Crossword blog: Meet the setter – Vulcan

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Our next setter met is Richard Browne, who is close to crosswording royalty, having served as Times crossword editor until the incumbent, Richard Rogan, took over. He has set here as Vulcan since 2018 and Imogen since 2014; if two pseudonyms seems a lot, bear in mind that he has also set for the Financial Times as Antares, the Independent as Victor, the Times Quick Cryptic as Teazel, the Spectator as Fieldfare and for the Telegraph and Times main puzzles.

Guardian solvers got used to starting the week with Rufus (whom we met here and who retired in 2017) to start the week. How do you think Mondays are different now as compared with the Rufus era?

Rufus is inimitable. Mondays are now shared round more. Although in my fortnightly puzzles as Vulcan I try for a similar level of difficulty as Rufus, I have come to appreciate how difficult it is to write short, simple clues that aren’t a giveaway. Still learning!

How does having been an editor affect your setting?

It was a wonderful education closely checking other compilers’ work every day, observing what works and what doesn’t, and learning at the Times how to corral otherwise perfectly good clues into our somewhat prescriptive style. It has given me a wider range of techniques and a greater emphasis on technical accuracy.

Am I right in thinking that you’re partial to neologisms and contemporary references?

One has to be careful; older solvers may not know these. But I enjoy putting in phrases like “virtue signalling” and “cancel culture”.

What makes a successful clue? Do you have a favourite of your own?

For me a good clue has an elegant surface meaning which directs you away from the answer, with wordplay which is scrupulously fair. One must be honest and hide the answer in plain sight. Here’s a simple one from my first Telegraph puzzle:

Such a tree would barely survive the winter (9)

And one from early in my Times career:

Wear a rather revealing top, emerging from the waves (6)

A favourite clue came as a gift from the crossword gods. In an awkward grid I had saddled myself with OAHU, part of Hawaii. I pondered it unsuccessfully and was contemplating changing the grid when my unconscious presented me with “Island at the centre of storm bears the brunt”.

Very pleasing. I’ll give the other answers below. Which other setters do you admire?

My role model has always been Brian Greer (Brendan), my editor at the Times for five years. Every clue is accurate, witty and cliche-free, and the improvements he made to my clues taught me a lot. I was forever wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

I admire Richard Rogan (Aragon and Bannsider) for his tightly packed cluing, never a word wasted, every clue telling a deceptive story, where it is often hard to find the definition. And I greatly admired and enjoyed Araucaria, although (or perhaps because) his style is very different from mine.

And what makes an unsuccessful clue?

When a solver thinks: “How am I supposed to know that?” or “How was I supposed to work that out?”

I dislike cryptic definitions from which you can see the area aimed at but not the actual target; clues with lots of bits and pieces to be laboriously assembled in some unclear order; cliches such as “the French” for LE, hopelessly wide indications (“boy”, “note”, “flower”) and worst of all, clues with nonsense surfaces.

That’s pretty comprehensive. How did you choose your pseudonyms?

Imogen was a name [my wife] Marilyn and I liked and we would have probably bestowed it on a daughter, but our children were both boys. It was nice to use it at last. I also thought it might be fun to see if anyone imagined my puzzles showed a feminine hand, and several people did! Vulcan, however, was plucked out of the air.

How do you create your puzzles?

I have my own room where I can sit peacefully and look out over our garden and the trees beyond, very conducive to the reverie in which clues tend to come. I also carry a notebook everywhere with words I am trying to clue, since I need to write it an idea down before I forget it.

I work mainly in Crossword Compiler on my laptop, which is good for suggesting grid fills (though I try to avoid words I don’t know myself), with the Chambers app for checking spellings and meanings.

If there’s anything I am not sure about, I find it safer to check in an actual reference book. For the cluing I just use my brain; computers can offer lots of anagram suggestions, but I find I can discover better ones playing around with Scrabble tiles or pencil and paper.

You willingly solved some of our American-style crosswords. Do you think they could work as another strand of puzzle over here?

Well, I enjoyed them, because they are quite cryptic. I think it a drawback that each answer can be found from cross-checkers without having to solve every clue and I do dislike there being no indication of multiple words in answers. They were an extra challenge for me because of the amount of pop culture, which I am not very good with.

What’s the future for cryptic crosswords?

They survived sudoku, and seem still very popular. Indeed, we now have a worldwide online audience, although this does mean that our clues have to depend more on wordplay than on general knowledge. The future looks good!

Many thanks to Richard. The answers to the clues above are DECIDUOUS and ARARAT

The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop and is partially but not predominantly cryptic

Ryuichi Sakamoto – 1900 (Playing the Piano for the Isolated).

End of a Lunch Hour

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44A. Hand up if you think we should petition dictionaries to change this word to REUNI, instead of REUNE. If alumni get together on important occasions having to do with their alma mater, aren’t they going back to university?

6D. If I had someone to tell to “get to work,” I would be more likely to say “hop TO IT,” rather than “hop ON IT,” but I suppose you could do that, too. The most common use that I’m aware of these days for “hopping on” something is when someone asks me to “hop on” a Zoom meeting.

13D. Now that I am working from home for the foreseeable future, my lunch hour no longer ends at ONE P.M. It starts with breakfast and kind of lasts all day, connected by a long line of snacks. What even is time anymore, anyway? Or calories?

18D. Newer solvers: Please do not lose heart when you see a clue like “Emperor just before the Year of the Four Emperors.” Even if you are not an expert on the line of Roman emperors, this one is gettable. Take a deep breath and think: There aren’t many Roman emperors whose names are four letters long. Also, if you had _ _ RO like I did, and you remembered that it was Monday (so it has to be a relatively well-known person), you would eventually come up with NERO.

Today’s Theme

Mr. Bywaters offers us five examples of words that start with EX- and the rest of the base entry is a different, whole word itself. For example, at 17A, the answer to the clue “Stress between you and your former lover?” is EXTENSION, which needs to be read as EX TENSION. Similarly, at 26A, the standards-friendly answer to “Thing your former lover said about you?” is EXCLAIM, or EX CLAIM.

Your Tuesday Briefing

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A bittersweet pandemic recovery

As new infections plummet, many newly vaccinated Americans are leaving their masks behind, planning summer travel and joyously reuniting with family and friends.

But for those who have lost a loved one, the worst has just begun. Even now, about 450 deaths are being reported each day, leaving hundreds of families dealing with a new kind of pandemic grief. In one bittersweet sign of the dissonance, the pandemic has improved enough that funerals can happen mostly in person again.

Most of those dying from Covid-19 today are unvaccinated. While some who died in recent weeks became sick before they were eligible for shots, others were hesitant to be vaccinated or simply had not gotten around to it.

Quotable: “Everybody is saying, ‘Oh, it’s fine,’” said one woman mourning her husband. “I’m just thinking to myself, ‘If you only knew what I just went through.’”