David Astle: Sunday Breakfast Sniper

Student journalist interrupts Mr. Apricot’s work (7,6)

Student journalist interrupts Mr. Apricot's work (7,6)

“A game I play is to order a coffee, sit down with a cryptic crossword, and solve it before the coffee arrives.”

David Astle is powerful. The print edition is his domain. His hippocampus is contorted in such a way that allows incredible verbal dexterity.

“I can riff in a dad-joke way. Just punning until everyone gets nauseous. I can straightaway see little flukes in people’s names, if it’s all in a containable length…”

Astle has an undeniable, dad-like warmth and familiarity. He is a vision in blue paisley, to popular puzzling what Doctor Karl is to popular science.  He is a wonderful, passionate word machine. He is internationally renowned for his crosswords, and that is terrifying.

“…To subitize—it’s a beautiful word—is to count without having to actually count. Think five apples on a table. I can manage a Scrabble Rack… maybe plus a blank. Letters and Numbers was pushing it with 9; you can see ‘versatile’, which is an anagram of ‘relatives’.  You need a pen and paper by 10. But we all know ‘inapt’ is an anagram of ‘paint’, and that the ‘dowager’ says, ‘do wager.’”

The re-race of my professional life (6)

Given the apparent novelty of his preoccupation cum occupation, Astle’s ascent was remarkably direct.

‘I was Zplig [one of Honi’s typesetters, on the table before us] 33 years ago. I was making beer bottles and birds nests, and crosswords that satirised all members of staff. I pushed the editors who were kind enough to indulge me. Then I took my stuff across the road and pestered the crap out of the editors and crossword makers at Fairfax until they waved the white flag.’

He was given a probationary, pro bono mentorship under Lindsey Browne (a master of the form who proposed to his first wife via crossword—then cryptically celebrated for another two grids). Within a year, he was getting occasional spots—five a year. “I got better quickly,” he says “it was a real thrill.”

“One of the biggest attractions of the job was that, long before the Internet you could actually be nomadic and turn a dollar.” For ten years he was itinerant, working on cargo ships in Papua New Guinea or South America, before settling down as a feature writer, with the coveted Saturday grid in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. He enjoyed almost anonymity beyond his infamous pseudonym, “DA”, until SBS’s Letters and Numbers, a public broadcaster’s wet dream that he co-hosted with Richard Morecroft and Lily Serna. While he is, perhaps de facto, Australia’s most prominent wordsmith,  he plays down any insinuations of celebrity.

“It’s celebrity with a small ‘s’. Some random emails asking, ‘what’s the origin of hunky dory?’—That’s my celebrity status and it’s a really privileged space. For years I have been besotted by words and word play and the fact that I’m associated with Letters and Numbers is felicitous. I am the dictionary guy. I like wearing that mantle.”

It is hard to think of a more prolific molester of suburban Saturday mornings. His is a special niche shared only with professional linguists, whom he likes to sidle up to when he thinks about podcasts and books, “to give passion a little more gravitas.”

Holy hippos are a way of thinking (10)

Astle is of a new guard of cruciverbalists. He recently appeared on 7:30 to defend the addition of ‘thanx’ and ‘shizzle’ to the Miriam Webster Official Scrabble Players Dictionary against an incredulous Leigh Sales. As a setter, Astle identifies as a libertarian. It’s a school dedicated to post-modern flourish and bending ossified rules.

“If we can somehow evolve and retain the beautiful, then I’m up for it. There’s a large part of me that loves the lyrical and the unique. Language needs to evolve. But don’t lose your heirlooms.”

“I love the fact that you can create a crossword with multiple solutions—that just plays with anybody’s head. That’s a real breach of etiquette. It’s beautiful evil. I love seeing something shiny and new. I cherish a clue that seems to occupy a different playground. It’s about pushing the limits of nicety and yet still, somehow, being answerable to the cryptic Gods.”

As small as the field of cruciverbalists may seem to the uninitiated, there are distinct, warring views on how a grid should be set. Libertarians set in opposition to the puritans, who insist on clues that are grammatically sound and consistent in both their operations (anagram and definition).

“In the bloody arena of the public page we can get a little snarky, but can anyone tell the difference?  Maybe you can when you’re on the field, but I think there’s a general fraternity of crossword makers. Crips and Bloods, that’s ferocious. Sharks and Jets, ferocious. This is more like a Bledisloe rivalry.”

Astle recognizes that rules, though flexible, do have a function.

“There’s a lovely precept from an English setter which is to lose gracefully. It’s a battle—but in the end you’re going to throw the game. You might do it at the last minute, but you’ll make sure they win the day. And if they are thwarted, they are thwarted gainfully, and there is reward on seeing what they missed.”

“You need to be fair.” Then, the flash of something sinister.

“…Or fair-ish.”

The immense love he has for both his puzzles and his solvers is self-evident, and it’s hard not to share his enthusiasm.

“It’s a kind of cosmic relationship, my relationship with the solver. In the same way that writers thrive on their readers, I feel very privileged. If everyone dropped a crossword and went off and flew a kite, I’d feel bereft. They’re an important part of my being as well as my livelihood.”

The affinity is deeply aesthetic.

“The crossword is a cultural artefact. I could find a 50s crossword from the Herald and it’ll have bigotry, and obsessions about people we don’t even remember. They are time capsules. It’s one of the few parts of the paper where you have licence to be subjective—where you can push an opinion. It’s the naughty corner of the paper.”

Which is exactly how the form started. The crossword, for its eminence, was only seen for the first time in 1913. Arthur Wynne, in a December edition of New York World, had a frustratingly small space that he could not reasonably fill with content or advertising or comics. Ever since, the form and its setters have occupied strange spaces.

“I’ll have occasional arguments with the crossword editor (and there is such a position) if something’s a little ghoulish—do we really want Ivan Milat as an answer? Do we want leukemia as an answer? We can have blowup dolls, but do we want strap-ons?—There’s the Sunday Breakfast Test. In the end it’s an all age pursuit. But you can camouflage the trickery and imply without stating.”

The subtlety lends itself to blue humour, but Astle wishes he could sometimes be more overt.

Not a stoic lip (8)

“If there’s ever a chance to kick shins, I’ll take it. I’m not alone in being exasperated with the state of politics at the moment—government and opposition—just how petty it is, how shortsighted it is, how solipsistic it is.” The most recent of Astle’s regular news anagrams for Radio National’s Sunday Extra was CHINA’S METHANE HOLE, with an extra U, a criticism which, rearranged, was SHENHUA COAL MINE.

“I can let fly there. It’s pretty much putting out my politics. That’s a dastardly decision, and I’m not going to sugar that anagram.”

For a man whose life is dedicated to a gentle leisure pursuit, Astle is severely opposed to the increase of the GST, the liberties only afforded plutocrats, and massive investment in distractions. It is comforting to think that he holds the attention of the Australian suburban brain in its pliant, Saturday morning sate.

“I’m privileged enough to have a few media outlets, so I’m not in a media stronghold, here. I’m a sniper. I try and choose my targets wisely.

He gets swept up in the image like my dad would.

“I’m some guy trapped in a home office with a rifle and Boggle cubes.”

You refute the imminent (6)

His war is on two fronts. The encroaching bottom line mentality constricts the munificence of print as well as politics.

“That tactile, inky thing we know as a newspaper, when that’s no longer with us, we’ll need alternative platforms, and we rely on the public having the same appetites for puzzle solving and for verbal mischief. They sound like big ifs, but old crafts are in vogue.”

“There will always be time and place for people to enjoy the tactile, even if it is as a download, rather than as something that lands on your driveway.”

His advice to setters could apply to any artform: “be versatile, elastic minded and resilient. Find your voice—freshness—and be driven. Passion has to be a huge quotient.”

The end for a savvy thief (6)

Coffee arrived a long time ago and he hasn’t touched the Honi cryptic. Like a mouse in his tremendous grasp, he could demolish it.

“But then again, fuck that.”

“There’s a lot of talk about how fast you solve a crossword, but what’s a crossword about? It’s losing yourself in the sidetracks. Solving is a plea sure. If you aren’t having fun, go off and do something that is.”