Goodbye to all that (7, 2, 3, 4)

A crossword setter writes: A farewell after 10 years being the man with all the clues

Just shy of a decade ago, under the pseudonym Crosaire by Crossheir I happily began setting the crossword. It was a different time when so many words (Covid-19, anti-vaxxer, ransomware, Zoom, Brexit, E-Bikes) were in the waitingroom of our futures, defenceless to a touch of serendipity or genius.

Back then, I was succeeding Roy Earle (Mac an Iarla), who had inherited the job, 67-odd years after Derek Crozier pitched Crosaire to the then editor Bertie Smyllie of The Irish Times, on Christmas Eve 1942 in the Palace Bar in Dublin. I took it as a given that I wasn't going to break any longevity records, surmising that 10 years compiling a daily puzzle for the cruciverbalists of this parish might be plenty. And so, we are where we are, and today's crossword is the last by Crossheir.

To go back to the beginning, I can’t say I was an avid crossword doer when I started this job, although I had been setting crosswords for other publications since the early 2000s. I was, however, intrigued by the history of crosswords and the various conspiracy theories that revolved around them, particularly during the second World War. For instance, Dieppe was the answer to a crossword clue in The Telegraph two days before the Dieppe raid in August 1942. MI5 laughed it off as a fluke.

The British newspaper was also responsible for a number of suspicious solutions appearing in its crossword in the weeks up to D-Day: Juno, Gold, Utah, Sword, Omaha (Allied invasion beaches); Mulberry (D-Day portable harbour); Neptune (codename of Normandy landings); and incredibly Overlord (D-Day itself). What the general public didn’t know was that a copy of the Overlord plan had recently blown out of a window of military HQ at Norfolk House.


Not surprisingly, suspicion fell on The Telegraph setter Leonard Dawe, a headmaster at a school close to where US and Canadian troops were bivouacked. It transpired that Dawe had gotten them from school children when he asked them to suggest unusual words for his crossword. Little ears, how are you?

Then there was the time The Times setter Adrian Bell was investigated by MI5 days after the double agent George Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs gaol – a car had been waiting in Artillery Lane for him. Bell had unwittingly included the following words in his daily crossword: gaol, rungate (a synonym for runaway) and artillery. And of course, British war-time code-breaking HQ Bletchley Park was always on the lookout for crossword doers – people with “twisted brains” to break the Enigma codes, for instance. As for myself, this week’s crosswords contain solutions that refer to … oh, I’d better not say!

You might ask what has it been like producing 178 clues a week over six days, every week, along with the Christmas Crossword and the odd speciality for a decade? Sometimes the clues come easy, on other occasions it takes hours, tinkering with nouns noticing they should be verbs, occasionally realising that a word is more American than is palatable and having to discard or reword.

After a while, the faithful crossword indicators take on a life of their own: anagram, deletion, reversal, homophone, heads, ends, tail, containment, local, repetition and archaic. They’re a bit like Sartre’s crabs after a touch of mescaline. They follow me in the streets, into my office, into my social life. Occasionally, they wake me up in the middle of the night poking me Shakespeare-like “mumbling of wicked charms conjuring the moon to stand auspicious mistress” or just telling me “hey Dumbo that anagram indicator needs changing”. Lads, it’s been a blast – I’ll miss you the most!

I must also say that Crossheir has been a collaboration between the crossword editor (she's also my wife) Lorna Kernan – today, she too says "goodbye" to the crossword, her blue pencil put to other work – and myself. My mind can be a thud-thud of a smithy where often the heavy hammering, unwanted noise and posturing sometimes gets in the way of sense, definition and fair play.

Without Lorna to gently hone away at what can be rough metal, to give it shine, what you read in the paper of a wet Saturday would be a sodden mess of illegibility. To her I owe much of the alchemy. I must also say “chapeau” to my trusty band of gentle critics who, in the interests of “Justice for the Missing Anagram Indicator” or “Reversal Indicators Matter”, have kept me faithful to the ethics of this tricky little puzzle you play – you too deserve mention in this collaborative process. And, many thanks too to everyone who has stayed loyal to the crossword – I’d like to think you’ve enjoyed what has been a quick 10 years.

Finally, as I’m thinking about this piece, my wife is currently sanding our kitchen table. Covered in a veil of dust, industry written all over her masked face, a little peeved at my obvious ineptitude, she surmises my DIY skills in an epigram: “You don’t actually have a clue, do you?”

I look back at her sheepishly; she’s right. I can honestly say, for the first time in a long time, I’m actually clueless!