A well-mannered Kedah feud (8,6,8) *

A tribute by John Grant former Crossword Editor, marking Edmund Akenhead’s retirement as Editor after 18 years – Saturday, October 1st 1983

Within a few weeks Edmund Akenhead will be able to have a go at The Times crossword for the first time for nearly 20 years. He has been deprived of the basic Englishman’s right since 1965, when he became its editor.

Now he is retiring on his seventieth birthday, and once the stockpile of meticulously edited puzzles handed over to his successor is finished he will at last be on equal terms ‒ at least notionally ‒ with his readers. There will be some happy exceptions: he will continue to set three puzzles a month himself and to mark the principal holidays of the year with his commodious Jumbo puzzles, which must call for skills of the quantity surveyor as well as those of the wordsmith.

From Torquemada onwards the crossword compiler has been commonly represented as a fiend or torturer. But a more benign or pacific person than Edmund one cannot imagine.

He went to school at Rugby, where he was on the classical side. In 1936 he qualified as a solicitor and joined the family firm in Newport.

During the war he was for a time an instructor in gliding at an RAF school, and after the war took a legal post in the Colonial Service in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika, where he stayed until independence.

For fifteen years he set a weekly puzzle in the Tanganyika Standard including a Coronation puzzle in 1953. The width of his knowledge was nicely exemplified by his half-hour performance of illusions ‒ he is a life-long member of the Magic Circle ‒ at the opening of a new police station, when he conducted all his patter in Swahili.

As he wrote in his introduction to the Penguin Book of The Times 50th Anniversary Crosswords (1980): “Every cryptic crossword compiler is constantly exercising a kind of mental sleight-of-hand, the chief weapon in his (or her) armoury being misdirection, as it is with a conjuror”.

After returning to Britain to become a partner in a firm of solicitors in Essex,, he was asked in 1965 to take on the editorship of The Times crossword, in succession to Jane Carton, on a part-time basis. It soon became a full-time post. He took to heart her advice that the editor must be fair to the solver, and indeed must err on the side of leniency. There should always be some easy clues, they both believed ‒ a chance for the dog to see the rabbit ‒ which today often take the form of quotations.

Oddly, one of the difficult things about crossword editing is to know which puzzles will prove easy and which difficult. Edmund is never surprised to find the competitors at a regional final making mincemeat of a puzzle he thought would be hard, or vice-versa.

Punch-drunk solvers may find it difficult to accept that Edmund Akenhead has indeed been on their side, but any of the 10 or so current crossword-setters have good cause to know it. Many a sadistic deception has been turned down as too difficult, or because someone somewhere could claim that it contained a scintilla of inequity. Obscure words or unusual forms are frowned on, and inaccuracies infallibly detected.

One ingenious fellow wishing to indicate that the letter “s” had to be removed from a word, based his clue on S/TORN/AWAY, in the Isle of Lewis. Disallowed, said the People’s Tribune. It’s spelt Stornoway!

When Edmund has edited a puzzle he sends the setter a detailed explanation of his corrections, which have a splendidly magisterial ring, varying from “Ouch!” (very severe rebuke for a false anagram) to “nice” or even “V. nice” for a clue that tickles him. Here are some of his Johnsonian put-downs:

■ Surely moratoria are close seasons for debtors, not debt collectors? One says “the close season for pheasants”, doesn’t one?

■ Lamprey does not equal eel. Anything defined in the dictionary as eel-like cannot be an eel, or it wouldn’t say “like an eel”.

■ This could only be a crossword clue ‒ it reads too unnaturally to be anything else!

No wonder Mr Roy Dean of the Foreign Office, the winner of the first Times Crossword Championship in 1970, entitled his farewell speech to Edmund at the final of the championship in London last month “Homage to the Headmaster”.

Edmund, he said, had refined the crossword into a form of literary art and imposed his personal stamp on it. He has encouraged his compilers to develop qualities of humour, dexterity, fairness, intelligence and all-round excellence that had kept solvers enthralled for 18 years.

“And we must never forget the Jumbos which first confronted us in 1970. What elephantine elegance, what breadth of erudition, what excitement as the solver is led on from Shakespeare to Shaw, from the Bible to Brewer, from Ancient Greece to modern science, until the onset of writer’s cramp forces the pen from his fingers. How fitting that the name of Akenhead can be clued as ‘A knowledge master’.”

The compiling of cryptic crosswords is a very English pursuit, full of understatements, wry reversals of expectation, urbane deceptions and so on. One cannot imagine a more civilized practitioner than Edmund.

Farewell Edmund Akenhead