NUTMEG aged 75
THE SPICE LADY
Her real name was Margaret Irvine. She was born in Crosby on Merseyside to Malcolm, a tax inspector, and his wife Kitty. She was an only child.
The family moved to Little Bispham, near Blackpool when she was 11, and at 13 they moved to Fetcham in Surrey. They moved because her father was transferred.
She loved reading and words. It was a family tradition for them all to sit down each evening and do the cryptic crossword out of the newspaper. Margaret was entrusted with the dictionary. Years later she said, “Solving problems with others is, I believe, the best and most satisfying way to learn”.
She was a keen Girl Guide and won the Queen’s Guide Award.
Margaret then studied Maths and Economics at York University. After that, she went to work for the Home Office for a number of years.
Finally, she was employed at the University of Manchester in the Computer Science Department. She lived alone in Chorlton-cum-Hardy and was a regular church goer at St. Clements Church.
Despite leading a very private life, Margaret was Brown Owl to a local Brownie pack for over 20 years.
After both her parents died, she took early retirement in 2005. Genealogy became a new hobby but she drew a blank when it came to her own family. She could not find a single living relative.
She was a lifetime member of Lancashire County Cricket Club, loved classical music (especially Bach) and went to many concerts, helped with literacy at a local primary school and served refreshments at a toddlers group once a week. She was charming, self-deprecating and just on occasions, outgoing.
But she came to the great passion in her life fairly late on – in 2006.
En spec, she sent some crossword puzzles that she had set to The Guardian . The paper immediately snapped her up as a regular crossword setter.
She chose the nom-de-plume ‘Nutmeg’. Meg is a shortened version of Margaret and she jokingly considered herself, “a bit of a nut”.
She was only the second female crossword setter in The Guardian, after ‘Arachne’ – who is in reality bookseller Sarah Hayes. The two ladies became firm friends.
Nutmeg’s crosswords proved popular and she was quickly asked to set them for The Times, The Church Times and New Statesman magazine.
For the last of these she used the name ‘Mace’. Nutmeg and Mace together earned her the nickname ‘The Spice Lady’.
She said her crosswords were different depending on the publication. The Times had clearly defined expectations, The Guardian allowed more individuality, The Church Times’ puzzles had a religious slant to them and the New Statesman’s crosswords were more left-wing leaning.
She began to carry a notebook, pencil and rubber with her wherever she went in case ideas popped into her mind. She once admitted clues came to her as she listened to a very boring church sermon.
It was a very different process to Arachne, who was a serious runner and thought of her clues during marathons.
Nutmeg built up a very large collection of dictionaries and thesauruses. She admitted she had hated Latin at school but now found it very useful as it helped her with word origins.
She wrote about 8 clues a day and each full puzzle took her approximately 4 days. She would then leave it for a couple of days before polishing it up. Her self-imposed target was at least one crossword a week.
Occasionally, The Guardian got their crossword writers together for a thank you meal. She was stunned to find that the writer ‘Sphinx’ was the actor Steve Pemberton.
In November 2016 she joined forces with ‘Arachne’ and another setter, ‘Puck’, to create ‘Bogus’, a puzzle to mark United Nations World Toilet Day.
The trio collaborated on two more occasions, for World Smile Day (October 2017) and World Naked Gardening Day (also 2017).
She also appeared on TV quiz shows and was once interviewed for Radio 4’s ‘Women’s Hour’, talking about crosswords and gender.
She said she was glad she retired early from the University of Manchester as it led to her crossword career – “the central and most rewarding element of the later part of my life”.
She died after a short illness.
RIP – Relaxing, Intelligent Puzzles