Old setters and new conventions

Our oldest setter – Audreus – died earlier this month, just short of her 97th birthday. She first set for the paper in the 1960s and her last puzzle (No 25,840) appeared some 50 years later in January 2013. The paper carried an online obituary for her on 13 July, written by her son, John Young (our setter Shed). She was a delight to work with. We had a private joke that I always ran an Audreus puzzle in tandem with a Shed, with the mother, as was only right, always appearing in front of the son. Her only gripe was that, from time to time, her setter’s fee was wrongly paid to the younger Young, but never vice versa.


After Araucaria (John Graham) died in 2013 his family persuaded the Parish Church Council at Somersham, the village near Cambridge where he lived, to allow a memorial plaque to be put up in the church in his memory. Many of his Guardian fans contributed generously to the project and the PCC would now like to invite them to the service of dedication for the plaque to be held in the church on Wednesday 29 August, starting at 2.30pm. It will be conducted by the Bishop of Huntingdon and will be followed by light refreshments. However, Araucaria’s family does not have the email addresses of those who contributed directly online. So, if you would like to be there on 29 August, could you send an email saying so to Alan Draper (alan.draper38@googlemail.com), if possible by 1 August, so that the necessary seating and catering arrangements can be made?


As you would expect, I get a series of comments, questions and complaints about our crosswords: some perplexed, some technical, some ‘more in sorrow than in anger’, some abusive. My outright favourite, still before me as I write, dates from 2008, when the puzzles were only available online for a modest annual subscription and not for free, as they are today, and when we were having more technical difficulties than thankfully we seem to be having now. The guts of the email read as follows:

‘And how many times have you made pathetic excuses and tried to shuffle the blame onto someone else? You, sir, are unfit to run a whelk stall, let alone a PAID FOR SERVICE. Stand down, please, and let someone with more clout, more guts, more pride and more self-respect take over.’

From the ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ file, a recent email from MD, who will turn 90 this December, is typical: ‘Have the cryptic crosswords changed in a rudimentary way? I used to enjoy them, especially Araucaria, but no longer. Has there been a basic change in techniques? Or is it, simply, anno Domini? I do hope the former.’

My reply to MD was that there has been no deliberate change in setting policy. Indeed, almost half of today’s regular setters were regular setters 10 or even more years ago. However, with the passage of time, new words, phrases, cultural references etc become part of the accepted crossword language and setters also ‘invent’ from time to time a new cluing device, which may become ‘acceptable’, just as at some point in the past the letters ‘SS’ around others in a solution became accepted, for no particularly good reason, as code for ‘being on-board’.

If the intended ‘syntax’ of any Saturday prize puzzle clue eludes you, I produce ‘solution notes’ for them all, which can be seen (once the entry deadline is passed) at www.theguardian.com/crosswords under Prize solutions. For the other weekday puzzles, an incredibly useful site can be found at http://fifteensquared.net, where notes and comments on the clues are provided on a daily basis. Together I hope these may help you to unravel and recognise in future any sneaky new trends that may have been allowed to creep in over the years.


If you have any technical problems with our crossword service, please email userhelp@theguardian.com. If you have any comments or queries about the crosswords, please email crossword.editor@theguardian.com. For Observer crosswords, please email crossword.editor@observer.co.uk.