Meet the crossword setter, Phssthpok

As a regular treat, every few months or so for almost 30 years, the Financial Times has featured a puzzle by Phssthpok, whose name comes from a novel called Protector. Adam Sanitt has also set for the Times and it’s time we met this setter.

Hello Phssthpok. When did you get the crossword bug?
I spent many happy hours at the back of a lecture hall with a newspaper balanced on my knee figuring out how to solve the crossword. It was many years before I became a proficient solver.

I suggested to the editor of the university newspaper that they should start a cryptic crossword and he kindly took a chance and gave me a weekly slot. When I last checked, it was still going.

Did you choose your pseudonym despite or because of its ungainliness?
May I take the opportunity to apologise for inflicting my pseudonym on generations of editors and solvers?

I appreciate it has caused consternation – not to mention fury – over the years. In my defence, I was already using Phssthpok as a pseudonym before crosswords.

In the early 1980s, as a teenager, I was involved in some of the precursors of the internet: Prestel, Janet and other networks. It was felt to be an advantage to have an online name that – if you only saw it fleetingly, as an entry on an access log rapidly scrolling past, for instance – would be extremely difficult to remember and to spell accurately. To a Larry Niven fan, Phssthpok seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

So the unpronounceability and perverse spelling are not accidents. When I became a setter, it seemed profligate to choose a different pseudonym.

While we’re on the subject, can you suggest a Larry Niven story suitable for a newcomer?
My recommendation would be Ringworld and its sequels: many of its ideas have passed into science fiction folklore and influenced, for instance, Iain M Banks’s Culture novels.

Thank you. What do you do for a living?
My day job is a lawyer at Norton Rose Fulbright, a City law firm, where I’m lucky to have a wide-ranging role that includes AI and other innovations.

The Transfer Problem by Adam Saint.
The Transfer Problem by Adam Saint.

I am very easily distracted, though, and have a few other interests – I hope nobody from work is reading this. Apart from compiling, I produce academic work in mathematics and related areas.

And my debut novel was published this year. The Transfer Problem is a speculative thriller, not featuring any crosswords but hopefully with sufficient twists to satisfy puzzle enthusiasts. For that, I have adopted another pseudonym: Adam Saint.

I see where that one derives from. Now, what makes a successful clue?
An elegant surface reading cleanly superimposed over a precise cryptic meaning: I am an old-fashioned follower of the Ximenean tradition and a stickler for compliance with the rules.

Sometimes you can’t beat the sheer delight of a pure cryptic definition. I think this one appeared in a Times crossword in the early 80s although I’ve never been able to track it down, so maybe I just dreamed it:

Revolutionary forklift (9)

And this well-known clue by Brian Greer manages to incorporate English grammatical ambiguity, echoing Chomsky’s “flying planes can be dangerous”:

Hunting animals can be dear sport (9)

Phssthpok showing Phssthpok Jr how to solve a crossword.
Phssthpok showing Phssthpok Jr how to solve a crossword.

We’ll give the answers at the end. When I imagine an FT solver, they’re on a train, in a suit. Same?
Yes, although nowadays I suppose they might be working from home in a T-shirt and shorts.

One difference from other broadsheets is that the FT readership is very international. The editor tries to ensure that no parochial English knowledge creeps into the clues. The exception is cricket: a basic understanding of the game is clearly an essential moral virtue wherever in the world you live.

Well, quite. Finally, is setting art or craft?
Setting is an art. Nobody who has had their breath taken away by the sheer beauty of a perfectly constructed clue could think otherwise. A crossword clue, at its best, is a form of poetry, like a haiku, the strict limitations of the form compressing it into a flawless gem. I hope cryptic crosswords will continue to feature in our newspapers – physically and online – and I am privileged to be involved in their creation.

Many thanks to Phssthpok. The answers to the quoted clues are SPAGHETTI and PREDATORS.

The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop.

Here is a collection of all our explainers, interviews and other helpful bits and bobs.

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