Jonathan Crowther has for over 43 years composed the Azed cryptic crossword in The Observer Sunday newspaper. He was voted "best British crossword setter" in a poll of crossword setters conducted by The Sunday Times in 1991 and in the same year was chosen as "the crossword compilers' crossword compiler" in The Observer Magazine "Experts' Expert" feature.
He was born in Liverpool in 1942, the son of a doctor, and grew up in Kirkby Lonsdale in the Lake District. He was educated at Rugby School before going on to read classics and classical philology at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. From there, in 1964, he joined Oxford University Press and he worked for them, in India, London, and Oxford, until his retirement in early 2000. His final position was as a lexicographer writing dictionaries for foreign students of English. Married with two sons, he lives in Oxford.
Encouraged by his father, Jonathan enjoyed solving crosswords from an early age. He caught the Ximenes bug while still at Rugby and "just lived for Sundays" thereafter. His first puzzles to be published were in the university weekly, Varsity, under the pseudonym Gong and after leaving university he started submitting to The Listener. They published sixteen Gong puzzles between June 1965 and February 1972. He continued to be a Ximenes competitor until Ximenes' death in 1971.
Appointed as Ximenes' successor, he cast around for a new pseudonym. His two predecessors had taken theirs from Spanish inquisitors-general but none of the names remaining seemed suitably impressive. However, reversing the last name of one, Diego de Deza, gives (to British ears at least) the first and last letters of the alphabet. Letter manipulation and word reversal are integral parts of a cryptic crossword: thus Azed was born. Azed No. 1 appeared in The Observer in March 1972 and monthly clue-writing competitions à la Ximenes resumed. These still continue and in the monthly "slip", he gives details of each competition and discusses points of technique and more general interest relating to his puzzles. He relishes the dialogue the competitions generate and many regular solvers have become his friends. Among the technical comments can sometimes be found glimpses into his private life – he is very interested in cricket and less so in football … he took part in a performance of Haydn's Nelson Mass at Radley College … one of his sons is a rock musician. Interesting in their own right, these snippets are seized on by the more cunning competitors as ways to make their clues more appealing to the judge and so increase their chances of success.
Tastes and Technique
Proudly Ximenean in his crossword philosophy, he favours puzzles whose setters have similar ideas (Dimitry, Duck and Phi, for example). Though he may not always approve of some accompanying clues, he praises the ingenuity of construction of the specialised thematic crosswords in the Times Listener series, the Crossword Club magazine, and 1 Across. He himself is responsible for a number of the "special" formats which have appeared regularly in the Azed series. These include Cherchez la Femme, Eightsome Reels, Give and Take, Overlaps, and Spoonerisms. Ideas such for specials may strike him anywhere but Thames-side walks with his dog have been specially productive.
His methods of crossword composition are traditional. Many setters use computer programs to fill in one of the standardised grids imposed on them by their newspapers but Azed does not. The Observer has always allowed him freedom in construction and he strives to make interesting and varied diagrams. The grid comes first, drawn in pencil in an exercise book with squared paper. Then the bars at the end of each word are inked in for clarity. Then he chooses his words. The Chambers Dictionary is consulted, together with Chambers WORDS and Chambers BACKWORDS to find combinations that will fit into the grid. Finally, the clues are composed in the order that the words appear in the grid, starting with the first Across clue. He deliberately avoids tackling the most interesting-looking words first. He feels that to do that leaves a morass of drab-looking words at the end, quite likely receiving lifeless clues to match. When cluing, Chambers Thesaurus is a standard aid, assisted by a wide variety of reference books (many now out of print) which he has accumulated over the years. Composing a plain crossword takes him four to five hours, spread across a week. His specials can take considerably longer.
He also sets occasional puzzles under the pseudonym Ozymandias – "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!".
He believes that "the whole business about the setting and solving of crosswords is that it is a battle of minds – a tussle of wits between the setter and the solver. The solver should win but not without a bit of a struggle"
Azed Book of Crosswords, Latimer (1975), SBN 901 539 39 2, reissued as The World's Most Difficult Crosswords by Pantheon (1976 )
Elementary Crosswords for Learners of English as a Foreign Language, OUP Japan (1980), ISBN 0-19-581750-8
Introductory crosswords for Learners of English as a Foreign Language, Oxford University Press (1983), ASIN: B0007B5BTM
Lost for Words, as Ozymandias, with cartoons by Jon, Angus and Robertson (1988), ISBN 0-207-16002-3
Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English, Co-editor, various editions (OUP Oxford)
Making the most of dictionaries in the classroom: A guide for teachers of English (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, Oxford Wordpower Dictionary) (ELT) co-authored with Sally Wehmeier, Oxford University Press (1994), ISBN 0-19-470221-9, ISBN 978-0-19-470221-8
The Art of the Crossword Setter – essay in Chambers Crossword Dictionary (2nd edition, Chambers 2006), Chambers Concise Crossword Dictionary (2nd edition, Chambers 2005), and Chambers Crossword Companion (Chambers 2007)
- Jonathan Crowther (2006) A-Z of Crosswords pp. 44–46, Collins ISBN 978-0-00-722923-9, ISBN 0-00-722923-2
- The Crossword Centre
- Jonathan Crowther in Timeshift: "How to solve a cryptic crossword", BBC4 Nov 2008
- Listener website: List of puzzles
- Azed Slip No 1737
- Azed Slip No 1741
- Azed Slip No 1700
- Cherchez La Femme
- Eightsome Reels
- Give and Take
- Azed Slip No 1698
- Various Azed slips naming reference books