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In praise of crossword god David Tossman

Nick Ascroft interviews the Listener magazine's legendary crossword setter David Tossman

Breaking: David Tossman will return to the Listener magazine when it goes back into production. New Zealand's greatest crossword setter confirmed the news on Monday. "I heard from [editor] Pamela Stirling on Saturday," he said, "and I'm back on in the Listener."

When the Listener got axed earlier this year, a monstrous number of New Zealanders thought, oh heck, the crossword. The Listener cryptic set by David Tossman is an institution. Many more people enjoy the writings of David Tossman than any other single New Zealand writer. I think that’s probably if not true then, at least, believable.

And he is some writer. His clues have a grace and economy of language. They are witty, absurd and occasionally flirt with the satirical. I have in the past suggested that he be nominated for the New Zealand poet laureate position. After all if Bob Dylan can nab a Nobel …

  

Our interview was conducted via email. At a low point I asked him if he wants to come to my Scrabble club. He doesn’t.

It strikes me that cryptic crosswords walk a fine line between being too easy and too difficult. People want to work for it, but they want it to be solvable. I think you do well on this beam. Your crosswords are always generous. Fans of them know that if they stick at it they’ll eventually get there. There are few esoteric words and little or no deep cultural knowledge required. Is there an art to this?

Maintaining a set level of difficulty is not an art so much as a policy. I took over the Listener puzzle from the famous RWH who had been setting it for 57 years, and was instructed by Paul Little, the editor at the time, to maintain the same style and level of difficulty. I soon changed the style, abandoning the mixture of straight and cryptic clues RWH used, but decided it should still be a puzzle that most people could do without resorting to reference books. It’s mainly a matter of avoiding ‘hard words’ and the sometimes arcane themes favoured by some other setters.

You clearly love an anagram. Do you play Scrabble? (I run the Wellington club. Come along.)

I am if anything overly fond of anagrams. As I fill the grids I habitually check for anagrams first unless the answer immediately suggests a different sort of clue. If the computer fails to suggest a nice anagram, the usual result, I knuckle down to devising a charade (my second-favourite clue type). Other clue types are generally third choices, though some can be very pleasing.

The family had what was probably one of the first Scrabble sets in New Zealand. My father was as keen on it as I was but my mother found little fun in it, though she doted on RWH crosswords.

Playing Scrabble these days is not great fun as it’s too akin to building a crossword grid and that is close to drudgery much of the time. Devising the clues is the more enjoyable part of the crossword-making process.

So thank you for the invitation but I’m afraid club-level Scrabble also fails to appeal since I don’t have the vocabulary of Scrabblish required.

Do you ever indulge in ninas – ie, hidden messages – in your crosswords?

I have used ninas occasionally. The last one marked the death of my friend Rex Benson, aka Kropotkin in the Herald, in June last year. The top row between the alternating blacks spelt out "RIP KROP". I doubt anyone noticed.

I have used themes on a couple of occasions – a preponderance of food-related words once and a maritime theme on another occasion – but again I doubt anyone noticed and they only added to the difficulty for me.

Themes and ninas will thus remain a very occasional in-joke with my checkers.

Did you know Rex Benson (Kropotkin) well? Do the setters of New Zealand know each other? Are you friends? ... Enemies?

No enemies that I know of, and I have not met any other New Zealand setters apart from Rex. I have met three of the British setters, Richard Pauptit ("Dutch"), Dean Mayer ("Anax") and Paul Henderson ("Phi"). The last-mentioned sets for the Independent, the Daily Telegraph and the Times but is resident in New Zealand.

Rex Benson first encouraged me to take up setting and taught me the basics when we were flatting together back in the early 1980s.

"Misleading yet precise definitions are the essence" - David Tossman

Do you like solving crosswords yourself? Are there any you would recommend? Any setters you admire?

I do attack the Guardian crosswords (online) fairly often to try and maintain the old brain cells and I’m not afraid to use the odd novel indicator they might suggest. I am in awe of many of those setters. Rufus, now sadly retired, remains my favourite. Not hard but always witty.

I’ve just read this rather wonderful interview with Rufus in the Guardian. His attitude towards clues does seem to mirror yours. He says, “If I had two clues, one difficult and one amusing, I would always go for the latter.” Would you say the same?

Undoubtedly.

The rules of the cryptic are strict. There is a limited set of types of clues – homophones, hidden words, double synonyms, anagrams, inserted or subtracted letters, standard phrases to signal certain letters, and combinations of these to build up a word (charades). But is there room to be creative too, to invent new ways of signalling?

I think the best room for the sort of innovations you suggest is probably in the harder UK broadsheet puzzles and I try to introduce novel indicators and suchlike very gently. I am in two minds at present about introducing the letter-bank clue. One of my checkers is urging it but I am resisting.

What is the letter-bank clue?

According to Wikipedia, a letter bank is a relative of the anagram where all the letters of one word (the ‘bank’) can be used as many times as desired (minimum of once each).

Or are the rules just the canvas and the misdirection is the real art? What makes a good red herring?

I can’t think of any recipe for red herrings. Misleading yet precise definitions are the essence, I suppose.

Why no pseudonym? Or is David Tossman an anagram of your real name Simon Van Stadd? Vast Diamonds? Saddam St Vino?

From time to time I do feel I should have adopted an alias. Advertising my real name does feel a little immodest in the circumstances.

In fact I did intend adopting an alias when I first took on the job and – having procrastinated for a week or so about what it should be – contacted the Listener editor with my decision. This was well before my first puzzle appeared. I wasn’t to know it but back then the puzzle pages were printed weeks before the more topical parts of the magazine. I was thus surprised to learn that my first puzzle, name and all, had already been printed. Too late. I was out!

Where do you create your puzzles?

I occasionally think up or mull over clues while walking or trying to sleep but most of the work is done in front of my laptop computer. I keep all drafts in ‘the cloud’ so I can work on them anywhere with internet access.

Snooty cruciverbalists such as myself turn our noses up at clues that don’t make sense in themselves as sentences (or headlines). Yours always do, and more than that, they are often deliberately funny, or seemingly risqué. Does this motivate you?

I tend to discover risqué elements rather than aim for them.

Is there anything you dislike in crosswords by other setters?

I am a bit of a stickler these days for the rules laid forth by Ximenes [Derrick McNutt] in The Art of the Crossword back in the 1960s, most notably that every word in the clue must serve the wordplay or the definition. That explains the ‘headlinese’, since articles, in particular, are often merely clutter. Inferior and inexperienced setters tend to ignore this precept (as did I for some years) in pursuit of a smooth surface, but these days I dislike clues in which one has to bash through a thicket of extraneous verbiage in search of meaning.

Puzzles with more than two unchecked cells in a row are beneath contempt.

By ‘checked cells’ do you mean letters that are shared between a down word and an across word?

Yes. Indeed I regard having the first two letters in a word unchecked as unnecessarily tough. I understand that a puzzle with three unchecked cells in a row would be refused by the British publications that have a crossword editor.

Do you still enjoy compiling the things? Or has it ever become a dreary chore? Did you ever have to get over a hump, and if so, what pushed you on? What’s in it for you?

The puzzle can be a chore, especially when one has half the grid filled and can find nothing further that fits, but then deadlines and money are great motivators.

Do you have a favourite clue that you’ve devised? Or if not, a favourite of someone else’s?

There’s no all-time favourite among my clues. I don’t think a puzzle goes out that doesn’t have at least one clue that pleases me more than most. I did, incidentally, come across a seemingly topical clue from the Obama era the other day that certainly pleases: "Hillary’s great challenge as first lady: relaxation (7)" for EVEREST.

For someone else’s, I have to nominate the aforementioned Rufus’s lovely cryptic definition ‘Bar of soap (6,6)’ for ROVERS RETURN.

Is a crossword an annoyingly postmodern poem?

The "annoyingly" attached to "postmodern" seems superfluous.

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