Whether or not you’re a fan of Colin Dexter’s first Morse novel, Last Bus to Woodstock, it certainly has plenty to offer for crossword aficionados. Dexter recalled how he started writing the book in 1972:
‘We were in a little guest house halfway between Caernarfon and Pwllheli. It was a Saturday and it was raining – it’s not unknown for it to rain in North Wales. The children were moaning. I was sitting at the kitchen table with nothing else to do, and I wrote the first few paragraphs of a potential detective novel.’
We learn early on in the book that Detective Inspector Morse is a keen crossword solver during the following exchange with Sergeant Lewis:
By a quarter to midnight Lewis had finished his task and he reported to Morse, who was sitting with The Times in the manager’s office, drinking what looked very much like whisky. ‘Ah Lewis.’ He thrust the paper across. ‘Have a look at 14 down. Appropriate eh?’ Lewis looked at 14 down: Take in bachelor? It could do (3). He saw what Morse had written into the completed diagram: BRA. What was he supposed to say? He had never worked with Morse before. ‘Good clue, don’t you think?’ Lewis, who had occasionally managed the Daily Mirror coffee-time crossword was out of his depth, and felt much puzzled. ‘I’m afraid I’m not very hot on crosswords, sir.’ ‘”Bachelor” – that’s BA and “take” is the letter “r”; recipe in Latin. Did you never do any Latin?’ ‘No sir.’ ‘Do you think I’m wasting your time, Lewis?’ Lewis was nobody’s fool and was a man of some honesty and integrity. ‘Yes, sir.’ An engaging smile crept across Morse’s mouth. He thought they would get on well together.
A little later, to the accompaniment of the Prelude from Das Rheingold, Morse is reading the preamble from the latest Listener crossword,
Each of the across clues contains, in the definition, a deliberate misprint. Each of the down clues is normal, although the words to be entered in the diagram will contain a misprint of a single letter. Working from 1 across to 28 down the misprinted letters form a well-known quotation which solvers…
At which point he leaps to his feet and heads for his filing cabinet at the police station, realising that a letter to Jennifer Coleby which he had previously taken to reflect a depressing decline in standards of literacy was in fact a cunningly coded message where the ‘carelessly’ omitted or included letters (eg an S missing from ‘asessing’ and an extra O in ‘loose’) spelt out the warning ‘Say nothing’. An ingenious device, although Morse does then have to spend a couple of pages at the end of the book explaining to Lewis (and the more enquiring reader) why Bernard Crowther took this rather unusual route to communicate with Ms Widdowson rather than, say, ringing her up.
It’s widely known that Dexter named his two main characters after two regular (and very successful) competitors in the Ximenes clue-writing competitions in The Observer – C. J. Morse and Mrs B. Lewis. Jeremy Morse, knighted in 1975 and chairman of Lloyds Bank between 1977 and 1993, was a highly-skilled clue writer, crossword composer and setter of chess problems. ‘Mrs B. Lewis’ was a pseudonym assumed by Dorothy Taylor, Lewis having been the maiden name of her sister-in-law; a very successful Ximenes competitor under her own name, Taylor was asked by Derrick Macnutt (Ximenes) to join Alec Robins in setting the Everyman crossword for The Observer in 1963 in succession to Macnutt himself. As an employee of the newspaper, she would thenceforth technically have been barred from entering the Ximenes competitions, hence the nom de guerre (although her true identity was clearly an open secret within Observer circles). She held senior positions in the Inland Revenue and was appointed MBE in 1971.
In the Ximenes competitions, Morse scored an extraordinary 14 wins, 28 other podium placings, and 158 ‘best of the rest’ finishes (the last-named being termed ‘highly commended’ until October 1963 and ‘very highly commended’ thereafter). Miss Taylor in her two incarnations scored 11/16/101. Morse’s most famous clue is perhaps his entry for RAMILLIES (AZ419): ‘Marlborough’s second crusher in conclusive quartet of victories‘ (a + mill in [victo]ries & lit.); Taylor’s winning entries include this clue for TREACLE (X997): ‘Material for a black confection that might become Electra‘ (anag.; ref. O’Neill, ‘Mourning Becomes Electra’).
What is perhaps less well known is that the surname of every character in the book was ‘borrowed’ from a Ximenes competitor. I read an article where Dexter was quoted as recalling that the murderer (Sue Widdowson) was the one person whose surname was not that of a 1960s competitor, but in fact there are no exceptions – the perpetrator of the car park slaying was named after J. B. Widdowson, the setter of 31 Listener puzzles as ‘Bart’ and a Ximenes regular. A school headmaster in Scotland, John Bartholomew Widdowson had a measure of success in the annual Times crossword competition (although he never won it), competed in Mastermind, was a very active member of Mensa, was the author of the Collins Gem Crossword Dictionary and lectured nationally on the teaching of mathematics. He had a rather less spectacular Ximenes competition record than those on the enforcement side of the legal fence, at 0/0/14. Perhaps his best entry was this one for OBLITERATE (X945): ‘Bitter aloe growing rampageous in scrub‘ (anagram).
Of the 25 surnames used in the book, 24 of them can be found in just 4 Ximenes slips (856, 878, 1062 and 1119). The exception is Green, S. B. Green having died in 1963 (see below). The remaining characters derived their surnames as follows (where two characters share a surname I have listed only one of them).
The victim, Sylvia Kaye: Sir Stephen Kaye, 3rd Baronet of Huddersfield (1/4/25) was educated at Stowe School and Trinity College, Cambridge, and was a Listener crossword solver. In the TV adaptation, Sylvia’s surname was changed to Kane, thus breaking the ‘Ximenean chain’. His single winning clue was for PALING (X962): ‘Early stop in recurrent adverse balance of trade might well protect pound‘ (lin in gap reversed; see pound2 in Chambers).
Mabel Jarman got her name from Mrs Norah Jarman, (16/16/59), a master cluesmith who was surely without parallel when it came to the ‘cryptic definition’ clue (the type of clue where there is no wordplay, outlawed by Ximeneans since the early 1970s). Among her many top-class clues that did include a subsidiary indication is the superb ‘Alien to Ruth, like the corn‘ (two defs; ruth = pity) for CALLOUS (X1140), the reference in the surface being to the lines ‘Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,/ She stood in tears amid the alien corn’ in Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale.
Gaye McFee: Mrs E. McFee (2/9/55). Her one winning entry in a ‘plain’ competition was for CARRIED (X834): ‘Bore will give the reverse of a short account—and what could be drier!‘ (a/c reversed + anagram; bore = carried).
John Sanders: T. E. Sanders (11/10/91) competed in the Observer competitions from the Torquemada era (1926-1939) through to his second place in Azed 1026 in 1992. Azed rated his clue to PADDY-WHACK (AZ221) – ‘Ire-lander?’ (paddy whack & lit.; lander = heavy blow) – as one of the all-time greats.
Jennifer Coleby – John Coleby (0/1/16) was a research chemist, Brain of Britain competitor and chess player as well as being a regular Listener solver and occasional prizewinner. He was also a contestant on Mastermind in 1973, and legend had it that when he selected the Life and Music of Liszt as his specialist subject, the BBC contacted the secretary of the Liszt Society to ask them who would be best qualified to set the questions and they duly recommended one John Coleby, whom the corporation then requested to do the necessary! Sadly, Magnus Magnusson recorded in his memoir of the programme I’ve Started So I’ll Finish that, while the BBC had indeed contacted the society, what came back was a set of questions set by the committee of the society, with John Coleby having discreetly stepped out of the meeting at an appropriate point. Unfortunately, it was a requirement that the setting be done by one person, so the committee’s submission was rejected and the questions were provided by someone unconnected with the society. John Coleby reached the second round of the contest even without the assistance of being asked questions that he had set himself. Here’s his ‘highly commended’ clue for SOBER (X283): ‘Composed to greet the Queen‘ (sob, ER; greet2 = lament).
Constable Dickson is named for Commander H. H. L. (Harold Hugh Lindsay) Dickson (6/7/43). Educated at the Royal Naval College, Osborne, he went to sea in 1919 and retired from the Royal Navy in October 1933 with the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, although he was recalled to the service on the outbreak of war in 1939 and served as gunnery commander aboard HMS Excellent, being promoted to Commander in 1943. After leaving the Navy he bought a farm near Fareham, standing as a Liberal candidate for the Petersfield constituency at the 1950 general election, and coming third (of three) with 14% of the vote; he had another go in 1951, with a similar placing (but only a 10% vote share). He arranged the first Ximenes dinner in London in 1949. This is his winning entry for WALLABAS (X195, clearly a ‘down’ entry): ‘By degrees the feller gets us down‘ (walla + BAs, & lit.).
Bernard Crowther takes his surname from someone who will be familiar to all Azed solvers, Jonathan Crowther aka Azed himself. When Dexter started work on his first Morse novel, Crowther had just taken over from Ximenes (although Macnutt died in 1971, his stockpile of unpublished crosswords ran through to number 1,200, published in early 1972 – Azed number 1 was published on 5th March of that year). He worked for the Oxford University Press between his graduation in 1964 and his retirement in 2000. Before assuming the mantle of Azed, he had 16 puzzles published in the Listener series under the pseudonym ‘Gong’, a family nickname. The young Crowther’s record in Ximenes competitions was sound rather than spectacular (0/2/23); his first effort (written while he was still at Cambridge University) was for CHEMIST (X743): ‘Leading pair of ministers in the Treasury once tried to debase the gold standard‘ (mi[nisters] in chest; ref alchemy).
Clive Palmer – F. R. (Frank) Palmer’s greatest successes came in the Azed competitions, with three outright first places in the annual table. He is a highly distinguished linguist who worked extensively on Ethiopian languages in the 1950s, and edited the Journal of Linguistics between 1969 and 1979. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and Professor Emeritus of Linguistic Science at the University of Reading. His record in Ximenes competitions was 0/0/6, with perhaps his best clue being this one for JONATHAN (X993): ‘Inhabitant of N.E., perhaps, needs some sort of hat on in a winter month‘ (anagram in jan; New England).
Mrs Baines – Colonel P. S. (Peter Stanhope) Baines (listed as Major and Lieutenant-Colonel in earlier competitions) had a Ximenes record of 3/4/37. He served in the Royal Engineers, was awarded the US Bronze Star Medal in 1947, was created MBE in 1958 and retired in 1966. I feel he deserved more than an HC for this clue for SMITHEREENS (X105): ‘These miners show little signs of striking‘ (anagram) although these days ‘show’ would certainly not be acceptable as the anagram indicator…it would now need to read ‘Little signs of striking from these miners, possibly’, or something like that.
Felix Tompsett – D. H. (David Hugh) Tompsett (2/0/15) was the final winner of “Xim’s No.1 Cup” in June 1971 and presented a new trophy to be awarded to winners of the Azed competition (incidentally he passed the Ximenes cup to the late Eric Chalkley, another of the ‘Woodstock clan’). An anatomist, he produced a number of resin corrosion casts of various body parts in the 1950s which were shown in 2015 at the Hunterian Museum as part of their Designing Bodies exhibition. Here’s his clue for UNMETHODICAL (X251): ‘Careless on much detail‘ (anagram &lit.).
Peter Newlove – Francis E. (Eric) Newlove had a Ximenes competition record of 8/13/91. He set Listener puzzles under the pseudonym ‘Novamor’ and also competed with success in those crosswords. This is his winning clue for ABSTAIN (X382): ‘Put a saint in a bath of Champagne and see if he does!‘ (St in a bain [French], & lit.), another clue which is perhaps a little ‘loose’ for today’s tastes.
George Baker – C. A. (Allen) Baker (17/20/141). A regular Listener competitor, he kept extensive records of the Ximenes and Azed competitions and assisted Azed in his early years by checking his scoring for the annual honours lists (he was described by AZ as being ‘an invaluable long-stop behind my unreliable wicket-keeping’). Among many excellent clues is this one for MACARONI (X438): ‘It must be swell, being a little waterproof duck in a rain-storm!‘ (mac + o in anagram, macaroni = a dandy)
Stephen Westbrook – Rev C. D. (Colin David) Westbrook (0/2/8) was elevated to the priesthood in 1962. His last entry for an Observer competition was in 1985, but he is now the Reverend Canon Westbrook, Priest in charge of the Newport St John Baptist parish in the diocese of Monmouth. As befits a man of the cloth, his most successful Ximenes entry made reference to the good book, specifically the parable of the rich man and Lazarus recounted in Luke 16, in this second-placed clue for FLESH-POTTERY (X1115): ‘Dives enjoyed it while alive: he slept to fry in torment‘ (anagram).
Melhuish – T. W. (Tommy) Melluish (5/14/84), whose surname was modified to a more familiar form for his fictional alter ego, graduated with a degree in Classics from Christ’s College Cambridge. He was for many years senior Classics master at the Bec Grammar School in Tooting. He was a regular contributor of Greek and Latin crosswords, acrostics and verse compositions to the periodicals Acta Diurna and Greece and Rome. A skilled raconteur and public speaker, a friend wrote of him after his death, ‘Whenever he rose to speak…there was among the audience an expectation of good things that was never disappointed’ (what a marvellous thing to have said about you). The same friend also recalled at a Summer School playing Pyramus to Melluish’s Thisbe: ‘I remember him, diminutive in stature but a greathearted hero, advancing blindly onto the stage, his vision almost totally obscured by the coal-scuttle which he wore for a helmet.’ A short article by Melluish is included in the book Liberal Studies: An Outline Course by E. G. Rayner and a certain N. C. Dexter. Undoubtedly a skilled clue writer, many of his clues are probably a little too erudite for today’s tastes. I think this is a smashing little effort for MARRY (X582) though: ‘Give the maid a ring when my boxes arrive‘ (arr in my), which despite getting only a ‘highly commended’ rating reads beautifully and for my money is better than the three prize-winning clues.
Mr Chalkley – E. (Eric) Chalkley (0/0/9) left school at 13 and spent his whole working life as a carpenter. Things changed dramatically for him in 1966, when he came across a copy of Ximenes’s The Art of the Crossword, about which he later said: ‘It was like a conjuror giving all his tricks away. I discovered that a Ximenes crossword was governed by principles. If you got to know what they were, you could work out each clue and solve the puzzle.’ His admiration for Ximenes inspired him to ‘ape X’, hence the pseudonym Apex under which he set 71 Listener puzzles, the first appearing in June 1969. A master of the themed crossword, he would set special puzzles for people that he admired, and thus began long correspondences with the crossword devotees Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, the latter responding with a clue (of sorts!) for Chalkley’s own name – ‘I ache with clerkly contortions‘. In 1972, he started sending out a Christmas crossword – A Puzzle Every Xmas – to a select group of solvers, which was combined with a clue writing competition. The winners read like a “Who’s Who’ of the best clue writers of their day, with Norah Jarman’s submission for COMEDIES being a cracker: ‘The Frogs etc issue croaks‘ (come dies). Chalkley also set puzzles for The Guardian, The Times and The Sunday Telegraph. He was awarded the MBE in 2002 for ‘services to the newspaper industry’, the first crossword setter to receive such an honour. Among his own best clues is this one for SIMMENTHALER (AZ504): ‘Sort non-English meat-men relish?‘ (anagram less E, &lit.)
Poliewoman Fuller – Mrs J. O. Fuller (1/2/6). This is her wonderfully simple clue for BERET (X369): ‘Remember ether masks what is usually felt!‘ (hidden).
Constable McPherson – Mrs S. M. MacPherson (0/1/6) had her ‘Mac’ modified by Dexter as well as having her sex changed. Her best clue was perhaps in one of the first Azed competitions, for SCLERODERMIC in AZ23: ‘Crusty cleric stormed about missing start of Test‘ (anagram less T).
Kimmons Typewriters – R. E. (Robert Edward) Kimmons (2/4/15) was a language master at Henry Mellish School in Bulwell, Notts. Both his Ximenes winners are excellent clues, his first success coming with his first published clue, for FIT-OUT (X773): ‘If going uphill watch the gear you’re in‘ (if [rev.] + tout; see tout1 in Chambers).
Doctor Eyres – L. E. Eyres (3/6/34). Laurence Eyres was a highly-respected classical scholar and lifelong friend of Monsignor Ronald Knox, with whom he exchanged copious correspondence between 1912 and Knox’s death in 1957. After Knox’s ordination as a Catholic priest in 1918, he joined the staff of St. Edmund’s College, Ware. Here, he rapidly set about recruiting lay-masters and wrote to ‘Sligger’ Urquhart, Dean of Balliol, asking him to recommend undergraduates in their final term; one of Urquhart’s suggestions was Knox’s friend Eyres, who had returned to Trinity College following the war to take his finals. Having joined the staff of St Edmund’s in 1920, Eyres moved to Ampleforth in 1926, where he remained. When Eyres retired from teaching Classics at Ampleforth, he was succeeded in the post by J. R. R. Tolkien’s son Michael. It’s hard to escape the thought that Knox himself might have written a nifty clue, although it would almost certainly not have been handwritten – he wrote a letter to Eyres in 1927 in which he began to type part way through, explaining, “I’m sorry, but I can’t think properly with a pen.” When researching his biography of Knox, Evelyn Waugh travelled to Ampleforth to meet with Eyres, and his contribution to Waugh’s book is prominently acknowledged in the preface. Eyres managed to get a reference to Knox into his clue for WATSON (X192), but perhaps his best clue is this one for PRISTINE (X843) – ‘“Enspirit” is wrongly spelt: that’s archaic‘ (anagram, pristine = belonging to the earliest time; ‘enspirit’ is an archaic form of ‘inspirit’).
Doctor Green – At the time of S. B. Green’s sudden death in 1963 he had the best overall record in Ximenes competitions, having won 16 first prizes and 19 other prizes as well as being highly commended on 114 occasions. Such was his standing that a special competition was set by Ximenes as a tribute (X756), incorporating a number of Mr Green’s best clues. One of his very finest was surely that for CHEQUERS (X190): ‘Inlaid boards used by cabinet-makers‘ (2 meanings; ref PM’s country residence).
Chief Superintendent Strange – T. L. Strange (0/1/14). This is his clue for ANAESTHETIC (X738): ‘“I can see that needs drilling” … It’s guaranteed to unnerve you at the dentist’s!‘ (anagram).
Mr Thorogood – M. F. (Maurice Frank) Thorogood (0/0/1) flew many bombing missions in the second world war as a Navigator on Avro Lancasters for No. 75 (NZ) squadron of the RAF, and was a member of the New Zealand Society of Great Britain. Mr Thorogood’s only published clue was for a Printer’s Devilry competition – however, C. A. Thorogood (who I’m hoping was a relation) was something of a ‘one-hit wonder’, this first prize winner for MOSES (X103, 1949) being his only published entry: ‘The mosquitoes leave nothing out, he prophesied‘ (mosquitoes less quit o; plagues of Egypt).
In all, the ‘cast’ recorded 118 winning clues and 179 second or third placed entries in the 452 Ximenes competitions between 1945 and 1971.
All the clues published in the Ximenes competition slips can be found online in the splendid Ximenes archive at andlit.org.uk.
Please let me know via the Comments if you are able to provide any additional information or if you believe there are any errors in the article.