Clued Up

by Chris Hancock

Maurice. That was his name. Maurice Dyson.

He sat towards the front of the office, his desk surrounded by the fug of his cigar smoke – this was long before smoking was banned in the UK workplace. Maybe 30 years my senior, I guess he was a “geek” before the term “geeks”  had been invented. He’d taken to computer programming early, back in the days of paper tape and punched cards. This had involved interacting with people – asking the technician in the computer room for the stack of cards forming the program to be fed into the hopper; collecting the output from the same technician some time later (concertina-folded, green-lined paper with sprocket-holes). But technology was changing; computer monitors were starting to appear on people’s desks. One appeared on Maurice’s desk. Maurice could now create, edit, and run his programs without any other human interaction. And so it was that Maurice sat in splendid isolation, undisturbed by mankind. That was undoubtedly how he liked it. But that – for an hour a day, at least – was all about to change…

At precisely 12 noon, Maurice stopped his work and turned his attention to two things: a yellowing Tupperware box containing his sandwiches… and the day’s Guardian newspaper. This marked Maurice out as different from the rest of the office – tabloid readers to a man. But it immediately endeared him to me.

Not that he spent long over the bulk of the paper. He had a cursory flick through it – occasionally snorting at something in the leader column – before folding it neatly, almost reverentially, so it displayed nothing more nor less than… the cryptic crossword.

I used to observe Maurice, some days briskly filling in answers, other days puffing pensively on his cigar, the grid – even from my viewing distance – still dominated by empty white squares. How this tore at my soul! I’d only recently taken my first unsteady steps into the arcane world of the cryptic crossword but somehow felt sure I’d be able to help. Would he want that? How could I make my move? Eventually, a day came when I observed him gnashing his nicotine-stained teeth over the last few clues and – screwing my courage to the sticking place – I approached:

“Just a few to get, Maurice? Mind if I take a look?”

Taken somewhat by surprise, he grunted his grudging assent and turned the paper ever-so-slightly towards me. As I leaned over to examine the grid, the trail of his cigar smoke led unerringly into my face.

I forget now if I was able to help on that occasion. Days followed when either Maurice completed the puzzle unaided, or had so many clues remaining that I didn’t feel I had the justification to intervene. He might want to take a look at it that evening. But whenever I noticed he only had a few answers still to get, I’d sidle up.

 “Just a few to get, Maurice? Mind if I take a look?”

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Over time, I allowed my interventions to commence earlier and earlier – and the angle Maurice tilted the paper toward me increased by tiny increments.

“How’s it shaping up? Who’s the setter today?” (the Guardian gives each setter a pseudonym – over time you got to know which noms de guerre hid the benign setters and which the real stinkers).

Eventually, as soon as Maurice folded his paper, I pulled up a chair. Master and pupil.

In our early days of collaboration, Maurice was strong on the tricks of cryptic crosswords – how to spot an anagram, a hidden word. I merely seemed to have an eye for what word would fit based on the letters we had already filled in – a human version of those electronic Crossword Helpers that were yet to be invented. As time went on and I learnt more of the tricks, the proportion of answers I was getting went up; the inevitable corollary to this was that the proportion of the answers Maurice was getting went down. Before long, I was getting the answers in my head, then discussing the clues with Maurice in such a way as to drop him sufficient hints that he came up with the answer and I could go through the motions of saying “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that? Nice one, Maurice”. If Maurice caught on to my well-meant deception, he never gave it away. Reading this back I fear it’ll sound dreadfully conceited of me, but it’s just the way it was. The pupil had become the master.

As well as the daily crossword on a weekday, the Guardian ran – indeed runs – a Prize Crossword on a Saturday. First thing on a Monday morning, Maurice and I would discuss the weekend’s challenge – which clues had stumped us for the longest, maybe explaining the answers the other hadn’t got. Whenever I finished it, I would submit it; I’d never won but lived in hope.

 “Do you send it in when you complete it, Maurice?”

“No – waste of a postage stamp”.

 “Oh, you should – someone has to win”. His grunt told me I was probably wasting my breath.

Eventually, I got a new job for another company in a different part of the country. At the end of my last day, and after our last crossword, I shook Maurice’s hand and thanked him for all the pleasure I’d had poring over innumerable black-and-white grids with him. There was never any suggestion of keeping in touch; our friendship was bound only by our love of the crossword.

Years passed. My enthusiasm – once bordering on obsession – for cryptic crosswords waned. But I’d still give the Guardian Saturday Prize Crossword a decent go. One Saturday, I was grappling with a few tricky clues in the bottom-left corner of the grid when something caught my eye. In the list of the previous week’s prizewinners:

M. Dyson, Huddersfield.

Was it Maurice? The location fitted. I know what I thought… and I grinned. Thinking back, I hadn’t managed to complete that puzzle. Maybe Maurice was still the master after all.

Chris Hancock

About Chris Hancock

Chris Hancock (@cjhancock) is an IT consultant and dictionary enthusiast in the UK. He’s worked in Engineering and Computing since leaving University, all the time hoping that the post of Crossword Editor for “The Guardian” will come up. It hasn’t. Yet.

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262 Responses to “Clued Up”

  1. Oh thank you Chris, how beautiful. And thank Maurice for encouraging your wordnerdness.

  2. Used to take a 45 minute train ride to work, I had a ‘Maurice’ of my own, never even knew his name – by the time we’d developed our crossword bond it seemed unBritish to ask! For three years, then he suddenly wasn’t on that train anymore.

  3. I feel a little teary for some reason :-)

  4. Such a wonderful picture you paint of him! Your writing is superb. Thank you.

  5. I felt like I was holding my breath throughout this article. Sublime.

  6. Never before felt inspired to try my hand at crosswords…but now I might start :-)

  7. I feel like I’ve watched a movie, and come away smiling. Thank you.

  8. Chris I have always loved your work, but this is special. The fug of his cigar, the echo of the ‘only a few to get’, the what if of the winning Dyson – spurred on by his protégè? Mesmerising.

  9. Ah, the loneliness of the cryptic crossword enthusiast – and the sweetness of a likemind.

  10. Missed you but wow! Worth the wait!

  11. What a gem you are Chris

  12. What a treat, Chris, you are a wonderful writer. I hope Maurice, wherever he is, knows what an impression he made.

  13. I love every syllable of this.

  14. Oh. How excellent. I think with your writing you are like a Maurice to us all.

  15. How words connect us. And how we humans crave connection. Immensely powerful, Chris.

  16. You describe it all so perfectly. How sublime.

  17. Yes yes yes yes yes!

  18. Crossword people are special folk x

  19. Quite the most wonderful thing I’ve read in ages.

  20. You inspire and delight.

  21. I’ve read this five times. With each reading I love it more.

  22. Fab! My gran got me hooked on crosswords, we always used to do them together. Now I find it too bittersweet to do ’em without her.

  23. I may have almost blubbed at this.

  24. Blown away. You are amazing.

  25. I want to find Maurice and hug him!

  26. Utter perfection. ‘Precisely 12 noon’…this should be a short film.

  27. I had a crossword work buddy, I managed a moving company for a while, and one of the drivers, Sid, used to do the crossword. Ours was a 7am ‘get the brain fired up’ crossword. Thank you for bringing those memories back.

    • Sharing a crossword is quite a weird concept – negotiating over which clue to try next, how long to persist with one clue before moving on to the next. But when it works out, the sense of shared satisfaction is really worth it. Thanks, Roger!

  28. Thank you so very very much

  29. How very British 😀

  30. Triumphant piece this :-)

  31. Love it Chris!

  32. Come and write crosswords with me at lunchtimes! I have no doubt you’d be better than me, and I’d be a devoted mentee xx

  33. Well aren’t you just something else. So much heart.

  34. Ah. I too had a crossword inspirer – an eccentric English teacher who (I suspect intentionally) would leave the crossword with a few left undone on the edge of the desk…

  35. Love you even more after reading this.

  36. Wow. Inspiring stuff! I wanna do crosswords now too!

  37. There should be a verb for doing crosswords :-). Wonderful, Chris, thanks.

  38. You win the internet.

  39. You have soul in your writing, and such effortless skill.

  40. You’ve given us a gift, Chris, thank you.

  41. Super, super stuff.

  42. I feel rather jealous :-)

  43. I am tellng everyone to read this – an ode to crosswordnerds everywhere!

  44. Chris you are the best thing, the best x

  45. I shed a few tears over this, you’re wonderful.

  46. ‘Just a few to go, Maurice?’ – shivers.

  47. Bravo, to you and Maurice!

  48. I was once a serious, freakishly competitive crossword player. I’ve mellowed a bit in recent years, but still not sure I’d share… :-)

  49. Wonderful anecdote, brilliantly told.

  50. What a satisfying piece :-)

  51. Oh! You should write short stories! How gorgeous!

  52. Joyous article, humans are fascinating creatures

  53. Lovely, you always make me laugh or smile.

  54. You make the world a happier place.

  55. What a remarkable tribute.

  56. It’s like you gave all of us a hug with this article.

  57. So glad Maurice inspired you, and you created this site to inspire us! Your articles are indeed the best.

  58. As if we were there with you…wonder if Maurice will read this?

  59. I remember how thrilled my dad was when he was a Guardian crossword winner! Hurrah!

  60. I never dared approach the crossword guy at work…now I am seriously regretting that decision.

  61. Caught myself staring at the picture trying to see the gaps… #crosswordjunkie

  62. Wonderful, wise, witty, well done.

  63. I knew a crossword Maurice. Hm…

  64. I must explore this whole crossword business.

  65. Don’t stop writing ever.

  66. No crosswords between crossword buddies!

  67. Ah, my godfather inspired my love of crosswords. When he had cancer I’d go sit with him twice a week to do them. It was the closest I could come to expressing my emotions about the situation.

  68. What a way with words you have!

  69. Want to know where I got my love of words? Chris was his name. Chris Hancock.

  70. Wondrous!

  71. Really resonates Chris

  72. Very interesting, thank you.

  73. Chris you are such a treat! x

  74. Wonderful story, thank you for sharing.

  75. Absolutely adore this Chris

  76. You are my best writer.

  77. Love you, love your site!

  78. Benign setter sounds like a dog that doesn’t bite!

    • Ha ha! You’re right, Larry! I believe the term they prefer is “composer”. They aren’t keen on “compiler” because it sounds like they’re just pulling stuff together. To avoid all this I went with “setter”, but missed the canine overtones.

  79. Your best work, Chris. Amazing.

  80. Stunning Chris, really moving.

  81. Delightful!

  82. So glad I clicked this link! Wow!

  83. Amazed to find your awesome site! This is so lovely, I wish I had a real life wordnerd friend.

  84. I am in awe of your writing, such a talent you have.

  85. Perfectly written.

  86. Powerful, moving stuff. Thank u x

  87. Lovely way to start my weekend, really amazing work you’re doing.

  88. Really enjoyed, especially your telling of the growing bond between you.

  89. What a heartwarming tale!

  90. Wonderful, thank you, and loved your other pieces too.

  91. I think I’m a bit in love with you.

  92. Inspiring!!

  93. You use words so well, I’ve no doubt you spend hours honing your craft, but it feels so easy to read, like a tale you beg your friend to tell over and over because it touches you.

  94. Been such a joy watching you write over the last 15 odd months. What a star.

  95. Not so much master and pupil in the end, more brothers in arms.

  96. What a wonderful happy corner of the internet this is.

  97. Epic stuff. Thank you for sharing.

  98. Really genuine piece that

  99. You always make me smile!

  100. Thank you for being Maurice to us.

  101. I always look forward to a new Chris Hancock! And this was magical.

  102. So rare to find gems like this!

  103. A thought: crosswords truly have longevity. What is the key to that, do you think?

    • Fads for other puzzles in newspapers come and go, but the crossword will go on for ever, Geoffrey. The infinite ways that words can be combined must have something to do with it. No two crosswords are even remotely the same. As a cryptic crossword lover, I think it’s the opportunities it gives for the composer to use his wit to lead you off the scent, up the garden path, but be scrupulously fair with you at the same time. That’s certainly true of the best proponents.

  104. Best thing I’ve read in years.

  105. You’re the business, Chris Hancock!

  106. Smashing! Bags of heart, and truly stylish writing.

  107. Bloody hell, Chris Hancock, you can’t half write!

  108. Wish I could have seen you two together :-)

  109. What a dear sweet thing! Not to belittle it, only noting how a small, gentle thing can be momentous.

  110. Love the article, but the picture – who does crosswords in pen?! :-)

    • Ha ha!. Funnily enough, Maurice and I did used to do them in pen, and I still do now. This does sometimes lead to a pretty scruffy grid when I fill the answer to 1 across into 1 down by mistake and have to ink over it :-/ So you’re quite right, Emily – one should use a pencil and rubber :-)

  111. Fab! Just fab!

  112. The healing power of crosswords, to soothe the mind and soul. Elegantly captured.

  113. What a satisfying ending! Fascinating site – had no idea there were so many language lovers about. Awesome.

  114. I adore this! And you. And your glorious site.

  115. Where else can I find your writing, Chris? You move me and intrigue me, from your childhood shelves to now.

    • Hi Mishka! I don’t write anywhere else – it’s all on That Word Site and accessible from the “More articles by Chris Hancock” links at the bottom of this article. Thank you for such a lovely compliment :-)

  116. Yes this makes me happy, recognition of a kindred spirit in our fellow beings.

  117. At first I was dreading Monday, but after reading this I’m all smiles. Thank you!

  118. I’m going to start doing my crossword at work in the hope that someone will come and join me. Wonderful, Chris.

  119. Ah, the good old days of cigar fug and newspapers and camraderie!

  120. Thank you Chris! I read this to my class. Their TWS English lessons are always their favourites.

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