JONATHAN Crowther, from Garford Road, North Oxford, has been compiling crosswords for The Observer newspaper under the name ‘Azed’ for 48 years. Last week he completed his 2,500th puzzle, having not missed a single issue. The former dictionary editor for Oxford University Press shares his story and the enduring appeal, in an ever-changing world, of the old-fashioned crossword.

On Sunday 2 March 1972, The Observer printed its first crossword by Azed. Last Sunday it published number 2,500. I am Azed, have set them all – and continue to do so.

In less than two years I shall have been doing the job for 50 years. People express admiration while privately thinking I must be a bit mad. Perhaps I am, but it gives me a lot of satisfaction, and I hope my solvers feel the same.

The Azed series continues a unique tradition of tough crosswords (barred grids and plenty of obscure words) which began in 1926, since when there have been only three different setters: Edward Powys Mathers, aka Torquemada, from 1926 to 1939, Derrick Macnutt (Ximenes, 1939-1972), and myself.

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The pseudonyms all relate to the Spanish Inquisition, the first two being the names of Grand Inquisitors and mine the reversal of a third, Fray Diego de Deza, the implication being that we supply a form of exquisite torture, with the main difference that my victims will actually enjoy the experience and (most important) will win in the end.

There are few things more frustrating than failing to complete a crossword or to understand this or that clue.

Oxford Mail:

I’ve done crosswords ever since I learnt to read and once I’d grasped (with parental guidance) the basic idea and rules of cryptic clues it became a lifelong love affair.

I came to setting puzzles during and after university (Cambridge, where I read classics).

By this time I’d become a firm devotee of the puzzles of Ximenes in The Observer, admiring his style and competing in his monthly clue-writing competitions (with very limited success).

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I particularly liked the precision and grammatical accuracy of his clues, together with his impish sense of humour, all attributes which I have striven to emulate and develop since assuming his mantle all those years ago.

One very special (dare I say unique?) feature of the Azed series is the monthly competition, in which competitors are invited to submit, with their entries, clues of their own to an otherwise unclued word in the puzzle grid.

These I judge personally, awarding prizes to the best and writing a report on the puzzle and any other crossword-related topic that takes my fancy.

Oxford Mail:

These reports (known arcanely as ‘slips’) are posted on the Guardian Unlimited website. Readers interested to know more are referred to the wonderful website where every slip has been recorded and extensively cross-referenced for easy browsing.

This brings me to perhaps the most pleasing aspect of my life as Azed. Solvers who enjoy my puzzles and keep coming back for more have over the years become my friends as well as sparring partners, often including with their competition entries comments and queries about my puzzles.

This feedback helps me to stay focussed on my own clue-writing and makes me feel as though I am presiding over a friendly if highly competitive club.

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Such camaraderie is reinforced every few years (or 250 puzzles) by get-togethers in the form of celebratory lunches here in Oxford in one or other of the colleges.

The latest of these, planned for May 2 to mark Azed No. 2,500, had regrettably to be postponed until later in the year because of the pandemic.

These events have always been tremendously enjoyable for me and my long-suffering family (my dear wife Alison and two sons Tom and Ned, all impervious to the delights of crosswords).

As self-appointed judge of the relative merits of other people’s clues, I am highly conscious of the need to have a clear set of principles (I don’t like calling them ‘rules’) on which to base my judgements, as well, of course, as my own clue-writing.

Oxford Mail:

I need to be able to defend my decisions if challenged, though in practice I’m pleasantly surprised and gratified by how rarely the umpire’s decision is questioned.

Ours is an inexact science, and I don’t expect every setter and solver to share my views.

My predecessor Ximenes, in his magisterial book On the Art of the Crossword, was the first to set out the do’s and don’t’s of sound clue-writing, and, by and large, I adhere to his precepts, though there are others who regard him (and hence me) as too prescriptive.

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A healthy respect for what the solver will find acceptable is always a good thing, and something I try never to lose sight of. I am lucky to have my own way of keeping in touch with a highly discerning group of solvers.

In these beleaguered times, crosswords offer an enjoyable and mentally stimulating activity that is unaffected by the world at large. Setting them has always been a solitary occupation, and that continues regardless of lockdown.

It is enhanced in my case by the special relationship with my solvers I have built up over the years.

And whether solvers prefer to solve alone or with others, whichever puzzle(s) they like best, they can carry on with their harmless pastime just as before, virus or no virus.

And if you’re not familiar with Azed maybe now is the time to give it a try.

Happy solving!