Thursday, November 28, 2013


Until his death a few days back, I had not heard of Reverend John Galbraith Graham, a priest of the Church of England.

That was because he used the pen-name Araucaria, which, I believe, is Latin for the monkey puzzle tree. For more than half a century, he has conjured up crossword puzzles. Araucaria used to create cryptic crosswords for The Guardian. They were loved – and feared – by most enthusiasts. Frankly, but for my e-friend Lalita Mukherjea who passed away a couple of years back, I would not have been ‘introduced’ to him.

When Araucaria was diagnosed with a dreaded disease at the age of 90, he broke the news to the world, typical of him, I should say, through a crossword puzzle in the December 2012 issue of the magazine called, what else, ‘1 Across’. It came with what he called ‘Special Instructions’ which read: Araucaria has 18 down of the 19, which is being treated with 13, 15. (That being a dedicated magazine patronised only by the fanatic crossword addicts, the news spread  only when the puzzle was published again in The Guardian as Crossword No 24852 on 11 January 2013.)

The clues were:

18 Down: Sign of growth (6)

19 Across: Food transporter heard to gradually reduce an endless effusion (10)

13 Across, 15 Across: Friendly (say) vicar at ease (say) with arrangement for coping with 18 down (10,4)

15 Across: See 13

Without going into the intricacies of cruciverbalism, let us look at the solution.  The sordid answer to 18 Down: Sign of growth (6) is CANCER (It is easy to work back, isn’t it?). As for 19 Across: Food transporter heard to gradually reduce an endless effusion (10), ‘food transporter’ translates into ‘OESOPHAGUS’ which, when pronounced, is likely to be ‘heard’ as ‘ease-of-a-gus’. To ‘ease’ is to ‘gradually reduce’ and the last word ‘gus’ is, if you would notice, is ‘gush’ (which means effusion) without ‘h’ at the end – and hence ‘an endless effusion’.

Thus, we come to learn the painful truth that he is afflicted with the cancer of the oesophagus. The words ‘arrangement for coping with 18 down’ (which, we now know, stands for cancer) point to ‘PALLIATIVE CARE’. Observe that ‘friendly’ is a ‘PALLY’( which sounds like ‘PALLI’) and two E’s would sound like ‘Ease’. Anagrammise PALLI + VICAR ‘+ AT + EE to get PALLIATIVE CARE, confirming that we are indeed right. The solutions to some of the other clues were: NURSE, STENT, ENDOSCOPY and SUNSET – ominous, but leaving one appreciative of the grace of the man, to manipulate his malady into a crossword.

The thrill of solving the crossword was overshadowed by a sense of sadness as one works his way through the clues. When he was asked about the morbidity of the puzzle, speaking from his home in Cambridgeshire, Araucaria said that a crossword had seemed the most fitting way to make the announcement. ‘It seemed the natural thing to do somehow. It just seemed right.’

Araucaria was an erudite man. His range of learning was extraordinary. He used his erudition when compiling his crosswords. He could and did set fiendish puzzles. The purpose of the running battle of wits between the setter and the solver, he believed, was that the solver should win. Unless the solver, having cracked some of the codes, feels good it’s no fun. If he is proved a dullard unable to decipher how a clue worked (even when he had the solution in front of him), it is pointless. After all, he is there for the joy of solving it; whether he solved the whole puzzle correctly, or filled in just a few cells and cracked just a handful of clues by the end of the day, it was only worthwhile if they had some fun on the way.

One solved Araucaria’s puzzles and acquired nuggets of infomation. Like ‘Welshmen dressed as women, protesting violently against the high road tolls between 1842 and 1844’ are collectively called ‘REBECCA RIOTERS’. Perfectly useless information, but that is the the staple diet of trivia quizzes.

What could be a better tribute to him than a few comments by those addicted to him? So, here goes:

I can't count the number of times you've provoked a groan, a forehead slap, then a chuckle; that very specific reaction to solving a tricky and perfectly elegant clue.

His clues were like little presents that were hard to unwrap, but full of joy inside for those who persevered. And I think that's why he was so loved. The sheer poetic perfection of some of the clues and answers.

What I loved about his clues, as well as the wit and imagination, is that, although often difficult, there was never any ambiguity - once you had the answer you knew it was right, even if you'd never heard of the word before.