Clued up

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Steven Hastings quizzes the man behind the 'TES' crossword and talks to teachers who have found the perfect solution to classroom stress

Even after a lifetime of letters, record-breaking crossword creator Roger Squires still has a head for figures. He can reel off his lexical landmarks on request - 520 crosswords for the Daily Telegraph, 632 for the Guardian, 928 for the Financial Times - and on December 15, 1,000 for The TES (his first appeared on May 29, 1981). His total currently stands at more than 54,000 - enough to have secured his place in the Guinness Book of Records for the past 23 years. Given that his nearest rival clocks in at a mere 9,000 completed crosswords, it's safe to say that 68-year-old Mr Squires will be appearing in forthcoming editions for a while yet.

Few people grow up wanting to be a crossword compiler, and as a child Roger Squires's fascination was with magic. With hindsight he realises it was a small step from the magic circle to the crossword grid. "Magic and crosswords have a lot in common," he says. "They both set out to baffle and amuse - to entertain through misdirection." Indeed, it was his skill as a magician that indirectly led to his love affair with crosswords.

In 1947 he left Wolverhampton grammar school, aged 15, to join the navy, surfacing several years later as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm. His magic tricks and dexterous dealing got him barred from the ubiquitous card games - "I made the mistake one time of dealing myself a hand of 13 spades. After that they wouldn't let me anywhere near" - which left him with time on his hands. Having been thrown out of the card circle, he took to crosswords. When he next went to sea, there were no newspapers to feed his addiction, so he started to compile his own puzzles.

After leaving the navy in 1962, he began to sell his crosswords to magazines and puzzle syndicates, while earning a living variously as a magician, a lumberjack, a poodle farm worker, a Butlin's entertainment manager and an actor, appearing in Crossroads and Dr Who. Crosswords became his full-time occupation in 1977.

Now, as one of the UK's few professionals, he works a long and disciplined day in the converted garage he uses as an office at his home in Telford, Shropshire. Here, Roger F Squires becomes transformed into Rufus - scourge of crossword enthusiasts across the country. He is at his desk by 9am and - urged on by a soundtrack of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky - he works into the evening to meet his target of 40 crosswords a week.

"I can't afford to ease up," he laughs. "I have to get my daughter through medical school. To make good money out of crosswords you have to do hundreds of the things."

He admits that the daily grind of churning out new puzzles can be a chore. "Occasionally I get fed up. The quick crosswords are the worst - they can be very tedious. But with the cryptic ones there's always something to get the brain working." And should his brain not be performing to its usual standards, he can always fall back on his meticulous card-index filing system - a compendium of past clues, listing where and when each has been used.

Roger Squires's puzzles begin life as a blank grid. He fills in a solution, then decides on an appropriate clue. He starts with the longest words on the grid, and uses a computer to find shorter words to fit around them. And despite his bulging back-catalogue, he insists on devising a few new clues every time.

It sounds a foolproof system, although there has been the occasional glitch, most notably when a crossword for the Guardian included a 10-letter solution to fit a nine-letter space. The paper received 64 letters of complaint from irate cruciverbalists - all of which Mr Squires answered personally. "I seem to recall 'Red Admiral' was the offending solution. It was very embarrassing. I can assure you it hasn't happened since."

If that particular crossword proved unintentionally unsolvable, his general rule is to give the punters a fair chance. He has little time for impenetrable clues and obscure solutions. "Sometimes you feel compilers are just trying to show off how clever they are. Many solvers look down on the great number of people who enjoy, say, the Times back-page crossword. My aim is always to make people smile. A good clue is one that has a bit of humour to it." By way of illustration, he reveals his personal favourite:

"Roman marbles missing? (3,6,6)." Answer: "non compos mentis."

He admits that some of his puzzles are better than others. "The more I'm getting paid, the more time I spend on the crossword - The TES doesn't pay badly ... not bad at all." In any case, he always puts in a little extra time on the TES crossword, aiming to include one or two clues with a solution related to teaching.

He varies the style according to the publication. Each has a distinct character. "The TES crosswords are challenging - but not too challenging. I work on the assumption that teachers have a fairly stressful time at work so I try to provide something to help them relax and unwind. Anything too tricky is frustrating. If it's too easy, it won't absorb people. But if the balance is right, a crossword can be excellent stress therapy - you can lose yourself in it."

For thousands of teachers the crossword is a daily ritual. Leo Stokes, a retired head from Evesham, Worcestershire, and two-times winner of an annual Observer crossword competition, says it can take over a staffroom. "Teachers love playing with words," he says. "In fact they love words, full stop. And it can be quite a sociable activity, if you work as a team. In any school you have people who specialise in a variety of subjects, so you have a broad base of knowledge on which to draw."

Brian Head, founder of the Crossword Club and a former teacher, agrees. "Many of the club members are teachers. They enjoy an intellectual pursuit. Teaching is challenging in many ways but it isn't always intellectually stimulating."

The cryptic crossword was invented by a teacher looking for just such stimulation. Known by his crossword pseudonym of Torquemada, Edward Mather spent his professional life as the headmaster of Wells Cathedral School. Although he died in 1939, he is revered in crossword circles as the father of the modern puzzle.

Mr Squires has some handy hints for teachers still unacquainted with the cryptic world of synonyms, homophones and anagrams. He suggests the best way to get started is to look at a crossword, with the answers, and try to work out how the solutions were arrived at. "It's like a code. Once you crack it, you'll be fine."

But even the most avid crossword addict can have enough of a good thing. Roger Squires's wife, Anna, used to enjoy working her way through the Guardian's daily puzzle. But since she met and married him, her enthusiasm has waned. Not so Mr Squires's own passion for puzzles. After a hard day compiling some of the UK's most cunning crosswords, he puts his work aside and settles down to an evening in front of the fire. Does he read? Does he watch television? No, of course not. He does crosswords.

HOW MANY LETTERS?

* The first published crossword appeared in the US on December 21, 1913, in the New York World. In 1924 the Sunday Express became the first British paper to follow suit.

* Crossword mania swept the US during the Twenties. One man shot his wife after she refused to help him with a clue; another left a suicide note in the form of a crossword. Doctors claimed crosswords could damage eyesight and cause "neurotic traits".

* The cryptic crossword was developed in Britain in the Thirties. Not every country likes cryptic crosswords; they have become widespread only in the UK, France and the US.

* During the war, British newspapers stopped printing crosswords to save on paper. They were reintroduced after it was decided they helped to boost morale.

* Two years ago the Daily Telegraph decided to axe its crossword contributors and use a computer to compile new crosswords using old clues. The paper backed down following a flood of angry letters.

SQUIRES'S TOP SETTERS

* Bert Danher (Times, Independent, Guardian, FT), especially his anagrams. For example, "knocked-out World Cup team found in the changing room" for "talcum powder".

* D P Barnard, who worked for the Telegraph, used simple clues such as "charm your way in" for "entrance".

* Alec Robins, an ex-classics master (Custos in the Guardian and Everyman in the Observer), who used clues like "a stiff examination" for "post mortem".

* Brian Greer, until recently crossword editor of the Times, is always good for a succinct clue: "City road" for "Anchorage".


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