Bernard Marks: Master of the Ham&High crossword

Bernard Marks

Bernard Marks was an avid Ham&High reader and master of the weekly cryptic crossword - Credit: Simon Marks

My father’s death on October 2 at the age of 90 finally allows me to reveal a secret previously kept from readers of the Ham&High and also from the newspaper’s editors and publishers.

Since 1962, Bernard Marks lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb and was a voracious reader of each weekly edition. He devoured the newspaper from cover to cover.

But what he enjoyed most about the Ham&High was its cryptic crossword which, in the 1990s and 2000s, allowed one lucky reader the chance to win a bottle of champagne each week for the puzzle’s successful completion.

The Ham&High’s archives will show that Mr B Marks of London NW11 was a regular winner. What they will not show is that he was, for the most part, the only winner of the crossword competition.

Even in weeks when other readers appeared to win, in fact the newspaper was unwittingly rewarding his endeavours.

Either very few other readers were entering the contest, or the crossword was so cryptic that my father was virtually the only entrant successfully cracking it.

After a while, he became concerned that if he kept on winning under his own name, Ham&High would suspend the competition. So he started entering under the names of various family members, friends, neighbours and business associates in the northwest London area.

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Many were startled to receive a knock at the door from the postman delivering a bottle of champagne celebrating their success in a competition they didn’t even know they had entered. After the winner’s name was published in the paper, a subsequent phone call from my father would explain all.

Dad had form in this particular area. Readers of London Opinion, a somewhat risqué magazine in the 1950s, would occasionally encounter prize-winning poems submitted by “Bernard Marks”.

But at other times they would read the prize-winning verses of “Mark Bernard”, or even “Barbara Cummins” (a family friend in Golders Green). One classic stanza credited to Mark Bernard was titled “Miss Slim”:

My sister Joan,

Is thin as a boan;

Twice her terrier,

Has tried to berrier.

For my father, writing was a side-line. His main income was derived from running first a delicatessen on The Market Place in Hampstead Garden Suburb, then operating a wholesale business that supplied local supermarkets and snack bars with sandwiches, pastries and snacks.

He learned not to give up the day job in the 1960s when menswear outfitters John Collier challenged their customers to create an advertising slogan for them. My father scribed the winner: "John Collier: The Window To Watch."

He never received a penny for it, even though it was used regularly in the shop’s advertisements well into the 1970s (you can still find the archival commercials on YouTube).

Several recipients of the Ham&High’s bubbly toasted my father’s achievements after his funeral in Golders Green last month. As I clean out the family home before returning to my more normal vantage point in Washington DC, one question abides: what are we going to do with all the champagne?

Simon Marks is LBC’s Washington Correspondent, among other things, and a veteran Ham&High reader.

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