R.I.P John Galbraith Graham


I’ve just turned from the Guardian Unlimited web-site, which has flashed up the news that the Reverend John Galbraith Graham has died at the age of 91. Those who will mourn his passing will not need to be told the name by which he was better known: for everyone else, the Cruciverbalist world knew him as Araucaria, the ‘Monkey-Puzzle’. For those still left puzzled, he was one of the most famous, challenging, thought-provoking, entertaining setters of Crossword puzzles.

It does not come as a surprise. John Graham was, earlier this year, diagnosed with terminal cancer of the oesophagus, a fact he chose to announce, with typical wit, in one of the many thousands of puzzles he has set for the Guardian in the 55 years he spent in its pages. His fans, myself included, solved a series of clues that exposed the unwanted answer. Since then, it’s only been a matter of time, time spent hoping that the moment would be indefinitely postponed, knowing that it would not be.

I didn’t know John Graham except in the way that we all knew him, via his puzzles. He possessed an exceptionally erudite mind, knowledgable on a wide range of subjects, and could think his way through a corkscrew to provide clues that, even at their most fiendish and obscure, nevertheless always made you feel that if you thought long enough, and hard enough, you would see where his mind pointed. There are enough compilers who are impenetrable, frequently even after you know the answer, but not Araucaria.

It’s twenty-five years since I started doing the Guardian cryptic crossword, courtesy of the late Kevin Eavers, father of a friend of mine. During that time I have had more fun with Araucaria’s puzzles than with anybody else’s, and I have always felt the same anticipatory thrill each time his name appears.

It was already a bad day, from the news that Bill Foulkes, former Captain of Manchester United, survivor of Munich, had died at the age of 81. To lose Araucaria the same day is a double blow. I hope that I am being understandably selfish in wishing for there still to be puzzles to appear, a stockpile that would, in a perfect world, include one last Alphabetical Jigsaw, and certainly a final Christmas Prize Double Crossword.

To reach the day when there will no longer be the challenge of setting yourself against Araucaria’s mind is in itsown tiny way a kind of death.

#And now we know that there is no stockpile, that Aruacaria’s last challenge to we devoted solvers has already appeared, a Saturday Prize Crossword on November 16, that I didn’t get very far with that day. The answers are already available, ironically published on the day prior to his passing, but I refuse their convenience. I will keep the puzzle as a last benizen, to be worked at until either all it’s clues surrender their hidden meaning, or I accept that, like so many times before, the Rev has beaten me. Perhaps that is the more appropriate end.

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