D.A.N. Jones: Evans the Checker

'Checker's career, twist man jives!'

Accustomed to keeping a low profile, Jim Evans is known to only a very few as the man responsible for vetting those esoteric brain-teasers at the back of this magazine. D.A.N. Jones went to find out more about the hidden man in the cryptic world Of THE LISTENER Crossword puzzle.

For 30 years Jim, Evans has been Checker of the Crosswords for THE LISTENER. This month he will pass on the arduous task to another (who need not be named here, since it is better for the Checker to maintain a low profile). Let us pay tribute to Jim Evans with a misleading clue - 'Checker's career, twist man jives!'

An arduous task it has been, selecting the cream of the crossword week by week, assessing their skills with exceptional fair-mindedness and knowledge of the game, just as Jim Evan's father used to select rugby teams for the London Welsh. The Checker's duty is to taste the crosswords submitted to THE LISTENER, to begin to solve them, making sure they keep to the rules and are fair to the solvers. He must test each puzzle, as if he were a Popper-trained scientist examining the results of a colleague's experiment, looking for flaws in a theory or for alternative conclusions that might be drawn from the evidence. He must be at once an academic supervisor of clever men's theses and an anthologist choosing poems, a golden treasury of LISTENER crosswords.

Sometimes Jim Evan's choice of crosswords has been forwarded to London by diplomatic bag from Ankara or Tehran, sometimes by Army Post Office from Cyprus or Singapore, sometimes through United Nations channels from Rome or Beirut. For a globe-trotting, world-crossing man., a selection of LISTENER crosswords offers a sensible way to spend an evening in a foreign town, undistracted by exotic entertainments: it would be wrong to use Jim Evan's methods of postal communication as evidence for the old suspicion that the LISTENER crossword is a branch of Her Majesty's Secret Service, passing cryptic messages our agents, rather as Victor Sylvester did with his BBC dancing-lessons during the last war.

All the same, to enter, his Surrey home is to fuel the secret service fantasy. Those medals and orders on the wail, those framed ambassadorial flags, the military collector's items the souvenirs of government service in Israel and Argentina, the regimental drum (Royal Ulster Rifles) on which the coffee stands, that rather good photograph of the Queen . . . Jim Evans has a perfectly reasonable explanation. Most of this trove was inherited from his late uncle, an ambassador who was much honoured and also an eclectic collector. Jim Evans himself collects stamps and cigarette cards, rare words and dictionaries. It is appropriate for the man who selects the elite puzzles to be an eclectic collector; for the dictionaries tell us that eclectics choose and the elite are chosen.

Eager to be chosen, over-productive setters have sometimes sent Jim Evans puzzles in batches of ten; but this is sheer logorrhoea. The better setters may submit two a year, taking time over them, to maintain the standard. Some jump the queue by composing a crossword about a forthcoming anniversary. Some have sent their submissions to Jim Evans' home address - but this is considered out of order. 'They must go through the LISTENER office,' says Evans. 'The auditor himself must sometimes be audited.'

So that is what he is an auditor metaphorically, an auditor of crossword clues, but literally. He is currently using his skills as Hon. Treasurer of the British Association of Local History, after his long career working for the Controller and Auditor-General of Public Accounts in what is now called the National Audit Office, that discreet company of constructive critics who audit all government departments (including the Treasury) and may be sent almost anywhere, from secret research stations in Wales to the overseas headquarters of CENTO or the FAO. That provides some explanation for Jim Evans' travels and breadth of knowledge.

'Constructive critics,' he says - that is what government auditors should be, getting people to do things better and put things right. He has tried to be a constructive critic to the LISTENER crossword setters, suggesting emendations and improvements to these authors, to bring their work up to standard.

Should we call crossword setters 'authors'? 'To call the composer of a crossword an author,' wrote Stephen Sondheim, 'may seem to be dignifying a gnat. But clues in a cryptic crossword have many characteristics of a literary manner: cleverness, humour, even a pseudo-aphoristic grace.' To compose crosswords may be an art form for a literary man, but one of a special sort, like Sondheim himself - a poet in the older sense.