The Azed 2250 Celebration Lunch
18 July 2015 at Wolfson College, Oxford

Speech and toast by John Tozer
Reply by Azed
Poem by John Burscough
Limerick by Mick Hodgkin

Azed’s interview on Today programme

David Harry’s photostream

Speech and toast by John Tozer [top]

The Ximenes Competition

Ladies and gentlemen, fellow solvers, fellow cluesmiths,

We’re here to celebrate a wonderful achievement. 2,250 Azed puzzles. That’s a new grid and thirty-six top-notch clues every week for over forty-three years. It’s a testament to many things, not least to Jonathan’s remarkable stamina, that we’re now attending the ninth of these celebrations since the start of the Azed series. I know there are some of you here today who have attended all nine of these dinners and lunches, and I know from the records that quite a few of you have been solving the puzzles and entering the competitions since Azed number 1 in 1972.

Of course the tradition that we’re celebrating today goes back even further, another 27 years further, to June 1945 when the first Ximenes puzzle appeared. Now you should have a copy of the puzzle on your tables. I’m fairly confident there’s no one here today who solved Ximenes No 1 at the time, but if there is, please don’t spoil it for the everyone else! And you might like to have a try at clueing the competition word as well, so you can really connect with that group of war-weary crossworders who picked up the Observer on the 24th of June and decided to give it a go.

I’ve been asked to talk today about the Ximenes competition after I… well, I and a fantastic group of slip-hoarders and tireless editors, put the Ximenes Slips into an online archive over the last year.

Inevitably with 27 years of material I can only present a small part of it, so I have to skip over some of the major topics you can find in the clues: the post-war reconstruction, the political upheaval, the march of technology, the cricket. Sorry about the cricket, there’s just so much of it, but while the sun shines at Lord’s today, I will mention C. R. Haigh’s prize-winning definition of Manchester Old Trafford – “a pitch good for ducks.”

But I will mention some of the outstanding Ximenes competitors, of both sexes. And some forgotten sporting episodes of the 1940s. I shall explain how to identify a wolf by their punctuation. And I need to tell you what connects a well-known line from Philip Larkin to my Mum and Dad.

But I’ll start with Ronnie Postill. Colonel Postill served during the war in the Royal Corps of Signals, and after the liberation of the Channel Islands, moved to Jersey to become headmaster of Victoria College, a post he held for 21 years. He had a reputation as a fine debater – and as an after dinner speaker too – he spoke at Ximenes’ 750th dinner, and on another occasion drew compliments from Sir Alec Douglas Home, in a reply one of his speeches. For some time he also set Everyman puzzles for the Observer and brain-teasers for the Sunday Times.

R. Postill was a familiar name in the Ximenes competition slips. In fact in total honours points he was the most successful competitor of the entire series, winning 49 prizes and 150 HCs as they were then. I can say, by the way, that I have these numbers on the highest authority. They were provided his regular rival and the second most successful competitor in Ximenes, but of course far and away the leading competitor over the entire 70 years of competitions, Sir Jeremy Morse.

The dinner for the 750th Ximenes puzzle was accompanied by a competition to produce a Right and Left clue to SEVEN-FIFTY and CROSSWORDS. Several competitors noted that the dinner was scheduled to start at 7.45 and took advantage of that in their clues, but only Ronnie Postill spotted the horological significance of the number. He clued SEVEN-FIFTY as “It’s close to dinner time when X should get a big hand”.

As much as they were brilliant, Mr Postill’s clues were often what Ximenes might have described as ‘playful’, though I think today’s expression would be “off the wall”. If you like a real challenge, I suggest you search the Archive and try to work out Mr Postill’s Printer’s Devilry clue to ROSTER.

Now one of the great joys of creating the Archive was delving back into the history of the post war years, to try and explain topical references in clues. A case in point is the very first Printer’s Devilry competition slip from May 1949. Ximenes provided no help at all to explain the clues other than this: “By request I have served up the successful clues without indicating the gaps: don’t shoot if you can’t find them! I offer one hint: if you want a tipster, don’t try Mrs. Porter! Mr. Randell is much better, though not perfect!”

It turns out the Derby was run a few days after the competition closed, and a few days before the slip was published. The two competitors Ximenes mentioned had both had a go at tipping the winner in their clues. Mr Randell backed Swallowtail to win, and Mrs Porter suggested an each-way bet on Neapolitan Star. Swallowtail, we discovered, came in in third place and Neapolitan Star… in last. That was I think the last time that anyone tried to use a clue to make quite such an explicit prediction.

Another long-forgotten sporting reference is to the ‘Guiana Killer’ who appears in a prize-winning 1948 clue to CURARE (which is a type of strychnine used on poison darts). The clue is: “The Guiana Killer can be relied on to produce knock-out blows, after being pasted on points!” When we investigated this reference we uncovered the story of Cliff Anderson, a black boxer from British Guiana. Anderson contested the Empire featherweight title in London in 1947 against Al Phillips, the ‘Aldgate Tiger’. Although Anderson knocked Phillips down four times, the points victory went to Phillips, and it provoked a near riot in the hall. The following day the British boxing establishment was dragged through the gutter by the national press for its racial prejudice, and the Commonwealth Secretary was even forced to denounce the decision’s colour bias in Parliament.

The Guiana Killer clue threw light on attitudes to race in the 1940s; but what about gender? Actually, before that, what about sex? Well, my parents, simply by producing me, demonstrated the untruth of Philip Larkin’s line that “sex began in 1963 [which would have been rather too late for me] between the end of the “Chatterley” ban and the Beatles’ first LP.” And it’s fair to say that it was no stranger to Ximenes’s competitors.

Mrs B. Smoker has both an intriguing name and a one hundred percent record when it comes to sex. She has two clues in the Archive. The first is to BEDSTEAD (yes, too good an opportunity…). It is: “Love-making base? Deb’s date is thunder-struck!” and the second to GATHERED is “Flitter about outside that place, meaning to be picked up”.

The end of Chatterley ban was eagerly grasped by Ximenes competitors in clues to COLOPHONY (another word for rosin). Mr Postill noted “Rush on “L—y C.”? Pooh! Fiddlesticks! You’ll get it if you’re slippy!” and Mrs McFee wrote: “Out of print—oh no! Lady C. (no small advertisement) is cleared—by gum!”

As for the Beatles’ first LP, well it wasn’t mentioned directly, but Ximenes did offer SHIMMY-SHAKE in 1963, and for that we have A. J. Duthie’s “A vibration of the chassis before rock”, and E. Gomersall’s “My inside shivers in foretaste of the Twist!”. In fact rock ’n’ roll had been around in Ximenes ever since Bill Haley and his Comets arrived on these shores in 1957, when C. O. Butcher clued DOVETAIL with “ “Square”—an expression typifying “innocence” to a follower of the Comets—isn’t expected to rock and roll”.

It seems Ximenes competitors were quite open to the latest trends. MINI SKIRTS was a competition phrase in 1967. I say phrase, as Ximenes ruled that it wasn’t yet a single word entry in Chambers. M. C. Raphael made his one and only appearance in the archive with the winning clue in this competition, a clue that acknowledged the lexicographical status of mini-skirts: “Abbreviations not in Chambers, but should not be looked up anyway!”

There are more mentions of unmentionables in the MINI SKIRTS competition, but overt sexism as we might call it today, is notably scarce in Ximenes clues. And the best testament to the gender balance is his competitors. Dorothy Taylor (otherwise Mrs B. Lewis), Nora Jarman, Mrs Fisher, Mrs McFee and Mrs Simmonds all achieved over 50 points across the Ximenes series. Mrs Lewis and Mrs Jarman took second and third places in the same annual competition, and two years later Mrs Lewis won outright. The Archive includes clues from well over 200 different women competitors.

Here is Mrs Jarman’s cryptic definition for SOCIALIST from 1953: “Disliking “blue” performances, I give monologues from Winnie the Pooh.” If you’re puzzled you might like to think about who Winnie could have been in 1953. And here’s a lovely double entendre from Miss Taylor in 1961 for STREAKY: “Like a pedestrian crossing, not even looking—what could be rasher?” You’ll have to think about “not even looking”.

Now what’s the name for a female wolf? If you read Ximenes’s comments you’ll see many references to the ‘wolves’ amongst his solvers. You get the impression that wolves are solvers, perhaps hardened on Torquemada in the 1930s, who thought things like preambles and checked letters a bit over-indulgent on the setter’s part, and who would think nothing of scouring the whole of Paradise Lost and Regained in search of the right quotation. No seriously, Mrs Dean of Porlock discovered a quotation from Milton containing two separate letter mixtures of “surfeit” for a definition and letter-mixture competition in 1948.

One clear sign of a wolf’s boldness is a predilection for exclamation marks. My systematic textual analysis of Ximenes competition clues reveals that about a quarter of them contain exclamation marks, and the exclamation marks outnumber the question marks by two to one. In contrast, in Azed competition clues there are about three times as many question marks as exclamation marks. Is that a mark, so to speak, of the timorousness of Azed solvers?

Well, probably not. Ximenes bore with the exclamation marks for 22 years, but finally tamed his wolves in 1967, when he said firmly that such punctuation needs to mean more than “Isn’t this a good clue?” From there on their occurrence dropped by two-thirds.

Ximenes’s more didactic side does sometimes come across in the slip comments, but it’s clear, too, that he held his regular solvers in great affection. On the occasion when illness and then new arrangements at the Observer reduced the competitions from fortnightly to monthly, Ximenes’s principal sentiment was how he’d miss the frequent correspondence and the comments of his regulars no matter how much he disagreed with them!

And today, it’s that opportunity to correspond regularly and the sense of a real personal relationship that I think still marks Azed apart from the many other puzzles and recreations that you can find in the papers and online. There is, happily, no opportunity to engage with Jonathan anonymously on an internet message board. If you have something to say to him you’ll need to put it on paper and include it with your monthly entry, with your real name and address on. And when you receive the reply it’s going to be a considered one that’s taken into account the views of others. No instant messages, no twitter storms and no flame wars. Thank goodness.

Aren’t we lucky that our crossword and the clue-writing competition are a long, long term process? Ximenes gave twenty-seven years to taming his wolves, and Jonathan has dedicated another forty-three to keeping us entertained and challenged every week, while steadily, patiently nudging, persuading, instructing and just occasionally cajoling us each month in the direction of ever better clue-writing.

So let’s celebrate our three score years and ten, and let’s wish Azed the best of health as he leads us into an eighth decade.

Would you please be upstanding and raise your glasses to Azed.

I’d also like to acknowledge the fellow solvers who can’t be here with us today, and also those dear departed friends who contributed so much to our community over the last 70 years. To absent and departed friends.

Reply by Azed [top]

AZED No. 2,250 lunch

Dear friends and sparring partners,

It is such a pleasure to see you here today, despite the rival attraction of the Lord’s test. As I’ve said before, you represent the unique nature of the Azed series, the special relationship between setter and solvers I have sought to nurture and maintain from the start, over 43 years ago. On a worrying note, it is clear that the number of regular Azed solvers has fallen in recent years, and that fewer younger ones have joined the ranks. Why, I wonder? Are today’s young less willing to devote the time it takes to solving a crossword, especially a testing one like mine, when they can get more quickfire mental challenges (albeit of a different kind) from Sudoku and the like. Fewer people buy newspapers than did, to be sure, and this too is probably a generational thing. Most of what newspapers contain is now accessible electronically and at little or no cost, so sitting down for an hour or two with the printed version of one’s favourite crossword has perhaps less attraction than it once did. That said, crosswords are continuing to evolve, if slowly. I’m sure we’ve all noticed new ideas, new styles of cluing, creeping into today’s puzzles, and most of these I welcome, while remaining convinced that it is ultimately the quality of its clues that distinguishes a good crossword. Quite often nowadays, at least to judge from the Times Listener puzzles, completion of the grid is only part of the solver’s task, and this multiple challenge often comes at the expense of sound and clever clue writing. The high quality of the clues submitted in Azed competitions convinces me that there is still a hard core of enthusiasts who have not lost sight of the essential priorities.

But I’m not here to preach to the converted. I am here to say thank you to many people for helping to plan and present this splendid event. First of all we must all thank Will Drever for masterminding the whole thing, in his quiet and unassuming way, and despite almost going blind on a successful climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro some months ago, and then, more recently, suffering a debilitating injury on the tennis court, from both of which setbacks he assures me he is now fully and thankfully recovered. I know too that Richard Heald kindly helped in the planning of today’s get-together. You may have seen him on the first of the new series of Only Connect as winning captain of the Cluesmiths (with John Tozer and Mick Hodgkin as his team-mates.). It’s nice to know, if perhaps unsurprising, that a flair for lateral thinking, quick-wittedness and a wide range of general knowledge equips one for success in fields beyond crosswords. I must also thank Wolfson College for feeding us so well, and The Observer, sadly unrepresented here today, for once again supplying the wine to accompany our meal. And special, loving thanks to my wife Ali, who, apart from overseeing the tea party later this afternoon which many of you have signed up for, has been acting as my unofficial press officer. Thanks entirely to her efforts, the local Oxford paper may be doing a piece on today’s event, and this morning I was interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme by John Humphrys. So if any of you feel in need of a personal publicist, please have a word with her afterwards.

I mentioned John Tozer just now. He has described for us the work he has been doing on his website, adding the Ximenes slips to the existing Azed archive and constantly adding new features and links to enhance the site’s value. I am enormously grateful to John for his dedication in creating this fascinating resource, which almost absolves me from any plans I might have had for that book on crosswords I have occasionally thought about writing in my copious free time. The combined texts of the two sets of slips in John’s archive must contain most of what I consider worth saying about our arcane pastime, plus quite a lot of chatty asides of only passing interest. If any of you are still unfamiliar with, I do urge you to visit it asap.

Each time we meet again on these happy occasions, a few more of the old guard have passed on. Without wishing to enumerate those we have lost since the lunch at Wadham five years ago, I will just mention my parents, who attended every Azed dinner and lunch before both dying within the past five years, both in their late nineties, leaving me a rather elderly orphan. But as one generation leaves us another arrives. Both of our sons, Tom and Ned, are here. Ned and his partner Fiona are about to become the parents of a baby son, and it’s great to see all three of them here today. Is it too much to hope that my first grandson (name not yet chosen) may grow to take an interest in his grandfather’s speciality? I’m especially grateful to Fiona for coming today, so close to her confinement next month.

And now it’s time to talk of waistlines, if that isn’t too indelicate a subject after so much good food. By a happy chance the July competition marked the end of the latest year of Azed puzzles, the forty-second in the series, and the publication of a new honours list. So it is time to hand over both the Azed silver salver, which goes to each new No.1 in the honours list, and the monthly competition-winner’s cup, when I reveal this month’s results, which I can now do, thanks in part to my trusty statistician Martin Perkins, also here today. The winning clue to WAISTLINE was ‘With consumption of endless fibre, I decrease in size?’, submitted by Mick Hodgkin. Second was Ian Simpson and third was Don Manley. For the list of VHCs and other details you’ll have to wait to see the slip, which I hope to complete next week. So I’d like to call on the current holder of the salver, Sir Jeremy Morse, to hand it over to his successor Mark Barley, and the current cup-holder, Richard Heald, to hand it over to his successor Mick Hodgkin. Congratulations to both new winners. I hope I manage to talk to all of you during the course of the day. In addition to those here present, I’ve received lovely messages from many others who couldn’t make it. (Graham Grafton, for instance, sent profuse apologies that his presence as sole bassoonist in the Clacton Concert Orchestra was required at a performance today.) To everyone I must say how grateful I am that you continue to find my puzzles diverting and entertaining; in particular a very big thank you to all who contributed to the very generous cheque presented to me. Here’s to the next five years, and beyond. Thank you very much indeed.

Poem by John Burscough [top]


Limerick by Mick Hodgkin [top]

To Azed