Mike Laws

Former editor of The Times Crossword who also set puzzles for the Daily Telegraph and The Listener

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Mike Laws was a brilliant crossword setter whose cruciverbal career spanned five decades. In the modern era setters tend to be mathematicians, scientists or IT specialists, but in the formative era of crosswords, right up to the Sixties, there were many more classicists, and Laws, who was educated at Whitgift School and Christ’s College, Cambridge, can be seen as one of a diminishing breed.

Like two of the great Observer setters Derrick Macnutt (Ximenes) and Alec Robins, Laws taught Latin and was content to do so (along with teaching English) for about 20 years. For a year he taught in Denmark and, on moving back to England, at Dunstable College and Arnos School.

In his forties his patience ran out with teaching and for eight years he became perhaps the best-educated postman in Wood Green, North London, where he lived. His crossword setter’s brain came in useful, allowing him to memorise every postcode in the area.

Michael David Laws was born in 1946 to Eric, a civil servant and Ivy, a draughtswoman, who divorced when he was two. Like many setters, Laws discovered cryptic crosswords as a teenager, but his passion developed when he saw his fellow teachers whizzing through puzzles in The Times and The Guardian. He quickly moved on to the harder cryptic crosswords with barred grids and obscure words as found in what was then Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and discovered the book Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword.

In 1975 his first puzzle was published under the pseudonym of Jude in Games and Puzzles and at about the same time he began honing his clue-writing skills in Azed’s clue-writing competitions in The Observer, eventually winning several prizes. For years, he formed a great rapport with Alec Robins, admiring his classical precision in the use of language. It was for his passion for clue writing that Laws will be remembered by crossword solvers and setters alike.

From the mid-1970s until his death, Laws became a very familiar figure on the crossword scene. At various times he set puzzles under a variety of pseudonyms or anonymously for several publications, including The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Listener (as Jude and Fawley), The Guardian (as Fawley), the Financial Times (Darcy), The Independent (Esau, Yorick, Ikela), The Sunday Telegraph (Fawley), the Weekend Australian and The Sunday Times (where, between 1995 and his death, he had set one in every three Mephisto puzzles).

Laws also held several editorial positions — early on at Games and Puzzles and recently with the Independent Magazine. Always a careful editor, he established a good working relationship with both experienced setters and novices, as tributes on crossword websites amply testify.

In 2000 Laws became crossword editor of The Times, and successfully instituted a complete overhaul of the grids as well as recruiting new setters for the daily puzzles and the jumbos. The previous crossword editor (Brian Greer) was a hard act to follow, but Laws managed to maintain the high standards and the distinctive style of The Times crossword that had given it a high reputation. But being a crossword editor involves more than editing puzzles; never entirely happy with the administrative and organisational burdens of the role, Laws was in some ways relieved when his tenure came to an end in 2002.

His first marriage to Judy ended in divorce but he found great happiness with his second wife Julie, an actress. They too were subsequently divorced but quickly remarried.

In recent years he had found life increasingly difficult and his health had become a source of great concern to his fellow-crossworders who enjoyed his company and respected his considerable ability. He died a few days after an evening in his favourite pub where he had once set the quizzes and to where he often retired to complete puzzles, referring to it as his “office”.

He is survived by Julie and two children from his first marriage.

Mike Laws, crossword compiler and former editor of The Times Crossword, was born on September 28, 1946. He died from complications caused by pneumonia on May 19, 2011, aged 64

It was a privilege to have known and worked with him. A man of vision and clearly ahead of his time. Always ready to take the flak for his team. We had much in common! A dear friend, very sadly missed – DA

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