90 years ago this weekend (on 1 February 1930) The Times published the first in its series of crosswords – the Saturday puzzles include some celebration of the fact, not least a larger-than-usual pair of Jumbos. There’s a good Listener in there too, though I say it as shouldn’t.
30 years ago this weekend (on 3 February 1990) and my Friday puzzle on 31 January was accordingly centred around the world PEARL. I don’t recall The Times being especially animated about the 60th anniversary of their puzzle. The rise of puzzle supplements and separate websites and ‘Download today’s puzzles here’ has given the puzzle section of the paper greater prominence, and so anniversaries are perhaps more appreciated.
While it might have been appropriate to have the thirtieth anniversary puzzle on the day itself, in the end I didn’t press the point, and I’ve already been displaced from the Friday slot once this month. We don’t want to startle the horses too much… Incidentally, the Friday as Phi-day situation seems to have kicked in at the start of 2007 (very precisely at the start as well, which suggests it may have been an editorial decision), which was a bit further back than I’d anticipated.
The 31 January puzzle was my 1,429th. I was fortnightly for a while, but there have been occasions when I have had two in a week, even two on consecutive days (on these occasions using the pseudonym Pedro well before he turned up on the Times Quick Cryptic). When I started we had setters such as Foxy, Amicus, Alcuin (aka Corylus), Albipedius and Lucifer (the same person, who was also Mephisto and Beelzebub), Spurius (aka Calmac, who also became Beelzebub) and Quixote (and we need not list all his pseudonyms). I can’t for the life of me remember the pseudonyms of Ruth Crisp and Roger Squires in their Independent guises, but they were there too.
That first puzzle, No. 1,033, is here, and there is a generous selection of others on the relevant page. Do I have any resounding lessons learnt from 30 years? It’s still just as hard to start in on a blank grid, which is why I often set myself little themes to include. Mind you, coming up with ideas for these themes gets no easier, either. The word you put in because it looks such an interesting one to clue will be the last one to yield after a great deal of brain-fag.
It was certainly a release to be given the chance to design one’s own grids by The Independent (Friday’s was my 406th) – one or two of those have also been re-used if they were pleasing. Quite a few of them, to be fair, look awfully contrived and have some of the more regular solvers thinking that there must be something hidden there. Just occasionally, of course, there isn’t, not in what you might call the literal sense – I’ve designed grids to accommodate as many long entries as possible, or to look like a Celtic knot (though not very). Just this month there’s been a windmill, which theme admittedly spilled over into the entries.
Years ago, one of the collection of responses I got to a Listener puzzle included a comment from a solver who claimed to be still solving them at the age of 93. (I can imagine that getting out to the postbox to post the things might have been more of a challenge – certainly you have to be fairly fit to get to a postbox in NZ these days.) So maybe I can have some aspirations to fulfilling a toast to the next thirty years.
Meanwhile, as well as the 1 February Listener, I believe I have a Magpie puzzle this month (update having received the February issue: No), and there’s a Toughie in The Telegraph on 6 February (Waitangi Day). There’s a little cluster of puzzles on Valentine’s Day and I even have early sight of an EV in March, but more of those anon.
APEX entries are still trickling in. The deadline was 31 January and one of these years I will be hard-hearted enough to enforce it. But the looming Waitangi Day holiday is going to give me extra time, so I shall be extending the deadline to 7 February.