Salute to Araucaria by Apex, Enigmatist and Custos
Happy Anniversary by Apex
Photos of the birthday visit to the London Eye
After 42 years of delighting and infuriating Guardian readers, John Graham - aka Araucaria - is still regarded as the best in the business. On the 80th birthday of the 'Tiger Woods of crossword compiling', David McKie pays tribute
Quite a few people know that orchestra is an anagram of carthorse. Rather fewer have yet discovered that Manchester City is an anagram of synthetic cream. But it takes a crossword compiler of genius to discover that The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, yields the anagram: chaste Lord Archer vegetating.
Or to be more precise, it takes John Graham, 80 today, who for 42 years has delighted, enthralled and sometimes exasperated Guardian readers with the cryptic crosswords which appear nowadays under the pseudonym Araucaria. The word means monkey puzzle, as in the tree of that name. He chose it when, in December 1970, the crossword editor, John Perkin, removed the cloak of anonymity from the Guardian's team of compilers and invited them to pick sobriquets of their own. Monkey came from the influence in those days of Desmond Morris's book, The Naked Ape, and also from a standard endearment in the Graham household. The puzzle speaks for itself.
Graham was a priest in the Church of England when his first Manchester Guardian crossword was published in the paper4n July1958. He was a reader of the old liberal News Chronicle, rather than of the MG, though his politics were to the left of either's. He was further left than you might think, says an old friend: very interested in the Levellers, for instance, he came out of academic Oxford, where his father was the dean of Oriel College, to read classics at King's College, Cambridge, till the war intervened. He joined the RAF and flew in some 30 operations as an observer, having failed to become a pilot. In a sequence of events he relates with brisk modesty, he had to bale out in Italy and go into hiding, was rescued by the Americans and got mentioned in dispatches -an honour you always got, he insists, if you baled out and the enemy did not catch you.
Then it was back to King's, this time to read theology, and on through a succession of curacies, chaplaincies (as at Reading University for 10 years from 1962) and higher incumbencies. Some were not what you might have expected for someone essentially shy and hardly cut out for the social whirl: it. is hard to imagine Graham as the priest in charge of St Peter's in London's Eaton Square. The living which followed in Huntingdonshire (Houghton and Wyton) seems more in keeping. By this time, having won an Observer competition for crossword setters two years running, he had been head-hunted by the Guardian and engaged to set its crosswords once a week or thereabouts.
It was a sideline to start with, but became a necessity at the end of the 70s when Graham and his first wife divorced. Under the rules of those days, that disqualified him from continuing in the ministry, Setting crosswords pays pretty abysmally even now; back then it was hardly a basis for prosperous living. But the Guardian bumped up his crossword quota and his practice grew. Now he is setting six Araucarias monthly, as well as one in three of the quick crosswords; contributing cryptic puzzles to the Financial Times; and setting a monthly puzzle for Homes and Antiques. They are all put together at an upstairs desk in the cottage in Somersham, a village between Huntingdon and Cambridge, where he has lived alone since the death of his second wife, Margaret, seven years ago.
The Archer anagram, which appeared six weeks ago, dispersing in one crisp sally any suggestion that his powers might be failing as he neared 80, was, like most of his work, a blend of diligence and inspiration. And, per-haps, just a bit of luck with the language. I assumed he had hit on "chaste Lord Archer" and found himself, to his delight, left with the letters to form the viable word "vegetating". But no, vegetating came first, and the letters remaining made "chaste". One reader was entranced enough to write to the paper declaring that this made Graham "the Tiger Woods of crossword compiling".
There are several conspicuous virtues which took Tiger Graham to the top of his trade. He is unfailingly fair. With Araucaria you don't look up the solution the next day to see why he defeated you and conclude that he never gave you a chance, And that is no accident. Every puzzle he sets is sent to a checker (unpaid: the rewards of crossword compiling are not lavish enough for it to be otherwise).
The Araucaria puzzles are checked by a woman in Wiltshire who will sometimes say of a clue: that's too hard; or even, that is impossible. Or beyond the likely comprehension of solvers who may be 50 years or more younger than John. "Her job," says the sage of Somersham, "is to be as critical as possible." Some of the clues she questions are kept; rather more are amended. The result is the ideal challenge - a puzzle where at some stage or other you think: "Curses, Araucaria has foxed me this time." But you persist, and an hour or so later, he hasn't.
He is the most ingenious of setters, both in his crossword designs and in his clues. His specialities are theme puzzles (which he didn't invent, but developed) where a central figure or concept informs much of the puzzle. Some commemorate heroes. One of the most famous was built around the heroes of South African resistance to apartheid. Another was a tribute to Leonard Bernstein, known to be a fan of Guardian crosswords.
Few of this kind can have been more inven-tive than the one he devised for the Guardian last Christmas, in the year that marked the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach's death, which was all about the composer. The answer to 1 across was Bach's name. Elsewhere the answers included St Matthew Passion, B minor Mass, Art of Fugue, Goldberg (as in variations), Brandenburg Concerto, Well-Tempered Clavier, oratorio, the names of three cantatas, and Handel. One contemplated the completed grid and thought: "That just isn't possible."
Sometimes on Saturdays he uses a form which he did invent: the alphabetical jigsaw - 26 slots, starting with every letter from A to Z, with clues in rhyming couplets, where you have to work out not just the answers but the right place to put them. But the clues themselves are hardly less remarkable. Just catch sight of them on the page, and you're irresistibly tempted to start on them straight away. Here are some from the first signed puzzles. Lean man with bad feet; he's the greatest (7,4). It's painful on the seventh and first Sunday after Easter (7). Correcting sets in the North? O don't! I can't bear it (11). *
As for the anagrams, even the Old Vicarage at Grantchester isn't, in Araucaria's view, his best of all time. That honour is reserved for a Christmas puzzle where the clue involved the seasonal sentence: "O hark the herald angels 'sing the boy's descent which lifted up the world"; which, being disentangled, yielded:
"While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground."
Not all compilers, it has to be said, approve of these methods. He used to be seen by some as a dangerous heretic. There are those, even now, who think he is undesirably liberal. A great Observer setter who used the pseudonym Ximenes set down a list of rules which should not be broken. Araucaria quite often breaks them, in the interests of free expression and fun. In this he is followed by some, though not all, of his Guardian colleagues. 'To me, the most obvious Araucarians are two of the younger setters. Paul and Enigmatist, both of whom as teenagers sent puzzles to G raham asking for his opinion. He would not call himself their mentor, but that is what he is.
Restored to his priestly duties after the death of his first wife, Graham is still in demand for occasional sermons, funerals, and periods filling in when one local priest departs and the next one is yet to arrive. Just as he is in demand for that mighty army of Guardian readers for whom Saturday is never quite Saturday unless there's an Araucaria waiting at the end of the day. I leave him about to start work on a puzzle for Homes and Antiques, where, unlike the Guardian's crossword editors, they choose his themes for him. This time it is chairs. "I don't know very much about chairs," he says just a little plaintively. But just wait till you see what he'll do with them when he does.
Cassius Clay (Cassius in Julius Caesar; clay feet); Whitlow (Whit Sunday, the seventh after Easter, and Low Sunday, the first). Orthodontic (concealed in the clue).