WITH the likes of Colin Dexter around, Oxford is known as home to many of the country’s most fiendishly clever crossword compilers.
But few of them can match Jonathan Crowther for staying power, with the 68-year-old having just ‘set’ his 2,000th crossword for the Observer.
Both solvers and setters from across the UK were among 130 guests who gathered at Wadham College, Oxford, to celebrate the landmark.
Mr Crowther, better known to cryptic crossword enthusiasts as Azed, produced his first crossword for the Observer in 1972.
He has not missed a single week since then and is viewed by Inspector Morse’s creator and other devotees of his seriously challenging crosswords as “a giant” among puzzle setters.
Mr Crowther, of Garford Road, North Oxford, previously worked at Oxford University Press for 35 years, latterly as a lexicographer in the English language teaching division, before retiring in 2000.
After becoming a devotee of the Ximenes crossword in the Observer in 1959, he was offered the job as Ximenes’s successor.
His 39 years’ service as Azed, means only three men have set the Observer’s difficult crossword over eight decades.
Guests at the special lunch held for Mr Crowther last month included Colin Dexter, who for many years set The Oxford Times crossword, and Richard Stilgoe, the songwriter famed for clever wordplay. The event was organised by another well known Oxford puzzle compiler Don Manley, of Hayward Road, who supplies crosswords for the Independent, the Guardian and other national newspapers.
Mr Crowther said: “It was a great occasion.
“There were some wonderful tributes. It was quite blush-making.
“Some of the people I met have been with me from the start. That’s the most rewarding part of it. I have a very loyal band of solvers, who regard their Sunday crossword as a highlight of the week.”
He spends about ten hours over a week putting together the crossword.
“After all these years you get into a way of working. You don’t get sidelined by ideas that are not going to work. Writing the clues is what takes the time — that is where the originality occurs.”
And there were no clues about any future retirement.
“I’m happy to carry on for as long as they want me to,” he said.
He said no one should be puzzled by the number of crossword setters based in Oxford. “It is not really surprising in a university city like Oxford, although I would not say great brain power necessarily makes you good at crosswords.
“It is something different and difficult to put your finger on.
“I think it comes down to a certain way of looking at words and not seeing just what is on the surface.”
The broadcaster and journalist, Francis Wheen, said: “Jonathan is like the best sort of schoolteacher — inspiring you to produce great work because you so want to please him.”
Colin Dexter said: “The Observer’s crossword has exerted a powerful influence over my life for almost six decades.”
He said every character in the first Inspector Morse novel was named after regular entrants in Observer crossword competitions and by crossword compilers — “except the murderer”.