Something is wrong with crossword 20,911. The clue numbers are scrambled and 10-across appears twice. I am on the verge of dashing off a complaint to the Fairfax typesetters when I see the small print: NB – 13 clues own unlikely numbers for reasons that will become clear. That devil, DA, he’s at it again.
The owner of these initials points out that he does more than prepare cryptic crosswords. Indeed, a review of David Astle’s output shows a diverse talent; there is a novel about a mirror maze, a guide to Australia’s most bizarre attractions – did you know that the country’s oldest surviving brewery has a Viking ship inside its walls? – an account of the murder of two Melbourne cops, and various works on the history of puzzles and how to decode them. He was also the literary expert on the SBS TV series Letters and Numbers and is a regular contributor to Radio National’s Sunday Extra.
But it is his ability to perplex crossword solvers that has garnered the most attention. For more than 30 years he has been the mastermind behind The Sydney Morning Herald’s Friday puzzle, regarded as the most challenging of the week. The DA Trippers, a trio of Melbourne-based fans whose blog is devoted to deconstructing his clues, describe their idol as “the wizardly warper of words, the master of multiple meanings and the handmaiden of the insufferably obscure, who manages to consistently and callously break us, only to have us return each week clamouring for more.”
David Astle, 54, was born and raised in Sydney, and now lives in Melbourne. He started tinkering with crossword puzzles while still at school. “I would have been something like 12 or 13 and I remember solving quick crosswords about that age and thought that, gee, these look fun to make or challenging and I like the idea of that challenge. So I set about getting graph paper and rulers and trying like heck and realising it wasn’t as easy as it looked,” he says.
His first paid assignment was for Fairfax in 1983. He remembers the day clearly, seeing his crossword appear in newspapers around the city and watching people gnash their teeth at this new mysterious, and difficult compiler. In those days he was invisible. When the Herald established a byline for its crossword-setters some 25 years ago, people knew just who to hate, adore or abhor.
After this length of time making puzzles there must be a risk of the occasional doubling up. “I am as diligent as I can be on that front,” he says. “If a clue seems very familiar, I’ll check my own database to see if there’s a replication. I’m more disappointed with myself that I’m falling for the same gag.”
In an age when increasing homage is being paid to the god of automation, are the days of flesh-and-blood cruciverbalists numbered? He is sanguine. “I would bring to the page all those things that crossword software still can’t get, the maverick and the mongrel of the human mind that it can’t match.”
Some words you will never find in his crosswords. Anything that evokes illness is out. Even though traumas is an anagram of Sumatra, he is still very reluctant to use it. He also shies away from words favoured by government officials, such as infrastructure and connectivity. “I really wouldn’t want those in my crossword either unless I was lampooning bureaucrats which is something I like to do anyway.”
One of his least favourite words is process. “It’s just such a colourless overused word and the fact that it’s an anagram of corpses says a lot. I think it’s a word that’s died from overuse.”
David Astle was a key collaborator in the creation of the word ‘phubbing’, or phone snubbing: the act of getting people to put their smartphones away and start talking to each other again. I put it to him that there is a role for new words in tackling global issues such as rising sea temperatures, multinationals not paying their fair share of tax, and the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. “Well, curiously enough, I’m in the middle of composing next week’s word column and it nominates a word that I believe has the power to make a global difference. I do believe that you can create language that makes tidal shifts and alters mindsets, but it needs to be a word that is created organically and not by a think tank.” The word is ‘xenial’ which means being hospitable to strangers, a good circuit-breaker to the current angry rhetoric about refugees.
It will satisfy crossword solvers to know that he understands our suffering. He admits to a sense of bewilderment when he can’t crack the code of other difficult setters. “I get a little bit restless with myself and – what’s that word? – stroppy.”
He says crosswords should be hard, but not grossly unfair. And as evasive as his clues are, they ultimately make sense. I admit to being stumped figuring out crossword 20,911. “Ah, OK. The whole idea came about when I thought, wouldn’t it be fun if you could manage to instil different numbering into the puzzle where the numbering had a significance or had a bearing on the clue’s answer,” he says.
“And what sprang to mind was the periodic table because there are some 120 elements for each atom and each one has a different number. So then I thought how do I create a grid where the numbers are only in unique squares, they’re not in crossover squares? And then once you work out that one is hydrogen and ten is neon, the whole thing starts to unravel. Hopefully.” Next week he’s entirely on good behaviour.
Tonight, David Astle joins Peter Doherty, Natalie Tran, PJ Vogt and Adam Spencer in Night of The Nerds at 8pm in the Roslyn Packer Theatre for an evening of outrageously educational fun and games.