Custom Cryptic Crosswords

Who was Araucaria?

John Graham (Araucaria)John Graham (Araucaria) was a crossword setter much loved by Guardian solvers worldwide. In 2006 he started setting custom puzzles for people, until in 2013, at the age of 92, he became too ill to continue. On his website, he nominated Boatman as his successor, and in subsequent emails he suggested setting up a website such as this one, with a wider bank of compilers being able to set more custom puzzles.

In memory of John, £10 (£20 from Boatman, Enigmatist or Arachne) from every puzzle commissioned via this website will be donated to Brookfield Care Home in Somersham, whose staff cared for John at the end of his life.

This website was created with John's encouragement and inspired by his example. As is the case with much that he touched, it would not have been possible without his generosity of spirit.


John was born in Oxford, where his father was dean of Oriel College. He read classics at King's College, Cambridge, leaving to join the RAF in 1941. He flew as a navigator in Italy and was mentioned in dispatches. After the war he returned to King's and read theology. In 1949 he joined the staff of St Chad's College, Durham, as Chaplain and Tutor where he stayed until his marriage in 1952. On his departure the Principal, Theo Wetherall, paying tribute to his good nature, wrote that 'he squandered his sensitive taste and knowledge of Classics on 1B Greek with unfailing patience enlivened by rare expressions of nausea'. After posts in Aldershot, Reading, and London he became a vicar in Huntingdonshire.

His first puzzle for The Guardian appeared in July 1958; at that time setters were anonymous, but in December 1970 pseudonyms were introduced and Araucaria was born. He began compiling crosswords full-time in the late 1970s when his divorce lost him his living as a clergyman.

Besides Araucaria's cryptic crosswords in the Guardian, for which he produced around six per month, he also set around a third of the quick crosswords for the Guardian, cryptic crosswords as Cinephile in the Financial Times, puzzles for the crossword magazine 1 Across, and personal crosswords by request. Araucaria is the Latin name for the monkey-puzzle tree; another name for it is "Chile Pine", from which he formed the anagram "Cinephile", though his love for film was restricted to the glory days of Hollywood and Ealing.

He lived in Somersham, Cambridgeshire. He was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in the 2005 New Year's Honours, for services to the newspaper industry.


John Graham's clue-writing style made him one of the best-loved of all setters. His style is sometimes referred to as 'Araucarian'; in it - to a degree - "anything goes" as long as the answer can be readily and unambiguously determined. This style, of which The Guardian's Bunthorne was another notable exponent, contrasts with the more rigid 'Ximenean' style in which strict clue-writing rules must be adhered to.

Widely admired for his clever use of cross-references and special themes, he was usually called upon to produce the extra-large puzzles printed in the Guardian on bank holidays. He is also credited with creating a new format of crossword, the 'alphabetical jigsaw' in which the clues are labelled not with numbers but with letters which are the first letters of the solutions; when solved, the answers are to be placed "jigsaw-wise, however they may fit," though of course only one arrangement will work. Clues to the alphabetical jigsaws are often in the form of rhyming couplets. Another variation is the 'perimetrical jigsaw', in which an additional clue is given to the 28 white squares around the edge of the diagram, and remaining solutions have to be fitted in jigsaw-wise as above.

His clues often included long anagrams, with his favourite appearing in a Christmas puzzle: 'O hark the herald angels sing the boy's descent which lifted up the world', an anagram of 'While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground'. Another much-quoted example is 'Poetical scene has chaste Lord Archer vegetating' which yields 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester', the title of Rupert Brooke's poem, and the home of Lord Archer who at the time was lying low after unfavourable newspaper coverage.