In 1990, I completed my first cryptic crossword, by Rufus of The Guardian, aged 23. I was buzzing for hours! By 1992 I was becoming quite good at solving, but I was also getting the urge to write cryptic clues.
I wanted to know why some clues excited me, and others left me cold. What was the secret of crossword comedy?
As a student in Canterbury, Kent, I raced down the road every morning, returning with an armful of newspapers that never got read. However, the crosswords were meticulously solved and analysed.
My mind was always drifting off in conversations: ‘Hello’ became HELL + O, and ‘please listen to me’ became ‘ELAPSE’ (anagram), ‘SILENT’ (anagram), + TOME. I can only apologise to anyone I spoke with between the years 1992 and 1995!
Back in my digs I would write and rewrite clues. My tiny room was littered with half-completed crosswords and half-written clues. Rising at 7am and working well past midnight, studies were a distant memory. All my eggs had been laid, hatched and were now chickens in my crossword basket.
My dream was to be published in The Guardian, and call myself Paul after my brother and best friend whom I had recently lost in a tragic car accident. (See “The Real Paul” below). My plan was to hone two puzzles, 56 clues in total, of which I was proud, and send them to Araucaria, my favourite setter and crossword legend. He just had to like my crosswords, or my dream was over.
After two and a half years the puzzle was ready.
I remember sending the letter. I bought the envelope, checking it several times for smudges – perhaps Araucaria never opened smudged envelopes? I couldn’t take any chances - slipped the puzzles into the envelope with a covering letter, slipped them out again to check they were the right way up and not damaged, checked once or twice more, and then sealed, stamped and posted the letter.
The pressure was intense. Nail-biting days passed. Finally, a letter arrived addressed in unfamiliar handwriting. I held the unopened letter in my sister Louise’s kitchen in Kingston, pretending to myself I didn’t give a jot what he thought of my work – I wasn’t even sure the letter was from Araucaria anyway. I slit the envelope open.
Today, Araucaria’s framed words adorn a wall of my home. The letter begins:
‘Dear Mr Halpern, I think your puzzles are brilliant, and if I were the Guardian crossword editor I’d offer you a job right away – if you like I will tell him so.’
How lucky am I? My hero is now my friend. And I’m so lucky to be a cryptic crossword setter.
Nowadays, I write 3-4 puzzles a month for The Guardian, 2-3 for the FT as Mudd, 1-2 for The Independent, as Punk, 2 a month for The Times. I also write a third of the quick crosswords in The Guardian, and the occasional Guardian Genius puzzle (available online). I write clues everywhere – even in my sleep.
As for my pseudonyms? Why Mudd? Well, I used to be called Bats in the FT, after my ex-girlfriend. But soon after our split I overheard a man complaining of a row with his wife – and how his name was now ‘mud’. Perfect.
Why Punk? I always use a four-letter pseudonym (hence Mudd with two d’s), and this seemed appropriate to my style. What’s more, I have egotistically dubbed myself the PUN K(ing).