Mike Laws: Crossword setter for 'The Independent'
Saturday 11 June 2011
Walk miles not carrying a single pound for toasting absent friend (4,4). "A crossword's something to get ____ ____ into", he's said (4,4).
On the Crossword Centre Message Board, which in its formative days he supported and advised upon, the response to the message announcing the passing of the Inquisitor crossword editor Mike Laws was quick, manifold and consistent in its content. "A convivial companion", "engaging company", "a most kindly guru", "a real one-off", "a true luminary", "a source of great encouragement to solvers and setters", wrote the likes of Independent setters Phi, Spurius, Harbinger, Samuel, Raich, Tyrus/Lato, Bannsider, Eimi, Tees, Nitsy, Columba, Charybdis/Crosophile, Rasputin, Hodge and Quixote.
"One of the most important figures in the world of crosswords", and one of the most distinctive-looking, Mike was an enormous influence in his thinking, his approach and his modus operandi. Many will remember him sitting quietly in the corner of one north London pub or another from mid-afternoon, savouring his beer and composing his clues, dictionary open, grids and meticulously kept record books to hand. When I gatecrashed his "office", the three- or four-pint stay never came across as an interruption or distraction – more an opportunity for him to impart sections of his enormous knowledge of the world of Cs: crosswords, coins, Classics and – of course – Courage Best. For "Classics", read: Latin, Greek, and 60s music.
Michael Laws was born in London in 1946. His parents, Eric and Ivy, divorced when he was young: he lived with his grandparents until the age of 10, when he returned to his father. Educated at Whitgift School and Christ's College, Cambridge, where he read Classics, Mike became a teacher of English and Latin at Dunstable College, the Arnos School and Ravenscroft School, where he amused his classes with his wit and word puzzles.
At Ravenscroft he helped start and run a Teacher's Centre in Finchley which catered for "refreshment courses" – special courses, followed by "refreshment". He introduced real ales and became known as The Vampire Hunter as he applied the barrel-tapping hammer to the wooden stake. Such wordplay typified the man's sense of humour and his love of words.
During his college years, Mike had discovered crosswords: as a teacher, his joy of words soon led to his becoming an avid solver and then a compiler. Like many, he was hugely influenced by the legendary Derrick MacNutt (Ximenes). His work was published for the first time in 1975 in the magazine Games and Puzzles, which he later edited; at various times his puzzles appeared in The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Sunday Telegraph and The Independent. From 1995, he was also one of the three setters on the Mephisto team in The Sunday Times.
In the 1980s, two significant changes occurred. Disenchanted with teaching, he became a postman; and his first marriage, to Judy, ended after 16 years. Mike's crossword output became as prolific as it had ever been, and he became widely regarded for the dry wit, ingenuity and faultlessness of his clue-writing. In the 1990s, he married Julie, an actress, with whom he became very happy. Having given up his postal activities, he devoted himself to his puzzles. Recompense for these was augmented by the compilation and delivery of idiosyncratic pub quizzes in Henley's Bar, the first "office" in which I met him.
From 2000-2002, Mike fulfilled a lifelong ambition when he became editor of The Times Crossword, maintaining the high standards of his predecessor, Brian Greer – his own idol in the crossword world. Mike often quoted one of Brian's clues as his favourite: "In which three couples get together for sex (5)". Later, when Brian was Crossword Editor at The Independent, Mike assumed the editorship of which he was most proud – the Inquisitor in Saturday's Independent Magazine. Because of his sense of propriety and insistence on accuracy, he renamed the puzzle, and restored the original numbering system of the paper's early days. Each week he would cut out the puzzle and place it in a folder with all its predecessors, one of a number of impressive collections he leaves.
By all accounts, his record collection is enviable, especially the sections containing the likes of the Beatles, Jethro Tull and the Everlys. And he was an expert numismatist, particularly when it came to the designs on the reverse side of £2, £1, 50p and special issue coins: I remember his dismay when the Olympic coins released in 2010 bore "2011" on the obverse.
Mike always defended his practice of compiling and editing crosswords in his pubs. "The pub", he used to say, "is where a significant number of people will bloody well try to solve 'em". In the Springfield Tavern, his last "office", there is a sign behind the bar which bears the words of wisdom: "Everybody here brings happiness – some by arriving, and some by leaving". Mike was predominantly in the former category, although after drinking-up time and with no little bitter left in his pint glass, he regularly sought out a random empty bottle from behind the bar (it could have been a beer bottle, a brandy bottle, a Bacardi bottle...) into which he would decant his drink to have something to refresh his late-night computer work.
Michael David Laws, crossword setter, teacher and postman: born 28 September 1946; married twice (one son, one daughter); died 19 May 2011.
Walk miles not carrying a single pound for toasting absent friend (4,4) Anagram (for toasting) of WALK MILES, minus an L (=£); "absent friend" = MIKE LAWS.
"A crossword's something to get _____ _____ into", he's said (4,4) MIKE LAWS is pronounced (said) "my claws".
In which three couples get together for sex (5) "sex" is LATIN for "six" (three couples).
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