Martin Ashwood-Smith uses his downtime as a hack to create crossword puzzles. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 21, 2009
Martin Ashwood-Smith, a man of erudition, is not one to use a $5 word when a simple one will suffice. Or do.
Not that he lacks for vocabulary, for he is a loquacious personage of extraordinary dexterity.
A driver for Blue Bird Cabs, he often engages in palaver with customers. Though ferrying pedestrians engages a man in an honest, fulltime occupation, it is common for fares to query the driver about his true calling.
Sometimes, he informs passengers of his pastime. Other times, he is a model of discretion.
“When they ask, ‘What else do you do?,’ I’ve found that you’ve got to be a little careful,” he said. “It seems taxi drivers are known for having conspiracy theories, or talking about their Nobel Prize.”
Not all behave well when told.
“A lot of people will change the subject immediately,” he said.
“They think they’re being BS’ed.”
Were his pastime presented as a clue, it might read like this:
One across: Puzzling aficionados.
In his downtime, Mr. Ashwood-Smith, 52, constructs crossword puzzles.
He has sold dozens of puzzles to the New York Times, crafts puzzles for other major newspapers as part of the CrosSynergy syndicate, and has placed his name on the cover of such books as “10-Minute Crosswords,” “Take a Break Crosswords,” and “Great 30-Minute Crosswords.”
He is a word artist whose palm-sized canvas is a square divided into 15 rows across by 15 rows down, a grid in which the goal can be to use as few black squares as possible to break up words. Fresh clues and a symmetrical design separate the amateurs from the professionals.
Word mavens know Mr. Ashwood-Smith as the king of the triple stacker for his talent in creating puzzles with three consecutive 15-letter answers. He likes wide-open puzzles so lacking in black squares as to look like a printer’s error.
He was praised earlier this month in Wordplay, the New York Times’ crossword blog, for a grid published Dec. 2 in which only 30 black squares were used. The central three horizontal rows were so-called Stack 15s.
The puzzle had several sharp clues. The answer for “Competition among mail carriers” was JOUST. The four-letter answer for “Cashiers” was CANS, which at first is a head-scratching response, only making sense when you realize both words are verbs.
In another puzzle, the common crossword appearance of ESE is the clever — and somewhat cruel — answer to “Needlepoint?” (Think compass needle.)
Born in London, England, a city whose drivers of black cabs are renowned for learning the Knowledge, the detailed routes and history of the metropolis, Martin grew up in the sleepy Berkshire village of Hermitage. The Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway ran through the community, but the line had been abandoned by the 1960s, providing the boy a verdant ribbon along which he could explore nearby forests, a local brickworks, and the ruins of a Roman villa.
Ordnance survey maps were his guide, the setting sun his only limitation.
“Looking back,” he said, “I remember almost a Tolkein-like land.”
The boyhood idyll was interrupted in 1969 when his father rejected the offer of a job in forensics with Scotland Yard to instead accept a faculty position in biology at the University of Victoria. A reverie in the English countryside was replaced by suburban life in Canada where a young emigre with an accent and a hyphenated name stood out.
At university, he eschewed his father’s discipline, instead opting for studies in history. He drew a regular cartoon lampooning religion for the student newspaper, spending his spare time in the campus pub designing cryptic crosswords.
He later placed a puzzle in a local shopper. “We got a huge response from the readership,” he said, “because everyone solved it.” The response at The Beaver, a watering hole in the Empress Hotel, was less enthusiastic. The habitues, counting among their number many writers and autodidacts, found the puzzles far too simple.
A tough cleverness developed in a bar filled with smartypants.
In 1990, a batch of puzzles for Monday Magazine were rejected. He boldly decided to submit one to Eugene T. Maleska, who edited the New York Times’ popular puzzle.
He knew the “crusty old guy” had a preference for a certain kind of quotation, so Mr. Ashwood-Smith integrated into his puzzle the George Jessel quip, “Marriage is a mistake every man should make.”
A rejection at home led him to the big time in Gotham. He has since placed more than four dozen crosswords in the Times. He is paid $200 US for each, $1,000 for the larger Sunday puzzle.
Puzzle making can be a lonely exercise. Whenever he answers a question about the nitty-gritty of puzzle construction, he finds that eyes glaze over and yawns are not always stifled.
Some years ago, at a convention, he met the prolific crossword compiler Manny Nosowsky, a retired urologist from San Francisco who is said to have once offered the clue “northern air” for the solution O CANADA.
Mr. Ashwood-Smith was reluctant to discuss construction until Mr. Nosowsky offered words of encouragement.
“You can talk freely here,” he said. “You’re among your own kind.”