Carrying the Crossaire
CROSSWORDS:When Derek Crozier, the setter behind the fiendish Crosaire crossword, died last year, he left behind a huge stock of puzzles for The Irish Times. Now, a cryptic successor has been picked. Roy Earle tells ELGY GILLESPIEabout the pride and the pitfalls in picking up where Derek Crozier left off
TAKING OVER DEREK Crozier’s 68-year run as the setter of the unique Crosaire crossword is a job that seems tailor-made for Roy Earle.
“When I was four, I remember my father pulling me on to his knee after tea to ‘help’ him whenever he did his daily crossword. Eventually he bought a picture crossword for me, and by 14 I was trying to solve Crosaire on that 65 Tallaght bus home.”
Sandymount High-educated Roy Earle is a world citizen with years in the tech industry from Manila to Swansea behind him – and a born crossword setter with crosswords in his blood. Indeed, his epitaph may read (as was irreverently suggested for his predecessor) “six down and two across”.
Earle is following in Crozier’s footsteps from his bungalow in California’s Bay Area, fittingly near another, rather less mythic “Dublin” of car dealerships. Although he’s been back plenty – both to work and to visit – he left UCD and Dublin for Sheffield University, then to work in the US, and far beyond.
A real “Dub Dub” (parents from north- and southside Dublin) and blogger supreme, he toils on crossword grids in his leathery man-cave of books. Or rather, what would be his man-cave, if it weren’t for his librarian wife, Paula, and her fastidious alphabetising ways – Eleanor Roosevelt biographies over here, Amy Tans up there, a bit of Leon Uris below.
The pair met on Earle’s first engineering assignment in New York. Now he’s a very busy retiree with two grown children, and his thriving blogosphere reconnects him to his roots and his natural community of Crosaire addicts.
He described those early picture crosswords at his father’s Dublin funeral, adding that his grandparents also did crosswords as a cross- generational link. He remembers men in Dublin pubs, pint and Crosaire at their elbow – like him, whenever he’s back. Small wonder Crozier’s death left the country bereft.
After leaving to work all over the globe, Earle habitually hunted for The Irish Timesto check Crosaire answers on planes and trains. “In northern England it was six days late; at Aix en Provence it came faster, from Marseilles . . . Now it’s much easier.”
Fortuitously, retirement coincided with the digitalisation of newspaper crosswords, and Earle’s urge to explain those notoriously cryptic Crosaire clues and answers to all the other crossword fanatics. Under the nom de plume of William Ernest Butler, he started a blog dedicated to Crosaire, at crosaire.paxient.com. The blog now has 400 devotees and counting (he also runs a larger New York Times crossword blog of 6,000).
Since The Irish Timesand Crosaire rest on Sunday, Earle developed his own crossword to plug the gap, which has now led to him being Derek Crozier’s heir.
“It’s a huge honour, and I’m terrified,” says Earle. “And I’m happy in my nerdiness.”
The proper word for a crossword fanatic is “cruciverbalist”. But in Earle’s opinion, it has become corrupted since that word has also come to mean those who set crosswords, “so it’s useless now”. He prefers to call himself a “crossword setter” and he wants to pay homage to Crosaire by keeping some of its unique traits, such as repeating Crozier’s popular rotating weekly grids two days a week, on Thursdays and Saturdays.
Crosaire remains a phenomenon in the crossword world. An institution that’s as much a part of Irish family life as, say, Skype is today, it’s a proud, distinctive and uniquely Irish – as well as Irish Times – tradition.
Earle is keen to pay homage to Crozier, who had completed 14,000 crosswords and was at work on a new crossword when he fell ill. He left 2½ years of work behind. The last of his crosswords appears today in the main newspaper. And while Earle hopes to continue Crozier’s life’s work through his own in order to make his crosswords a sincere tribute, he also wants to gently introduce a contemporary flavour: occasional murmurs of Lady Gaga, say.
Crosaire was born on Christmas Eve, 1943, when Derek Crozier met Jack White in the Pearl Bar and pitched the idea of a crossword to editors Bertie Smyllie and Alex Newman, who let him “have a go”.
Crozier moved to Zimbabwe with his wife Marjorie in 1948, first as a tobacco farmer and then as a teacher whose lone link with home was his cryptic crossword. The paper flew him home once, for Crosaire’s 50th jubilee in 1993. By then he was 76. Crozier’s wife was the avid “cruciverbalist”. She worked answers into rotating weekly grids while he supplied the cryptic clues (and cryptic is the word). He only set them; couldn’t do them. Crosaire didn’t comply predictably or with crossword rules or protocol.
At times, this frustrated players. “To me, that was Derek’s charm,” says Earle. He remembers the paper costing 50p. Crozier recalled it as tuppence. But in the filling of Crozier’s big shoes, Earle does have certain advantages.
While Crozier mailed his crosswords in manila envelopes date-marked from everywhere (even, Scoop-style, couriered by friends marked “by hand”), Earle had a potential blogistan at his fingertips – no cleft sticks here – and was soon analysing answers and devising crosswords: “The ideal way to start.”
So, shortly before Crozier’s death at 92, Roy created a Crosaire birthday crossword for him. Crozier’s son Brian introduced him to email just in time for him to greet and thank his fans; you’ll find his first and only email on Earle’s Crosaire blog. Alas, it was Crozier’s last communication with his fans. He died soon afterwards, at home in Harare in April 2010.
Out of curiosity, Earle looked up what was going on the week of the first Crosaire. He was amazed to find out it was the date of the assassination plot against Hitler. He shakes his head. “Unbelievable, isn’t it? It has run all of this time and meant so much to so many. And it’s only a crossword.”
Roy Earle’s first crossword, under the name The Crosaire Crossword by Mac An Iarla, will appear in The Irish Times on Monday
Roy Earle will be blogging for The Irish Timesat irishtimes.com/blogs/thecrosaireblog
Crosaire cases: the addicts
GERRY LOWE, BELFAST
I do it most days. If I’m abroad, I print it out from the digital edition and do it. I don’t have a particular routine, although I usually do it in the morning. They keep my mind alert. My best time would be 15-20 minutes, but it doesn’t happen too often. I’m disappointed if I don’t get it out, but I don’t get too stressed. I’m not apprehensive about the change. At times Crozier could be a bit repetitive. If it becomes more challenging, that would be even better.
ELIZABETH SMITH, DUBLIN
I find it challenging and infuriating, but there’s a great satisfaction when I get it out. It bothers the hell out of me when I can’t. On a really good day it takes 20 minutes, but it can take hours. Sometimes the answer comes to you like magic. It’s fascinating the way Crozier’s mind works. Sometimes I feel quite annoyed with him – as if there’s a word he just sticks in because it fills the boxes. I’ve been dreading the moment his crosswords come to an end. I’ll give the new guy a go, but no one could be the same.
SARAH HENNESSY, CO LOUTH
I do the Crosaire every Saturday, religiously. I try to do it during the week as well, but I love the Saturday one because I can nearly always do it and it makes me feel clever. My best time is maybe 10 or 15 minutes, but it could take the whole day – and some of Sunday. I do it in the evening, half watching TV. Then, on Sunday morning, if I haven’t finished it I’ll try to get the last clues. It bothers me if I can’t. I’m interested to see what the new guy is like, but it’s the end of an era.