Obituary: Rev John Galbraith Graham, MBE, crossword compiler
The Reverend John Galbraith Graham was better known by Guardian readers as Araucaria (the Latin name for the monkey puzzle tree), the complier of some beguilingly difficult clues for its morning crossword. For 55 years Graham had delivered 14 crosswords a month for various publications and has somehow maintained a fine balance between the esoteric, amusing and bewitching. Graham had the ability to incorporate the most unlikely solution with clues that (when you solved them) made the puzzler smile with an inner satisfaction. Graham was a master at creating (and solving) long and involved anagrams but, despite his considerable years, he was never hidebound by the well-known or traditional. He once gleefully compiled a crossword entirely devoted to the Spice Girls.
Graham was the eldest of six children of an Anglican vicar and dean of Oriel College, Oxford. His father was later to become a bishop, and his mother wrote children’s books on religious subjects. The family played endless puzzles and word games so Graham’s love of words and language was fostered from an early age.
Indeed, aged eight, Graham regularly polished off the Times crossword before breakfast. He read classics at King’s College, Cambridge and in 1941 joined the RAF and flew many dangerous night missions over Italy. He had to bail out after his plane was riddled with bullets and he parachuted to safety; taking refuge in the stables of an Italian family.
To while away the long days of isolation Graham was taught Italian by a teacher also billeted on the farm while he gave her instruction in Latin and English. For his bravery he was mentioned in dispatches. On being demobbed he returned to King’s to read theology.
His first parish was in south London, where he acted as assistant to his former RAF chaplain. He fell in love with Nesta and the couple had to wait three years before they could marry. Graham spent the those years very happily at St Chad’s College in Durham, where he was a much loved chaplain and tutor.
On leaving St Chad’s in 1952 the principal, Theo Wetherall, paid generous tribute to Graham’s good nature and scholastic teaching. He wrote that “John had squandered his sensitive taste and knowledge of Classics on 1B Greek with unfailing patience”. Graham later became a vicar in Huntingdonshire.
Graham compiled his first cryptic crossword for the Guardian in July 1958 and took on the job full time when he and Nesta divorced in the late 1970s. He lost his living as a clergyman as a result of his divorce, although he was reinstated after Nesta’s death. At that time setters on the Guardian were always anonymous but in December 1970 pseudonyms were introduced and Graham, reflecting his love of the classics, chose Araucaria. He set around six cryptic puzzles a month and many quick crosswords for the paper and, as Cinephile (a reference to his passion for the cinema) contributed to the Financial Times. He also founded the crossword magazine, 1 Across, for which he set personal puzzles.
Graham made the headlines a year ago when he used his crossword to tell Guardian readers that he had been diagnosed with cancer. With typical cunning Graham set: “Araucaria has 18 down of the 19 which is being treated with 13,15”.
The answers were cancer of the oesophagus and palliative care. Guardian readers deluged him with good wishes and Graham was much touched by their concern.
He also put an announcement on the 1 Across website: “It is with very great regret that, owing to my continued ill health, I am obliged to withdraw my service of personal crosswords. They have been immensely fun to do and I have enjoyed the correspondence with my ‘fans’ and the challenges the custom puzzles have faced.”
In an article on the history of crosswords in Scotland on Sunday in August, Danni Garavelli wrote, referring to Graham: “Those at the top of their game can make the anagrams run to extraordinary lengths; once, Araucaria came up with the clue: “Poetic scene has, surprisingly, chaste Lord Archer vegetating”, for which the answer was The Old Vicarage Granchester, an anagram, of the last four words; at the time the house made famous by the Rupert Brooke poem was owned by Archer, who was lying low during a sex scandal.”
Graham had a staunch and loyal following on the Guardian. They responded to his quirky, abstruse and downright impenetrable clues with a competitive glee. But Graham invariably tested their minds and powers of deduction to the full with his own baffling and recondite intellect.
Graham was made an MBE in 2005. His second wife Margaret predeceased him.