When does a name become a crossword name? Or: when does a setter think someone is well-known enough that most solvers will understand a reference to him or her?
Appearing in a clue or an answer is flattering, according to a remark that my notes tell me is from a 1953 edition of this newspaper:
When Foyles gave [gardening writer Beverley Nichols] a luncheon today to mark the publication of his latest book he talked of the payment of supertax not indicating ‘arrival’, rather is it, he said, when a writer is parodied in Punch or becomes a crossword clue. The clue to Mr Nichols’s identity, he asserts, was ‘Public anemone No 1’.
If, at the beginning of that paragraph, you – like me – initially pictured Beverley as a woman, perhaps he is not as renowned today as he imagined he would be. Late in life he predicted that in the 22nd century, he would be spoken of alongside Jane Austen and Beatrix Potter.
But if a setter today used “Beverley Nichols perhaps” as the definition part for an entry of GARDENER, there would quite rightly be indignant letters to the editor, as it would be unfair for the solver to infer GARDENER from a name that’s now as forgotten as Nichols’s other books on parapsychology, cats and so on.
The time after you’re well-known is no good for crosswords, then; and the same goes the time approaching your heyday, as shown by a couple of recent examples. In the Independent, Tees gives us this clue …
13a Hair-to-rug transformation seen in spin supremo? (4,5)
[ wordplay: anagram (“transformation”) of HAIRTORUG ]
[ definition: spin supremo ]
… for Downing Street Director of Communications GUTO HARRI; it was Harri who pronounced the prime minister “not a complete clown” which in itself makes him more eligible as an answer than he would have been when he was merely the BBC’s chief political correspondent.
Likewise, since winning Strictly Come Dancing, Bill Bailey has appeared in such places as Qaos’s clue …
23d Court jester? (6)
[ double definition ]
… for BAILEY and Alchemie’s clue …
18/27a Bill Bailey show possibly calms mice you’d stimulated (7,6)
[ wordplay: anagram (“stimulated”) of CALMSMICEYOUD ]
[ definition: Bill Bailey show possibly ]
… for MUSICAL COMEDY but before that had only appeared in special cases such as Notabilis’s 2013 clue …
6d Embittered Bill Bailey’s opening in Morecambe, say (7)
[ wordplay: abbrev. for ‘bill’, then first letter (“opening”) of BAILEY, inside (“in”) first name of a famous Morecambe ]
[ AC, then B inside ERIC ]
[ definition: embittered ]
… for ACERBIC, where his name is essentially abstract wordplay.
Bailey will remain in crosswords now that he’s in that sweet spot. Two more who found it sweet were folk-rockers the Indigo Girls, who were asked in the 2006 documentary Wordplay what it felt like to be a New York Times answer:
Emily Saliers: Oh, man. That’s called the pinnacle of our career. It was a thrill, a total thrill.
Amy Ray: I was actually just surprised, because I always thought of us as being pretty underground and not really in the intellectual set. But it was exciting, flattering.
I can confirm, as the first summer of the pandemic offered me an amusing moment in the appearance of this in Prospect magazine’s Generalist puzzle …
… even in the knowledge that the placement of the letters in my name helpfully filled a pesky gap. Is that one fair, though, I asked myself and decided that crossword references to the world of crosswords are probably their own special category.
What about you? Have you ever muttered something akin to Reggie Perrin’s “I just don’t know any Bolivian poets”, or do you tend to presume that if people appear in, say, a Guardian crossword, they are, to paraphrase Araucaria, people Guardian readers should know?
Find a collection of explainers, interviews and other helpful bits and bobs at alanconnor.com
The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop