Top crossword setter John Halpern visits Bristol to celebrate centenary
David Clensy talks to one of the country's top crossword setters, ahead of his visit to Bristol to mark the centenary of the humble crossword puzzle
WHEN John Halpern went on his first date with his future wife Taline, the first thing he thought about her was that her name was an anagram of "entail", and that her food order of tiger prawns and spring water were particularly interesting – because they were anagrams of each other.
In the interests of getting a second date, John – one of the country's top crossword setters – didn't mention either of these observations to her immediately.
This year the humble crossword puzzle may be marking its centenary, but John says they remain as popular as ever with readers.
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The 45-year-old, who creates crosswords for The Times, The Guardian, the Financial Times and the Independent, under the various pseudonyms of Paul, Punk and Mudd, is heading to Bristol on February 4 for a special event at Bristol Folk House.
As well as telling amusing tales of his life as a crossword setter, he will be getting the audience involved in creating a special crossword in honour of the city of Bristol.
"Everyone tends to think of crosswords as a solitary pastime," John says.
"But actually it can be a sociable thing to do – most people do crosswords with their partner, and I know lots of people who regularly phone a friend when they get stuck.
"So the idea of turning the creation of a new crossword into an event is not as strange as it might seem at first.
"The enduring popularity of crosswords over the last 100 years is incredible, but I'm hoping that by touring the country with what is almost like a bit of stand-up about my experiences of crossword setting, and creating crosswords about the cities I visit, I'm really hoping to inspire more of the younger generation to start doing crosswords."
John's own passion for crosswords started young.
"I was playing with words from as early as I can remember," he says.
"I remember at school being asked to create a sentence with the word centimetre in it, and I wrote 'My auntie was due to arrive at the railway station and I was sent to meet her'. My teacher wasn't very impressed."
"As I grew up I started to realise I saw the world slightly differently to other people.
"When I walk around, I'm constantly taking in words on signs, and rearranging them in my head. I can't sit down in a restaurant without noticing that 'desserts' is 'stressed' spelled backwards, for example.
"Just the other day somebody was talking about a hip-hop band called 11+2, and the first thing I realised was that 11+2 is 13, as is 12+1, but interestingly 'eleven-plus-two' and 'twelve-plus-one' are anagrams of each other."
John went to university at Canterbury to study maths and music, but soon realised crosswords were his real calling.
"I used to love doing the Times crossword, which was elegant but not very funny, and the Guardian crossword, which was very funny but not particularly elegant, and I decided I would try to create one that was both elegant and funny."
John spent weeks on his break-through puzzle – turning an entire wall of his student digs into an enormous crossword as he tried to get his clues fitting together perfectly.
"When I was finally happy I'd done the best I possibly could, I sent it to one of the great crossword setters in the national press, and to my delight it was not only published, but I was offered further work straightaway."
These days John can create a newspaper crossword in about eight hours, and he's yet to find himself running out of ideas.
Last week, veteran crossword setter for The Guardian, the Rev John Graham, aka Araucaria, revealed to the world he was suffering terminal cancer via hidden messages within his clues.
John Halpern says the small, supremely-specialised community of professional crossword setters are constantly sending each other hidden messages in their work.
"It's quite normal for us to throw the occasional hidden message in there.
"On our first wedding anniversary I was sitting in a cafe with my wife, who was doing my crossword in The Guardian, when she realised that I had written 'on our first wedding anniversary' around the perimeter of the puzzle.
"After all, you've got to have a bit of fun with these things."
John Halpern will be talking about the centenary of the crossword at Bristol Folk House, Park Street, on Monday, February 4, 6pm-8pm. For free tickets, email email@example.com.