Wednesday 9 November 2011

Interview: Roger Squires

RogerSquires He holds the Guinness record for being the most prolific crossword setter in the world. He is also among the most popular, admired for being witty and fair and accessible all at once, a feat few compilers can pull off. Roger Squires aka Rufus/Dante, with decades of work as crossword setter, continues to entertain us like no other.

In this interview, Roger Squires talks about the highs and lows of his extraordinarily eventful life, his approach to crossword-setting, and the secret of his enduring creativity.

Q1. It is great to be talking with you, Roger. You've had an extremely diverse career. Tell us about it.

Roger: From the age of 7 WWII opened my eyes to the world and I decided very early on that I wanted to see the world. I sat the exam for Dartmouth Naval College at 13 needing a scholarship as we couldn’t afford the fees. I passed but the scholarship wasn’t awarded as my Latin “was not up to the standard required”. Of course, everyone knows how important Latin is to a naval officer! Instead I waited another two years, gained my school certificate, then volunteered for the Royal Navy as a Boy Seaman at age 15. By the age of 20 I had served in frigates and destroyers, and was what is believed to be the youngest ever Seaman Petty Officer.

In 1952 I was in Malta serving in HMS Ocean, en route for the Korean War. Lord Louis Mountbatten, then a Sea Lord, became worried at the number of aircrew getting killed with the new fast jets landing on old carriers, and announced a new scheme whereby lower deck ratings could volunteer for flying training. I applied and flew back to England for the first course, and qualified as a Sub-Lieutenant Observer in the Fleet Air Arm. My first Squadron was test flying the new Gannet anti-submarine aircraft, and then later, as a Lieutenant, I served in Air Early Warning and Radio Warfare Squadrons, in various carriers, visiting over 50 countries. Coming from the lower deck my commission meant I had to request to remain in the service at age 30. I was initially accepted but, when told I would be moved to Air Traffic Control, I decided to leave.

I had no real qualifications so, while looking around for a “proper” job, earned my living from my hobbies – performing magic and playing small parts on TV, and setting crosswords. All went well until 1977 when my marriage broke down. I immediately cut down my “show business” activities to remain at home to look after the pre-teenage boys.

Back in 1963 I was accepted as a regular setter for the Birmingham Post, and several crossword syndicates. However, their fees were small and I found that, to earn a decent living, I had to provide 40 crosswords every week. The head of Central Press Features put my name forward as the “World’s Most Prolific Crossword Setter” and Norris McWhirter of Guinness Records, accepted the record in 1978.

In 1981 I became the crossword editor of the Birmingham Post for 22 years. Next year, DV, will be my 49th year as a setter.

Q2. How did you get interested in crosswords?

Roger: I think I got my love of words from my paternal Grandmother, a well-known Victorian poet. My mother was an avid reader and my father used to win literary competitions in magazines. Lower deck life in the RN precluded my seeing regular crosswords. Later, as an officer, when my squadron was stationed in Cornwall, we were often stopped from flying by the winter weather. On these occasions the aircrew often played cards – for money. As a Member of the Magic Circle I was banned, so to fill in time, I began solving the occasional cryptic in the wardroom papers until I got to the stage I was solving 12 puzzles every day. Then, when the squadron rejoined our carrier at sea where there were no newspapers, I started compiling crosswords. I left the Fleet Air Arm in 1963, the same year as my first crossword was published in The Radio Times. My acting and magic fitted in well in between setting until my first marriage foundered.

Q3. Which publications do you currently set for? If you were constrained to choose only one of these, which one would you choose?

Roger: Currently I am setting every Monday in the Daily Telegraph, roughly 4 out of 5 Mondays in The Guardian (as Rufus), and alternate Mondays in the FT (as Dante). I am also still topping up puzzles for Gemini Crosswords [which we in India get to solve in the Indian Express – Shuchi], one puzzle a week for 15 local weekly Journals, and the Yorkshire Post (as R.F.S.).

I would find it extremely difficult to choose if I had to select one of the nationals. I have been with the Guardian and FT over 30 years and with the Telegraph 25 years.

Q4. Do you have to make an effort to adapt your crosswords to suit different rules for different publications?

Roger: I find it complex to explain exactly how the styles of, say, the nationals are subtly different, but when faced with different clues for a word I seem, in my own mind at least, to know which clue to use for each publication. After so long providing these outlets, I don’t really have to think too much about it, I think about their solvers and almost automatically pick the clue I think most suitable. I do make mistakes!

Q5. What is the best compliment you have ever received?

Roger: A letter published in the Guardian in the 1990s from a Yorkshire reader started:

For me, Araucaria is the Beethoven of setters – immensely impressive, but laboured and heavy-footed at times….The incomparable Rufus, on the other hand, is Mozart – concise, elegant, witty, sparkling.

Unfortunately, as I am a fan of John Graham as a setter, and as a person, I reluctantly have to take this compliment with a pinch of salt!

Mentioning John Graham, I am surprised at several similarities in our lives, viz.:

  • We joined the services (John in the RAF: I joined the RN)
  • We became navigators (John RAF: Me Fleet Air Arm)
  • We survived crashes (John by parachute: me in the sea)
  • Our first marriages failed.
  • We had to change the way we earned our money (John could not remain a clergyman having had a divorce: I had to give up “show business” – magic and acting – to be at home to look after our two pre-teenage sons)
  • We both turned to crosswords as our main job (John in 1958: me in 1963)
  • John is now a revered setter: I am… well, you can’t have everything!

Q6. Where do you place yourself on the Ximenean-Libertarian scale?

Roger: Surprisingly I’ve never seriously considered this. I suppose I am usually Ximenean with the occasional lapses into Libertarian.

Q7. The process of crossword creation, the technology, the subjects that interest the audience have evolved since the time you started setting. How has this impacted your approach to setting?

Roger: When I began setting, I had to draw the grids by hand then fill in solutions in pencil, with much rubbing out as I progressed. My son Michael, now running his own Veterinary practice in Sheffield, is also very skilled in IT. In the mid-90s he bought me the Crossword Compiler program for my birthday, and helped me set it up on a laptop. This provided me with grids, and a massive choice of words that fitted at each stage of setting. Without this aid I don’t think I would still be setting in my 80th year! (I think “in my 80th year” sounds better than “aged 79”!)

Q8. What is your method of setting? Do you write all the clues in sequence, in one sitting or in spurts? How long does it take you to set a typical 15x15?

Roger: By trial and error over the years I have settled on a selection of grids for each outlet that are relatively easy to fill, giving me more freedom in choice of words. I start with the long words as they often interconnect and cause difficulty when trying to fit in later. I never move on to the next word until I have a reasonable clue for it.

In my early days I often finished a puzzle except for one unclueable solution that made me have to start from scratch again. So I never leave a puzzle without each word inserted having a clue, as I found they kept me awake all night, struggling to find suitable clues.

I dislike clues that do not read well and spend time making them make sense. I try and write clues in the same way that I performed my comedy magic act, trying to entertain by misleading. If I have several clues I would usually opt for the one that might raise a smile. A lot of my early puzzles were set in between “takes” in TV studios or on location and I used to keep a book of the clues used. Eventually my sister-in-law copied all the clues onto a card index which has been added to over the years. I estimate there now must be 200,000 clues on file. This is often useful in difficulty as two or three clues may elicit a new one!

A 15x15 puzzle for the nationals, with typing out the clues and e-mailing, can take anything from 3-7 hours, with the average about 5.

Q9. How is it that even after almost 50 years of setting, you continue to think of fresh ways of clueing?

Roger: I think it may be because I don't solve regularly any more, as I sometimes found myself setting clues that were similar to clues used by other setters a few months previously. Now, when I see a word that fits in the grid, I think of a method of clueing then check my card index to see if I have clued the word similarly before. If I have and it is over ten years, say, I might make a minor tweak, but if within five years for this outlet, I try and find another approach.  Looking at old clues on the cards for the word often enables me to produce a new clue based on two or three old ones. Some of my "new" clues may be based on "old" clues from 40 years ago!  I am so glad I started keeping my index of clues - it is a great help in not repeating ideas, as well as sparking off new clues.

Q10. Your old pseudonym in the Independent - Icarus - is an acknowledgement of your miraculous escape from an air-crash. We’d love to know more.

Roger: On 9th March 1961 I was acting as fighter-controller in an AEW Gannet aircraft about to land on HMS Hermes at sea off Ceylon – now Sri Lanka. The aircraft stalled at 300 feet, the right wing fell and broke off as we hit the sea, turning us upside-down. As we sank we could hear the ship’s propellors very near to us. I pulled the lever that should blow off the small door to the controllers’ compartment – the size of the two front seats of a small car – but no movement resulted. I took off my parachute and, as the water covered my face, hung from the roof kicking at the door. As the incoming sea-water equalized the sea pressure outside, the door floated away. I took a last breath from the small pocket left above me and dived out. Once free of the aircraft I inflated my mae-west and rapidly moved upwards in darkness. I recall a huge feeling of delight as the light became brighter and brighter and popped up so fast only my feet didn’t leave the water. My eyes suddenly blurred as aviation fuel covered my eyes but on wiping them clear I could see the rescue helicopter hovering above me. Two minutes later I was back on board. Sadly the pilot had been killed.

It was established by later investigation that I escaped from over 60 feet below the surface. At no time during the crash did I feel frightened or worried; I just followed the actions learned in repeated training.  For days afterwards, every time I leant forward water gushed out from my sinuses which was somewhat embarrassing. It was only later that I realised how lucky I was. Before the accident I was a bit of a worrier, but since then I have take life far more light-heartedly.

Q11. We are glad you lived! What else would you count as turning points in your life?

Roger: There have been three:

WWII. As well as sparking my wish to see the world, it gave children of my age, 7, a great deal of extra freedom. Fathers and schoolteachers joined the forces, many mothers took over their jobs, so that children of my age had to rely on themselves. There was an enormous spirit around, of everyone feeling we were all in the war together. We spent time collecting waste paper etc, helping to raise money for Spitfires, taking part in Gang Shows to entertain workers in the local factories – as if they weren't suffering enough. Later, as a patrol-leader in the Boy Scouts I acted as a messenger at our village railway station when the D-Day wounded arrived to be sent to various hospitals. We youngsters felt very proud to be given the chance to help the war effort.

My introduction to the Royal Navy at HMS Ganges, the notorious Boys' Training Ship. Punishments still included the lash, boys were made to run the gauntlet between two rows of boys hitting them with “Stonakers” - a short length of rope with a spliced hard ball on the end – for minor misdemeanours. Every week everyone had to climb over the ex-sailing ship HMS Ganges’ mast erected on the parade ground, several feet higher than Nelson’s Column, including hanging by ones hands while traversing the mast’s elbows. Lavatory cubicles were without doors to avoid malingering etc. Two boys died when they were hauling a gun carriage up and down a steep hill because the class turned up late for instruction. It certainly taught me to consider the consequences of actions!

My second marriage. In 1981, having just made it into the FT and Guardian and taken over crossword editing for the Birmingham Post, I was struggling somewhat bringing up two young boys on my own, when I met a lovely lady at the Squash Club. We finally got together in 1983. Anna says she always remembers the date - July 4th Independence Day - as the day she lost hers. She is highly organised and practical, as befits one who had top management jobs in Relate (Marriage Guidance) etc with a number of degrees, and is caring, a great cook and straight as a die. I am sure I would not still be setting crosswords full-time so near to my 80th birthday without her love and support.

Anna brought along her daughter Tamsin, three years-old, to live with us. After two boys she was a delight to have! All the children, Simon, Michael and Tamsin, went to local Comprehensive schools so that we are enormously proud of their achievements. Simon is now a Yacht-master, Michael is a Vet running his own practice, and Tamsin will shortly be a NHS consultant. We are looking forward this coming weekend to visiting Mike and wife Charlotte and our two delightful grandchildren in Sheffield, Esme and Oscar.

Q12. Were you the first to use the classic anagram (PRESBYTERIANS)* = Britney Spears?

Roger: I occasionally provide the Church Times with themed religious puzzles. Having used the anagram “Best in prayers” to clue PRESBYTERIANS a few puzzles before, I was looking for a new anagram. Playing with the letters, I saw BRITNEY come up, leaving SPARES, and immediately saw the connection.

This crossword was set in November 2000, published in January 2001. Being me, I also used the clue in the same year in the Daily Telegraph when its appearance sparked some comment on the Letters’ Page.

Last year, reading the blogs, I noted that at least two other setters had been cited by the bloggers as the first to use it. The next time I was in contact with them I mentioned this and they both immediately said they had been told the anagram but, not knowing it had been used in a puzzle before, also used it. So, unless anyone can show me its use in a crossword before January 2001 I should like to claim its first use!

Q13. If the crossword editor told you: "Enough of your easy puzzles Roger, give us a really tough crossword this time." - will you deliver?

Roger: I am sure I could provide a more difficult puzzle, but I don’t think I would enjoy setting one. There are many more setters with the ability to deliver difficult crosswords than I. Remember, above, “I try to entertain”!

Q14. You have a special talent for the “cryptic definition” clue type. This is a risky clue type to attempt, is it not?

Roger: Cryptic definition clues were very common in the 1950s and 60s when I first became interested in crosswords and my magic act was full of corny puns, e.g. “You will see there are no rabbits up my sleeve (baring an arm) – just a few hares” (hairs); “This is not really a magic pistol, it’s a horse pistol – I raised it from a Colt”. I have been told by 3 crossword editors that one of the reasons they keep me on because few other setters use cryptic definitions nowadays.

Q15. Tell us about your clue for the unclueable: the word Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

Roger: In 1979 the Queen visited the small town of Ironbridge in Shropshire, where I live, to join celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the first ever bridge ever made from iron – which, of course, gave the community its name. The local council, Telford and Wrekin, produced a special edition of its newspaper and asked me to supply a special jumbo puzzle. Wales is not far away and the Times crossword editor at the time had a Guinness Record entry for the longest word ever used in a published crossword. So I included this famous name of a Welsh village in the puzzle – which was accepted as a new record by Guinness Records. I felt that it would be fairer for the solver to have an anagram of this long name, with few vowels:

Giggling troll follows Clancy, Larry, Billy and Peggy who howl, wrongly disturbing a place in Wales (58)

Not the world’s best anagram!

Q16. Which puzzles do you solve?

Roger: Keeping up my outlets seem to take longer and I don’t solve all that much nowadays. We have a bolthole in Lanzarote where we go for breaks in the Winter sun and for flight and leisure time I take out several Times, Guardian and Telegraph crosswords.

Q17. What is your favourite clue or puzzle, by another setter?

Roger: One clue that I think sparked off my love of cryptic definitions in my early days was one originally by Alec Robins (Custos in the Guardian) in the '70s, viz.

"A stiff examination" with the solution POST MORTEM. 

Q18.Which crossword setters do you most admire?

Roger: I feel it invidious to select from the excellent set of present compilers in the nationals – the standard is so high. Among the setters I admired in the past must be Ruth Crisp and Dean Mayer (probably because I helped get them started again after they had dropped out), Bert Danher (always amusing, and with splendid anagrams), Ken Guy (who lived nearest to me) and Brian Greer (who helped me during my 10 years at The Times, and produces very clever puzzles).

Q19. Your message to your friends in crosswordland:

Roger: It is marvellous to have electronic sites like yours for people like me, working in isolation from home in a rather rural location, many miles away from other setters. I keep in touch now with the crossword world mainly on-line.  So keep up the great work! With the Sloggers and Betters - the meetings of Bloggers and Setters - springing up all over the UK recently we are beginning a new wave of cross-germination.

Roger Squires at Work

Roger Squires in office. His Guinness record certificates are on the wall behind, his card indexes on either side on him. The cat comes in periodically through the window to supervise his work.
I hope you enjoyed Roger’s interview. I certainly did!
To read interviews of noted personalities from the world of crosswords, visit the Interviews page. - Shuchi

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Anonymous said...

Wow, Shuchi! Easily the best interview in more ways than one. RS also resonated due to refs not only to CWs and clues, but also due to ref to Shropshire (a la the Empress), flying (I am big fan of Dahl, The Shepherd etc) and the computer cat, which as you know has been my companion too.

raju umamaheswar said...

Dear Schuchi,

What an interesting interview!! Your questions were very pointed and informative, gently drawing him out to speak out his inner mind. Congratulations for a great job.

Rogers came out as a wonderful human being, taking care of his two teenage sons. One always hear of women being deserted !! Again, his narration took me through an adventurous anecdotage. Am I glad that we in this century are living in a more peaceful, agreeable and pleasant world equipped with modern gadgets and gizmos. Like him, I have heard of many who served their country with so much of derring-do and dedication, which makes me feel humble like a ninny. So many vicissitudes of life that others face to make a living and yet retain their inherent sense of humour. He deserves his place in the Guinness book not for crosswords but for his courage and fortitude. I reckon, adversities maketh a man. In times of blue moods, I shall certainly read his interview to bounce back to live life to the full, like him.

Congratulations to both of you for this interview, which is the best ever you have done.

Keep up the good work.


Raju Umamaheswar

Anonymous said...

Ever since I started doing the telegraph daily cryptic just over two years ago Ihave loved Rufus puzzles, the short, sharp wiity style, now i know why

Krishnan said...

Thanks a lot Suchi. It was very illuminating. I loved that 58-word clue.

chadwick ong'ara said...

The past master of the typical cryptic clue,more grease to his elbows.Is he the setter of the standard newspaper friday cryptic here in kenya?The clues seem uncannily his.(Raju,please answer this)

Rufus said...

Hi chadwick ong'ara!

It is possible. My crosswords are syndicated in all sorts of places, including six outlets in Africa.
I do have a copy of the newspaper "Kenyan Nation" from about 11 years ago, which includes one of my puzzles.

raju umamaheswar said...

Dear Chadwick Ong'ara: jambo from India and Habari?

Just saw your comments.

So nice to see that you are a follower ( from my Kenya) of this blog of Schuchi. She's doing a great job.

No No, Bwana, I cannot claim any rights to such glory. Though I did make some vague attempts in compiling crosswords at one time whilst in Nairobi, I found it an odious task and am now merely content with solving. Rufus was one of my favorites in the Guardian Weekly. It is great to see that he contributed to the Nation and Standard of Kenya. I used to enjoy the crosswords that appear in the Sunday Nation and miss them here in India so sorely.

It is indeed a small world of crossword buffs.

Thanks to Schuchi for putting me in touch with you.

slicer said...

Dear Roger, my father remembers you well from your time with 831 Squadron FAA..he was the AEO, Jack Colbeck, and recalls you endlessly trying out your magic tricks! He sends his best wishes, and I always enjoy your Monday puzzle, the only one I regularly complete. Congratulations on your 25.
Roger C

Unknown said...

Roger , do you remember Bordesley Birmingham where you so kindly gave your magician props to 3 young lads .
We do .

Kind regards from 55+ years ago .

Peter Yates