Mark Barley's Speech at Wadham College


Just as Eliot’s Prufrock is said to have measured out his life in coffee spoons, so have I, I feel, measured out my life in Azed puzzles. Azed has been such an ever-present in my life for so long now that I am both pleased and honoured to have this opportunity to say a few words on this epoch-marking occasion. I would like to share with you a few very personal memories linked to how Azed and his puzzles have played a special part in my life, in the hope of both perhaps resonating with some of your own personal experiences and of conveying what Azed has meant to me personally.

I cannot claim, as many in the room doubtless can, to have been in at the start of Azed’s marathon. Having been introduced to the delights of cruciverbal wordsmithery almost literally on my grandmother’s knee (the Telegraph quick crossword) I came across Azed as a teenager at school. Compared to the puzzles I’d done before, here was an out-and-out challenge that seemed to carry with it huge kudos in its solution as well as delight in the less prosaical aspects of language. My earliest recollection is of being introduced to the leprosy treatment "chaulmugra", and the delicious correlation between "café-chantant" and its relative "thé-dansant" which Azed cleverly introduced into the clue . In those days merely solving a clue gave me a sense of achievement, and even when I was able to solve whole puzzles, I displayed my pride in such by pinning up, as wallpaper, completed puzzles on my study wall where they stayed for terms!

I was solving (but not yet competing) when Azed "attained the social elite" of "The Four Hundred". I revelled in Azed’s misleading definitions and clever charades; his puzzles were quite unalike any other puzzles I had attempted, in their principled soundness, but also wit and ingenuity.

I began to have sufficient confidence to go ahead and start competing. And it’s the competition puzzles that have since provided me with my own life-measuring coffee spoons.

"Simmenthaler" is the earliest memory I carry. Not however for my entry (which I forget), but for Dr E Young’s winning entry "Style me Hitler’s man: I’d die for the bully of Europe" whose brilliantly oblique definition part intrigued me. (Pausing there, Dr Young is of course the author of one of my own favourite winning entries, the inspired and self-referential clue to "Rough-and-ready": "A hard tussle with Dr E Young plainly winning". I suspect only Morse père et fils have managed anything similar).

From then on I associate various clue words with particular moments in my life: "Balustrade" with Sunday lunch with undergraduate friends in Oxford; "disthene" with waiting on a railway station platform outside Guildford, "animus" and "ethereal oils" with beach-side holidays in Greece.

Indeed, being out of the country has given me particular Azed milestones. "Voetganger" recalls a month spent in a French lawyer’s office in Rennes and "transenna" sharing a skiing trip to Canada with friends celebrating their recent spousage. That required me faxing my entry to a friend back in the UK for onward posting; the oddly suggestive "pierceable/salesgirl" had me giving instructions back to a friend via a freezing dark public phone box in the French Alps.

I could carry on; but I simply want to convey how Azed’s offerings have provided colour to my life over the years and, for that, I, and doubtless many other solvers who have similar memories, offer Azed my heartfelt thanks.

Of course, as well as these particular life-time memories, Azed has provided me with a certain monthly cycle of experience, which doubtless mirrors that of many other solvers as well.

Competition Sundays arrive, and I get up and rush out posthaste to buy what of course is the queen of newspaperdom, the Observer. Sometimes the puzzle can have me in a pickle, the clues being far from transparent, even elliptic. Other times, perhaps my brain is more agile and getting to the heart of the puzzle is more straightforward.

There is then the moment of panic when I confront the clue-word and have no immediate inspiration. This is the start of much mulling over the coming days until my entry is despatched prior to Saturday’s deadline. Ideas might come whilst I’m on the putting green lining up a tricky putt, or performing domestic chores (hoovering the carpet or stocking up at the supermarket), or most often in the black of night. It’s in the dark, in bed, that I find ideas best come to the boil in my head. Inspiration can come like a thunderclap, leading to a sort of "cacoethes scribendi"; I must get my idea down on paper even if it is the middle of the night. Perhaps in the morning my thought gets consigned to the litterbasket, but nothing beats the magic moment when I think I’ve come up with a star entry.

I’ve been lucky enough over the years to have had some modest success in the competitions. But just participating with you, my fellow solvers, has been loads of fun. Azed has run and judged over 500 competitions now and I’m deeply appreciative of his efforts in meticulous judging and apposite commentary in the monthly slip. But it would be considerable ingratitude not to mention others involved in the slip over the years, notably the late Anthony Ellis and now Brian Head, and scorers such as Martin Perkins and Ron Dearden. It’s all been gathered together in John Tozer’s humongous web archive "andlit", whose very existence (with the effort that’s clearly been put into it) is a lasting tribute to the deep-seated rapport that exists between Azed and his solvers.

But we are here today to celebrate a truly remarkable achievement. Tomorrow Azed marks his second one thousand puzzles, a decuple double century if you will. This is a monster feat of staying power, displaying over so many years and puzzles such a consistently high-level of crosswording perfection, providing us solvers with a pearl of a puzzle Sunday after Sunday. Top-notch grid-construction and being the arch phrasemonger in his cluing are hallmarks of Azed’s incomparable style. He is, to my mind, the Olympic champion of the crossword, and to have produced so many gems over so many years is an incomparable and very special feat.

And this now brings me back to how I started these few words. Whilst I am honoured to be speaking on behalf of this august gathering of solvers, I do want to express my very personal (if perhaps remarkably convoluted!) appreciation to Azed. Jonathan, you have touched and enriched my life in a unique and special way (why else would I be mulling over whether to deploy the word "craze" in my "fado" clue this month?!), and for this I want to say my own heartfelt - "thank-you Jonathan". Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a toast to Azed, the greatest of setters reaching a remarkable milestone.

- To Azed

25 September 2010