Last week, “The Guardian” website published an interview with Jonathan Crowther — the compiler of the Azed crossword, which appears in “The Observer” each week. The puzzle can seem intimidating, if you’re not used to it: the words are separated by lines rather than black squares and a lot of answers are archaic or dialect words (especially Scottish words, of which there are many in the recommended Chambers Dictionary). However, the clues work in the same way as for other cryptic crosswords and the layout of the grid allows more crosschecking of letters in the more obscure words — or “lexical slag”, as Kingsley Amis said in the context of a fictional game of “Call My Bluff”.
The fact that the crosswords are sometimes themed or the words subject to a further layer of de- or encoding before entry in the grid (e.g. missing letters, anagrams, Spoonerisms or Playfair squares) adds an extra challenge. Occasionally, just understanding the rubric can seem the most difficult part. (Puzzlers like words such as “rubric” — I could have said “instructions”.)
And then there’s the task of devising your own clue for a particular word in the monthly competition crossword. The names of the winners and “very highly commended” (VHC) entries are published in the paper along with the solution, but there’s more information on the & lit. website including Azed’s comments on the entries, details of winning and VHC clues and names of “highly commended” (HC) entries. There is also an archive of puzzles and competitors going back over decades. My own stats aren’t brilliant. Since taking up the puzzle again after I retired, I have managed a number of HC’s and even a few VHC’s, but haven’t been placed in the top three. I console myself with the thought that a number of the competitors are crossword compilers themselves.
The most astonishing thing about these puzzles is that since the first one appeared in “The Observer” in 1926, there have been only three compilers: Torquemada, Ximenes and Azed. Torquemada, Edward Powys Mathers, was actually the inventor of the cryptic crossword. And he was a poet too: Carcanet publish “Black Marigolds & Coloured Stars”, a pairing of his first two books. I haven’t read it myself, but will look out for it now.