This blog is going up on 5 March 2022. Fifty years ago, to the day, Azed Crossword No. 1 appeared, and tomorrow Azed Crossword No. 2,595 will be published. It’s a complete run – the only weeks the puzzle has failed to appear, The Observer has as well. (“Help! We’ve lost the Azed puzzle!” “Quick, call a strike!”) There’ll also be a competition tomorrow (first Sunday of the month) – the 650th – one a month plus Christmas.
It’s not a track record you see often, and hearty congratulations are in order. There have been all sorts of events en route to the milestone – I recall a competition where The Observer carefully printed the solution grid adjacent to the puzzle itself, which certainly lowered the error rate that month. There have been words which Chambers seems to have invented (BOOKSIE, anyone?) and misplaced asterisks, and very few plurals. We’ve clued the gamut of gimmicks, including some new ones, so it’s been quite a ride.
There was the Superbrain competition in December 1984, which saw competitors lined up, exam-style, each with piles of volumes of the full Oxford English Dictionary for reference. The competition was sponsored by OUP, and the puzzles deliberately stepped outside Chambers to use the full vocabulary of the 20-odd volumes. (These days you would have to have a computer terminal and searching would not be quite so manual an activity. Much quicker, too.) That was won by Michael Macdonald-Cooper, who walked off with a new leather-bound set of the dictionary, conveniently replacing items lost in a recent fire in his library, if I remember rightly. I was second, and my set was not leather-bound – but it’s the same plot, isn’t it? (A couple of years later Michael’s appearance in the Mastermind chair – in a kilt, no less – led me to apply for and appear on the show in 1987.)
Such an event immediately prompts you to think of your own engagement with the series over the years. For what follows, I’m indebted to John Tozer’s site andlit.org.uk. This allows anyone to see who won what and when, and to read the Azed slip, and covers the puzzles of Azed’s predecessor, Ximenes, as well. In terms of slips, it also covers those of my memory…
There are some still entering today who appeared on the slip for the first competition puzzle (ORGIAST) – my own record is less extended though it goes back to May 1978 (PODESTA), which, John’s site kindly reminds me, is close on 44 years. My first contest was actually the preceding November (HUMECT) and it took me a while to get out of the also-rans. My first prize was a Third for GINGER, and my first First was for PROSAICAL in May 1988, which I wrote while largely confined to bed with a ripped back muscle. I managed to land a First for No. 1,500 (always nice to bag a round number), and the cup has made it out to New Zealand (SCANT (SNEAP) – a Wrong Number puzzle in 2009), which must be its furthest journey. The photos I took of its sojourn here have been lost in a hard disk crash, alas.
And sadly the cup itself was lost between London and Lancashire last year, though it would not surprise me if plans were afoot to replace it sooner or later. The booklets of clues handwritten by the contest winners are harder to replace, however.
For over twenty of those fifty years (1995-2016) I was privileged enough to be a rival to Azed, regularly setting the Beelzebub puzzles in The Independent on Sunday (and, of course, there are examples of them on this website). It’s a very different experience from setting a daily blocked puzzle – just getting the grid pattern right without boxing yourself into a corner was sometimes the prize. There is a greater range of words to choose from and a greater degree of freedom with clue types (composite anagrams being the most notorious). It is a stimulating mental exercise, though, and some of the pleasantest moments were when I would work through a sequence of Beelzebub clues on a sort of wave of inspiration.
So, once again, congratulations to Azed on the anniversary tomorrow.
No new puzzle this time round – you need to focus on Azed. (Though if you have a moment today, you may want to take a quick look at Schindler’s List in the Inquisitor series in the i.) Apart from the regular Friday appearances in The Independent, there’s also a Times Quick puzzle from Pedro on 15 March.
Next time round I hope to report on the latest APEX results and provide the puzzle. Any APEX voters who have yet to do their duty (there’s still a tie for third place to resolve) are reminded the closing date in March 11.