Tuesday 26 February 2013

Interview: Sarah Hayes (Arachne)

Sarah-Hayes-ArachneFondly called The Amazing Spider-Woman by fans in Crosswordland, Sarah Hayes (Arachne/Anarche) is known for her teasing, tricksy clues that sparkle with good humour. She answers my questions in this interview with her characteristic wit, talking about - among other things - her penchant for smut and spiders, her socio-political views, and the Guinness World Record she holds for something worlds apart from crosswords.

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

Sarah: At an early age, at my father's knee. He only solved the barred puzzles in the Sunday broadsheets so I had a fairly rigorous training. While other girls were reading Bunty or Diana, I was enraptured by my dad's battered copy of Chambers; dog-eared and sans spine, it was probably my favourite object in the whole world.

Q2. How did you get into setting crosswords?

Sarah: When I learned in the mid 1990s that the Independent's Saturday Magazine barred puzzle (now the Inquisitor) was open to freelancers, I sent a piece of work to the late and lovely Harold Massingham, its editor at the time. He was extremely encouraging and accepted several puzzles from me. It was such fun that I also started setting for the Listener and the Sunday Telegraph's Enigmatic Variations. Some years later I was approached by the Guardian to help with the launch of the Quiptic and found my spiritual home. A slot in the paper eventually followed. In 2011 Anarche began setting for the Independent, whilst a meeting with Times crossword editor Richard Browne at Rufus' 80th birthday party early in 2012 led to my setting for that paper, too.

Q3. Why the names Arachne and Anarche?

Sarah: In Greek mythology Arachne was a headstrong young weaver, and when I started setting I loved to make rugs on my treasured Swedish four shaft loom. It also seemed to me that there was something of the spider's web about a crossword – an intricately woven piece of work intended to entrap the unwary – so the name was doubly apposite. The loom is long gone, but the admiration for spiders has endured (witness the acres of cobwebs in my house). Anarche – which I pronounce with three syllables – is an anagram of Arachne. Which leads us on to the next question…

Q4. You describe yourself as "anarcho-horizontalist". What does that mean?

Sarah: It basically means that I'd love to be an anarchist but am too busy lying down. Some years ago I got as far as founding the UK Horizontalist Party, with the aim of standing for Parliament. Unfortunately it was, naturally, pointed out that no true Horizontalist would 'stand' for anything (and there were already more than enough people 'lying' for Parliament).

One day, if a 90 degree manoeuvre can be successfully maintained, I would still like to have a pop at being Britain's first Horizontalist MP, in which role I would of course do absolutely nothing, thereby improving the body politic no end.

Q5. How challenging is it to adapt your crosswords to the styles of the different publications you set for?

Sarah: The Guardian and the Independent are very accommodating, although, as I'm drawn to smut like a banker to a bonus, Guardian crossword editor Hugh Stephenson has had to banish me to the naughty step a few times. A lot of Guardian readers apparently have yet to discover the joy of smut. Of course individual editors have their preferences, but both papers give the setter a lot of leeway; so much so that Mike Hutchinson at the Independent courageously published my Levenson-themed puzzle of May 2012 (of which more later) even though it caused "apoplexy" in the paper’s legal department.

Working for the Times, as I've been doing since last year, is quite a different kettle of fish. There, consistency is all and the editor's aim is that solvers should not be able to tell who has set any particular puzzle. There is a Times 'style handbook' which has to be followed to the letter and includes rules, for example, about the number of anagrams allowed per puzzle (no more than five), which single letter abbreviations may be used (very few), and the type of language permitted (must be suitable "for the drawing room"). Whilst this is of course constricting, it is also very good discipline.

Q6. Does being a woman in Crosswordland - where men far outnumber women - have an impact on how you work as a crossword setter, and how others see your work as a crossword setter?

Sarah: Isn't it strange how few female setters there are. I have no idea why. As a feminist I try to set traps for sexists such as using "she" for "he" where either will do (the traps usually work, I'm afraid), but I like to think I'd do the same if I were a man. It's hard to say how others see my work in this context, but perhaps they might notice more of a "human interest" angle to some clues, with an emphasis on story-telling. Or is that a sexist thing to say?

Q7. Your crosswords clearly mirror your strong opinions – I remember a clue that defined YODELLING as 'horrible noises' and another that said of GEORGE BUSH '...bugger invaded Iraq'. How do crossword editors/solvers react to your forthrightness?

Sarah: Fortunately my political and social positions gel well with those of the Guardian and the Independent, so I've been allowed a lot of freedom to express them. As I remember, I did get a bit of stick from some presumably Swiss solvers over my less than kind definition of YODELLING, but if Chambers can define 'track suit' as something worn 'in an error of judgement' then I think a setter can be forgiven for slipping the very occasional prejudice into a clue.

Q8. You have studied an interesting variety of subjects – Russian, intelligence and international relations. Tell us more.

Sarah: I've got two degrees in Russian, which I taught for almost twenty years at Manchester University. My MPhil on English shipbuilding terms in 18th century Russian was later turned into a book - in what can only have been part of a publishers' tax dodge – and is rumoured to have won the Order of Stalin (4th Class) as Most Boring Book of the Year at the Omsk Salt Miners' Gala.

Having developed an urge to infiltrate proto-al Qaeda cells in Bosnia and single-handedly end the Balkan war, I gave up teaching to do a Diploma in Intelligence and International Relations. Unfortunately I neither sorted out Bosnia nor improved my intelligence very much. It was suggested, not for the first time, that I join M15 but luckily for national security I decided to work on a burger van instead.

Q9. If you had to pick two clues of your own that you are proud of, which would they be?

Sarah: Can't remember any. Oh dear. Once my work's been published I forget all about it. Is that a terrible confession? Having said that, I was very proud of the above-mentioned Levenson-themed puzzle, which allowed me to chuck some muck back at gutter journalists, meretricious media types and venal policemen after the phone-hacking scandal. The Independent is, I fear, not too keen to give this puzzle another outing.

My other favourite of my own puzzles was Guardian 25,721 of 22 August 2012. It was a normal puzzle, but the squares along the the top and bottom read JUSTICE NOT DONE, whilst those at the sides spelt out the name of DANIEL MORGAN, a murder victim whose case was never solved because of appalling police corruption. His brother Alastair has been campaigning for a judicial inquiry into the case, and I was thrilled to have done my bit towards getting "Justice for Daniel". Once reassured that I wasn't going to make a habit of shoving "ishoos" down their throats along with their cornflakes most solvers received the puzzle generously and some went on to join the campaign.

Q10: Which crossword setters do you most admire?

This will sound evasive, but I honestly and truly admire all of them. There is particular pleasure in seeing brilliant young setters coming onto the scene, such as Tramp/Jambazi, Rorschach and Donk.

Q11. What is your method of setting? How long does it take you to set a typical 15x15?

Sarah: Have a few satisfactorily clued words in advance. Choose grid to suit. Pull hair out trying to fill rest of grid. Have a drink. After that anything can happen. Sometimes it all comes together quickly, sometimes it takes ages. Once I've 'finished', though, I always return with a soft cloth and polish all the surfaces until I feel they are simply as good as they can be. No routine, no set hours, and never the remotest idea what I'm going to do next.

For many years I used paper, pencils and ink pens and sent puzzles off in the post, but modern editors generally require one to use Crossword Compiler software and therefore a dratted computer. I have pretty much every dictionary going, plus three thesauruses and various reference works such as Brewer.

Q12. How important is it for a crossword setter to be a good solver?

Sarah: Not very important at all, I hope, otherwise I might as well chuck out my Chambers now.

Q13. Would you describe yourself as Ximenean or Libertarian?

Sarah: Hmm. Well, as I've been told off by both Ximeneans and Libertarians I suppose I must be somewhere in the middle. It seems a shame to spoil a witty clue just for the sake of sticking rigidly to a rule, but of course fairness must prevail.

Q14. When you're not solving/setting crosswords, what do you do?

Sarah: Lie down a lot (see above). Though sometimes I also like to run, and have completed 37 marathons and ultramarathons (races longer than 26.2 miles) over the last two and a half years. I once ran five marathons in five days, and my longest ultramarathon was 75 miles. I hold the Guinness World Record for Running a Marathon as a Bottle (Female) (4 hours 36 minutes, since you ask). I have a deep affinity with bottles. When not running I reread Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, listen to JS Bach and undergo regular pummellings by my grandchildren Aaron, Isla and Isobel. Work-wise I write word puzzle apps for a US software company but am pretty much a full-time crossword setter these days. And at the moment I'm arranging a wedding. Mine. To my wonderful and very long-suffering Nick. [Since the time the interview was conducted, Sarah and Nick got married, on the 23rd of Feb 2013. Congrats and best wishes! – Shuchi]

Adidas 24 Hour Run Sarah and Nick
Picture 1: Nick and Sarah at the Adidas 24 Hour Run, where she ran for 24 hours non-stop.

Arachne Bottle
Picture 2: Sarah at the Chester Marathon just after she'd broken the World Record in October 2011. She says she tried persuading Nick to let her wear the bottle costume at their wedding but "for some reason" he wasn't very keen on the idea.

Q15. Any memorable crossword-related experiences you'd like to share?

Sarah: The memorable ones mostly involve violence to computers, but I think my best crossword-related experience was being lucky enough to attend the legendary Araucaria's 90th birthday party at the Guardian. It was my first meeting with the Great Man and I was beyond star-struck. Not only is he a genius of enormous charm and wit, he's also still extremely handsome! Yes, I fell madly and irretrievably in love at first sight and barely noticed the luminaries such as Simon Russell Beale, Timothy West and Prunella Scales – all Araucaria fans – who had come to pay tribute to him.

Picture 3: At Araucaria's 90th birthday party. Left to Right: Tom Johnson, Neil Walker, Sarah, Paul, Hectence, Cyclops, Hugh Stephenson (Guardian crossword editor); Araucaria, Pasquale, Orlando, Jane Teather, Shed. Front: Enigmatist, Jane Howell (one of Araucaria's vetters). Photo courtesy: Dave Tilley.

A year later I was once again transformed into a stuttering schoolgirl when I had the honour of presenting an 80th birthday crossword, which I'd helped to compile, to our funny, brilliant and inimitable Rufus at his Guardian party. I've been in the presence of greatness.

Q16. Parting words:

Sarah: Crosswords are, or in my humble opinion should be, ludic. Let's have fun, let's laugh, and let's never get too po-faced about our shared pastime. Setters are entertainers, not interrogators for the Stasi, and I'd hope that in a very small way we add to the gaiety of life.

Thank you Sarah, it was a delight to interact with you over the interview. - Shuchi

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Anonymous said...

Nice interview. Shuchi, both you and she give us a run for our money... and a tour of MI5, al Qaeda and Stasi, to boot.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if Sarah can respond (or maybe someone else knows) regarding the Times limitation of 5 anagrams. Is this 5 "whole" anagrams or five clues that have any anagram component?



anax said...

I can answer that for you, Stickler. A full anagram counts as 1, a partial as 1/2. You just count up to a maximum of 5. So you could have 5 full anagram clues or 10 partials, and of course anything in between.

Krishna said...

I don't solve the Guardian crossword so Arachne is not known to me, but from the interview it is clear that she is a remarkable person. Thoroughly enjoyed reading the interview.

VJ said...

Wow!!! An awesome personality!!!!!!!!!