Pablo closes in on the treasure during the 2003 Driven ATH

Pablo - In Memoriam

Paul Coombs, known to many Armchair Treasure Hunters as Pablo, sadly passed away in the early hours of Friday, 19th October 2007 after a long battle with cancer.

It was not untypical of the man that he had, by this time, already completed one last Treasure Hunt, The Fool on the Hill. He passed this on to me in September, replete with a detailed set of instructions describing exactly how it should be unveiled and administered. Amongst other things, a backup website was provided, the trade-mark Logica 'L's had been surreptitiously daubed at the burial sites, and only a complete buffoon could mess it up. As ever, Pablo's flair, imagination and vast intelligence was complemented by some pragmatic planning that left very little to chance.

I took it upon myself to attempt the Hunt prior to its traditional Christmas release. This was not some magnanimous act of trialling on my part, a selfless offer to tease out any small remaining errors that had escaped Pablo's careful scrutiny. Rather it was hedonism pure and simple. I did not want to miss out on the indescribably addictive mix of pleasure and frustration that is one of Pablo's Armchair Treasure Hunts.

It was with just a trace of trepidation that I joined the Fool on his quest, unsure whether this final journey might be just a little sad and emotional. There were some such moments, of course, where a particular sentence, reference or tune inadvertently brought to mind the sadness of the situation (I say 'inadvertently', because Pablo was never one to draw any attention at all to his plight, let alone to wallow). But the over-riding experience was once again of huge enjoyment, amusement and revelation. Pablo's dry, sharp, and yet under-stated sense of humour shone through his eloquent prose, and as usual there was an abundance of fascinating titbits that Pablo wished to share with us.

Treasure Hunts in their various Logica guises are all very much down to Pablo. He started them, he evolved them, and it has very much been his enthusiasm and hard-work that have kept them going so successfully for 22 years and counting.

The Pub Treasure Hunt came first, and the Newman Arms was handily located on the road to Damascus. A pleasant evening's supping was disturbed at regular intervals by teams bursting into the hostelry in search of some snippet of trivia to be found in the pub's décor. Having finally found out what was going on, Pablo was at once inspired by the possibilities of mixing brain-teasing puzzles with alcohol, and it was not long before he organised the first Logica Pub Treasure Hunt.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Pub Treasure Hunts soon became legendary, and in some indefinable way captured the ethos of working for the company in the 1980's and early 1990's. As one competitor recalls nostalgically, "I still remember gatherings in the Phoenix on these evenings, and the drunkeness on our return. The epic one was when Pablo asked everyone to bring a cauliflower along to the Hunt. As it happened, it had absolutely no purpose at all, so the final pub saw the decimation of said cauliflowers and their parts became strewn around the pub as cauliflower fights broke out. Pablo learnt his lesson from that one."

Logica felt like a special place to work at this time, populated as it was by some unique and exceptional talents, and Pablo certainly fell into this category. It might perhaps be difficult for the modern Logica graduate to comprehend the sophisticated blend of wit and intellect that characterised this golden age, although Pablo attempted to capture the ambience via this fond reminisce: "If I could name a high-spot, then it was the June 1993 issue of the internal magazine Noticeboard, which contained a picture of two blindfolded consultants drinking rum through straws from the rear orifice of an inflatable sheep. Those were the days."

The Pub Treasure Hunts soon become the high-spot of the Logica social calendar, with a remarkable entry of some 60 teams recorded on one occasion. In the meantime, Pablo's imagination had been gripped by another kind of Treasure Hunt with the publication in 1979 of Kit William's book Masquerade, which involved the physical burial of some real treasure and a set of cryptic clues and puzzles that could be used to find it. The simplicity, elegance and above all the artwork involved in Masquerade greatly appealed to Pablo, I think, and he has constantly striven since the ATH inception to try different ideas and avoid any kind of formulaic approach.

It was 1985 when he conceived the first Logica Armchair Treasure Hunt. Aided by the artwork of Brian Jackson, photocopies of The Melting Brain appeared in the kitchens and reception areas of Logica offices just before Christmas. This was a time before the internet, Google, and even basic desktop publishing software, and Pablo's recollections highlight the different set of problems faced by the pioneer setter: "For some reason which now escapes me, we decided to lay out all the text in Letraset, which gives the finished article something of the look of a ransom note."

Despite Pablo's misgivings about the question-based format, and an uncertainty as to what the take-up would be, that initial Armchair Treasure Hunt was a huge success, with no fewer than 57 entries submitted. Subsequent demand ensured that Pablo would set the next three Christmas Hunts, each increasingly reliant on the imagery provided by Brian's artwork as Pablo sought to try different formats and ideas. The Sets Hunt in 1992 was perhaps the best early example of this aspiration, with the Hunt comprised solely of images and not a question in sight.

The desire to experiment with new ideas was not always a complete success. In 1987, Pablo eventually decided to shelve plans for a whodunit-style Hunt entitled "Who Killed Philip Hughes?" (the then Chairman and one of the original founders of Logica in 1969). This may have been Pablo's anarchic tendencies coming to the fore, but he was at least polite enough to write to his intended victim, fearing "that there was a faint possibility that Philip Hughes may not like to be murdered in the pages of his own company magazine." A "luke-warm" response persuaded Pablo that this was not an idea to follow through on!

The enormous success of these early Hunts inspired others to set, and Pablo was finally free to enter. He was quite proud of the fact that he and his team found the buried treasure on every Hunt, the only exception coming in 2004 when the exact location of the box at Byron's Pool eluded them, a failing he put down to the impracticalities of remote Project Management ("Dave would ring me from Bangkok in the middle of the night demanding to know what progress we'd made, and why we hadn't found the treasure yet").

But whether burying or hunting, Pablo was always mindful of Hunt etiquette. Afore-mentioned PM Dave Harding recalls in particular his tools of the trade. "It was a part of the mythology of the ATH from my perspective right from the early days. I remember meeting Pablo at various obscure places where he would, customarily, change into boots, don a coat and grasp his trusty trowel before we would set off. He would also invariably scan the horizon for other ATHers, and it was not unusual to invoke evasive manoeuvres if Pablo thought that another team was in the vicinity. Consequently, when I was out looking by myself or with others, I got into a paranoid state and saw ATHers in the most innocuous places!"

Pablo believed strongly that most means of trying to solve the puzzles were legitimate, the more ingenuity and left-field thinking involved the better. Thus he most definitely did not regard as cheating those who de-assembled PDF documents to discern the filenames of images used, nor those trying to decrypt his web passwords from first principles. This was all part of the challenge for the setter, and Pablo particularly enjoyed the strategic deployment of red herrings to fool the unwary hunter.

I remember sitting in one of his favourite haunts, The Bailey on Holloway Road, in January 2004. We were discussing the ongoing Driven Hunt, although being in different teams, a game of conversational cat-and-mouse was ensuing as neither of us had located the treasure as yet. Carefully avoiding, as I thought, any reference that might give too much away, I was bemoaning a day spent yomping up and down a certain path, complaining that I had finally resorted to looking under every tree but still to no avail. Pablo appeared to commiserate sympathetically with my plight, but unbeknownst to me, he was up early the next morning to return to the Blackwater Canal tow-path in search of hiding places that did not involve trees. He quickly found the object of our Hunt submerged beneath a canal-side telegraph pole. I never did find the treasure that year.

Despite letting other setters loose, Pablo would "get his mitts back on" the hunt at regular intervals, and was always keen to inject a new twist, or take advantage of the latest technological advances to shake up the format. In 1994, Pablo's Armchair Magazine experimented with the latest desktop publishing software, whilst his 1997 Fact or Fiction hunt in league with regular team-mate Dave Harding fully exploited the power of the internet for the first time. This latter hunt also trialled the concept of teams having to collect the next stage from a clued pub location at a certain date and time. Ultimately, Pablo felt this radical idea had failed: "Nobody seemed interested in stirring from their armchair to get to a pub." However, this was my first ATH in earnest, and it certainly had me hooked: the exhilaration of unearthing a plastic box from beneath a Fotheringhay tree in the deepening Sunday afternoon gloom has dictated the priorities every Christmas since.

Furthermore, Pablo was perhaps satisfied with the look of this 1997 Hunt more than any other. The improvements in graphics software enabled him to "finally manage the sort of detailed artwork that I had wanted to undertake in the days of Masquerade. The final version, in its printed form, looked exactly how a treasure hunt should look - a sealed gold-embossed, green velvet folder containing a mixture of colourful, disparate, intriguing clue-sheets."

Any perceived short-comings cannot not have been that acute, for there was a plethora of enthusiasts queuing to set subsequent Hunts, and the new Millennium saw a number of first-time setters learn this most difficult of crafts the hard way, myself included. Pablo was always keen to involve new people, firmly convinced that the variety and injection of new ideas would far out-weigh any schoolboy errors introduced by a lack of experience. In reality, when I came to set the Hunt in 2002, Pablo was always on hand to offer general guidance as well as plenty of encouragement, and his Guide to ATH Setting proved an invaluable bible of practical wisdom and common sense. That is not to say that some fairly large blunders did not slip through his safety net, but that only served to underline just how well conceived Pablo's own Hunts were.

The twentieth ATH in 2005 brought Pablo back to the setters' rostrum by popular demand and once again he dragged the Hunt kicking and screaming to the next level, this time devising the first completely web-based ATH, which made use of encrypted passwords. Characteristically, Pablo was determined to write his own password encrypting code, teaching himself JavaScript to do just that, before eventually opting for a commercial encryption package instead. In many ways this Anniversary Hunt was a celebration of all that had gone before, or as Pablo modestly portrayed it, "set[ting] each stage of the Hunt as a tribute to previous Hunts and their setters, while sneakily taking all their best ideas and recycling them as mine." Personally, I found this one of the most enjoyable ATHs I have attempted, and Pablo revisited the format for his Fool's journey this year, ironing out a few of the teething problems he had identified two years ago, and adding the final twist of two treasure sites.

I cannot claim to know Pablo especially well, but one of the things that always struck me was the sheer breadth of his knowledge. Early in 2005, he decided to revive the Pub Treasure Hunt, partly as a vehicle for raising some funds for the Tsunami Appeal (the Hunt raised the best part of £1,000), and invited me to help him. It was a tough assignment: for six weeks or so, we had to traipse around a vast array of pubs in central London, devising puzzles around the theme of that inexplicably popular bestseller 'The Da Vinci Code', wherein a fleet of two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs travel from place to place with PTH swiftness in search of the Holy Grail.

Pablo detested the book, moved even to write a scathing review on Amazon, but still saw its potential suitability for the PTH. I had a fine old time during those few months, for Pablo was certainly very engaging company, and perhaps at his most content with a pint on the table in front of him, a book or puzzle at its side. The speed and clarity with which he could crystallise a puzzle to fit snugly into the overall Hunt context was remarkable. He was always open to suggestions, but quick to see what would and wouldn't work. And his sharp intelligence came with an unselfish modesty, and I was always struck by his desire to share that vast knowledge with everyone else so they too could enjoy the fascination or amusement at some curious fact or other.

There was of course much, much more to Pablo than Treasure Hunts. His pub quizzes in the Bailey and latterly the Snooty Fox in North London provided so many splendid night's entertainment. He had a wide and unpredictable taste in music, from Bulgarian folk music to his beloved Pogues, whom he went to see at every given opportunity. He was present at the legendary Sex Pistols gig at the 100 Club, perhaps another manifestation of an anarchic streak in Pablo.

I never worked directly with him, but Pablo's Guide to Estimation is still spoken of in tones of hushed awe in the corridors of Logica offices, and can still be found on the corporate intranet passing on pragmatic wisdom with a wry smile to the latest generation of Logibods. From the quote by Lord Macauley on the front cover, through the first section title ("Estimidity and How it is Manifested") to the set of Pablo's Bloody Obvious Rules of Estimation dotted throughout, it is certainly like no other corporate document I have ever read (not least due to its immense usefulness). It is perhaps no surprise that it became an international best-seller under the catchy title IT Project Estimation: A Practical Guide to the Costing of Software, followed later by a racy sequel entitled IT Project Proposals: Writing to Win.

He had slightly less commercial success with his fictional output. During 2003 and 2004, Pablo wrote a critically acclaimed novel entitled Revelations in collusion with Lu Zurawski, which the pair nevertheless struggled to get published. A stream of rejection slips from the major Publishing Houses is perhaps a bit of a literary cliché, but Pablo was not going to take the situation lying down. Careful research having proved that Publishers no longer read unsolicited manuscripts sent in by first-time authors, Pablo devised a cunning ruse by which he could at least get some copies of the book purchased by an otherwise deprived public from the major high-street chains, and without any need to involve a Publishing House whatsoever: droplifting.

Such stimulating gems are just one small reason why I will miss Pablo greatly. He specialised in brilliant ideas, amusingly executed, with much entertainment in the process. At least, he has left us with a legacy. Hopefully your journey with The Fool on the Hill was a pleasurable one, and through Pablo's careful planning you will be able to continue enjoying Armchair Treasure Hunts for many years to come.

Mark Abbott
10 January 2008.