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Random Thoughts on Crosswords Cryptic and Concise + Recherché Times Crossword Clues Considered
I always look forward to Sabre's Listener crosswords, and Coincidence (No. 4326), the final puzzle of last year, provided a most enjoyable post-Christmas solve. It had a fairly ordinary-looking barred grid (10 rows, 15 columns), and the preamble began:
Before entry into the grid, each clued answer must have one letter replaced by another (in two cases, the letter and its replacement are identical). These pairs of letters taken in clue order provide two examples of a coincidence; the unclued entry, when completed, illustrates the cause of the coincidence. Lengths in brackets refer to grid entries. Solvers must highlight in the completed grid a further (4-letter) example of the coincidence.
It fairly soon became apparent that there was something fishy going on as the obvious answers to some of the clues needed one more letter than was available in the grid. Further investigation showed that the upper part of the middle column needed to accommodate two letters in each checked cell, and that if taken in the order they appeared in the clue answers (with unchecked cells filled in appropriately), they could spell out MINUTE HAND and HOUR HAND. This tallied with the two examples that had been emerging from the pairs of letters mentioned in the preamble, SIXTEEN AND FOUR-ELEVENTH MINUTES PAST THREE and TWENTY-ONE AND NINE-ELEVENTH MINUTES PAST MINUTES TO EIGHT, as well as the 4-letter example, NOON. The coincidence of the title was clearly any of the points at which the two hands of a clock (on a wall) lie at the same angle to the vertical.

I've written before (here) about my difficulty with puzzles where two letters have to be written in a single cell, but in this case the theme of the puzzle provided a wonderful "Get Out of Jail Free" card: at the point where the hands of a clock coincide, the minute hand as near as dammit hides the hour hand, so obviously the middle column should contain just the letters MINUTE HAND. What a brilliant coup - so typically "Sabre"!

Except that when the solution appeared, it showed the middle column with HOUR HAND alongside MINUTE HAND, though I was relieved to find that MINUTE HAND on its own was allowed as an alternative. It turns out that the solution with MINUTE HAND on its own hadn't occurred to Sabre as a possibility; however, around a third of those submitting solutions had opted for it, which is presumably why it had been allowed. There doesn't seem to have been a great deal of online discussion of Coincidence (at least on respectable sites). Jaguar (who actually submitted a solution with both letters) wrote on Listen With Others:
I expect Sabre is shaking his head, sadly, that the solution he intended wasn’t regarded as unambiguous after all (I expect he preferred just MINUTE HAND in the middle column, since just because a letter was changed in PREACH (U/N)P before entry doesn’t mean you then still have to enter all the letters; my counterargument to that was that the hour hand is rarely perfectly hidden, as it’s usually fatter than the minute hand.)
(That was my assumption too, but we were both wrong.) On the other hand, Andy Stuart (who thought this was "not one of Sabre's finest") wrote on The Crossword Centre's Message Board:
I'm astonished that an alternative solution has been allowed. I cannot believe that was Sabre's intention. With only MINUTE HAND entered in the central column, the completed grid doesn't illustrate the cause of the coincidence. It also breaches the first sentence of the preamble, one of the consequences of which is that PREACH UP has to be changed to PREACH NP. Nowhere is there the suggestion that this change must be subsequently ignored. Finally, a solver submitting the alternative 'solution' hasn't demonstrated an understanding that the unchecked cells require two letters as well.
None of Andy Stewart's arguments cuts any ice with me, but I can see it would have been better if Sabre had made his intentions rather more clear. And, as someone who feels that more than one letter in a cell should be avoided if at all possible, I'd have much preferred it if he'd clarified things so that the MINUTE HAND solution was the only acceptable one.

If you haven't yet tackled yesterday's Listener puzzle (Conduit by Loda, No. 4331), you might like to know that the enumeration for Clue 41 should be (3), as given on the Times Crossword Club's website, rather than (4), as it appears in the printed edition of the paper (at least in my copy).

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Monday's puzzle (No. 25,981) evoked a slightly unexpected response from the TftT blogger, who asserted that the word "must" in 9ac:
Reckon I must have millions invested in property (8) [ESTIMATE]
(select between the square brackets for the answer)
was "just a filler". He was backed up by another (very experienced!) solver who commented: 'I agree that "must" at 9A is unnecessary. The clue works just fine without the word so why is it there?' Of course anyone familiar with Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword will know that the setter almost certainly included "must" to reflect the distinction between the pronoun "I" and the letter "I". Since it's the letter - rather than the setter - that needs the letter M appended, the clue without the word "must" really ought to read "Reckon I has millions invested in property (8)". Although it wouldn't have bothered me all that much if the clue had read "Reckon I have millions invested in property (8)" - indeed I might not even have noticed the solecism - I would argue that the setter (or was it the crossword editor?) was wise to include it, since omitting it would almost certainly have called down the wrath of the strict Ximeneans. The case for "must" is strengthened here because it arguably improves the surface reading, whereas it can sometimes make a clue sound rather artificial.

There are times when I wish Ximenes had never laid down his "rules" for crossword-setting: the archival Times crosswords I've been tackling have almost without exception been great fun, despite providing copious examples of exactly the things he hated. But once his book was published, there was really no turning back, and although progress has been gradual over the past (nearly) 50 years, most modern cryptics (most of the ones I tackle at any rate) follow X pretty closely. And I don't think that's really turned out to be too much of a hardship for setters. I started entering X's Observer clue-writing competitions before his book was published, and learnt quite quickly from his comment slips what sort of things he liked and what he objected to. On the rare occasions when I compose a clue nowadays, I do try to stick to his rules as far as possible. And indeed I have been known to raise an eyebrow if I spot a particularly glaring infringement in a clue written by someone else.

* * * * *

I'm writing this while listening to Kate Gross on Michael Berkeley's programme Private Passions on BBC Radio 3. Her death on Christmas morning was a sad reminder of the fleetingness of life, and that I perhaps ought not to be frittering so much of my time away on crosswords now that I'm in my 70s. And yet it's hard to break an addiction which still, despite my senior moments and ever-slowing pace, brings me a lot of pleasure. As far as this blog is concerned, I'm aware that it's becoming a little predictable, so I've decided to try to write something on the first Sunday of each month (just to let you know I'm still alive :-) and only write at other times when I've something out of the ordinary to say. Of course I'd be delighted to hear from you at any time on any crossword-related topic (or on any other topic you think I might find interesting).

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(In what follows, select between the curly brackets for checked letters, and between the square brackets for the answer.)

Friday's Times crossword (No. 25,968) contained the clue:
Risky time for Buzz to rue losing power lines (2-5)    {R‑E‑T‑Y}    [RE-ENTRY]
I took "Buzz" to be Buzz Aldrin, and because there used to be an understanding that the Times crossword didn't include the names of living persons, I assumed that he'd snuffed it and that I'd either missed his obituary or forgotten all about it. Actually I'm not quite sure that the mention of someone in a clue like that really counts, and in any case (as commenters on TftT pointed out), Buzz could refer to Buzz Lightyear of Toy Story (a film that Janet and I started to watch on the earnest recommendation of Janet's granddaughter, but abandoned within twenty minutes as not really our thing - though at least that was enough for me to learn the names of the two main characters). Anyway I looked up Buzz Aldrin, and was pleased to find that he's still alive.

But it got me wondering when the Times crossword's "no living persons" rule actually came in. Certainly the archive puzzles that I've been tackling recently seemed to have no such restriction. The latest one, No. 3,192 from 16 May 1940, contained the clue:
He simply plays the fool (5,4)    {R‑L‑H‑Y‑N}    [RALPH LYNN]
I suspect this would baffle most younger solvers, and maybe some older ones as well. However, my mother used to be very fond of the Aldwych farces, and I've watched several myself on film, so the name of the actor who played the "silly ass" rôles is entirely familiar to me, as are the names of his co-stars, Tom Walls and Robertson Hare. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, I suspect that a couple of phrases that Janet occasionally uses have come from the same source via her mother, as I've otherwise only ever come across "the tale of the old iron pot" and "fiddling and diddling" in Rookery Nook (I think, or it could be some other play by Ben Travers). For the record the answer to the clue still had over 20 years to live in 1940.

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Last week's Sunday Times crossword (No. 4,618 by Tim Moorey) provoked even more bile than usual from Times Crossword Club members. Some of the comments seemed extraordinarily perverse. One person, who claimed to have started solving crosswords 70 years ago, said that he particularly enjoyed the rigour of Ximenes and that, for him, things had gone downhill ever since. I'm not sure when Ximenes started formulating the rules he proposed in Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword (published 1966), but certainly if you compare Times crosswords of 1944 with those of 2014, the latter are unquestionably more "Ximenean". It's possible that fundamentalist Ximeneans of today might find something in Tim Moorey's crossword that went against the grain, but I somehow doubt if Ximenes himself would have found anything in it to take exception to, though he'd have found the style rather different.

Another objection to Tim Moorey's crossword was that it was too easy. For one commenter, this seemed to be connected with the generous prizes that the Sunday Times offers, which might fall into unworthy hands if the crossword didn't provide enough of a challenge. Personally, as one who has a good track record when it comes to solving difficult crosswords, I'd be delighted if the puzzle was difficult enough to whittle the number of correct solutions down to an average of (say) ten a week, but I don't imagine that would appeal to the owners of the Sunday Times, or most of its readers, or the prize sponsors (Cross pens - I'll give them a plug in the hope of encouraging them to keep going, at least until I've won a prize :-). In fact I suspect most ordinary solvers are quite happy that the Sunday Times provides a crossword whose difficulty varies from week to week, though some will no doubt find the tougher ones a bit of a slog. I've written before in praise of easy crosswords, and my comments apply particularly to crosswords in Sunday papers with a large and varied readership. Grumblers should note that the Everyman puzzle in The Observer has been very easy for as long as I can remember (today's, available via the Guardian website, should be a sub-4-minute job for any aspiring Times Crossword Championship contenders), and that's just fine by me. If you want something a bit more challenging, you can always have a go at Azed - or Mephisto in the Sunday Times.

Two of Tim Moorey's clues that attracted especial vituperation were 9ac:
Great presentation showing now (2,7) [AT PRESENT]
(select between the square brackets for the answer)
and 24ac:
Order coming from Strasbourg (4) [ASBO]
Comments included:
"Hidden clue was very poor"
"9ac was dire"
"There is no excuse for the sheer laziness of 24ac".
I liked both of these clues. I suppose it's possible to argue that it would be better not to have more than one hidden answer clue in a 15x15 crossword, but it didn't register with me at the time, and it doesn't bother me now. I particularly like 24ac, since I can imagine UKIP members saying to themselves (or anyone else who's listening): "Yes, damn it. And it needs to stop!" The 2nd and 4th letters (which were checked) called to mind:
First city in Czechoslovakia (4) [OSLO]
I'd be interested to know when this classic clue first appeared. I came across an early example recently in Times crossword No. 6,198 (27 January 1950). Can anyone improve on that?

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My last two weekends have been interrupted by the unexpected - pleasantly last week, not quite so pleasantly this week - leaving little time for thinking about crosswords beyond tackling those I solve regularly. I'll be back next week unless something else comes up.

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(In what follows, select between the curly brackets for checked letters, and between the square brackets for the answer.)

A couple of weeks ago I tackled a Times crossword from the first 100 (No. 37 from 15 March 1930) for the first time. Or rather the second time, because many years ago I must have attempted No. 1 from 1 February 1930. I can't remember exactly how I fared with the latter, but I'm pretty sure I made heavy weather of it and very probably didn't finish it correctly. Anyway I thought I'd have a go at No. 2 to see if I now had a better grip on the quirky style of the puzzles of those days. And I had - up to a point: I finished No. 2 in just under 20 minutes, but No. 37 took me just over three-quarters of an hour. I suppose I could pull my usual excuse of tiredness for my slow time for the latter, but while that was perfectly true so that I made unduly heavy weather of some easy(ish) clues, I think No. 37 was significantly harder than No. 2, to the extent that I suspect only a handful of today's solvers would be able to complete it unaided. (I reckon there are two possible answers for 47ac; but, apart from that, a combination of (perhaps) slightly arcane knowledge and good guesswork might just get you there. Go on, try it. I dare you ;-)

All the clues I've cited below are from No. 37. It's not that No. 2 wasn't interesting, or indeed fun to solve; it's just that No. 37 seemed somehow a bit more quirky. The first clue is of a type I hadn't come across before in a Times crossword:
Has he gone to Paris (hidden) (3)    {E‑O}    [EGO]
The answer is pretty obvious once you have either of the checked letters, but unless I'm missing some deeper significance, there seem to be other possibilities without them. Anyway, I can see why clues like this would have been abandoned quite early on. That is assuming they were - I'll be keeping an eye open for later examples.

I liked this one much more (though I'd have preferred a semi-colon to a comma):
When my lady went driving she used to wear this, now she has it in front of her (6)    {B‑‑‑‑‑}    [BONNET]
All the letters were checked so I've given just the first one, which I think should be enough, though you may well find the answer obvious enough without it. I'd call this a "riddle clue" as it's really just a riddle, and I'm not sure if I've seen anything like it in recent Times crosswords. Which, if it's true, is a pity - though perhaps it's hard to come up with something original while still keeping the clue reasonably short. Or have recent examples perhaps been less obviously riddly, and I've simply missed them?

Biologists may like to comment on this clue:
A reptile (4)    {T‑A‑}    [TOAD]
I have to admit that my knowledge of this area is shaky, but nowadays I believe "An amphibian (4)" would be more accurate, and would presumably be acceptable in a T2 puzzle. Does anyone know if the original clue would have been regarded as valid in 1930? (Actually I wouldn't be too surprised to find "A reptile (4)" in a T2 puzzle. After all it's not really any worse that (say) "Greek god of fire (6)" for VULCAN, to take a recent "Grimshaw" from No. 6,510 :-)

Finally, here are two clues that I don't fully understand:
Easier to do in name than in fact (7)    {E‑N‑B‑E}    [ENNOBLE]
I've a feeling that the explanation lies in some quotation or saying, but perhaps it's simply an observation about honours, given that Maundy Gregory would still have been relatively fresh in people's memories in 1930. (I don't know if young people nowadays have heard of him, but he was still talked about when I was young.)
It is bad luck to do this and be imprisoned in the end (6)    {‑E‑E‑T}    [REPENT]
I've given alternate checked letters as there were no unchecked ones. The "imprisoned" bit seems obvious enough, but what about the "bad luck"? Any suggestions for either clue?

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Here's a clue from the first puzzle in the first preliminary of this year's Times Crossword Championship, which was published last Wednesday as No. 25,936).
Female this gaunt would be something above hip (4) [LANK]
(select between the square brackets for the answer)
With the L in place, I'd initially wanted the answer to be LOIN, but when the N ruled that out, I spotted the answer quickly enough, and was slightly surprised to find later that it had given some solvers a hard time, even to the extent of eliminating one who I thought had a good chance of reaching the final. What I hadn't realised until I read the TftT blog for the day is that some people objected to this clue because it broke the "rule" that the definition of the answer had be either at the beginning or at the end of the clue.

I would guess that this supposed rule arose from a suggestion to beginners that if they weren't sure where to find the definition in a clue, then the beginning or the end would be the best place to look, as that's where it almost always is. But has any reputable writer on crosswords ever suggested that the definition can only appear there? (Well of course not - that would automatically render them disreputable!) If I had to make a suggestion to beginners, and even to those who've advanced beyond the beginner level, I'd recommend looking out for the word "this", since it almost always refers to the required answer, and setters often use it to resolve potential ambiguities. This suggestion might have helped some of those who bunged in LENA as the answer to the Championship clue - which BTW I've now noted down as an example which neatly debunks the spurious beginning-or-end rule. But please observe that it is only a suggestion and not a rule: I wouldn't put it past some wily setter to try and fool us by using "this" in some unusual way - though fortunately the most obvious one is unlikely to make an appearance in the Times crossword!

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(In what follows, select between the curly brackets for checked letters, and between the square brackets for the answer.)

This week one of the archive puzzles I tackled was from the very early days of the Times crossword: No. 37 (15 March 1930). I thought I'd compare it with No. 1 (1 February 1930), but while I was browsing through some crossword books searching for a copy, I chanced upon the Daily Telegraph puzzle for 17 March 1928 in Chambers Crossword Guide: The Essential Reference Guide to the World of Crosswords and couldn't resist having a go at it. In case you haven't come across this book before (sadly I suspect it's been out of print for some time), it's by Don Manley, and as well as Don's words of wisdom, it contains a varied selection of 84 crosswords for you to solve. I see that Amazon and AbeBooks are offering several "used" copies, and at least some of their descriptions seem to imply that the crosswords haven't been filled in. The image on Amazon matches my copy, which was published by Chancellor Press in 1995. Unless you're dyslexic (as at least some of the employees of Chancellor Press presumably were), the thing that hits you in the eye immediately is that the author, as printed on the cover and the flyleaf, is given as "Don Manly"!

The 1928 Telegraph puzzle's grid looked quite modern, unlike the early Times grids, many which look more American, with fewer black squares and several fully-checked answers. But most of the clues were decidedly unmodern, and in fact when I first skimmed through them, I thought I'd made a terrible mistake and that I might end up without solving a single one. However, I don't give up that easily, and after plugging away at it for what? - getting on for half and hour perhaps? - I found that I'd finished it unaided apart from one clue:
A champion who did not burn his boats, but bartered them (5)    {‑A‑R‑}    [BARRY]
Don calls the unhelpful checking "infuriating", but perhaps the answer would have been obvious in 1928. I would guess the clue refers to this man, but I've no idea where "bartered" fits in. (Any ideas?) He also calls the following clue "outrageous":
A blind pilot (4)    {P‑O‑}    [PLOT]
but although it is outrageous by today's standards, I was fairly confident that that was the answer, given the conventions of the time.

Solving was helped by four long answers clued by barely cryptic definitions. On the other hand it wasn't helped at all by clues like "Girl's name (4)" and "Bird (4)". I liked this clue:
More frequently leaves a church than enters it (4)    {‑I‑E}    [WIFE]
and this one, which Don also gave the thumbs-up to:
An occasion when big ears are welcome (7)    {H‑R‑E‑T}    [HARVEST]
Although I'm not familiar with the modern Telegraph crossword, it would be nice to think that those and two or three others might still be allowed nowadays, but I suspect almost all the rest would be rejected.

Unless something else comes up, I'll write about Times crossword No. 37 next Sunday.

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I've written before (here) about the Times Crossword Championship considered as a social event, and I see from one of the threads in the Times Crossword Club's General Forum that a solver I named then as a serious contender (hi there, Dave) also regards the social side of the Championship as important. Sadly though, the present set-up makes the whole business feel more like an exam than a party. Of course I want the Championship to be fair, and indeed serious up to a point, but it is after all only crosswords and not the World Chess Championship. And it is very low-key these days: in the absence of a proper sponsor, there's only one prize, and that's likely to go the same way it has for the last seven years (hi there, Mark), leaving the runners-up with just a warm feeling that they've earned the respect of their fellow-solvers.

So I'd like to suggest three things that would improve the Championship as a social event, especially as next year will be the 40th Championship, which sounds to me like a good excuse for a celebration.

1. DIY name badges. All we need is a supply of blanks plus some marker pens and we can make our own.

2. Let us out as soon as we've finished the puzzles. This didn't seem to be a problem in the old days (pre-Cheltenham). Admittedly it was a bit disconcerting if lots of people were finishing while you were still struggling, but I never found the sound of people walking any worse than the sound of finished puzzles being held up - and certainly much less disturbing than Harold Franklin (remember him?) wandering about talking loudly to people. (Actually you might not remember Harold, who was the original MC of the Championship before Mike Rich took over. He had a very penetrating voice!)

3. A place where those who've finished early can congregate out of sight and sound of those still solving. It should have a bar where we can buy alcohol - and a supply of tea and coffee, whose cost could be covered by the entry fee.

* * * * *

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that this blog has changed once again so that it now combines the titles of its two previous incarnations. This is because I keep wanting to write about crossword matters other than just recherché Times crossword clues. That's not to say that I've given up doing archive crosswords, since they're full of the sorts of clues I like. Here, for example, is one from No. 11,216 (29 April 1966):
Ecclesiastical bird - spotters paid no heed to it (7)    {G‑A‑M‑R}    [GRAMMAR]
(select between the curly brackets for checked letters, and between the square brackets for the answer)
This is a good old-fashioned Times crossword clue of the sort they served up in the early years of the Championship, but my guess is that relatively few of today's solvers could fathom it unaided. (In fact if a few more clues like that were to appear in next year's Championship preliminaries, my prospects of reaching the final would improve dramatically :-).

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Here are the results [corrected following information from Peter Biddlecombe] of the final of the 2014 Times Crossword Championship. The figures in parentheses are competitors' scores out of 90, where 1 point was awarded for each of the 90 clues solved correctly.

1 Mark Goodliffe (90)
2 Simon Hanson (90)
3 David Howell (90)
4 Peter Brooksbank (90)
5 Jason James (90)
6 Neil Talbott (90)
7 Michael Wareham (90)
8 Helen Ougham (90)
9 Stuart Williams (90)
10 David Meek (90)
11 Chris Williams (90)
12 Richard Jacks (90)
13 Peter King (90)
14 Toby Brereton (90)
15 Alan Dorn (90)
16 Matthew Marcus (90)
17 Shane Shabankareh (90)
18 Tony Sever (90)
19 Tony Thorpe (90)
20 Adam Sanitt (90)
21 Nick Petty (89)
22 Richard Grafen (89)
23 Roger Crabtree (89)
24 Tom Stubbs (89)

In contrast with last year's puzzles, which were generally agreed to be more difficult than usual, this year's were generally agreed to be easy - in fact I can't remember an easier set since the Championship started. [Peter Biddlecombe reminds me that the final puzzles for 2008 were also very easy, but I don't recall them as being as annoyingly easy as yesterday's. I came 14th that year, which (taking into account my comments below) probably means I'd have preferred them to be more difficult.] Indeed if Richard Grafen and Tom Stubbs had written in the answers they intended, they too would have been "all correct", and I imagine the same goes for Nick Petty and Roger Crabtree, also regular finalists. This lack of difficulty put those solvers, like me, who lack the raw speed they once had (or alternatively never had it in the first place) but who tend to cope reasonably well with harder puzzles, at a disadvantage. I note that Alan Dorn, who has made the top eight in the previous five years and who came third last year, finished well down the field. Congratulations, as usual, to Mark Goodliffe who finished about six minutes ahead of Simon Hanson and at last managed to complete the Times crossword and sudoku double in the same year - though he was perhaps lucky that Jason James was jet-lagged after returning the previous day from a trip to Japan.

Although I was rather disappointed by my equal lowest placing in my 25 finals (I came 18th with four mistakes in 1987, the year I had a brainstorm in the third puzzle), I at least achieved my basic objectives, which were to reach the final and to solve all the puzzles correctly. Others were less lucky, the unluckiest of all being Anne Lickert who would have finished 12th in the first preliminary if Jason hadn't forgotten which preliminary he was in, turned up early in case it was the first one, and then was allowed (or persuaded) to switch from the second to the first preliminary (which he duly won) since the latter had fewer entrants. I was, if anything, even more nervous than last year, and could barely stop my writing hand from shaking through all three puzzles, but somehow I managed to hang in there for 11th place. (Phew!)

As usual the Championship doubled as a social as well as a competitive event and it was good to meet several old friends as well as a number of solvers I'd heard of but hadn't met before. A worry that more than one person voiced is that we crossword solvers are an ageing bunch. But then perhaps it was always so. In the programme for the 1976 final (in the days when the Championship had a proper sponsor, and thus things like programmes), they decided to give the ages of the finalists, which were: 65, 64, 63, 62 (Sir David Hunt, who qualified for the final but was unable to attend), 62, 59, 58 (Hugh Stubbs, father of Tom), 50, 49, 49, 46, 46, 44, 43, 43, 40, 37 (Philip Meade, who last competed in 2011), 32 (a younger and faster me - I finished 4th that year), and 27 (Jeremy Baker in his one and only final). I'm now 70 and Michael Wareham (the 1986 champion) must be of a comparable age, but how many others of yesterday's finalists were over 60? I don't remember Jeremy Baker, but perhaps he just played a blinder in his regional final; and I too was perhaps not exactly typical, having a brother and sister who were both born in the late 1920s.

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