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Peter Serafinowicz

Blog

Say goodbye on crazy, sincere tape (4,2,5)

Peter Serafinowicz Nov 26, 2013

Rev John Graham AKA Araucaria

The greatest cryptic crossword setter of all time died today. His devoted fans know him simply (?) as Araucaria but in real life he was The Rev John Graham, a 92-year-old retired rector. He announced that he was dying of cancer of the oesophagus in a crossword puzzle earlier this year (he had “18 down of the 19”).

His cruciverbal alias derives from the ‘monkey-puzzle’ tree, which describes the playful complexity of his own puzzles nicely. Crossword puzzles normally exist on a 2-D plane, but an Araucaria crossword somehow leaps from the page and becomes a three-dimensional object. A very hard one.

My father taught me how to solve cryptic crosswords in my early twenties. His main lesson (and if you’ve never attempted one, this rule is enough for you to jump in) was that the clues are always in two parts – a ‘straight’ literal clue, and a cryptic clue. (The literal definition is usually at the beginning or end of the clue.) My dad’s point was that once you realise that each answer effectively has two clues, cryptic crosswords actually become easier to solve than straightforward ‘quick’ crosswords. My father and I bonded over the Guardian crossword together whenever we met, or if we were apart we’d swap and check answers over the phone. We did The Guardian one because it was the paper I bought, and it was a lucky accident because it’s the only real choice for crossword snobs, with its crack team of expert setters (Hendra, Shed, Enigmatist, etc, etc.), each devillish in their own way, and all of whom I came to enjoy battling with. But it soon became clear that the über-genius, the master-mastermind, was the mysterious Araucaria.

Proud of myself for having got the hang of cryptic crosswords, I set out to tackle one with an unfamiliar layout. Instead of being numbered, the clues were labelled from A to Z. Araucaria’s message at the top of the grid: Solve the clues and fit them into the grid, wherever they will go. I stared at it, like a toddler looking at an iTunes agreement, and bailed. How could anyone expect to solve this!?

A few weeks later, a fellow crossword enthusiast handed me the key: The answers started with the letter denoted by its clue. Armed with this information, I had a crack at his next alphabetical jigsaw puzzle (a form which, by the way, he invented). Knowing the beginnings of clues helped sort them out in an almost suduko-like way. It was still very difficult (though never, ever unfair) and I probably completed my first alphabetical puzzle on the third or fourth attempt.

Have you ever tried to compile a crossword puzzle? I tried, years ago, at school. It is surprisingly almost impossible to put words into a grid and fit them together, let alone come up with elegant, devious clues. Araucaria not only compiled crossword masterpieces (every few days, well into his nineties!) in both numerical and alphabetical form, he also wrote many in which the clues were themed in some (secret) way, and, a few glorious times each year, he would present us with a double alphabetical jigsaw puzzle. If these linguistic Fabergé Rubik’s Cubes were not proof enough of his genius, let me tell you something I noticed one day glancing at one of his alphabetical jigsaws. My face was that of a freeze-framed zombie when I realised: the clues were in rhyming couplets. All of them. The entire text was a giant poem. He did this for every jigsaw crossword, as far as I know. How could a human being be so inconceivably clever?

An Araucaria clue is constructed like an exquisite joke: witty, surprising yet inevitable, and pared down to its essential components, with no inessential, unnecessary, extraneous, irrelevant, superfluous or redundant words. His writing has been a great influence on my own. I wrote a joke book last year full of puns and word-based nonsense. I have been meaning to send a copy to John Graham for months now, both to let him know how much of a fan I am, and also in the vain hope that the master might enjoy some of my own humble wordplay. “You play words like Victor Borge played the piano” I might have written inside. But, I put it off and put it off, and now I’ve missed my chance. Big time.

Dear John, you gave me and so many others a unique pleasure. You’ve left behind a vast legacy in your crosswords and I shall seek them out and solve every last one. I’m glad you’re not in pain any more. Thank you for your crosswords. Sorry I didn’t send you the book. I promise not to put things off in future. Life goes on. Life goes off.

Peter Serafinowicz 26/11/2013

The Guardian remembers Rev John Graham

Araucaria Crossword Books on Amazon

Image: Wikimedia Commons