“The perfect clues are both witty and concise,” says John, who admits he does his best work before lunchtime. “What you are aiming for is a mix of ingenuity, solvability, laughability and mischievousness. If you can add a little naughtiness, that’s the icing on the cake.”
He offers by way of illustration, the clue ‘Mad, passionate lovers’. It’s not one of John’s own, but he admires the craftsmanship.
“The answer? Bonkers. It’s simple and brilliant,” he says.
John’s passion for crosswords began as a small child. His parents liked a puzzle and even before he had left primary school he could complete even the trickiest of grids with ease.
“My dad ran a shop and whenever it was quiet he would get his copy of the Daily Telegraph from under the counter and do the cryptic crossword,” he says. “Unfortunately, he was dyslexic, so I would often correct his spellings and gradually I got the hang of solving the clues too.
“Mum was also a bit of a crossword addict and she taught me some of the basic rules, like how setters use words like confused or rearranged to tell you when a clue is an anagram.”
John was just 11 years old when he sent his first cryptic crossword grid to a national newspaper, accompanied by a letter from his father suggesting his son would make a good regular contributor. “The crossword editor did write back. She wasn’t prepared to take me on, but she did say that she had enjoyed my crossword and told me I should write back in 10 years’ time.”
John made a mental note and aged 21 he wrote again. That time he didn’t hear anything back, but it mattered not. He’d had his first cryptic crossword published in The Guardian on March 29th, 1979 aged just 16 and was already establishing a loyal fan base.
“I cringe when I think about the first crossword I ever set,” he says. “It was pretty awful, but I guess everyone needs to start somewhere.”
Last year John, who has completed The Times’ notoriously difficult cryptic crossword in under three minutes, marked 40 years as a setter and he is regarded as one of the best in the business. In The Guardian he’s known as Enigmatist, in The Independent he goes by the name of Nimrod and in The Telegraph he’s Elgar. All his pseudonyms were inspired by the English composer’s Enigma Variations, all in fact except one. In the Financial Times, John’s alter-ego is Io, which was the answer to a clue the newspaper refused to print as it failed to meet its three letters or more rule.
“The trick with compiling a cryptic crossword is that you have to start with a completed grid and work backwards,” he says. “These days I like all the answers to link to a particular theme. That obviously makes it harder for me, but for both the setter and the solver it brings a greater degree of satisfaction.”
Previous themes have included everything from ‘cricket’ to the slightly more cerebral ‘meaning of life’ and when he is stuck for inspiration John tends to look to his surroundings.
“I have even compiled one featuring all the names of the bar staff in Brigantes,” he says, referring to the Micklegate pub, which is one of his favourite haunts. “That day I happened to be struggling for an idea and as I walked past the pub I just thought, ‘I know what I could do’.
“I learnt early on that readers are very quick to tell you if you haven’t got something quite right, but they are also quick to tell you when they appreciate a particular clue. Believe it or not there is such a thing as a crossword groupie.”
John describes the relationship between setter and solver as a battle of wits and while to the uninitiated a cryptic crossword can read like a foreign language he believes everyone can learn how to complete one.
“When you’re starting out you have to learn the grammar and syntax of a crossword. Good setters will always say what they mean, but they might not mean what they say and it’s very easy to get led down the wrong path. However, the more you look at the right answers from the previous day’s crossword, the more you will get a feel for the type of clues they set and there comes a point where it all just falls into place.”
John’s own crossword hero was The Guardian’s Araucaria. Also known as the Rev John Galbraith Graham, he took his name after the Latin for the monkey puzzle tree, and he later became something of a celebrity when he was chosen to be a guest on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.
“We were on a family holiday and one day the newsagents ran out of both The Telegraph and the Mail,” says John, remembering his first encounter with Araucaria. “Instead we bought the Guardian. He’d compiled a grid on the theme of cherry stones and I just loved it. I immediately wrote to him and that was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.”
In 2012, Araucaria used one of his crosswords to reveal that he had oesophageal cancer, with answers to the clues including ‘palliative’ and ‘care’ and hen he died the following year the tributes talked of a “warm” and “humble” man who had a way with words like no other.
“There is a real cryptic crossword community,” says John, who met his wife Jane when he appeared in a pilot for a new TV quiz show. She is also a keen quizzer and having appeared on Eggheads, would now like a shot at Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Just to prove they were a perfect match, on their wedding day, John set a number of clues in various papers whose answers revealed the location of their reception - The Narrow Boat pub in Islington. Jane solved them immediately.
“John will give me his finished grids to solve and I’ll put ticks next to clues that I particularly like,” she says. “I act as a barometer, although he does get slightly grumpy if I hand it back without one single tick.”
While John did have a spell working as a psychology teacher he likes to say he swapped a job where he ticked boxes for one where he fills them. Now as well as compiling crosswords, he also sets some of the questions for the nigh on impossible quiz show Only Connect, hosted by Victoria Coren Mitchell, and each year on his birthday he and Jane organise a convention in York for fellow cryptic crossword obsessives.
The weekend includes a welcome crossword and a pub quiz crawl, but when it comes to puzzles there is a line that even John won’t cross.
“I don’t see the point of sudoku. You learn a lot from crosswords, you don’t learn anything from putting numbers into a grid - you complete the same one day after day and not even notice.”
Have a go at these cryptic crossword clues compiled by John:
1. Where Ali G seeks relief after very hot curry (8)
2. The real reason for the merger meeting between Volkswagen & Daimler? (6,6)
3. I say nothing (3)
4. Thong, being worn professionally, broke (8,3,4)
5. Whip MP feeds cheese (9)
Answers: 1. VINDALOO (definition = ‘hot curry’; V=very & ‘IN DA LOO’); 2. HIDDEN AGENDA (definition = ‘The real reason for...’; in ‘volkswAGEN-DAimler’); 3. EGO (definition = ‘I’; E.G.=’say’ & 0=’nothing’); 4 STRAPPED FOR CASH (definition = ‘broke’ & play on words); 5 CAMEMBERT (definition = ‘cheese’; CAT = ‘whip’, as in cat-o’-nine-tails, around MEMBER =’MP’)