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Who is Anax?

 

Anax was born in Toronto, Canada, but by the age of 4 had moved with his family to England. For the first couple of years they all stayed with an aunt in Manchester - and Laura had a thing for crosswords. Watching over her shoulder as she tackled puzzles from the once-great Evening News Book of Crosswords, the young lad was immediately fascinated by ... well, something. It's impossible to say if it was the notion of words being placed into an arrangement of little boxes, the fact that the grids were so impressively open (in later years the series became very formulaic with a small set of unadventurous grids), or that words were to be found by answering clues. At such an early age he would surely have found these concepts somewhat advanced. Whatever the attraction, it was strong and he was hooked.

Unusually perhaps, he had no real interest in trying to solve any of the puzzles. His first instinct was to grab pen and paper and see if he could make his own. Needless to say these were rudimentary to the point of comical. Instead of starting with an empty grid he simply drew one big box, and then, pen poised over the top left corner, he thought of a word ("TABLE" was a favourite). So, he drew five little boxes at the top, put the number 1 in the first one, and wrote a clue underneath the big box. This led to thinking of another word running downwards from one of the letters in TABLE. And so on.

It wasn't the best approach. By writing clues but not actually filling in the answers as he went along, he quickly lost track of progress and found it very difficult to add words to the grid. On the rare occasions when he completed a puzzle, his method of design frequently led to grids which were actually impossible - his little one-at-a-time squares varied in size so he ended up with, for example, more along the top of the grid than at the bottom. And of course the numbering was all over the place. But by the age of about six he had worked out that drawing a proper grid first and inserting answers was the best way, and things started to improve.

The major breakthrough came when Anax was about nine years of age. For a Christmas present, a relative thought he might like to take up stamp-collecting and gave him a stamp album. They say philately will get you nowhere, and Anax had no interest in it. However, the album's pages had been designed so that, in proper use, it would be easy to align stamps as they were added. Each page consisted of a faintly printed grid of perhaps 30 squares across and 45 down - absolutely perfect for creating crossword grids.

Within a year or so every page was filled, and one of the crosswords - on a 9x9 grid, asymmetrical but featuring a 5x3 open block, became his first published puzzle when it appeared on the children's page of the Manchester Evening News. Anax was 11 years old, and he knew how to spell (and clue) words such as "Elaborate".

At about this time the family moved to Sale, a suburb to the south of Manchester. For Anax it was an unpleasant upheaval as it coincided with his departure from junior school - a new environment and all of his junior school buddies beyond reach. Crosswords came to his rescue. The truth - that they became a sort of refuge - is doubtless a less than healthy one, but the fact that he felt compelled to retreat into them and give them all of his energies resulted in a swift burgeoning of what had always been a notable (if unusual) ability.

Ideas and inventiveness seemed to flow unbidden and unstoppable, and he decided he wanted to explore far beyond the straightforward definition crossword. In a newsagent's shop close to the railway station in Sale he spotted "Teach Yourself Crosswords" by Alec Robbins. He saved his pocket money and bought it, read it. Read it again. And again. At the end, his grasp of cryptic clue writing was a long way from fully formed; but it was alive. All of this was during his first year at grammar school where, surprisingly, he found an ally in his form teacher.

There was a summer trip, just before the long break. The journey started at Brooklands railway station, one stop south of Sale, and Anax found himself sitting alongside his form teacher, Frank Dart. There was little conversation - Frank was engrossed in the Daily Telegraph crossword. Whether or not he was aware of the young lad's interest in crosswords is not known, but he broke the silence to explain a particularly clever clue:

Refusal of an unknown number of debts is dangerous (7)

He didn't give the answer - he wanted to see if the youngster could work it out. He could not have known that Anax had been devoting so much attention to the guidance of Alec Robbins, so it must have come as a shock when this not-yet-old-enough-to-be-spotty youth suggested the "debts" part might be referring to IOUs. Anax was instantly able to place this at the end of the word and, with some degree of help, eventually identified the answer (NOXIOUS).

For the first time Anax felt that there was the potential for recognition and encouragement if he was prepared to hone his skills. Despite the immaturity of his youth he had no intention of trying to make a name for himself until his abilities genuinely deserved it - he knew he had a long way to go before reaching that stage. It was time to do some homework.

Before leaving grammar school he produced two publications. "Puzzles Galore" was a hand-drawn magazine with crosswords and a variety of other puzzles. There was also a collection of crosswords printed and distributed by the school - it even had a prize crossword offering the exciting sum of 10p to the winner! But even as that collection was being prepared he had decided to withdraw from the idea of getting work out there - instead, he wanted to find out if he had what it took to become a cryptic crossword compiler.

And we can effectively disregard the next fifteen years - all of it was devoted to developing technique, analysing cryptics in all the major newspapers, comparing these with his own style and turning that style into something individual, original and fresh, while adhering to the principles of accuracy and fairness so strongly promoted by Alec Robbins. Then, in his mid 20s, he took the plunge and sent a crossword to Roger Squires, the world's most prolific compiler who - fortuitously - headed the syndicate supplying puzzles to the Birmingham Post. Anax was living in Birmingham at the time.

It wasn't a great crossword. It wasn't fit for publication. But it wasn't rejected. Roger highlighted the areas where improvement was needed and invited re-submission - and the revisions resulted in Anax joining the cryptic crossword team. For the next three or four years he gained something close to notoriety as the "tough one", which became his undoing. Not that there were any complaints - indeed, it seemed that his challenging Friday cryptics were anticipated by solvers with some relish. The problem was burn-out.

The construction of puzzles always followed the same pattern. Spare time would be spent composing clues outside the confines of a crossword, and the best of these stored for later use. Picking a set grid, Anax first incorporated a small handful of these "notables" and went on to complete the filling of the puzzle before writing the clues*. The sensible approach, once all clues had been written, would be to check through them for errors. Anax took the wrong approach. Working through the finished set of clues, he looked for any that were weaker than the rest - perhaps insufficiently original or (and this was his fatal mistake) less challenging. Having identified and corrected a "weak spot" he then went through the clues again because, logically, amending the weakest clue would result in another clue taking its place. It became a vicious circle, the crosswords taking longer to compile and becoming extremely difficult even for seasoned solvers. Not only did this unnecessary process make unreasonable mental demands - it also served to quickly drain Anax of his best clues. In short, he ran out of ideas.

So it was time to withdraw again, time to think carefully about what he wanted to achieve as a cryptic clue writer. The answer was remarkably simple - all he wanted was enjoyment; not recognition, not publication with its deadline pressures and the requirement to compile within a desired standard of difficulty. The Internet provided the ideal outlet and, via this and other websites, the freedom to produce cryptics as hard or as easy as the mood allowed.

Oddly, this freedom resulted in the greatest opportunity. Having viewed Anax's cryptic puzzles on the web Roger Squires - and other cryptic luminaries - pointed him in the direction of the Financial Times and The Times. With considerable trepidation he submitted a puzzle to Richard Browne at The Times, and this puzzle was published on 28th August 2007. The next, appearing in November of that year, was described by some of the most experienced solvers as "the best puzzle ever published in The Times" and was given its own chapter in Tim Moorey's book How To Master The Times Crossword. Anax has also ventured into the world of barred thematic puzzles, two of which appear on Free Crosswords Online, while two others have appeared in Piemag, the online version of Magpie Magazine which is dedicated to puzzles of this type. Most recently Anax made his debut (under that pseudonym) in The Independent and as Loroso in the Financial Times.

Are there plans to appear in more of the big dailies? Absolutely. The ultimate aim is to set for The Times, Independent, FT, Guardian and Telegraph. Roger Squires and the late Ruth Crisp have previously achieved it; only the great Don Manley can currently claim this distinction.

*As an interesting aside, cryptic crosswords 17, 18 and 19 were compiled around 17 years ago shortly before Anax withdrew from publishing. Rediscovered comparatively recently, these three examples - while technically quite good - seem very different to the clueing style Anax currently uses.