An extract from the preface to Mungo’s Cryptic Crosswords, out now.

By Mungo MacCallum (1941-2020).

Puzzling gentleman

Crossword puzzles have been around for quite a while.

The Australian doyen of the craft, David Astle (DA, who delights and infuriates readers of the Fairfax papers every Friday), attributes the first true example to the English journalist Arthur Wynne, in the New York World of 1913. He called it a word-cross puzzle, but the term crossword, as a single term, had been used for at least 50 years before.

Most came from the United States, although there were others in Europe, especially in Italy. The modern cryptic evolved mainly in England, and by the end of the First World War it had become a regular event in the major dailies.

Australia quickly followed suit, and my parents were devotees; when I was a boy, The Sydney Morning Herald cryptic was as much part of the family routine as the ABC’s Kindergarten of the Air. By the time I graduated to the Argonauts, I was joining in with enthusiasm, if not much skill.

Nonetheless, I persevered. At school, I began devising my own grids, which made up in ambition what they lacked in sophistication. I even attempted a few puzzles in Latin, which gained me the reputation of either a genius or a smart-arse, depending on the age and belligerence of the participants.

In my university days, a group of us spent our ritual morning coffees over the SMH, and if the puzzle was not completed, I usually took it along to an early lecture to finish it. On one celebrated occasion an observant professor threw me out of the theatre – not, he insisted, for being distracted over 9 across, but for taking too long over it. Undeterred, I puzzled on.

A year in London at an advertising agency only nurtured what was developing into an obsession. In a campaign spruiking “the fruits of Australia’s sunshine”, the fruit company Ardmona, I detected no drama. The office provided all the papers free, which meant I had undreamt-of cruciverbalist resources at my disposal. And when I came home to Sydney, I felt genuinely deprived.

Still, in those days I never considered moving into the field as a practitioner. However, many years later, I left the journalistic mainstream for the north coast of New South Wales, and my regular supply of freelance writing began to diminish. I was rapidly running out of both work and money, when one of my daughters suggested that I should perhaps turn professional. So I did, with what was to me surprising success.

My first gig was in the now-defunct Bulletin magazine, where I replaced a longstanding, if somewhat old-fashioned, stalwart. It was very quickly made clear that my arrival was not welcome among his erstwhile colleagues: I was an intruder, a blow-in and, worse still, an amateur. I was, after all, a well-known and apparently prosperous journalist who also occasionally published books. I should leave the crossword puzzles alone to those who understood them and needed the work.

But the public, to my relief, disagreed: they saw me as a fresh approach, prepared to break some of the old rules and shibboleths. When I wrote a clue for “Yugoslav” which read “Serb tells fellow-ethnic to piss off,” there was widespread applause. When the Bulletin folded, I moved on to the short-lived The Week, and then, after an enforced rest when that too closed down, The Saturday Paper bravely decided that despite my record I would not actually jinx their venture.

I like to pretend that I provide not only entertainment, but a modicum of education and even therapy: there has been research to show that crosswords can help to retard the ageing process by keeping brains alert and warding off dementia. Anagrams can be particularly rewarding; it is a real buzz, for instance, to find that there is danger in the garden and boredom in the bedroom. And who would not rejoice to discover the notorious Britney Spears among stern Presbyterians? You can’t deny that crosswords will give you insights on which others may miss out. They can, and should, enlarge both horizons and experiences.

Well, maybe: but above all they are fun. I am frequently bailed up by strangers in the street who demand: “What the hell is 14 down?” and are pleased and enlightened when I can tell them. And they are definitely not only for the old and failing. A few years ago David Astle and I hosted a joint session for schoolchildren at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. When we asked for questions, one young fan asked us for a favourite example of word play. I nominated an animal that is also a bird held in both hands: LEMUR, in which EMU is bookended by L and R – left and right.

David effortlessly trumped me with the story of how he had informed his novice that her name ALICE contained LI – the Roman numerals for 51. This meant, he said, that she was one short of a full pack of cards. But not to worry, he continued as her face fell, the other letters were the ACE – the last and best card of all.

And on that happy note, get solving. You have nothing to lose but your Alzheimer’s (anagram: relish maze. See, I warned you it can become obsessive).


This is an edited extract from the preface to Mungo’s Cryptic Crosswords, published by Black Inc ($9.99).

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2015 as "Puzzling gentleman".

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Mungo MacCallum (1941-2020) The Saturday Paper’s crossword writer – was a political journalist and commentator and the author of several books.