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Alan Connor, television producer, crossword chronicler

20 December 2013

'The task in compiling a crossword, I am told, is to lose gracefully'

Like most crossword solvers, I learned from a loved one. My late father, who had lots of solving aids on his bookshelves, showed me some cryptic devices and some tricks, like how to write out the letters of an anagram in such a way as to make the secret more likely to yield.

There's an image of crosswords as a solitary pursuit - the beleaguered commuter or the speed-solving don; but I find that puzzles are just as often approached in pairs or by groups, especially at this time of year.

I solve more crosswords than is probably decent. The Times I try to do at speed. Because of its consistent style, you can reasonably compare one day's solve with another. The Guardian and the Independent are fun if you're in the mood for surprises. I should, of course, look at the Church Times's puzzle more often, as your puzzle editor Don Manley goes out of his way to recruit and showcase interesting new setters.

If I'm in a rush, it's the FT or the Telegraph, both of which seem to be designed for people with better things to do. And then there's the Listener, the bizarre concoction which started in the magazine of the same name and now appears in Saturday's Times. You need an inventive vocabulary and a lot of time for the endgame, which might involve using the grid to do some origami, or looking for hidden messages pertaining to the Babington plot among the answers.

I never cheat, though that's largely because I don't believe there is such a thing as cheating. As the New York Times's puzzle editor, Will Weng, used to put it: "It's your puzzle. Solve it any way you want." Certainly, if you've got an idea for a word that you've never heard of, I can't see that ferreting around in Chambers and getting to know the English language better is going to bring about the fall of Western civilisation.

All the compilers I've encountered share a certain irreverence - which isn't surprising, I suppose, since their job is to find ways to make language do things it's not designed to do, or to exploit ambiguities and uncertainties in the interest of fun.

Sadistic, no. I imagine that some of the schoolmasters who developed the cryptic crossword were pretty handy with the cane. But in solving terms, any decent setter wants the solver to win - after a bit of a fight. Your setting career wouldn't last long if there were always unfilled letters in your grid. The task in compiling a crossword, I am told, is to "lose gracefully".

Two Girls, One on Each Knee, the title of my book, is a cryptic clue. It was the one which raised the biggest chuckle in the Penguin offices, and it was set by Rufus (Roger Squires), who is one of the most prolific setters. He calculated that it was his two-millionth clue, set for a crossword in the Telegraph.

Until recently, many people were carrying crosswords around every day without consciously meaning to. There they were in the newspapers, waiting for a day when you couldn't quite face the news pages. As newsprint sales collapse, it'll be more of a conscious decision to have a puzzle in front of you, but I'm sure somebody is working on a touchscreen equivalent that replaces the satisfaction of pencil-on-newsprint with rewarding swipes and taps of a tablet or smartphone.

I've probably enjoyed working most on Only Connect, the BBC4 quiz programme, for which I'm the question editor. The questions can be much harder than on any other television quiz, but the job is not unlike that of a crossword setter: providing little footholds so that the contestants are able to pull out something they didn't know that they knew.

I'm also a comedy writer - good crossword clues are often like jokes - most recently on A Young Doctor's Notebook, which was a comedy-drama based on the gruesome experiences of Mikhail Bulgakov, who was a medic before he was a writer. The cast includes Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm, and the pleasure of seeing your lines read by people that funny is priceless (though I did ask to be paid for it). And it is gruesome. I used to see the prosthetics stored in the make-up department . . . but all that gruesomeness conveys the panic of the young doctor really well.

We ran out of Bulgakov stories for the second series, which is on Sky Arts now, and the new DVD should be out in January; but we took the characters and imagined what it would be like when the civil war broke out. Hopefully, there'll be a third series.

Daniel Radcliffe just happens to be a big fan of Russian literature, and went to see Bulgakov's house as a 21st-birthday present to himself, while Jon Hamm chose a lot of Russian options at school in the 1980s when studying the literature of "the enemy" was a bit of a different thing to do. We had no idea when we approached them.

I sometimes daydream about making a multi-part documentary on the history of information. It'd be good, wouldn't it? No shortage of material.

My childhood ambitions varied. Whenever I saw a grown-up doing something, I supposed for a while that whatever it was might be my future. So I imagined myself most often as a teacher or television presenter, occasionally an anaesthetist or haulier, depending on who I was looking at that day.

I live in Kew with my partner and our toddler, who finds it hilarious that there is a book in the home with Daddy's face on it. Every so often, he finds a copy, turns to the back, laughs his head off, and drops it on the floor and toddles away.

I tend to assume there's no area of knowledge that doesn't have something of great interest somewhere in it. Having said that, I idly picked up a book at the National Archives this morning called West Riding Hearth Tax Volume 2, and it left me utterly cold. Perhaps I gave up on it too soon.

I'm interested in technology's effects on language. It struck me that computer spell-checkers have recently, very quietly, changed the way that they behave. Previously, they would offer alternatives if asked, and leave the person writing the email, or document, or book, or whatever, the choice of whether to pay any attention. Now, they tend to edit what you write on the fly, silently changing your words unless you actively intervene. That seems to me a very significant overreach. I rarely find technology eerie, but that spooks me proper.

Humphrey Jennings has influenced me as a writer, although his "writing" is more readily seen in his wartime films for the Crown Film Unit: gorgeous, elegiac semi-documentaries like Listen to Britain and A Diary for Timothy, on which he collaborated with E. M. Forster. He also edited a collection of contemporaneous responses to "the coming of the machine", from 1660 to 1886, which was later used as the basis for the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. Neither of these aspects of his life, nor his work in establishing the Mass Observation Project, is writing as such, but there's a consistent authorial voice in the choices he makes.

I'm happiest at bathtime. (My son's, not my own.)

I used to do guinea fowl wrapped in vine leaves for Christmas, but my aunt got upset and thought they looked like blankets for the birds, so I need a rethink. I prefer it when the period between Christmas and New Year is made up of weekdays. I know we're all told that it's our patriotic duty to work as many hours as possible, to career around the country on super-fast trains, and get super-fast broadband installed, but I do wonder whether we'll ever stop and say: "That's enough growth for now."

Suddenly having no work - if you're lucky - no shopping, and even the constant feed of news slowing down, feels to me a lot more like living.

Nobody has ever said: "Oh no: the toast has just popped up." That's a sound I like.

Whenever I read Evelyn Waugh, I wish I knew architecture, as I'm sure he's trying to use its language and symbolism to tell me more about the personalities in his novels: probably why they're all so wretched. Most of it is utterly lost on me. Plus he's funny. So I'd enjoy his company if locked in a church, even if the feeling weren't mutual. If he's not available, William Whyte, who writes about architectural history among other things, certainly knows his reredos from his clerestory.

Alan Connor was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
Two Girls, One on Each Knee: The puzzling, playful world of the crossword is published by Penguin (£12.99 hardback, £7.99 paperback (CT Bookshop £11.70 and £7.20).

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