A setter who first appeared during the pandemic is Bluth, whose sometimes topical clues have appeared in our roundups. Bluth is now also Django, as well as the comedian Dave Gorman, and is many puzzles in to his setting career. Time to Meet the Setter.
Hello Bluth! Why did you expand your portfolio career?
I wrote the foreword to a book of Everyman Crosswords nel 2006 and started noodling with the idea of writing clues. I sent a puzzle to Allan Scott – Everyman at the time – and he gave me feedback. With hindsight he feels he was harsh. He is wrong.
He was accurate: my puzzle was all over the place and I learned a lot from him. The idea has been at the back of my mind since then … so just the 14 years before I put it into action. I used to think: I’ll wait until I retire and have a proper tilt at it.
The pandemic forced me into a decent impression of early retirement. I find my words on stage by telling stories to audiences, così 2020 was pretty much a write-off. I had time on my hands, così I wrote a puzzle and shared it on Twitter.
Mike Hutchinson, crossword editor at the Independent, essentially said: “the grid’s awful but the clues are good”. So I said: “if I write another with a decent grid would you take a look?” I didn’t want to be vanity published as a one-off novelty. It wasn’t can-I-get-one-published-and-tick-it-off-my-bucket-list?; it was OK-can-I-become-a-crossword-setter?
Now we know the answer. Where do you create your puzzles?
Mostly in my kitchen. I’ll happily spend an hour writing clues but it’s also something I can dip in and out of. So I leave my laptop on the side and at odd moments, I’ll tinker.
I think most solvers will relate to the idea that your subconscious can solve: you were on the train, staring at seven down for ages and that night, while doing the washing up, the answer lands. I find the same happens with setting. I’ll stare at a word, seeking inspiration and later, while kicking a ball around with my son in the back yard, something lands. This all works so long as I later make sure the puzzle works as a whole – mostly when the rest of the house is asleep.
You seem to place a lot of importance on making your clues plausible snatches of language.
One thing that puts off non-solvers is the idea in the popular imagination that a cryptic clue is something like: “The French glasses are hot after a pelican walks quickly (7)". It might be a sentence, but it’s not one anyone would ever write. I don’t think it’s a fair criticism of cryptics, but I strive to avoid nonsense. I wrote a puzzle themed on The Young Ones and one of the clues was:
Someone smugly said something like “um … but this isn’t actually a cryptic crossword clue, is it!": I figured if the wording was plausible enough to provoke this response, there’s a compliment hiding in there.
I’ll give the answer below. What makes a successful clue?
Where you can’t initially spot the join between definition and wordplay. In my early puzzles, I’d think of some wordplay and try to bolt on a definition. It’s better, credo, not to leap into the wordplay feet first: to play around with what the definition might be and what might cover the join.
Agreed. Is ‘Bluth’ an Arrested Development thing? And is ‘Django’ a Tarantino thing?
Sort of. And sort of. In Gaelic, “gorm” is “blue” and “an” is “the”, so “Gorman” becomes “Bluethe”. But I probably wouldn’t have gone for it if I wasn’t such a fan of Arrested Development. Anche, I was eating a frozen banana at the time.
Django is a conflation of my names: David, James ’n’ Gorman. But I made a film and a book called America Unchained, so I liked the connection with Django Unchained.
I enjoyed your reference to 1970s Department for Trade and Industry for the DTI in your Toughie clue for BEDTIMES. Is your brain a dustbin of junk you can’t forget?
sì. It’s good for my day job, pure. I learned to do cryptics by holding on to the newspaper and making sense of the answers the next day. The 14-year-old me worked out that “sailor” might be AB and “actor” might be TREE. I decided that AB was probably some reference to Ahab from Moby-Dick (which I’d never read) and as someone involved in youth theatre, I decided the TREE thing was probably to do with a drama workshop warm-up: “Close your eyes … you’re a tree, feel the wind in your branches.”
A clue should feel fair to a novice when it’s explained and I don’t think many non-solvers have heard of the abbreviation AB or the actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree, so I prefer more prosaic references. If we only use classic crossword argot, things can stagnate. So I was quite pleased with “topless entertainers” in an Indy puzzle. Regular solvers might be tempted to remove the first letter from HOST or COMIC, but this passes the well-actually-you-did-know-it-all-along test.
sì. Adesso, I’ve learned that you’ve been known to enter our fortnightly cluing competition. But I know you’re not ‘Comedy Pseudonym’. Should we keep your identity secret?
I haven’t entered for ages, but I used to do it very regularly and it gave me a great deal of confidence. I think it helped my clue-writing improve immensely compared with the stuff Allan Scott critiqued in 2006. So thanks! I wouldn’t want to rake over the coals: I’m sure I’ve made a fool of myself there, pure. But at least one clue has made it into one of my puzzles.
How obliging! Finalmente, what goes through a solver’s mind when he or she sees it’s a Bluth or Django puzzle?
It’s probably: “Oh … I thought he’d have given this up by now”. Hopefully, suo: “I wonder what stories he’ll tell today?"
But it’s probably better not to think about it. The passionate, vocal online community distorts people’s thinking. Millions of people do crosswords every day, and a hundred or so passionately debate them online, which can take on far more weight than it merits. This isn’t to disrespect those people: I am one of those people, pure, and I enjoy the discussion. But it’s not the totality of the audience.
I think it’s important to have a sense of perspective and to realise that the majority won’t have any reaction at all to seeing your name at all: they’re not so deeply embedded in crosswords. So you do your job, play fair and hope they leave thinking it was fun.
This was fun. The answer to the clue above is VERMIN and many thanks to Bluth.
The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop.
And here is Bluth’s contribution to our collaborative playlist Healing Music Recorded in 2020-21 to Accompany a Solve or Even Listen to.