a car to a destination you’ve never been to before, along roads you’ve never traveled, it can be hellishly difficult. But your brain is taking in and storing vast amounts of information; the second time you make that journey, those landmarks will seem amazingly familiar, you’ll recognize that turn in the road, that shop, that petrol station. Cryptic clues can throw these new bits of information at you and they’ll seem monstrously tough at first… but never the second time around.

Q9: I find it remarkable that you are quick to defend deviations from strict Ximenean standards, yet you are pretty Ximenean yourself. Explain!

...at the top of any list I would put that man again Roger Squires. It isn’t just what he’s achieved over the years; it’s the simple fact that he combines tremendous style, wit and smoothness with huge accessibility.

Anax: Ximenean is just the habit I fell into really, but I’m not a leading exponent by any stretch. For that you’d have to look at Don Manley who has the stunning ability to be absolutely Ximenean and hugely entertaining – any blog of a Quixote puzzle should include the motto “In Don We Trust” somewhere in the intro.

It’s natural and right that Ximenean and Libertarian should sit happily together in crosswordland, because none of us wants the blandness of a universal model to which all setters must adhere. Some of the greatest clues ever written have taken huge risks, but the guffaws of penny-drop appreciation make the liberties worthwhile.

Q10: Which crossword setters do you most admire?

Anax: Crosswords don’t pay well and the mental torture of setting can be immense – I admire anyone who chooses to put themselves through that for the entertainment of others.

Seriously though, at the top of any list I would put that man again Roger Squires. It isn’t just what he’s achieved over the years; it’s the simple fact that he combines tremendous style, wit and smoothness with huge accessibility. As I’ve mentioned above, that is incredibly difficult to do.

If we’re talking about the setters with styles that appeal to my solving level, well I must start by saying that as I’ve become busier my opportunities to solve have become more limited, and as a result less universal. I tend to go for those setters who appear to approach clue-writing as I do, so that would include Bannsider, Alberich/Klingsor, Nestor, Tees.

The other thing I try to consider is how good the crosswords are of setters who are producing them, at the very least, weekly. So that would have to include Don Manley again, and also Cincinnus/Orlando (Michael Curl in the FT and Guardian respectively).

Oh, and at some point I’m sure I’m going to become a regular Dalibor fan!

Q11: If you had to pick two clues of your own that you are proud of, which would they be?

Sometimes a clue sits with you as a high point not because of the clue itself but because it arrived when you had almost given up hope of finding anything at all.

Anax: Oh gosh, that’s so unfair! You’ll probably be aware of the clue-writer’s maxim that you should never append an exclamation mark to a clue unless it is a technical necessity – otherwise it just looks like you’re patting yourself on the back and trying to tell people how clever you are. Selecting one’s own favourite clues always feels like doing the same sort of thing, but I can take some comfort (hopefully) from the knowledge that I’ve always regarded clue writing as a process of discovery rather than invention; we’re picking out stuff that was always there – it just needed to be singled out and married up with other bits.

And there is this ‘context’ thing as well. Sometimes a clue sits with you as a high point not because of the clue itself but because it arrived when you had almost given up hope of finding anything at all. There was that recent Independent puzzle where I used the Top Gear test track as the theme, and one of the important ones to get into the grid was FOLLOW THROUGH.

Sadly I can’t tell you what the original clue was because it was changed on edit and hence replaced in the Crossword Compiler file, but it had used a pretty bog standard charade/container device – the result wasn’t especially bad or spectacular, but that was irrelevant anyway because one bit of the clue used a definition that wasn’t really close enough; but that wording had been vital to make the clue work the way it did. So, there I am looking at FOLLOW THROUGH again and just unable to express the component parts properly or to find an alternative breakdown.

One thing I try to avoid is those charade clues where you just take the individual words and re-define them; a lot of solvers regard them as pretty weak. But I was desperate and this puzzle needed to go through with the month’s batch to the newspaper, so the clock was ticking.

Anyway, I listed possible definitions along those lines. And, outrageously, the alternatives ‘see’ for FOLLOW (as in ‘understand’) and ‘finished’ for THROUGH (as in ‘the relationship is finished’) were sufficiently different from the meanings within the phrase to be valid as alternatives; and yet they could be joined together as ‘See finished’ to be a pretty decent definition of the answer as a whole.

I don’t think it’s a brilliant clue, but it stands out for me because I was so desperate to find something, anything, that this highly unusual version of an &Lit clue was like a lottery win.

However, dear Shuchi, the second clue may well come as surprising news – it surprised me too because I only found out it really was mine on the weekend. It’s the old classic:

Bar of soap (3,6,6) THE ROVERS RETURN

Mine? OK, I must give a little bit of background here. It goes back to my days on the Birmingham Post under Roger Squires, when I put that clue into a puzzle – so this would be 1985-ish, possibly 1986. Everything was done by post then, including editing, so Roger would send a puzzle back to me for any changes. What I always loved about this is that he didn’t just asterisk the clues that needed tweaking, he would also very generously put one tick for ‘very good’ and two ticks for ‘excellent’ alongside those clues he particularly liked. Bar of soap scored a brace.

Often, the cleverer the idea behind a clue the more you feel it unlikely that another setter hasn’t also thought of it.

Fast forward to present day. I’ve seen that clue on various websites that list ‘the classics’ – sometimes the writer’s name is there, sometimes not, but when it is it’s listed as one of Roger’s. A problem to me? Not at all; here’s how I saw it. Quite independently I’d written a clue which Roger had written previously, and he’d understood that to come back on such a good clue to say “Sorry, mate, that’s one of mine” would be to burst the balloon of something I’d been delighted to discover. So he generously allowed it to run.

Now, Roger used to buy the occasional clue from me if he thought it was worth giving to an audience who would otherwise never see it. We’re not talking about a lot of clues here – I really don’t believe the number ever exceeded about five, versus the hundreds of thousands he’s stored away. And it was a couple of quid in my pocket, no harm done. As some of you may know, Roger keeps a vast hand-written card index of his clues, so he carefully ensures that clues which are worth re-using are given a minimum time in storage before they appear again. He also notes where clues have appeared; let’s face it, if you’ve written an absolute corker for the Glasgow Herald there’s no harm in using it again the following week for a regional paper hundreds of miles away – who’s going to know and who’s going to care? Anyway, all that happened was that when ‘Bar of soap’ was placed on the index card the original source was accidentally omitted, so the next time Roger picked that card out he wouldn’t have realized it was my Birmingham Post clue - when you’ve written a million or so clues it’s quite feasible such a thing could happen.

And at the end of all this, it’s just not important is it? It’s just a clue, and I don’t think setters are all that bothered about trying to remember the best ones they’ve written or even claiming them as their own original work. Often, the cleverer the idea behind a clue the more you feel it unlikely that another setter hasn’t also thought of it. I think most of us place more emphasis on not writing bad clues than trying to discover brilliant ones because, more often than not, the latter are generally one-off examples which are – in their own way – so spectacular that they will probably never be used again. Had Leonardo followed up the Mona Lisa with an exact replica some years later, the critics wouldn’t have had much to get excited about.

Q12: Tell us about your crossword-related achievements and memorable experiences.

Despite the image I try to project, I do believe that deep down I’ve always been just a little bit cocky about what I do, so when something special happens it doesn’t always find me turning cartwheels

Anax: I think I’ve come a bit unstuck on this one, because I just can’t think of much. When I look back on what’s happened since 2007 it does strike me that I’ve been incredibly lucky, but I’m not sure I can regard that as an achievement. The Internet has played such a huge role in allowing contact with the right people, I feel it’s the Internet itself that should take the achievement laurels.

Memorable experiences – that’s a difficult one too. The nature of setting is very insular; you have to cut yourself off while you’re working (a telephone call can be enough to destroy a train of thought), so memorable experiences tend to be restricted to those occasional “Wow!” moments of unexpected wordplay, and these are hard to remember because they are fleeting.

Despite the image I try to project, I do believe that deep down I’ve always been just a little bit cocky about what I do, so when something special happens it doesn’t always find me turning cartwheels; there’s that belligerent little voice in my brain that says it was within my capabilities anyway, so there’s no point in getting too excited. So what that takes me to, now, is a memory from maybe 30 years ago, when my girlfriend at the time (who was on her way to a successful career as a doctor) asked me what my long term plans were. I told her I was going to be a cryptic setter on the national quality newspapers. Her response was “You’ll never do it”. Her lack of belief had absolutely no influence on me at the time, but it does remind me that what I’m doing now is what I always said I would do. The achievement, if that’s the right word, is simply that I’ve stuck at it.

Q13: When you’re not solving/setting crosswords, what do you do?

Anax: The main thing is music. I mentioned moving, before, to Birmingham to form a band with my guitarist buddy. We’ve been working together since we were teenagers, either forming bands together or writing and recording our own material. Last year we formed a Manchester-based covers band doing funk, soul and disco classics, and we’re having a great time with it. It’s a great foil to the lonely and static activity of setting crosswords – a huge release to get up on stage and dance about like an idiot for a couple of hours.

Q14: Your message to your friends in crosswordland:

Anax: There are a heck of a lot of people I am grateful to; my form master at grammar school for somehow knowing that cryptic crossword clues would interest me, to Alec Robbins for writing a book that taught me how to write clues, to Roger Squires for turning a raw but undisciplined enthusiasm into something worthwhile. But mostly I thank the solvers for accepting the sort of personality that inevitably gets reflected in my clues. Humour is a very subjective thing and cryptic clues are full of it, so appealing to a wide solvership is difficult to the point of impossible. I can never hope to have a universal audience but it’s genuinely thrilling to know there is a body of solvers out there who enjoy what I do.

Check out our Interviews page to read/revisit interviews of other noted personalities from the world of crosswords.

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10 comments

Chaturvasi said...

Very interesting, if a bit too long! But I can understand the enthusiasm of a passionate crossword solver/setter.

Anax, it might interest you to know that The Evening News of London published six crosswords of mine, with the name C. G. Rishikesh underneath the grid. Must be in the Seventies.

My submitting the crossword to the paper itself was under peculiar circumstances. Just after my marriage, my father-in-law, knowing my interest in crosswords, sent me a copy of the paper by post (he didn't even wait to bring it with him at the end of his short trip).

Noticing the name of the setter below the grid, I guessed the paper published crosswords submitted by readers and so I sent one. (Used paper, scale, pencil, ballpoint pen and sketch pen to prepare it.) It was published and I followed it up with others.

It was thrilling to receive payment via Thos. Cook & Sons.

It being an evening paper, the local British Council library did not get it. So there was no chance of my being able to see the printed crossword.

However, at my request the Editor was kind enough to send me the clipping of a crossword.

raju umamaheswar said...

Very very interesting interview, I should say.

Ah, what a pity when Anax bemoans that crossword setting is not a rewarding occupation.! It entails the use of our brains and often, very frustrating to 'inter' the clues into those tiny coffins. One could spend hours, formulating the lights in one's mind to beguile and confound the mind of the solvers and this can result in a heatwave-tsunami hitting the brains.Alas, the world only rewards what is skin deep and does not care for the best brains.

Why setters cannot enter the realm of celebrities, I fail to understand. Cryptic crosswords, its setters and to a lesser extent , the solvers should find their rightful place amongst the world's other achievers .

Raju Umamaheswar

anax said...

@ Chaturvasi
Very interesting to hear from someone who had involvement in the Evening News series. As I lived in Manchester at the time I never saw the newspaper, only the books, so I don’t know how closely the two were related, but the years in which you were setting seem to tie in with what I thought of as its golden age.
What fascinated me so much about the puzzles was the often hugely impressive degree of cross-checking. Some grids weren’t particularly adventurous but many were stunning, and I remember someone once telling me that the setters engaged in friendly rivalry to see who could produce grids with the fewest black squares.
In later series of the books the grids changed from ‘anything goes’ to a limited number of repeated ones – not sure how many, but perhaps only 8 or so? And these were pretty mundane to be honest. I wonder if this was because the supplier changed, or did the editors simply decide that set grids in rotation were easier to deal with?

PS: The interview is a little long, I admit, but it’s my nature – I do go on!

@ Raju
It’s probably true to say that all setters wish they were paid more, and I know some editors have been trying to increase fees, but the majority of setters do it as a sideline and are quite happy to be paid by way of a) pocket money and b) feedback from solvers.
The latter is my main motivation although, as I do this full-time, a bit more of the former would be nice too! On the subject of celebrity, though, I wouldn’t like it. Forget exposure, intrusion on privacy, tittle-tattle etc etc; the simple fact is that cryptic setting requires massive concentration, and any degree of being thrust into the limelight would greatly reduce the amount of quiet, solitary time in which to work.

JerryW said...

Interesting inverview (and NOT too long!).
I don't understand why setting would not be rewarding.. like other craftsmen, you ply your wordsmithing tools and end up with a finished product, shiny and new, just like a builder or a sculptor. If you think that is unrewarding you should try my job, shuffling paper around year after year with nothing tangible to show at all..
Re communication, I agree that it is up to the individual setter BUT there is a bare minimum, which is to glance at any official blog of crosswords you have set (like Timesforthetimes) and correct or comment as seems necessary. Several Times setters do occasionally comment at TFTT and I always greatly appreciate their trouble in doing so

Shyam said...

Thanks a ton, Anax for such a comprehensive interview. Honestly, I never miss solving your puzzles from the time I started solving British crosswords. They are tough, but when we persevere, things slowly start to unravel and finally when we finish it, there is a great deal of satisfaction. Moreover, I do not think I can ever say, "I decoded Anax at last". There is a new act of ingeniousness every time. To mention a specific example, your mastery of the intransitive verbal anagrinds is something I can never cease to admire - it being a device not many setters handle.

You have probably been modest about your achievements, but surely DIY COW has got to be one of them. It is already a giant repository of information and add to it the experience it gives to budding setters - all in a merry forum where everyone is as affable and helpful as the moderator himself.

The hard work you put into your work shows in your puzzles and needless to say, you are one of the role-models I will take from crosswordland to daily life :)

raju umamaheswar said...

Modesty, thy name is Anax!
Why would you not want to get
ur place of honour and fair reward for your intellectual output? Is it too much to ask for?

God gave us brains at the topmost level and other faculties at descending levels. Why would one justify rewards and kudos going only to those below the brains level?

Remember that only when you say that you're thirsty you're given water. S3ek and ye shall find and set new standards.

Raju Umamaheswar

anax said...

Hi again Raju

Accolades and recognition are difficult subjects and I try to avoid them. Whenever we try to put someone on a pedestal (regardless of their field of endeavour) we launch the subject of comparison to others engaged in the same activity; inevitably that leads us to a discussion of “Who’s best?” In crosswordland we simply can’t do that.
The number of active setters for the quality dailies isn’t huge, perhaps a hundred or so. Of that number, it might be fair to say that a small handful are technically weak (two questions: how much responsibility should be borne by editors, and how many errors are corrected before publication of puzzles by setters we regard as the greats?) but, as regards the majority, here’s the thing: no matter what the style – Libertarian or Ximenean – each setter has a devoted band of solving fans for whom their puzzles are ideal, and hence “The best”. Every setter is the best according to a particular group of solvers, and that is how it should be.
If there are a hundred setters and one hundredth of the solvers regard my puzzles as best for them, that is as far as my ambition will go and is all the recognition I crave.

raju umamaheswar said...

NOted Anax.

Different folks, different strokes.

But you will agree with me that we live in a very unfair world, in terms of work and reward. Art has no value set on it, but only a price. I consider setting primarily and solving secondarily as a fine art and we should set our value for the work put in. Not necessarily a monetary reward( which is most welcome as in your case as a full time compiler) but a
symbolic value.

If there are only about 100 good compilers , like a few handful of s[ace scientists, your tribe needs certainly a better recognition. Compare yourself to a movie star or a sportsperson. Again,I s'pose we get into the system of demand and supply here.

Someone should set a standard to begin with.

I appreciate your spirit of doing your work and not expecting a reward-- a true Karma yogi, you are.!!

veer said...

Shuchi, Thanks for the effort in getting to interview Anax and posting it.

Anax, Though you had talked extensively in the interview, can I may burden you a bit more on something you said about the time you "retired and reassessed"? How did you rejuventate the idea mine for clues? Is it absorbing more elements of the language that can be a limitless quest along with reading more books (not on crosswords or trivia), gaining knowledge and getting more of a solid ground to be creative? What were the different pieces of preparation that you did to rediscover your creative juices? Thank you.

anax said...

Hi Veer
To be honest, it wasn’t a case of losing the ability to write clues – it was more to do with the discipline required to balance the discovery of new ideas with the frequency at which I was using them. My undisciplined approach was persuading me that the greater the number of innovative clues I could place in a crossword the better it would be. In reality it doesn’t really work that way, and it can actually be detrimental for the solver. It’s all very well making a puzzle impossibly clever, but the end result is often impenetrable.
My re-training concentrated more on seeing the puzzle from the solver’s point of view. Instead of regarding every answer as an opportunity to explore complex, tricky wordplay, I felt that 4 or 5 such clues should be plenty. For the remainder, the idea would be to look for the most obvious wordplay components and then perhaps look for slightly unusual/unexpected ways of expressing these. It was also important for me to remember that, inevitably, some answers were going to be harder to clue than others and were going to demand time, so if I wanted to make a career of it I had to make use of readily available (aka ‘easy’) ideas wherever possible.