Photography: Sarah Lee/The Guardian
We have met the Azed of the watcher; the document also has a puzzle that is often recommended for new and out of date solvers, the common man. Like Azed, he has had only a handful of setters since the series began in the 1940s. Its incumbent has now produced 200 puzzles, so today seems like a good time to meet the setter.
Hello Everyman. Does someone who writes entry-level puzzles have fewer tricks at their disposal?
Perhaps. I learned how to solve from Everyman puzzles, and I remember certain Sundays I came across some abbreviation or the like that I’d never come across outside of crossword puzzles. Most weeks I avoid, say, “sailor” for AB, but with a couple of caveats.
The solver I have in mind falls back to a friend or family member who will kindly explain something arcane – and I make sure to occasionally use “sailor” for AB when it’s obvious those letters should go in because I’m afraid otherwise the novice who does a jumping to daily puzzles is entering with an incomplete toolkit.
I see. And what makes an Everyman puzzle an Everyman puzzle?
It reveals all its secrets if questioned well. It follows Afrit’s injunction and the Observer’s philosophy more generally. And I use the word “Everyman” to remind myself to include as much world as possible, old and new.
If a solver has read the rest of the paper, they should know everything they need to know, which is another way of saying it’s a pleasure to include some place names and last names in places where I might be tempted to put what Hemingway called “the 10 dollar words”.
Keep the work of previous Everyman setters in mind when putting together a puzzle?
Yes, although clues from years ago don’t tend to stick in my head, so I solve or solve old Everymans from books and online. On the bus, I reread old Ximenes and Azed leaflets, which I recommend for moments of exegetical enlightenment, if it doesn’t sound too grandiloquent.
Do a little. Likewise “grandiloquent”. Now when I ask setters if they’re willing to share a photo of themselves, I always hope it’s not an unflattering selfie. How about this time?
I can only apologize, then, for that: a snapshot with a pandemic beard that at least has an appropriate background.
Agreed, that’s not exactly ideal. You have to have something less daunting.
You know I don’t know.
How do you mean?
I am you, after all. Alan. Every man. We are the same person. I was wrong?
No, you’re right. I’m concerned, though, that the idea of someone interviewing themselves is a little… nice. And perhaps unethical.
Let’s engage in presumption, let’s see it to the end.
I’m afraid I vacillated on it. I’ll ask Enigmatist if he will. He’ll be using his editorial section next to the Inquisitor’s puzzle in this weekend’s newspaper i, and he’ll be doing the interrogation here.
Hello, Everyman – Enigmatic here.
Hello enigmatic. AKA the i’s Nimrod, etc. It’s nice to see you again. You are right, this is better.
Congratulations on your 200th puzzle. Is this your only job and you fill out for other outlets under other aliases?
Everyman is my only regular crossword puzzle. The rest of the time I write in other ways: screenplays, a few books, jokes for television; and I’m the question editor for Richard Osman’s House of Games.
You’ve established an identity with your acrostics (“primarilys”), long rhymed answers, repeated initials: do you have a publisher?
The Observer is, I think, unique in not having a crossword editor, so I’m very grateful to the puzzle test solvers, a ragtag band that includes a Ximenian stickler, and always at least one random solver. The first Everyman hint I wrote was “a mainly” and I was then struck by the convenience of giving regular solvers a guaranteed entry point.
A while ago you told me you were Everyman, but asked me to keep it under my hat – why the secret?
Without wanting to sound like I think I’m some kind of key worker, I was aware of one liability: Solvers speak so fondly of Everyman puzzles. I wanted to make sure I was sitting while wearing an Everyman hat securely.
That said, it would be an exaggeration to say that there was a uniform Everyman style. I’ve been solving the riddle since the late 1980s, across three eras with distinct personalities: Allan Scott’s riddles, for example, are more fond of a classic film or a proper name, as I recall, than those that came later from Colin Gumbrell or the previous ones of Dorothy Taylor and Alec Robins. And there’s never been anyone like Derrick Macnutt.
But the eras have at least two things in common: a commitment to traditional cryptic grammar and a need to be solvable – or, as they used to say in the 1960s, “soluble”:
So why is now the right time to tell people?
Two hundred puzzles seem enough to solve. And the 4,000th Everyman is coming next year, which I hope will be a time of celebration; staying pseudonymous for this would risk sounding attention-seeking rather than conveying intended distrust, if you know what I mean.
When you asked me where I do my compilation, I said “in a pub” (I don’t anymore). Where did you set “Everyman”?
Out. I start each week with a full grid printed next to the clue type headers — similar sounds, inversions, and so on — to make sure I include at least one or two. I write five or six clues first thing each day of the week, and as with other types of writing, it’s usually best if I walk.
I searched but couldn’t locate, Ninas [hidden messages in the grid] in your Everyman puzzles. Besides your signature tricks, did I miss anything?
I doubt you missed anything. In the 100th and 200th puzzles, there’s a quiet celebration that isn’t alliteration or rhyme. And this isn’t something I expect anyone to notice, but clues that include the word “Everyman” should build, over time, an irresistibly consistent and unflattering portrait.
Finally, in my column Give Me a Clue in the i newspaper, I’ve cited three of your Everyman clues as favorites – do you have any of your favorites?
Hm. Maybe I should stop asking other setters, since I’m drawing a blank. In fact, some setters offer cappers. Anto and Carpathian recently did it; likewise Vulcan and Vlad. I’ll keep the question without answering myself.
On this topic: In conversation with all of the above, I was able at this point to thank them for their replies. This time I thank Enigmatist for his questions. I confess I enjoyed his selection of Everyman clues and urge you to read the “rest” of the above in this weekend’s subscription or print version of the i newspaper.