Saturday, 12 January 2013

Britain is still, but only just, a country for an indomitable old crossword setter called Araucaria, aka the Reverend John Graham

An article on the frontpage of the 'Guardian' today read : 

Crossword master Araucaria reveals in puzzle that he is dying of cancer

It revealed that the 91 year old crossword setter, Reverend John Graham, whose pseudonym, Araucaria, is the Latin name for the 'monkey puzzle tree' had quietly, ingeniously and cryptically, used one of his own puzzles yesterday, to announce that he is dying of cancer.

Special instructions: Araucaria has 18 down of the 19, which is being treated with 13 15. 


  1. 13,15 Friendly (say) vicar at ease (say) with arrangement for coping with 18 down (10,4)

Those who solved the puzzle found the answer to 18 was cancer, to 19 oesophagus, and to 13 15 palliative care and the solutions to some of the other clues were: Macmillan, nurse, stent, endoscopy, and sunset.

Speaking from his home in Cambridgeshire, John said :

* this particular puzzle had not taken him very long, adding that a crossword had seemed the most fitting way to make the announcement : "It seemed the natural thing to do somehow. It just seemed right."

* he was pleased that his doctors had decided against surgery or chemotherapy, two prospects he had been dreading and exactly how long he has left is uncertain. "They simply don't know how long it's going to take. I asked them last week how long I'd got, but nobody knows how long you've got! They said it won't be years and years, but it could be a large number of months."

* he had been very touched by the reaction to the crossword. "People have been ringing and sending me cards. It's been very nice, but I can't reply to them all. I don't mean that I've been inundated with them but I've had a nice number."

*  intends to carry on conjuring up several puzzles a month for as long as he can  and just as he has for more than half a century and : "Someone will have to tell me if the quality's going off, but I think it's all right so far."

* of the skills needed to dream up cryptic clues : "So much of it is something that goes on unconsciously. You see the word, you play with it in your mind, you don't actually think about the punters at all at that stage, you try and do it for yourself. I hope that it equips one for life in the sense that it makes one think more clearly and that can only be good." ( BBC Radio 4 'Desert Island Discs' 2011)

The Guardian article with John speaking on a You Tube link :

What you possibly didn't know about John, that he :

* was one of six children who often found their own entertainment in wordplay, charades and puzzles and he, at the age of 8, would grab the 'Times' crossword as soon as it was delivered, put it on the upright piano in the drawing room and solve the whole thing before breakfast.

* came out of academic Oxford, where his father was the dean of Oriel College, to read classics at King's College, Cambridge, till the Second World War intervened. 

* had, by this time, questioned his religious faith and had become an atheist  and of the start of the War said : "I thought I'd better go and join up or something, (however) there were so many people queuing that I couldn't be bothered, so I thought, I'll do it another time, but I never did. I hung around for a bit, and then I thought, I don't think I really like this war, for a couple of years, I suppose, I was probably a pacifist." 

* changed hid mind about the War and said : "I thought to myself then, if I'm going to fight, I must do the nastiest job I can think of, in terms of killing people, and the best way to do that is to be a bomber pilot. I finished up as the person who drops the bombs, not the pilot – an observer, they were called in those days." 

* joined the Royal Air Force and flew in some 30 operations, 'night-intruding' and had to bale out over Italy, survived with the pilot and went into into hiding, finding refuge with an Italian family, who hid him in a stable, took Italian lessons from a school teacher billeted with the family and in return taught her English and Latin.

was rescued by the Americans and got 'mentioned in dispatches', an honour which he played down saying  : "you always got, if you baled out and the enemy did not catch you".

* had his first Manchester Guardian crossword published in 1958 and what started as a sideline, became a necessity at the end of the 70s when his divorce from his first wife disqualified him from continuing as a minister in the Church and was not restored to priestly duties until she died. 

* went back to King's after the War, this time to read theology and then worked in a succession of curacies, chaplaincies including Reading University in the 1960s and later St Peter's in London's Eaton Square (right).

* has been the most ingenious of setters, both in his crossword designs and clues with a speciality in theme puzzles with a central figure or concept informing much of the puzzle and where one of his most famous was built around the heroes of South African resistance to apartheid. 

Praise from Simon Hoggart :

The article in the Guardian produced the following responses :

* 'What a wonderful man. What a wonderful way to conduct himself.'

* 'Sad news. I wish this giant of the grid well in his remaining time - i've enjoyed fighting a losing battle against his fiendish clues for many years.'

* 'What a wonderful, dignified, graceful man - may I join with the many others who have been hugely occupied and entertained (and flummoxed) over the years in wishing you all the very best. Thank you.'

* 'Dear old fellow. How much innocent happiness you created in your life.'

* 'Never before has solving one of Araucaria's puzzles made me feel as though my heart might break. All the good wishes and thanks. I hope it's a brilliant sunset.'

* 'If I come to my own end having given as much pleasure to so many people as the wonderful Araucaria I would feel my life had been a great success.'

What better compliments could this quintessentially English old man have at the end of his life ?

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