I come from a family of avid crossword addicts. My mother and my late father-in-law each completed the cryptic crossword on most days. Both especially liked crosswords set by ‘Araucaria’, which has therefore been a household name for me since I was a child. I still can’t pass a monkey-puzzle tree without thinking of his crosswords.
I did not know this crossword-setter’s true identity, so was fascinated to discover in today’s Sunday Times that his real name is the Reverend John Graham and that he is ninety-one years old. I was also saddened to go on to read that he has contracted cancer of the oesophagus, which is being treated with palliative care only. His life is therefore likely to end soon.
However, I was heartened when I also read that he intends to keep going while he can; his crossword-setting days are not over yet. And I take my hat off to him for his ability to view even his terminal illness with both humour and with a professional eye. He has created a crossword puzzle which tells readers who solve the four relevant clues that ‘Araucaria has cancer of the oesophagus, which is being treated with palliative care.’
Crossword puzzle setters and crime writers have a great deal in common. They look at life in a certain way. Word-play and coincidences, double- entendres and things not being quite as they seem are their stock-in-trade. Much of their lives are lived through their work. (I suspect that readers of crime fiction may often have a penchant for crossword puzzles, too.)
Crime writers have to be resilient. Having dragged their readers through slaughter, mayhem and near-Armageddon, they have to bounce back and recreate a status quo in which all is right with the world again. It is still fiction, though. Should I receive warning that the end of my life is near, as Araucaria has, I hope that I shall be as full of robust common sense and equanimity as he is. By incorporating the announcement of his death into his professional work with such modest good humour, it seems to me that he has already succeeded in pre-empting the end of his life by making it imitate art and has in the process regained control, even achieved a victory. He has found a brave and wonderful way of playing the grim reaper at his own game.