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Laurence Inman was invited to The Stirrer’s highly select first birthday gathering at a secret location somewhere in the West Midlands last weekend. Only one thing spoiled his fun.

I spent a very pleasant couple of hours last Sunday in the company of several fellow-stirroids and, of course, the Stirrer himself. The sun shone. I drank a little fine Birmingham tap-water. I nibbled some excellent party-food, warm and cuddled in the knowledge that I wouldn’t have to be doing the clearing up.

Thanks are due to webmaster Andy Goff and his wife for their hospitality.

The conversation was excellent. I was able to mentally lie back and forget the nagging worries of the week: why the English novel seems to have hit a sticking point, the parlous state of political discourse, the eternal mind-body dichotomy and, not least, the absurd prices being demanded for fencing timber these days.

It’s all going to China, apparently. What are they doing with it ? The latest I’ve been quoted for one, one, 6 foot feather-edge board is £2.09! Can you believe that ?

But, as I say, all that was left behind as I basked in the murmur and chunter of an English summer afternoon. Henry James, incidentally, thought that ‘summer afternoon’ were the two most mellifluous words in the language. He obviously never tasted a ‘fish-finger butty.’

Only one thought made me feel tense, stuck like a piece of grit in my shoe: it was the first Sunday of the month.

Why, you may reasonably ask, should this cause me any unease ? Indeed, that would be an eminently sensible question from anyone who doesn’t do the Azed crossword in The Observer, and especially the competition puzzle, of which there are thirteen every year (on the first Sunday of the month and an extra one for Christmas.)

I love crosswords. But they have to be difficult. The kind with no black bits, and devilish cryptic clues for words you have to hunt down in enormous dictionaries. And even when you’ve found the answer you can’t fill it in because it has to encoded.

I used to try the one in The Listener, until that folded in the early 90’s, although it still appears in The Times every Saturday. Now I just stick to the Azed.

The monthly competition is entered by only a small number of people, usually fewer then three hundred. So it’s a pleasant, rather exclusive little club.

I imagine them all to be donnish Oxford types in advanced middle-age, sucking on stout briar pipes in their book-lined studies. The kind of people who were recruited during the war to crack codes at Bletchley Park.

That might be quite near the truth; Azed himself (Jonathan Crowther) lives in Oxford and several writers’ and academics’ names appear regularly in the lists.

I’ll just give you a taste of one. This is the preamble to last Sunday’s puzzle. I can’t give any of the answers because this is still a ‘live’ puzzle; the closing date for entries is Saturday.

Each clue contains a one-word definition of the word required at the number where it stands but belongs as a whole to a word of the same length elsewhere. Method recommended is to find, after solving a clue, a definition of the solution in one of the other clues to words of its length; this will show where the word is to go.

Competitors should submit with their solutions a clue following these rules to replace the asterisked definition at 20 down. NB The clue thus submitted will of course belong as a whole to a word appearing elsewhere in the completed diagram, which must be determined.

Is that clear ? Basically, it means that when you find an answer you can’t put in until you have worked out where it should go, which is always somewhere else, and is indicated by one only word in the clue at that place, which of course may also be a significant part of the clue itself.

Don’t be put off though. It might be quite fun for Stirrer readers to have a go. We could compare notes. There really is no more absorbing way of frittering away Sunday afternoon. And Sunday evening. All of Monday. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday…..

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