Puzzle me this

Image:David Astle

UTS academic Jenna Price raises the curtain on Australia's wizard of wordplay and UTS alumni, David Astle.

David Astle, 52, writes the notorious cryptic crossword which appears, reliable as an alarm, every single Friday in the Sydney Morning Herald (easy to be treacherous from his home in Melbourne).

You will know him by his clues; and also by the tiny letters affixed to each of his racks: DA. Addicts, aficionados and the addled say DA really stands for Don't Attempt. Racks? Yes. Some get strapped, then tortured on them. When I asked friends if they did David's puzzle, one tells me there is a permanent fatwa on mentioning DA in his household:

"He is devilishly difficult. Some days you lose the will to live."

By the time I met this alleged torturer, he was already about 18 or 19, a lovely sunny boy from Sydney's north shore who was what we'd call now an all-rounder. Gangly, good at school, good at sport, with a beaming open face which encouraged others to indulge him in his particular obsession. He'd come to university keen to be a sports reporter. Secretly though, his driving inspiration was a sign he'd seen near a relative's farm in Dural: Pleased to meet you, meat to please you. If he could write slogans like that, make people laugh, or look twice, then his work would be done.

"To me, that was the height of sophistication," he said.

We were at UTS together back when it was still the NSW Institute of Technology, both students in the communication degree and in 1980. He turned up at the Vertigo office (it was called NEWSWIT back then) wanting to make a contribution to the student newspaper.

I was the student editor, along with the lovely John Kavanagh.

There was a bit of a queue to contribute to the fortnightly tabloid of 36 pages and the office was always busy: Martin Peers, now one of the senior editors at the Wall Street Journal; Amanda Collinge, now series producer of Q&A; Ruth Ritchie, now television critic for Fairfax Media; so many others.

But Astle didn't want to opine, review or report. He just wanted to write crossword puzzles. They were the first puzzles he ever wrote for publication although he'd written crosswords at school and the teachers distributed them. John and I thought they'd be a goer because secretly we were word nerds too but we tried hard not to appear too enthusiastic because even in those days, it was cooler to be cool.

He wasn't at all fooled: "The belief that you showed in me gave me a lot more gumption to try the Sydney Morning Herald across the road."

So with his portfolio of undergraduate puzzles, he began his career as a professional puzzler in 1983. Back then he did them with pencil and paper – and he still does.

"It's closer to the action, same reason poets insist on pens," he said.David claims it's never been a full-time job but one of many in a portfolio: writer/ author/ journalist/ presenter/ teacher/ wordmonger. Briefly, he even tried advertising but he was a little older than your average creative and was hived off into direct mail. He left quick smart.

"I was making a lot of money but I wasn't having any fun," he said. "If you find a job you love, you never have to work again. I've come by that truism late."

When he returned full-time to wordmongering, he recognised how much he'd missed it. The money started slowly but over time, it's become more lucrative in the word game – that and a string of bestselling books, most recently Cluetopia (to celebrate the centenary of the cryptic crossword) and Puzzled, memoir and cryptic tease. He's an occasional cohost on ABC Radio National's The Conversation Hour and loved his time on SBS's Letters and Numbers. Anything with words.

"I dream it and I sleep it, I dream and sleep words. Whatever it was that I was going to do, words had to be right in the midst of it. I loved riddles as a kid, double meanings and verbal sleights of hand [see his top five words below and you'll see what he means]."

The love of words turns out to be genetic – or at least familial. David met his wife, Tracy O'Shaughnessy, both employed at a publishing house in Sydney which was doing a series on World War One. He was fact checking photos of guns and matching them up with serial numbers. That's when he wasn't chatting to everyone. As queen of deadlines, Tracy loathed him; until she discovered that he was the DA behind her favourite crosswords. Tracy, an academic at RMIT, one of the ATN group, is still a harsh critic.

"I'm not an elite solver ... I tell him when they are unfair or when he's given two clues, but the third leap is in his head," she said.

But his first leaps, all those years ago, were at university. A few of us who were at UTS in the early 80s have talked about the way the institution influenced us – I think David nails it. Specifically, he mentions an academic who taught us both, Arnie Goldman. We both loved him (and not just because he would quote Dylan in his poetry lectures on William Blake – the annual 2SER Dylan Birthday Marathon is a Goldman legacy).

Of course it was much more than any individual.

"I loved it because it radicalised me in a way; made me more political, gave me a more acute social conscience. And it gave me the courage to express myself and pursue things that were not classically careerist."

In what David might describe as a classical career, there are the dreaded key performance indicators, the endless reviews. He has none, unless you count a swathe of grumpy clue solvers who may ring or tweet or email The Herald if the neat solutions do not please them.

But there are also the letters just like the one where we began our brief meeting with David.

A solver writes: "[Your crosswords] provide me with so much more pleasure, and amusement, and screaming frustration and terrible ire. And the sly winks, and the tongues-in-cheek, and the touch of blue, and the rare invasion of politics ...They are glorious."

Don't Attempt's 5 favourite words

  • Rhapsodic: It's quintessentially musical. The first syllable includes rap. The last five letters are an anagram of disco.
  • Didgeridoo: IT has a beautiful sound to it AND a unique letter pattern. The shape of the word looks like the instrument being played, long, with the first and third Ds looking like the knuckles of the player. It's musical too – Geri is in there (she's a Spice Girl) and Dido, also a singer, surrounds her.
  • Serendipity: There's a dip inside serenity. That's a reminder that you need to have an alertness and a peace of mind when you plunge into something. Plus, a fantastic brand of ice-cream.
  • Someone: It doesn't get a lot of kudos but it's an oxymoron: a plural beside a singular. It also sounds like an amount you have gained – a sum won. Then it is that person we are always seeking, so it's central to the human quest. It's also a pitted fruit (a melon without the l inside) and the me(l)on is contained in another pitted fruit, the s(l)oe – dovetailed succulence.
  • Alice: I love Alice and not just because she is my niece; and the Wonderland pilgrim. You will also see that within Alice is LI, which is 51 in roman numerals. Looking for a pack of cards? That's Alice. LI plus the ACE.

 Story by Jenna Price
Photo by Kevin Cheung