Vlad has been setting cryptics and Genius puzzles for the Guardian since 2014. He is also known to Independent solvers as Tyrus, and constructs fiendish barred puzzles as Lato for such series as the Listener, the Inquisitor and Enigmatic Variations.
His first Guardian cryptic contained such misleading surfaces as “Obvious replacement for Ant’s partner (11)”; his puzzles draw on language and names from the news pages as well as intriguing pieces of vocabulary and his definitions are often deftly disguised.
Vlad puzzles tend to be witty, occasionally scurrilous and intelligent: very Guardian, in other words. So, let’s meet the setter.
What do you do for a living besides writing crosswords?
I’m an English teacher in a secondary school, but only part-time now. I also do a bit of exam invigilating. Home is a leafy suburb of Liverpool (yes, there are a few) – though I’m originally from London.
And when did you get the crossword bug?
From my dad, who did the Daily Telegraph every day. I remember the sense of achievement the first time I managed to finish it on my own. I really got interested at work when I used to solve the Guardian with colleagues. Sadly most teachers now are so overworked, that seems to be a thing of the past.
How did you choose your pseudonyms?
Vlad (the Compiler) is after the Impaler’s more civilised brother; Tyrus may sound impressively classical, but is an anagram of Rusty, my dog when I was a kid; Lato is an anagram of my surname.
What are your favourites of your own clues or puzzles?
Looking back at clues, I like these:
13d I must — she’s around! (3,6)
14ac/29ac/1d Can claims prove to be reliable? Absolutely (2,4,7,4,2,4,2,3,3)
14ac Groom used to rue riding under this rule (5,2,8)
As for puzzles, I fondly remember an Indy crossword themed round oxymorons with FIFA’S ETHICS COMMITTEE reading as a perimeter nina. Another favourite celebrated my team AFC Wimbledon winning a place in the Football League nine years after the disgraceful MK franchising.
The poor solver who had to blog the puzzle for Fifteen Squared had his work cut out explaining some of the references (which he did very well). All very self-indulgent, I know, and less interesting to non-AFC supporters (that is, everybody else). So it served me right that we lost on the day it appeared.
We’ll give the answers below. What makes a successful clue?
I always prefer clues that read naturally and have a meaningful surface, though I know that’s not important to some solvers.
I dislike obscurity for its own sake – the challenge should be to present the familiar in an unfamiliar way, as someone once said.
Originality is good, which can be difficult when you consider how many times most answers have been clued. I appreciate well-disguised or offbeat definitions and if there’s a chance to be topical or make a joke, so much the better.
And what makes an unsuccessful clue?
I’d say a clue is only really unsuccessful if it has an error (we’ve all been guilty of that) – even then, most solvers manage to work round it.
When an answer is, say, a scientific term or a recondite piece of general knowledge, then obviously a correspondingly easy clue is desirable. I think setters are entitled to expect a reasonable degree of general knowledge from solvers, though that is of course subjective. Classical music is usually uncontroversial whereas popular culture is sometimes frowned upon.
Probably my least favourite clue is the time-honoured “Cheese made backwards (4)”. It’s barely cryptic and makes absolutely no sense.
What are the tools of your trade?
Crossword Compiler and Sympathy software; Collins, Chambers, Oxford and the Chambers Crossword Dictionary. And the internet, of course. The lists of synonyms in the Crossword Dictionary are especially useful, though I wouldn’t use them uncritically.
Is setting art or craft?
That depends on how you define art, really … Tracey Emin’s bed?
Clue-writing is definitely a creative skill, a bit like writing poetry. That may sound pretentious but there are similarities: economy of words, hidden meanings, speech rhythms even – told you it sounded pretentious!
On the other hand – annoyingly – puzzles tend to be totally forgotten within a day or two.
Barred puzzles are probably more distinctive. The best can be so multi-layered and innovative that I’d certainly class them as art
Agreed. How do you imagine a solver of your crosswords?
Probably people with a sense of humour who are fairly experienced solvers. And they’re unlikely to be fans of Donald Trump or the Tory party. That doesn’t narrow it down much, though, especially among the Guardian readership.
That reminds me: how do you feel looking back at the splendid clue: “Controversial candidate wanting power … and nearly becoming president?”
I liked it at the time. Sadly, it proved not quite as prescient as I expected. Hence a later clue:
11ac Prospect of this isn’t half depressing — could be better! (9,5)
How do people respond if you tell them you’re a crossword setter?
Some non-crossword people are quite impressed: they think, gratifyingly but erroneously, that it must equate to high intelligence. They sometimes ask how long it takes to write a puzzle, a question I can never properly answer.
Is a propensity to play games with words ever a nuisance to yourself or others?
Not to me. If I’m stuck in a waiting room, for example, I can use the time profitably trying to clue words on posters. Not so sure about others, particularly if they’re trying to have a conversation.
Glad to hear it. If you weren’t a crossword setter, what would you be?
Maybe a more prolific reader and solver.
Finally, what do you think goes through a solver’s mind when she or he sees that it’s a Vlad puzzle?
Some will look forward to the challenge, I guess, others might think it’ll be too hard. Naturally you’re hoping for more of the former but you can’t please everybody.
Many thanks to Vlad. The answers to the clues above are: TRANSPARENT; THE MISSUS; IT DOES EXACTLY WHAT IT SAYS ON THE TIN; DROIT DU SEIGNEUR; EDAM; TRUMAN and the bathetic PRESIDENT TRUMP.
The crossword blog returns on 14 September. Stay safe in the meantime.