Nearly 300 of us gathered yesterday (Saturday 4th January) at St John’s Church, Somersham on the Cambridgeshire fen-edge to give thanks for the life of the Revd John Galbraith Graham MBE, better known world-wide as “Araucaria”, the premier crossword-setter in the English language. John had asked me to look after the service, and I am most grateful to everyone who lent a hand in arranging, speaking, making music, providing refreshments, and everything else that helped make it a very special occasion. A number of people asked for the text of my homily, so I now reproduce it here.
I’ve always enjoyed crosswords, as many of you here today do, and like so many others I’ve turned to Araucaria to put a smile on my face, though (tell it not in Gath, or at least in Libertarian company such as this) I also wrestle the Listener to the ground each week in what is probably a futile attempt to prove that my little grey cells are in still in functioning order.
So imagine the extra wide smile on my face when I discovered five years ago that the said Araucaria was no other than the Revd John Galbraith Graham whose name was hiding innocently and without fanfare in the list of retired clergy of my new diocese, and who was despite his advancing years making a valuable contribution to the ministry here in Somersham.
After a while I got in touch, and joined those who made the pilgrimage to his cottage, poignantly since the cat was out of the bag about his cancer. Considering the rough deal John had had from the church at times, he was as gracious and charming as ever, and found, I think, the idea of a bishop who shared some of his interests rather to his taste. We had both grown up in clerical households as well, my dad being of almost exactly the same vintage and outlook as John, so perhaps there was a natural synergy there too.
It was still a surprise, though, when John asked me to take charge of this service when its time was to come, and a great privilege. If a crossword setter was ever going to join the lists of National Treasures, he was the man.
So I started to wonder what I might say, knowing that I wouldn’t have very long, since John was keen to repeat the karaoke-style open microphone for tributes that he had enjoyed so much at his 92nd birthday party.
Let’s start, as one does, with the surface reading. Witty, amiable, charming, with a gift for friendship, yet a liberal education on legs too, with a wonderful range of reference, and a rather cheeky sense of humour.
It’s little wonder, then, that he built such a following, or better, such a circle of friendship, during the years when crosswords were his profession. But the surface reading is never the whole story, and John’s personal charm like his clues could at times be a smokescreen for a lot that ran much deeper.
Let me digress for a moment, and remember that he was quick to deny the proposition that crosswords could be a refuge from the world. I do know of course that clerics are famously interested in such alternative realities as the railways, detective stories and the puzzles at the back of the paper. One reputedly used to make a daily progress to the bottom of his garden to watch the 10.02 pass by on its way to London. When quizzed by his curate as to the purpose of this, he replied that it gave him great comfort because it was the only thing in the parish that moved without him pushing it.
But lift that sentiment out of the world of the joke, and there is in fact a serious point. We do crossword puzzles in order to solve them, as well as to have fun along the way. The art of the setter, it is said, is to lose gracefully. Their alternative reality suggests that beneath the frivolity and distractions of life there is a serious challenge to be addressed, and crucially that this challenge has a solution, even if it is a struggle to find it, and even if it is beyond us for now. If I really push the analogy, I would want to say in fact that the little aha moments that are shot through the best of these little journeys of life that we call crosswords are the shallow end, foretastes, of that great moment of surprise and satisfying rightness that a man of faith like John sometimes glimpses as being on just the other side of the door we call death.
To turn back to John, there was of course nothing really shallow in him at all, but real depths of thoughtfulness, passion and engagement, and a willingness and capability to be his own man, working out, he might have said in the words of Scripture, his own salvation. You don’t get mentioned in despatches for nothing, or follow your conviction as a cleric when the church can’t keep up with you without a strong personal sense of what’s right and wrong.
In fact, one of the things that came up several times as we talked together was that even though at the time his second profession must have seemed a digression, even a departure, from the first, yet, in fact, he had used it – or should that be, been used in it – as a minister in a remarkable way. Few can have had such a friendly influence for the good among so many, helping them, mostly implicitly (but that was John’s way), to work through the puzzles of their own lives and trust that there is a solution – or, that word again, salvation, as we call it in the trade, a salvation as St Peter says in the first reading John chose for this service, that is ready to be revealed, not in next week’s paper, but in the last time; a salvation as St Paul says in John’s second reading that reaches beyond what can be seen (the surface again) to what cannot yet be seen, but is eternal.
So John, we entrust you to the God of your salvation, whose minister you were called to be, in the church and far beyond it, rejoicing that your inheritance in him is an indescribable and glorious joy, an eternal weight of glory indeed that sees all our afflictions in this life transmuted into the surprising solution that is heaven.