Now why would the editors give us a cutting stroke from Sabre as the last crossword of the year? Are there too many ‘all corrects’ out there somewhere? I have to say, though, that we were expecting to see Sabre’s name as we downloaded this one, as he hasn’t appeared yet this year but with all those Christmas guests and the heap of leftover turkey, stuffing and what not, this was not the most welcome solve for me – and I was still saying that twenty-four hours later – I believe that this, for us, came second to Mash’s Klein bottle in duration of solve, which I calculate to have been about fifteen hours, of which something like ten went into alphanumeric calculations of letters, turning the grid upside down, inside out etc. and considerable cursing of it.
Of course, though I knew in advance that Sabre has long since earned his season ticket for the Listener Setters’ Imbibers Club, I did a speedy check to confirm his membership, and, after a few false starts with a ‘gallon of tea’ and ‘fermented sterol’, he produced his tipple ‘prime quality aged rum’. Cheers, Sabre!
Ironically, the initial solve went fairly quickly and we were remarking, with astonishment, that this might be like the Tibea solve of earlier in the year, when setters of difficult ones produced something relatively gentle. Yes, OK, it knocked very close to half of us out of the competition. I was a TAPU/TABU offender, as were most of the solvers I know! We were to be disillusioned by the last few clues which left us scratching our heads.
We were alerted by that remark in the preamble that ‘Lengths in brackets refer to grid entries’ to the fact that there were going to be some longer entries to fit in and when a helpful anagram produced BROMHIDROSIS – Monsieur’s horrid BO is compounded by this (MS HORRID BO IS*) we made the logical assumption that the unclued centre column was where the extra letter would go. With the IO of EXPIRATION added there and the TH at the end of ACANTH, ‘A slang term for spinach plant that’s dead (5)’ (A + CANT + (spinac)H giving us an obsolete or ‘dead’ plant name) plus ND appearing at the end of the column, one Numpty saw that HOUR HAND and MINUTE HAND were likely candidates and that they, of course, produce a number of ‘coincidences’ in the course of their twelve hour rotations around the clock.
NOON was clearly a four-letter candidate for the word to be highlighted and we could see that appearing as clashes in PENNON with UPSHOT, LIMO and RAZMATAZ gave us PE N/H N/O O N/M. Those clashes were intriguing, as they evidently established where clues were going to have one letter replaced by another BUT (big BUT) there weren’t enough of them for us to adjust every solution in the grid.
Those ‘head-scratchers’? I believe the last clue to be solved is often the same one for a whole range of solvers and the Answerbank has confirmed that 17ac ‘Rounded, narrowing bodies seen in all of Dior dresses’ (7 two words) (URNS in TOUT = TURNS OUT) and 9d ‘This ancient knew following close to mobsters would get you mugged (6)’ (WOTTED which with (mobster)S would give SWOTTED or ‘mugged’) were the last for other people. They were ours: but, after a cold turkey break, we had a full grid and that grid staring began.
We fed those clashing letters into TEA (oh, yes, I will use any solving aid – Quinapalus’ wonderful resources, Crossword Compiler’s provisions or any on-line Playfair solver and cock a snook at the purists who stick to brain and pencil!) and intriguing words appeared if we ignored the centre column. We got TEN TO TWO and MINUTES TO EIGHT, as well as MINUTES PAST THREE. Those were clearly part of coincidences but that is when my despair almost set in. Truly, after seven years of weekly Listener solving (and yes, I have never been the winner out of JEG’s bag – how does that tally with statistical probability?) I had finally decided to write a ‘fail blog’ and return to the Sun Numpty Coffee Break Easy Solve and never look at another Listener.
No messages giving ‘two examples of coincidence’ would appear from the clashing pairs of letters, and, even more disconcerting, we had words like SATRAP and SPACE CADETS where we had no clashes at all, and intersecting words like CRAIC and LASHES where there was only one available clash, so we couldn’t replace a letter in both.
The other Numpty created a table of times when clashes occur as the two hands go round the clock and all of them contained fractions with 11 as the denominator, (yes, I realize it was available on the Internet, too) so I had something to work on, but it was finding those expressions in the list of clashing letters that was the downer.
Enough! I am sure I am not the only solver to have spent an inordinate amount of time struggling before realizing that the solution had to be in the unches and (oh the deviousness of it!) using the replacement letter and/or the original letter to create the two separate messages. This was typical Sabre advanced thinking and way out of my league. So we take the X of EXPIRATION to give us ‘SIXTEEN AND FOUR ELEVENTH MINUTES PAST THREE’ and we convert it to an E, thus producing a replaced letter in E[E]PIRATION and permitting us to find TWENTY-ONE AND FOUR ELEVENTH MINUTES TO EIGHT (and so on, for the E of TERPINEOLS, that becomes TERPIN[T]OLS etc.)
What about (in two cases the letter and its replacement are identical)? Is that a contradiction in terms? Apparently not. I have to use the E of LASHES and the E of SPACE CADETS for both of the messages.
What can I say. I am supposed to have enjoyed this solve, but, in fact, was plunged into the slough of despond by it. But that is what the Listener is all about isn’t it? We bemused and dim-witted lower level setters and solvers have to simply gasp in amazement at the productions of the Mashes, Quinapali, Keas and Sabres of the upper echelons so many thanks again, Sabre!
Post script: I posted my entry a couple of days ago, as did most of my friends, I believe, but one of them has just alerted me to the fact that ‘the numbers in brackets refer to the grid entries’ and, of course, since I have entered both my hour and my minute hand in the grid, I have twelve letters, for example, in clue 4ac, where I have BROMHIDROSWS and the number in brackets says (11). The minute hands in some clocks lies over the hour hand (not in the one I am looking at where the hour hand has pretty little rings on it and I can clearly see both, right now, as they coincide!) No, surely Sabre and the editors wouldn’t eliminate entries for that, after all the hard work that went into solving. Such a dilemma makes me almost relieved to have been out of the ‘all corrects’ for quite a while!