Tales from the cryptic

An article by John Grant , former Crossword Editor, December 27th 2000

John Grant relates how The Times Crossword puzzle developed a huge following which included such luminaries as Sir John Gielgud

IN 1924 The Times deplored America’s enslavement to the crossword, which it called “a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society”. Five years later The Times swallowed its words and produced its own version on February 1, 1930.

It was compiled by Adrian Bell – father of Martin, the independent MP – who had fled from office life in London to farm in Suffolk. His name had been put forward for the job by his father, news editor of The Observer. When Adrian told him he knew nothing about crosswords, he replied: “You have ten days to learn”.

At first not all the clues could be properly described as cryptic, but Bell showed his ability to see things in a new light. “The cylinder is jammed”, for example, is a charming way to lead the solver to SWISS ROLL. He went on to compile for almost half a century, and said it was “the ideal job for a chap with a vacant mind sitting on a tractor harrowing clods, or cycling”.

Wasting time on the crossword became as endemic in England as in America. The old story of the Provost of Eton solving the puzzle in the time it took to boil an egg – “and he hates a hard-boiled egg” – was taken up in the correspondence column. One correspondent, thinking that boiling an egg might help, “started at 8am and it is now 3pm, and I am still wondering who is the uncle of Israel, and the egg has burnt”.

The Times crossword received its blessing from the film world with Brief Encounter(1948), with Celia Johnson claiming she could think of nothing more stressful than doing The Times crossword. More recently, Peter Wright in Spycatcher described how senior MI5 officers spent the first half-hour of the day on the crossword.

The crossword editor of The Times at the outset was Ronald Carton, a graceful writer and reporter on the staff since the First World War. When he died in 1960 his place was taken by his wife, Jane, who had a pretty turn of wit – “The greater snowdrop” (AVALANCHE).

The style of the puzzle since the Second World War owes most to Edmund Akenhead, who became editor in 1965. He produced a consistent standard of excellence from his team of compilers by returning his edited versions of their puzzles with detailed reasons for his alterations. No sloppy thinking could get past him.

“As a lawyer I cannot pass IOU as meaning debt. It is evidence of acknowledgement of debt,” and “The dictionaries do not define okapi as a giraffe. The fact that it is related to the giraffe does not make it one”.

He also had an elfin sense of humour. When his son introduced him to the girl he was to marry with the words “Father, this is Celia”, Akenhead’s immediate reply was “Ah, mad Alice”. He enlarged the wit and range of the puzzle, notably by inventing in 1970 the Jumbo puzzles, which enlivened our bank holidays (and now appears weekly).

Having retired after 30 years on The Times as a journalist, I took over the editorship of the crossword on Akenhead’s retirement in 1983. In 1990 the puzzle celebrated its diamond jubilee with the publication of a giant puzzle, 45 by 45 squares, or the size of nine ordinary puzzles, in separate sections of five consecutive days. It was compiled in an astonishingly short time by Brian Greer, my successor as editor.

The answer to 185 across was: “I am a bear of very little brain and long words bother me”. There can be few such apt phrases of precisely 45 letters. It remains the cleverest puzzle I have ever seen. *

Perhaps the greatest pleasure of my editorship was the relationship with our solvers, who were always polite and friendly. One such was Sir John Gielgud, who wrote to me a dozen years ago.

“It is true I am a crossword addict whose efforts were strenuously begun in 1944, when one of the electricians at the Haymarket staggered me by his crossword expertise. He could also follow a cue-sheet by the lines in a Shakespearean play without referring to numbers – after a long familiarity with seasons when he had worked at the Old Vic. Since that time I have found the crossword a sovereign therapy during endless hours of waiting while filming and doing television.”

* I’m working on it, and hope ere long to bring it to glorious fruition on this website! – David Akenhead

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