Samer Nashef is a consultant cardiac surgeon at Papworth Hospital, Cambridge, and a world-leading expert on risk and quality in surgical care. He is the creator of EuroSCORE, which is the most successful risk model in medicine, used worldwide and credited with saving tens of thousands of lives. The author of more than 200 publications, his new book, The Naked Surgeon, is published on June 4.
When he's not saving lives, Nashef is also a regular compiler of cryptic crosswords for the Guardian and Financial Times under a pseudonym.
Writing crosswords sounds like pretty hard work for a hobby! When you work all day as a surgeon aren’t you tempted to come home and just watch a bit of telly instead?
It can be hard work, but it is such good fun. Like many other people, I am fascinated by the intricacies of language and the wordplay that emerges from such intricacies. Nowhere is this truer than in England, where folk as diverse as Shakespeare and The Sun headline writer cannot resist a pun. Compared to that, the telly offerings look a tad pale. Anyway, I don’t compile in one sitting, but I see wordplay everywhere, and if something strikes me as witty and clever I make a mental note of it, and after a few of these the rudiments of a puzzle have begun.
How did you get into crosswords?
At medical school in Bristol, I edited The Black Bag, a medical student magazine. A friend and fellow medical student called Andy Winterbottom asked me if I wanted a regular cryptic crossword for the magazine. I had never looked at one but I was intrigued and said yes. With access to both the puzzle and the solution, I began to see the “system” and started to try my hand at solving The Guardian crosswords. I noticed that on one particular day of the week the puzzle tended to be by Araucaria, and it was always very hard, very witty and a joy to solve. I was hooked. Many years later I started to compile for professional publications and eventually secured a place as a compiler for The Guardian and then the FT. I met Araucaria and we became friends right up till he passed away just over a year ago.
How do you go about compiling them?
You need a few words for which you already have clues that are “humdingers”. My first puzzle for The Guardian was built around three clues, one of which was “patients”, and that came to me while listening to a particularly tedious lecture where the word appeared on the screen innumerable times. Then you need to find an approved grid into which these words fit, and the rest of the grid is then populated by other words which, with a bit of luck, also lend themselves to a decent clue. When the grid is completed, the clueing starts, and that is when the fun begins.
What are some of your favourite kinds of clues?
Clues are usually made of two parts: the definition (what the answer means) and the wordplay (another way to reach the same answer by fiddling with the letters). The best is a word which offers the possibility of wordplay and definition in one: that means the same clue does double duty, defining the answer and providing the wordplay. Of course, it is not often possible to achieve this, but when it is, it becomes pure joy. A famous example is “Bust down reason” (9 letters). The answer is BRAINWASH — (think about it!)
What kinds of other people compile them?
They are truly a motley crew, from full-time puzzlers for whom this is the day job, to mathematicians, church ministers and academics in Russian literature and medieval medical astronomy (I am not making this up!)
Do you receive correspondence from crossword fans?
Occasionally, the editor will forward a “fan” letter or email, but most of the feedback comes from the blogs. The two I look at are The Guardian’s own crossword blog and a website called “Fifteensquared”. Both are most helpful in gauging the reaction to a puzzle, and both are populated by comments from cruciverbalists who are very astute solvers and expect a high standard of clue from the setters. Fortunately, most feedback is positive, but occasionally a clue can be dismissed as too easy, too hard, inaccurate or unfair.