Azed's Speech at Wadham College

Ladies and gentlemen, friends.

It was as a nervous 28-year-old that in the late summer of 1971 I was shown into the presence of the Observer grandees in their then offices near London’s Blackfriars Bridge, to be vetted for the job of successor to Ximenes, who had recently died rather unexpectedly. Almost exactly forty years later (I was 68 yesterday) I now nervously face you, the undisputed grandees of the crossword world, on this wonderful occasion. What a time it has been! A lot of hard work, certainly, but for me a labour of love. I have been able to spend countless hours doing what I enjoy most – messing about with words. Just ask my long-suffering wife Alison, who has had to put up with my pedantic deviousness (even correcting the misspellings in her shopping lists) for nearly 35 years. And she still can’t spell broccoli or mozzarella.

For me, the most pleasing thing about the Azed series is that I feel many solvers have over time become friends as well as sparring partners, thanks to the special nature of the competitions and these regular gatherings. Several of you here today have, I feel sure, attended all eight dinners and lunches, including, I may say, my parents, both now in their nineties and with us again today, along with my sister and brother-in-law Deb and John, and my sons Tom and Ned. John Tozer, creator and maintainer of the brilliant andlit website, has kindly provided me with some interesting statistics on the 500 Azed competitions up to and including August 2010: 1,498 prizes have been awarded; 10,667 VHCs have been awarded, and 27,966 HCs. The total number of entries is an estimated 174,846, and the total number of competitors to have received an HC or above is an estimated 3,009. John has yet to come up with an estimate of the total number of man-hours devoted to solving or attempting to solve all 1,999 Azed puzzles to date. No doubt he will devise an algorithm to calculate this. As for my own man-hours at work, well let’s not go into that.

Inevitably, over the years, we have lost a fair number of regulars. Since the last lunch, to mark No. 1,750, these have included, from the ranks of those featuring regularly in the slips, Tony Beaulah, Eric Burge and Dorothy Taylor. There are doubtless others and I apologize for any inadvertent omissions. I am always extremely touched when, as quite often, I receive letters from surviving relatives of Azed solvers who have died, telling me how much my crossword meant to them. Still very much with us, I’m delighted to say, are two near-octogenarians here present, both high scorers in the Azed competitions: George Willett (who I think won a Ximenes prize as an Oxford undergraduate in the 1950s for a Misprints clue to PENNYWISE) was 80 five days ago, and Colin Dexter (one of the most successful Ximenes and Azed competitors over the years) will be 80 in a few days.  At the other end of the age spectrum, I have occasionally expressed the wish that more younger solvers might join our ranks. As the father of two sons who have shown little or no interest in crosswords, I can’t really make too much of this, but if anyone has any ideas on how to entice young people away from electronic games and other such fly-by-night pastimes I’m open to all suggestions.

The world as it affects crosswords has changed greatly since Azed No. 1 was published in March 1972, largely through the headlong development of electronic technology, much of which is beyond me. The latest gizmo, I gather, enables those signing up to it to inform all their friends precisely where they are at all times of day or night, 24/7 as they say. Sorry, include me out of that one. Whatever happened to privacy? Some doom merchants are predicting, I hope wrongly, the end of books in print form, and it is certainly true that printed dictionaries have suffered a decline in sales in recent years. It was worrying when we heard that the Chambers publishing house was to be wound up and many if not most of its books put out of print. More reassuringly, we have since learnt that the dictionary (ours) will continue, though in what form and format and how updated we have yet to be told. Another recent development, about which some solvers have expressed unease, is the dialogue on networking websites about clues to be submitted in Azed (and doubtless other) competitions. I haven’t visited these sites and wouldn’t want to, though I do wonder whether such collaboration in advance of competitions doesn’t rather go against the spirit of the thing. Post-mortem dissection of successful clues is another matter. I spend many hours doing it myself, after all. I know my own clues are subjected to detailed analysis on the internet, and this seems fair game, even though I rarely have time to give my clues the degree of fine tuning that competitors can devote to their own offerings.

I have many people to thank for today’s wonderful event. First Don Manley, ably assisted by his wife Sue and his former OUP colleague Liz Bowler, who yet again has nobly shouldered the main burden of organizing the lunch and all the peripheral activities that have gone with it. It is entirely fitting that he currently heads the honours list for the entire Azed series to date, up to but not including the August competition and that for No. 2,000, with 55 prizes, 278 VHCs and 144 HCs. What a record! Next I must thank Wadham College, our hosts and providers of the fine lunch we have all enjoyed, and The Observer, represented here today by Vanessa Thorpe, who have donated the wines to accompany the meal. And I salute my darling wife Ali, who apart from putting up with my crossword activities for so many years has also arranged all the flowers in their teapots today. And my special thanks go to our guest speaker Richard Stilgoe. Some of you will perhaps know that Richard has a number of aliases. In his book The Richard Stilgoe Letters he reveals a number of his alternative personae, including the egregious Dr Gloria Ethics, Col. Tiger Rashid, Giles T. Haircord and, most memorably, Giscard O’Hitler. What you, and possibly even he, will not know, is that he also lurks behind the notable figures of Harris Clogdiet, Sigrid Clothear, Algie Cordshirt, Sir Gareth Dolci, and that giant of the West Country apple industry Goliath R. Ciders. To name but a few.

I must not finish without thanking you all, including all those who couldn’t come today but who have sent kind messages and good wishes for the occasion, not only for joining in this celebration but also for contributing to the extraordinarily generous amount of money Don has presented me with. I haven’t yet decided what to spend this on, but you may like to know that the fruit trees I bought with the money you gave me last time are now maturing well and have given us a heavy crop this year. Thank you all so much. And I hope you enjoy tomorrow’s puzzle.

25 September 2010