Meet the setter: the Observer’s Everyman

<span>Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

We’ve met the Observer’s Azed; the paper also has a puzzle that is often recommended for newer and lapsed solvers, the Everyman. Like Azed, it has had only a handful of setters since the series started in the 1940s. Its incumbent has now produced 200 puzzles, so today seems as good a time as any to meet the setter.

Hello Everyman. Does someone writing entry-level puzzles have fewer tricks at his or her disposal?
Perhaps. I learned to solve from Everyman puzzles and I can remember certain Sundays when I came across some abbreviation or similar that I had never encountered outside crosswords. Most weeks I avoid, for example, “sailor” for AB, but with a couple of caveats.

The solver I have in my head has recourse to a friend or family member who will gently explain something arcane – and I make sure I occasionally use “sailor” for AB when it’s obvious those letters have to go in because I worry that otherwise the novice who makes a leap to daily puzzles is going in with an incomplete tool kit.

I see. And what makes an Everyman puzzle an Everyman puzzle?
It reveals all its secrets if it’s interrogated well. It follows Afrit’s injunction and the Observer philosophy more generally. And I use the word “Everyman” to remind me to include as much of the world, old and new, as possible.

If a solver has read the rest of the paper, he or she should know everything he or she needs, which is another way of saying that there’s a pleasure in including some placenames and surnames in spots where I might have been tempted to put what Hemingway called “the 10-dollar words”.

Do you keep the work of past Everyman setters in mind when you are putting together a puzzle?
I do, though clues from years ago don’t tend to remain in my head, so I solve or re-solve old Everymans from books and online. On the bus, I reread old Ximenes and Azed slips, which I recommend for moments of exegetical illumination, if that doesn’t sound too magniloquent.

It does a bit. Likewise “magniloquent”. Now, when I ask setters if they are prepared to share a photo of themselves, I always hope it’s not going to be an unflattering selfie. How about this time?
I can only apologise, then, for this: a snapshot featuring a pandemic beard that at least has an appropriate backdrop.

Agreed, it’s not exactly ideal. You must have something less off-putting.
You know I don’t.

How do you mean?
I’m you, after all. Alan. Everyman. We’re the same person. Am I wrong?

No, you’re correct. I’m worried, though, that the idea of someone interviewing themselves is a little … cute. And possibly unethical.
Let’s commit to the conceit, see it through to the end.

I’m afraid I’ve wobbled on it. I’m going to ask Enigmatist if he’ll do this. He’s going to use his editorial section next to the Inquisitor puzzle in this weekend’s i newspaper, and take over the questioning here.
[Sighs.] Fine.

Hello, Everyman – Enigmatist here.
Hello Enigmatist. AKA the i’s Nimrod, etc. Good to see you again. You’re right, this is better.

Congratulations on your 200th puzzle. Is it your only job, and do you compile for other outlets under other pseudonyms?
Everyman is my only regular crossword. The rest of the time, I do other kinds of writing: scripts, the odd book, jokes for television; and I’m the question editor for Richard Osman’s House of Games.

You have established an identity with your acrostics (“primarilys”), rhyming long answers, repeated initial letters: do you have an editor?
The Observer is, I think, unique in not having a crossword editor, so I’m very grateful to the puzzle’s test solvers, a ragtag band that includes a Ximenean stickler and always at least one casual solver. The first Everyman clue I wrote happened to be “a primarily” and I was then struck by the convenience of giving regular solvers a guaranteed entry point.

You told me a while back that you were Everyman, but asked me to keep it under my hat – why the secrecy?
Without wanting to sound like I think I’m some kind of key worker, I was aware of a responsibility: solvers talk with such fondness about Everyman puzzles. I wanted to make sure I was setting while firmly wearing an Everyman hat.

That said, it would be overstating things to say that there has been a uniform Everyman style. I’ve been solving the puzzle since the late 1980s, through three eras with distinct personalities: Allan Scott’s puzzles, for example, are fonder of a classic film or a proper name, as I recall, than those that came after from Colin Gumbrell or those before from Dorothy Taylor and Alec Robins. And there’s never been anyone quite like Derrick Macnutt.

But the eras do have at least two things in common: a commitment to traditional cryptic grammar and an urge to be solvable – or, as they put it in the 1960s, “soluble”:

So why is now the right time to tell people?
Two hundred puzzles feels enough to have bedded in. And the 4,000th Everyman is coming next year, which I hope will be a moment for celebration; remaining pseudonymous for that would risk seeming attention-seeking rather than conveying the intended diffidence, if you see what I mean.

When you asked me where I do my compiling, I told you “in a pub” (I don’t any longer). Where do you set “Everyman”?
Outside. I start each week with a filled grid printed next to headings of types of clue – soundalikes, reversals and so on – to make sure I include at least one or two of each. I write five or six clues first thing every weekday and, as with other kinds of writing, it’s usually best if I’m walking.

I’ve looked for, but failed to spot, Ninas [hidden messages in the grid] in your Everyman puzzles. Beyond your signature tricks, have I missed anything?
I doubt you have missed anything. In the 100th and 200th puzzle, there’s a quiet celebration that isn’t alliteration or rhyming. And this isn’t something I’d expect anyone to notice, but the clues that include the word “Everyman” are supposed to build, over time, a compellingly coherent and unflattering portrait.

Finally, in my Give Me a Clue column in this weekend’s i newspaper, I’ve quoted three of your Everyman clues as favourites – do you have any favourites of your own?
Hm. Maybe I should stop asking other setters that, as I’m drawing a blank. Actually, some setters do offer up corkers. Anto and Carpathian did recently; likewise Vulcan and Vlad. I’ll keep the question without answering it myself.

On that topic: in conversation with all of the above, I was able at this point to thank them for their answers. This time, I’m thanking Enigmatist for his questions. I confess to having enjoyed his selection of Everyman clues and I urge you to read the “rest” of the above in the subscription or print version of this weekend’s i newspaper.