Saturday, August 13, 2011

A meeting with "Listener" crossword solvers

Derek Harrison with Jay

On Saturday July 16th, I had an opportunity to meet up with a formidable group of cruciverbalists (The Listener Group) at the White Horse Inn in Parsons Green , London. The group was holding one of their regular informal meetings. I had indicated my interest to be present at that meeting to Derek Harrison who runs the Crossword Centre Website and to whose newsgroup I subscribe.

I reached the inn at 1.30pm and since I did not have Derek’s phone number, I had to do a bit of sleuthing to locate the group among the motley clusters that filled the inn. Now, you can’t sniff out a crossword solver from a crowd - but when they pack together, an aura builds up and it was not long before I homed in on to this extraordinary group. 

However, I still could not identify Derek – and then it hit me! I googled his site on the phone and there it was – a small picture of Derek. Once I had visual confirmation, I walked towards the group and introduced myself to Derek who was also on the lookout for me.

He introduced me to several members of the group. I was surprised when he asked me whether I blogged the New Straits Times crossword! Wow! How did he know about Malaysia’s NST? I explained that the syndicated version of the London Times crossword ran a few weeks behind in the NST and that the Cryptonites blog was mainly for beginners to help them clear cryptic hurdles.

For those who are not aware of The Listener Crossword…it is simply the most intricate crossword in the world. In Penang, I know of only one person who does it regularly and that’s our own Cryptonite master, John Nutkins. Each crossword is based on a theme and really,folks, you ought to look at a solved one to see some sensational couplings of seemingly disparate elements!

Among those I met and had some time to talk to were Chris Brougham who sets a 22 X 22 monthly crossword for The Spectator under his nickname “Dumpynose” and Trevor Crowther, a master solver who has got every Listener crossword all-correct for 3 straight years.

Let me introduce you to the two I interviewed.

First, Roger Phillips, who is the Times editor for the Listener Crossword. He is New Zealand born and also sets some of the Listener Crosswords under “Kea”.

Roger Phillips- Listener Crossword co-editor

Jay: How come complex crosswords like the Listener exist and is the number of enthusiasts growing?
Roger: There is a long history with the Listener. Its uniqueness from the beginning in 1930 was that every crossword had a theme to it and a special grid to go along with it. It exists because some solvers want more of a challenge than just answering a set of clues. As for the number of solvers, John Green collects the statistics on answer submissions. So we have a fair idea of new people coming in. The online version has cast a wider net and there are quite a number of international solvers. And of course all the blogs about cryptic crosswords are helping to generate interest.
Jay: What are your thoughts on clues? Do you have a criterion for fairness? For example, is it fair not to have a definition in a clue?
Roger: Clues should be entertaining. As for fairness, with the example you gave, it could be fine within a thematic context, say, if part of the puzzle is to work out the connection among a set of answers.
Jay : As editor, can you give a specific example of how you would determine fairness when a setter has sent in his crossword to you?
Roger: One thing for the Listener is that it must be possible to complete and understand a puzzle's theme without using the Internet. Most things should be verifiable in a common home reference book, though occasionally a trip to a library might be needed. Special gimmicks, like having to jumble answers in the grid, should be used only when necessary, not just to make things harder.
Jay: As a setter how long do you take to set a crossword?
Roger: It depends on many factors, such as size, complexity and inspiration. For a daily crossword, about 4-5 days;
my quickest thematic crossword (an Inquisitor) took 7 hrs, but it can take as long as 7-8 months to develop the idea, the grid and the clues.
Jay: Have you any favourite Listener crossword as well as any favourite clues?
Roger: I have many favourites, too many to list. The greatest thing in a thematic crossword is to have an idea that is completely original and to develop it in the most clever and elegant way, to make the solver gasp when he or she sees it.

Then we have Oli Grant who so far has set 4 crosswords for the Listener under “Wasp”.He is a doctor at King’s Cross Hospital. He has been doing crosswords since his early teens.
In those days, one Telegraph newspaper meant  that Grandma had first access to the straight crossword puzzle. Consequently, Oli gravitated to the untouched cryptic.
He started setting in 2002 after reading Don Manley’s  “Chambers Crossword Manual” while on holiday with his wife in New Zealand.

Oli Grant with Jay
Jay: When did you have your first crossword published?

Oli: In 2004, I got my first crossword published in Derek Harrison’s website. Later under “Ra” I got 2 into Magpie and 2 more in the Sunday Telegraph. One of the latter celebrated the 40th anniversary of Gary Sobers 6 sixes in an over in 1968.It happened to have fallen on a Sunday!

Jay: Which do you prefer, setting or solving?

Oli: I prefer solving. I do the Listener every week. Setting takes months sometimes. The idea comes and then the clues and grid need to be tuned over and over again.

Jay: What’s your advice for one who fears tackling the Listener?

Oli: The fear is misplaced. I got just a couple of answers when I first started. So perseverance matters. Just like a doctor who gets better when he diagnoses more patients, the crossword solver should not give up.

Jay: What other interests do you have?

Oli: Fatherhood and Films.

Derek Harrison and Chris Brougham

Derek Harrison is a retired teacher and he lives in the north of England. I asked him if such meetings were held elsewhere. He mentioned that Anax holds them in Birmingham. Derek has a newsletter you can subscribe to. He holds clue-writing competitions on a monthly basis and the participants cast their votes to choose a winner who will get a Chambers Dictionary.
Sometime later in the day, John Green handed out a crossword whose theme was Beer. It was great to solve it together with Derek.
It was a very special afternoon and I had to say my goodbyes early as I had another appointment.

Masters at work

Masters at play

Derek Harrison and Trevor Crowther

John Green


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