One of my very favourite famous people died today…although to be honest the Rev John Graham, otherwise known as cryptic crossword setter Araucaria, was hardly what you’d call a household name. Now I love cryptic crosswords as much as some folk love other arcane pursuits like ballet or hang-gliding or chess, though I’ve got to say it took me a long old while to get the hang of the various rules and flags that govern them. There have been a lot of great compilers, each with their own signature style and idiosyncrasies, but Araucaria was fairly unarguably the master of them all.
Graham was 92, and had been setting puzzles for the Guardian and other non-Murdoch papers for the last fifty-five years or so – someone somewhere might know exactly how many in total, and where one might find them, but it’s unlikely given Graham’s mild and self-effacing nature that he himself was keeping tally. The important thing was the quality and ingenuity of his work and the care he took to run themes and links through his grids that gave the completed puzzles a sense of unity. At the risk of sounding seriously pretentious about something originally designed as a tea-break diversion, to me the best of them had the appeal and resonance of great poems or songs, and even the more run-of-the-mill ones could be relied upon to provide at least half a dozen clues witty and unexpected enough to make one beam with pleasure. He was, unlike some of his fellow setters, always rigorously fair and never ostentatiously obscure with his clues, though he would often drop in topical or political references that made clear his left-leaning sympathies without ever coming across as preachy (in order to best appreciate his most celebrated clue it’s necessary to know that it was published at the time that Jeffrey Archer was laying low in his famous residence just outside Cambridge having recently been exposed as a perjurer and a cheat: “Poetical scene has surprisingly chaste Lord Archer, vegetating” leads, by means of a flabbergasting anagram, to the solution “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester”).
Inevitably he chose to reveal his terminal cancer of the oesophagus via clues in a crossword a few months ago and his last grid in the Guardian a couple of Saturdays ago contained a few answers that should have tipped us off that the end wouldn’t be long: “nil by mouth”, “cottage hospital”, “time to go”. He was on top of the game even at the last, and I shall miss him. *Oftentimes.