Araucaria Turns 90 and is Still Puzzling

araucaria crosswords17:26 Wednesday 9th March 2011
Drivetime BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

ANDY BURROWS: Let’s talk about crosswords for a few moments, because if you attempt a daily crossword in your newspaper, you want to look out for the name Araucaria. If so, if you spot that name next to the puzzle, that’s the pseudonym for 90 year old John Graham. He’s from Somersham. For 60 years he’s baffled the readers of many a national newspaper with his cryptic clues. And he’s still going strong. Our reporter Sophie Sulehria went to meet the man behind the pseudonym. (TAPE)
JOHN GRAHAM: One across. Not enough thread to go round. 6 letters. Four across. … (FADE) I’m John Graham. I’m a retired clergyman. And I’ve been doing crossword puzzles for 60 years, I suppose. The full size cryptic puzzle takes about 3 hours to do. Quick ones can be done in an hour. I write them for the Guardian, and for the Financial Times, and the crossword magazines I write for. And I’m doing what I suppose you’d call bespoke puzzles for individuals.
SOPHIE SULEHRIA: How did you get into writing crosswords?
JOHN GRAHAM: We used to do it at home, just for the fun of it. We were brought up doing it really. I didn’t think then of course it would ever come to anything like a serious business. But of course it has done.
SOPHIE SULEHRIA: So what made you go into writing puzzles professionally then, 60 years ago?
JOHN GRAHAM: Well they ran a competition in the Observer. They gave us the grid. We had to write the clues for it. And the first year I went in for this I got a highly commended thing. So I went into it the next year and I won it. But about a year afterwards the Manchester Guardian as it then was wrote to me, and said would I like to compile for them regularly. So I said yes.
SOPHIE SULEHRIA: You have a pseudonym at the Guardian.
JOHN GRAHAM: The Guardian, yes. It’s a pseudonymn by which I’m generally known in the crosworld world, Araucaria.
SOPHIE SULEHRIA: iAnd what does it mean?
JOHN GRAHAM: It means monkey-puzzle.
SOPHIE SULEHRIA: So where do you get your inspirations for clues?
JOHN GRAHAM: No idea. It just comes. There’s really no saying where it comes from, usually something that’s been in the news, or something that’s been in my mind for some other reason. Anything really.
SOPHIE SULEHRIA: You mentioned that you turned 90 recently.
JOHN GRAHAM: Yes. Last month.
SOPHIE SULEHRIA: Do crosswords keep your brain young, do you think?
JOHN GRAHAM: Yes I do think so. They do occupy the brain a lot, and I’m sure that helps keep you young.
SOPHIE SULEHRIA: And earlier you said that you started your own business at the ripe old age of 89?
JOHN GRAHAM: Yes. Just occasionally over the years people have asked me to do a special crossword for them, and I’ve done it. One friend who I did one for suggested I should do this as a business. So I advertised it. It’s taken off. I’ve done about 80 of these now.
SOPHIE SULEHRIA: And what kind of questions would come up?
JOHN GRAHAM: It depends what people’s interests are. Sometimes they just want their families, and they give me all their family names, funny little sayings they might have, or their favourite books, their favourite movies, whatever, that sort of thing. A lot of stuff I know nothing about at all, of course. On the whole crossword setters are not that knowledgeable. We just know where to find things.
SOPHIE SULEHRIA: These are some cryptic clues that we actually come up with, to describe places in Cambridgeshire. And I was wondering if you could give them a go.
SOPHIE SULEHRIA: “Thinks about pontoon.”
JOHN GRAHAM: Thinks about pontoon .. Pondersbridge.
SOPHIE SULEHRIA: Yup. That’s the right answer. OK. Another one. “Professor in pursuit of prey” 10 letters.
JOHN GRAHAM: Huntingdon?
SOPHIE SULEHRIA: Yes it is Huntingdon. So I was wondering if you could think of a crossword clue for the Breakfast Show at BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, perhaps using the word “breakfast”?
JOHN GRAHAM: Yes I’m sure I could do that. On holiday a quick meal. Holiday is “break” and quick is “fast”.
SOPHIE SULEHRIA: What are your tips on devising a crossword puzzle?
JOHN GRAHAM: You can’t give lessons in this. I’ve tried it. It can’t be done. You have to be a bit odd to do it, I think. (LIVE)
ANDY BURROWS: 90 year old John Graham that was, from Somersham, who still works, under the name of Araucaria. .. You can hear a full version of that interview, and solve some clues devised for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, by listening to Mark Rumble, this Sunday morning (13th March 2011) on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, from 9am.