OBITUARY : Richard Whitelegg

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The Independent Online
A few years ago Richard Whitelegg sent out a neat, white, informative visiting-card bearing the usual motifs. The occasion for the card was a change of address. Intending to settle in the Trossachs, he and his late wife Cathy (who had been diagnosed as having a "lung condition") had decided to move south, meaning to live closer to a medical centre in the Midlands. They had stayed at a rambling house in the Staffordshire countryside, a composite of four ancient cottages, offering B&B accommodation; and, by a chance remark, found it was for sale.

It reminds me of the serendipity for which cruciverbalists and wordsmiths thank their lucky asterisks. That card also carried a tag: "Professional Crossword Compiler". Without the least hint of self-hype, it gave the impression of a gentle business mind that means what it thinks and says. Plainly, it proclaimed a commitment and declared a devotion that occupied him for 30 years, as a part-time activity at first and, latterly, in a full-time prolific way.

Whitelegg was born in Sale, Cheshire, and educated at Manchester Grammar School. Clare College, Cambridge, followed, where he read Classics in the early 1960s - and was, unknowingly then, an exact contemporary of Jonathan Crowther ("Azed" in the Observer). After university he joined the industrial firm of Courtaulds, eventually taking premature retirement in the late 1980s. As for his early puzzles during these years he appeared twice in 1960 (as "Albipedius") in the notoriously challenging Listener crossword column; but his main contributions, assuming the mask of "Mephisto", were weekly puzzles for the Sunday Times, many of them sent from South Africa.

Now, crosswords are among his memorials, and there are many of them. "Up to the gunwales" was a phrase he would use, engrossed in a formidable routine producing cryptic puzzles for Today (six every Wednesday, representing an average of 180 cryptic clues) and the Daily Express (five every Thursday); and, in addition, a weekly Jumbo for the Daily Star, not forgetting numerous "Quicky" crosswords and Target Word puzzles throughout the year.

Then, in the Independent in the late 1980s, "Albipedius" made a comeback, together with "Lucifer" and (every Sunday) "Beelzebub" - who else, with Whitelegg's playful devilish detachment? People have noted the good sense in his clues, the humour, a certain newsy edge and touches of satire. He sustained an engaging cryptic sense, and I sometimes thought of him as The Man In The Ironic Masks who misled in order to lead, an essential paradox in cryptic cluemanship.

He was also the checker for the Independent Magazine where at least two maiden puzzles have appeared of late - by "Loda" and "Monk", who have told me of their gratitude for Whitelegg's encouragement. "Monk" also provides a remark from Whitelegg - "the next generation of setters should be prepared gently, since the existing one didn't know how long it would be around" adding, "rather poignant sentiments in the light of recent events". The sheer activity of crossword compiling was a source of solace to Whitelegg after his wife's untimely death, less than two years before his own.

The house in Staffordshire became Whitelegg's last home. The family threw a house party: according to a colleague, it was apparently an attempt to form a circle of friends, but Richard (described by his wife as "a bit of a workaholic") always seemed too busy for social life and holidays. Indeed, he seemed an amiable spirit with a very private disposition. However, a party there was: Richard, Cathy and their bright affable children, Peter and Nicola, hosted a houseful of people in an atmosphere of informal charm, conviviality and abiding goodwill, not to mention the wonderful food and the very good wine. It was a memorable, and very happy, occasion.

Harold Massingham

and Chris Feetenby

John Richard Whitelegg, crossword compiler: born Sale, Cheshire 1 January 1943; married 1967 Catherine Rowland (deceased; one son, one daughter); died Butterton, Staffordshire 5 April 1995.