Why I've swapped gigs for grids – meet Dave Gorman, our new crossword compiler

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Dave Gorman
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The key to cracking cryptic crossword clues is to ignore their surface meaning, explains Dave Gorman - Television Stills 
The key to cracking cryptic crossword clues is to ignore their surface meaning, explains Dave Gorman - Television Stills

I’m not often written about in newspapers. Of course, I occasionally get reviews. When that happens, I normally get tipped off and I can tell from the tipster’s tone whether it’ll make my day or spoil my breakfast. But it’s rare to be reading a newspaper and discover myself within it, as I did in February 2018.

“Performing too much? Is it end for super Dave Gorman broadcast?”

The words contained a germ of truth. I had recently finished making a series called Modern Life Is Goodish. I had loved the show, but I had become a dad along the way, and working 100-plus-hour weeks was no longer viable, so I had called time. So yes, I was working too much and it was the end for my broadcast.

The odd thing is that this wasn’t a news story. It was a crossword clue: “six down” in a Guardian cryptic, written by someone called Tramp.

I like cryptic crosswords. Obviously. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been reading that one. The fascination started when I was about 13. I was intrigued that my mum – a woman who loves crosswords – always ignored the cryptic.

What was going on there? I made it my mission to find out, holding on to the paper each day in order to look at the answers and crack the code. (Yes, reader, I was that cool a teenager.) Slowly – very slowly – I started to get it.

One criticism levelled at cryptics is that the clues are “nonsensical”. In the popular imagination a clue might read, “Don’t shower in spaghetti, a wombat might drive” but that simply isn’t the case. The clue quoted at the start of this piece involves ­completely rational sentences. The only thing making those words seem odd is the (15) on the end.

It’s not immediately obvious how those words should yield a 15-letter word. So let me explain what Tramp was up to. If it had been a regular crossword clue, it might have looked like this: Performing too much? (15)

That no longer seems quite so silly now, does it? You might not immediately be thinking of a 15-letter word for “performing too much?” but the idea that one exists isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. The rest of the clue is, well, a clue to help you find it.

My first professional crossword was published in April, using the pseudonym, Bluth - Catherine Falls 
My first professional crossword was published in April, using the pseudonym, Bluth - Catherine Falls

One of the definitions of the word broadcast is “to scatter, or disseminate freely”. In this clue, the following things have been broadcast: the letters I, S, I, T – R (the last letter – or end – for the word supeR) and the letters D, A, V, E, G, O, R, M, A and N.

Once they’ve been scattered, you might find they land looking like this: OVERDRAMATISING.

I know someone has just screamed, “But how was I supposed to know that!” Which is, I think, to fundamentally misunderstand how puzzles work. You’re not supposed to know that, any more than you’re supposed to be able to pick up a random jigsaw piece and slam it down on the dining room table in the right place, first time. You’re supposed to work it out.

It was not immediately obvious to me either – but then crossword clues do not exist in isolation. Crossing letters help you out. By the time I was able to solve it, I knew it started O-E-D and ended I-G. OVERD looked a likely start and ING was nailed-on as an ending and well, maybe you can see how a performing-too-much?-shaped hunch might start to help things unravel. This is how the vast majority of crossword clues work.

There’s a surface reading that makes sense. And you ignore it. Part of the clue – normally the first or last bit – is the definition. The rest is wordplay.

In the early 2000s, I toured a ­one-man show called Googlewhack Adventure. A tiny part of its otherwise emotionally fraught narrative involved crosswords. In particular The Observer’s setter known as Everyman. The show became a book, too, which explains how Everyman discovered I was a fan. (At the time, Everyman was Allan Scott – but like The Doctor, every now and then, Everyman regenerates.)

In 2006, Scott asked me to write the foreword to a collection of his crosswords. In previous collections, the ­honour had fallen to Timothy West and Prunella Scales. I enjoyed the fact that married, septuagenarian acting legends were being joined by a 35-year-old oik. Not that I’m particularly oikish. But next to West and Scales, everyone seems at least 20 per cent oik.

In my correspondence with Scott, I confessed that I had ambitions to write crosswords, and sent him one. He was generous with his time. And gentle with his criticism. Of which there was plenty. There were a couple of good clues. But only a couple.

With my awful schoolboy French, I can make a decent fist of reading a menu in a Parisian restaurant. But could I write a menu in French? Mais non! And that’s how it was with crosswordese. I could read it OK. But my writing was clunky.

I gave up. But only briefly. I started anonymously entering a clue-writing competition on The Guardian’s crossword blog. I even won it a couple of times. “Ooh, what have you won?” my wife would ask. “There’s no prize,” I’d explain to a look of withering pity. But I had won something: confidence. Maybe I could write a menu after all? I set to work on a new puzzle.

And then came lockdown. A lot of people were trapped inside, in need of something to do, so I thought, what the hell, I’ll tweet it… and duck for cover. To my delight, there was no need to duck. Several crossword setters got in touch with words of encouragement. Among them was Tramp. I’m not overdramatising things when I say I was a little star-struck.

Another reply came from The Independent’s crossword editor, Mike Hutchinson. “The surfaces are mostly good and amusing (who knew?). The grid is a bit dodgy, but we can work on it. I guess we’ve got time on our hands,” he said.

I definitely had time on my hands. Literally all of my work had disappeared overnight, thanks to Covid. In April, The Independent published my first professional crossword using the pseudonym, Bluth. (Since you ask, in Gaelic, Gorm = “blue” and An = “the” and so Gorm-an becomes Bluethe… but the “e”s make it look ugly, so Bluth it is)

My favourite clue in that puzzle: You must polish, not oil, cue – it’s what Higgins taught (9). That sounds like a sensible, snooker-related sentence. Older readers might think of Alex Higgins and younger folk of John. So it’s a decent surface. Now… ignore it. Like the previous example, it’s an anagram. You are being instructed to polish – or “improve” – the letters N, O, T, O, I, L, C, U and E. The answer is something a fictional Higgins – Henry – taught: elocution.

With a crossword published in a national title, I could have crossed it off my bucket list and walked away. But I didn’t want to just have a go. I wanted to be a setter. So I continue to write puzzles. Indeed, I’ve recently had cause to come up with a new pseudonym. Because I have a new gig setting for this newspaper too. In The Telegraph I will be Django. (My given names are David, James ’n’ Gorman)

In November, I passed the 30th anniversary of the start of my stand-up career. Except I haven’t been a stand-up for 30 years, because this year stand-up was stood down. This is the year I became a cryptic crossword setter instead.

When live performance returns, I will return to it with gusto. But Bluth and Django will carry on, too. It’s too much fun not to. Really, it’s just another arena in which to write sentences that appear to mean one thing, while turning out to mean another. Sort of like jokes.

Django’s first cryptic crossword will appear in the paper next Wednesday.