Listener Crossword: History

5. Editors

5.1 Editors of the puzzle

Little is known about the early editors. The accounts given in the solutions in early puzzles make fascinating reading, since the editors were learning fast about the abilities and likes of the clientele, and were prepared to share this information with them. Typical of the comments published were those for a Virgil Bi-Millenary Crossword.

“The result of this competition was a landslide. Entries were received from all over the country, from every University, and from many public and other schools. … We feel that the solving, by over 150 members, of what seemed to us a difficult Latin crossword, is one of the most graceful tributes to the memory of Virgil and a striking proof that his influence is still a living one at the present day. A few entries arrived late and several competitors were reluctantly disqualified because certain letters in their solutions were illegible. We can hardly be expected to commiserate with the eighteen competitors from Stirling who all sent in solutions which, fortunately, contained an identical, rather stupid mistake.”

This puzzle sparked the first published letter on the crossword in The Listener (05/11/1930). (See Correspondence.)

Editorial comments started to reduce in detail during the war, when the magazine decreased in pages, due to the shortage of newsprint. The line spacing was reduced and the correspondence pages did not appear in every edition.

Editing the puzzle was looked after single-handedly by Jim Evans (“Evans the Vet”) for 30 years. By the early 1980s the number of setters was increasing and when Jim retired in 1984 he was replaced by John Grimshaw and Michael Rich: Michael solved, tidied up and selected viable puzzles, while John did a second solve, then scheduled the puzzles. In 1994, John retired; Michael moved to the job of ‘second vetter’ and Ross Beresford took over the job of ‘first vetter’, having set a new record for solving puzzles, 224 ‘not out’. When Michael died suddenly in 2002, Ross moved to be second vetter and scheduler, while Derek Arthur took over as first vetter. Ross retired in August 2005 and was replaced as scheduler by Derek, with John Grimshaw returning to the team as first vetter. John then retired in December 2009 and was replaced as first vetter by Roger Phillips. In October 2010, Derek died unexpectedly and Roger became the second vetter, welcoming Shane Shabankareh as the new first vetter soon after.

5.2 Editors of the Listener magazine

Little comment about the puzzle series was made in print by the first Editors for The Listener, although puzzle No 999 was accompanied by a positively worded leading article. In Ad Lib on June 21, 1979, D.A.N. Jones commented:
“The Radio Times (2329 June) has an interesting article about George Scott [who had just resigned as Editor of The Listener], with one of Barry Fantoni’s rather alarming portraits: he has turned George’s check shirt into bits of The Listener crossword, hanging around his neck like an albatross.
     I have a theory that George rather disapproved of the crossword, knowing how easily a ‘minority’ interest can become ‘élitist’.”

Then, in 1982, Russell Twisk, who had taken over the editorship after Anthony Howard left, wished to change the magazine’s layout and raised the matter of the crossword in his “Langham Diary”:
     “One benefit of being editor is that I never go short of advice. Whether it is from readers, or shouted across the street by former Tsars of the BBC, or gently insisted upon by Princes of the Church, the message is often the same: ‘You must change the paper, but don’t touch …’, and here they insert their favourite feature. The Crossword enthusiasts are the most vocal and I have received one or two thinly anagrammed threats about what will happen if I lay a finger on it (it’s safe, it’s safe!). However, personally I do find the Crossword impenetrable, something I share, I’m told, with most of my predecessors. I ask the following question in all humility and as someone who has to have even the rules translated: has the Crossword become too esoteric? Friends who can dispatch The Times and the Guardian crosswords tell me that they are walking on air if they can solve even three clues in The Listener.”

This indeed sparked correspondence: see Correspondence (1982). A month later, he reported:
The Listener always runs two pages of letters, and in some weeks it could easily fill four. … The favourite subjects for Listener readers include solecisms, declining standards, Hans Keller, and the crossword.
“The correspondence about the crossword was fascinating but, predictably, inconclusive. Those who can solve it will defend it to the cancellation of their subscriptions, and for many others it seems a pinnacle to aim for. As one reader said: ‘Just because I can’t climb Mount Everest I don’t want to cut the summit off.’ Many others have written to say that they have given up altogether, while one or two say they can solve the crossword faster than Jack Trevor Story’s ‘Endpiece’. Later in the year we will run an article or two about the compilers, with a few hints for those willing to make the journey. From where I stand, in the foothills, I find the prospect of the summit intriguing, but it is perpetually shrouded in fog.”

Some months later, he returned to the topic:
“I decided to try two things on holiday that I have never done before—sailboarding in the sea and The Listener Crossword. …
     With the Crossword I have to admit defeat. D.A.N. Jones and Eric Chalkley [Apex] have both tried gently to coach me, but without success. I give up. I will continue to pass the page for press not understanding a word of it.”

On the occasion of the appearance of Puzzle No 3000, Lynne Truss started her MARGINS column with:
“To celebrate the 3000th Listener crossword, I thought I might share a little secret with you. Shout it loud in Gath and Hebron: nobody on the Listener staff has the first idea of how to do the Listener crossword. For years, we have been convinced that the clues are actually coded messages from MI5.”

The last word on the crossword, in The Listener magazine, appeared in the very last edition, part of a poignant Diary article written by the Features Editor:
“But as I roam around the emptying offices my fingers itch at the sight of a battered, indexed note book. It’s the code-book for the crossword setters’ pseudonyms. The mysteries of The World’s Most Difficult Crossword have exerted a strong charm for me. I read through the clues as if they were the impenetrable verse of some Thirties poet; when all the correct entries come in, I am no wiser. I’ve seen people who can do this crossword—you would pass them in the street and not know you have been in the presence of greatness. If I steal the code-book, the whisper says, I could go to my grave knowing the true identities of Eel, Zag, Nick Louse, Sabre, Klick and Duck.”

Back to History main page
  1. The first puzzles
  2. Grids and Clue formats
  3. Later developments
  4. Setters
  5. Editors
  6. Prizes
  7. Statistics
  8. Correspondence
  9. Miscellany
  10. Further information