For many readers, our crossword compilers are shrouded in mystery. The popular image is of a group of dusty old academics in hallowed university cloisters, poring over huge piles of dictionaries to find ways to torment our solvers; or of even dustier old academics in lonely garrets, scribbling clues whilst fortified with large quantities of wine and listening to classical music.
These images are (largely) far from the truth; our compilers are from all backgrounds and from all corners of the globe. In the first of a regular series of articles to throw some light on our arch-tormentors, we find out some more about one of our team of setters: Paul Bringloe, who compiles some of our Tuesday and Thursday cryptic crosswords, and regular Toughie crosswords under the pseudonym of Donnybrook.
How did you first get into solving and then compiling crosswords?
Being somewhat sporty on occasion, I needed to get a broken nose fixed, and ended up at Odstock Hospital near Salisbury. Lying around was a half-completed Guardian puzzle by Araucaria, which I picked up for some reason. I expected the clues to be very fuddy-duddy and boring, but to my surprise they were really funny and quite silly, with one in particular referring to an ‘incredibly big nun.’ And so, what with me being something of a wordy sort myself, not to mention an obsessive, I was hooked.
Is compiling your full-time job, or is it a part-time (or retirement) activity?
This is now my only occupation. Before, I was an advertising copywriter at Saatchis and Ogilvy and Mather. They both threw me out.
For which other publications do you compile?
In addition to the Telegraph Toughie, as Donnybrook, and the Telegraph Cryptic and Quick, I set for The FT as Neo, and for The Independent as Tees. For The Times, I set dailies, jumbos and (as Wurm) quick cryptics, plus a five-clue word game called Quintagram. I’m also responsible via an agency for The Sun’s Two Speed puzzles.
How long does it take you to compile a puzzle, on average?
It depends what publication I am compiling for. In general, the more demanding the house style sheet, the longer it takes. Also, I’ve found that it can be quite hard to ‘set easy’ when you’ve been used to hammering out challenging puzzles for the top end of the market. These days I set at varying levels of difficulty, always trying to keep the quality high.
How do you get inspiration for new puzzles/clues?
Alcohol mainly, although opium too has its advantages. Or: I’ve always read a fair bit, and I also dabble at writing lyrics for songs. But perhaps it’s the reading that brings the muse clattering in.
Do you have a favourite compiler or compilers?
My favourite Telegraph compilers are Roger Phillips (Notabilis), John Henderson (Elgar), John Halpern (Dada in the Toughie, and the Sunday Telegraph compiler) and Brian Greer (Jed), but there are so many talented people out there. Everyone around seems to have the ability to write something unbelievably brilliant; it’s all a bit daunting really.
What is your all-time favourite crossword clue?
Well there are thousands, but if I had to choose one, it’s a famous &Lit (all--in-one) clue for 'Machete': The jungly mass one cleaves (7). I don’t think I’ve seen anything better than that. Apart from a rude one for CHARDONNAY that I won’t quote here!
What advice would you give to somebody who wants to improve their crossword solving?
Just buy crossword books and solve the lot. If you don’t get it, cheat and look at the answer, and work backwards. You can also look at various websites, e.g. Big Dave’s Telegraph Crossword blog.
What do you do with your time when you're not solving or compiling crosswords?
Play drums. Go cycling. Try to find local witches.
What do people normally say when you tell them you are a crossword compiler?
Usually, ‘goodbye’. If they bother to wait that long. Of course, it’s a bit like saying you’re an advertising writer. People are dimly aware that such individuals must exist, but they’ve never seen or spoken to one. In any case, it’s a pretty esoteric subject. ‘Shall we have unch?’ for example is not a line I’ve so far had very much success with.