Sitting in the garden on a glorious Friday with a mojito in one hand and a Sabre in the other. I've half an hour before the evening's jollities start, which should be time enough to make a little headway. We have a two-sentence preamble, where the first sentence gives clear and precise information about the coding used, but the second seems otiose: “Information to ensure completion of the grid is provided by the principal diagonal”. A trained eye should be looking at the main diagonal as a matter of course, surely. I do hope that's not giving too much away; I like my Sabres to be difficult. We’ll see.
Doesn’t look like there’s anything funny going on with the clues, so dive in with 1a: Swimmers returning wrap up well outside (5). Easy enough to parse: ‘well’ is SO, ‘wrap up’ is END, and the swimmers are ODNES. Or orfes. Or… or something along those lines.
5a, 10a and 11a all stand firm against my attacks. 12a is more promising: The entire state, head height (7). ‘The entire’ is T+ALL, ‘head’ is NESS, TALLNESS is height, making ‘state’ superfluous and the whole thing one letter too long. So perhaps there is some tomfoolery in the clues? Could 3d have a T in the middle? Headgear has woven mill finish (5). If it’s the same gimmick, that’s HAT + jumble of ‘has’ = either ‘mill’ or ‘finish’. No, nothing doing. Hum.
The first one falls: ERNES nicely hidden at 6d. Then 13a is Start to trap river fish (4). If the last two words of the clue were interchanged the answer would be TIDE. Does something similar work for that TALLNESS clue? No… back to fish-hunting then. TURE. TEXE. TUSK. That'll do, a tusk is a torsk, a coddy thing. So this 3d has a K in it, and it's quite brilliant: the hat is a SHAKO, with KO clued as ‘mill finish’. Now that’s what Sabre’s for. Superb stuff. And of course 12a is ALLNESS, where ‘head’ in the clue was an instruction, not a noun. (He likes fooling around with parts of speech, does Sabre. ‘Weed with dead leaves ripped off’ was a classic from some years ago. [Answer: WIDDLED.]) That'll do for now. Time to go and be sociable for the rest of the night.
9am, Saturday morning. Another scorcher, and the roses are loving it. The carnations are flourishing, the anchusa is rocketing skywards and we’re having to eat sage with every other meal to stop it taking over the garden. Back to the puzzle, 2d ends U_: Could be personal inventory here (5). ‘Inventory’ is SUM, so MESUM? …MYSUM? No, ADSUM, meaning ‘here’ – another fine clue. 16a has an excellent surface: Special essence of woman’s body. SOMA, with not a padding word anywhere.
RATOOS comes easily at 9d once I've looked up ‘boomer’, and 11a is _AS_: Bill’s back escapes sudden pains (4). At first this looks like a word for ‘sudden pains’ minus a word for ‘back’, all meaning 'bill'. But on reflection, probably not: such indirect subtractive wordplay doesn’t seem very Sabrish. There's a very neat clue for OFFISH at 1d (Cool, owning ferret (6)), making this informative principal diagonal begin ORSSO – which is not immediately enlightening. And after HORSETAILS at 20a it's ORSSOT, so I guess it's encoded too. Sigh.
The trickiest clue for me in Sabre's last Listener involved having to anagram 'Guildenstern's heart' to get INTERLUDES. This time I spot the idea more quickly at 17d, Psychiatrist breaking a large person’s heart (9), and in goes ASPERGER. The ‘sudden pains’ clue at 11a is now FAS_, but I just can’t get it. Checking ‘fast’ in the big red book yields nothing, but on the same page is the Scottish FASH meaning ‘pains’. The cogs turn for a minute before I spot that it’s ‘flash’ without the L.
The top right is friendlier, with AISLES crossing SLOE (Bush running late, one hears is nice) and EEKS. 8d is EGRESS making 10a look very much like SHEARLING, an answer I’d never have got without a few crossing letters. But 5a is hard: Act well worth esteem (6), _E_A_E. I try to wrench BERATE to fit the clue but I can’t convince myself. ‘Rate’ is ‘esteem’, and rather amazingly ‘worth’ is ‘to be’ – but ‘berate’ is hardly ‘act well’. After some minutes' mental anguish I come up with BEHAVE, Chambers confirming ‘have’ = ‘esteem’. That was sneaky.
Anywhere else 24a would be a stand-out clue: Nice thought, bride exchanging rings (4). That’s IDEE, and a beautifully natural and misleading surface. GUAR at 28a (simple anagram, difficult definition) and 22d is SEALCH (Silky lace slips embraced by mum – as well as good surfaces he’s got an eye for the definitions, this chap).TEHRAN slots into the bottom left.
32a is Sires a sort of 10ac (9). If this was almost anyone else’s puzzle I’d probably be fooled, but as it's Sabre my first (well, nearly first) thought is to play around with 'tenacross' until ANCESTORS appears. Funny how you change your game depending on the setter. I make good progress in the bottom right now, with MASK, AMOK, SNAKES and OKRAS coming pretty quickly. (I thought OKRAS was excellent: Jake lacking height spots plants.) I shouldn't quote every clue, but those for EMIT and THIN both raise smiles of admiration.
21d throws up the surprising fact that an undertaker used to be an EDITOR. And 26d is fiendish – Advisors work without fee on lawyer’s terms (5). Five years ago that would honestly have taken me a day to unravel, but I’m in the Sabre Zone now, and GENRO doesn’t take more than a minute. And I finally remember the blasted OPAHS and tuck them in at 1a. (Checking Chambers, I see that they ‘constitute a family of uncertain affinities’, which makes them sound a bit untrustworthy.)
Six left, including both the three-letter ones. HAUSA takes ten minutes, but after a barren half-hour I decide it’s too hot to persevere, and spend the rest of the day getting sunburnt instead.
Sunday, 8:30am. We seem to be in the height of summer and it's only May. A fresh look at the puzzle gives SPRINGALDS at 22a – well, the fresh look gave SPRING_ _ _ _ and Chambers did the rest. I don't feel too bad about that, though, as neither spalds nor springalds were in my vocabulary. That completes the diagonal (ORSSOTNGMMRS) and one of the unclued entries (HLESELAT). Now 4d is _ EL_ _TI_ _: He must ring Charlotte's doctor. At once! Why the full stop in that clue? 'At' must need a capital letter, I guess. So is this an old word for astatine? I don't know any old words for astatine. No-one knows any old words for astatine. In desperation I trawl through HEL in the book: HELICTITE fits the grid but not the clue… but there's HELVETIUM. I should have thought of He = Helium, but 'Charlotte's doctor' for VET was always going to beat me.
Right, three left, let's knock this off before lunch. I don't normally like to have a Listener take up much of Sunday. Tchah, if I'd have bothered to look up 'nuts' at 18a I'd have had ENS long ago. And HUI and INANITION finish the job. Wonderful clues all round: whatever the theme, it's already a fantastic puzzle. Now, what's this code all about?
First, try to unscramble the diagonal. If S is a vowel then it's E or O. If S = E, then the unclued entry HSHS is MEME, NENE or TETE – assuming we're looking for words at all. The last Listener I simply couldn't finish was Sabre's 'Fireworks' a few years ago, which involved cracking a similar replacement code, if I remember rightly. I spent hours going through Chambers looking for words with the same letter pattern as something that turned out to be bloody Popacatapetl. Grr.
Anyway. The unclued entries here don't use all the letters of the alphabet. Is there a rule behind this code, or is it just a random replacement for a selection of letters? If HSHS were TETE then every letter moves 12 places along. That's promising, and makes the diagonal ADEEAFZ… no, perhaps not.
Why are there three SH pairs forming a diagonal in the top left of the grid? And why are there four OK or KO pairs in the bottom right? Why, yet again, is KEA in the grid? What, precisely, does 'occur' signify in the preamble? LITTLE RABBIT would fit the diagonal. So too would LITTLE DORRIT, which is much more likely. That would give _T_T for the four-letter entry – er, UTUT = DODO? Are we back in Wonderland again?
The only given letters used in the code are A, E, GHI, LMNO, RSTU. That's 13 letters out of 26. Is that significant?
Although 'Little Dorrit' wouldn't be information, exactly, it would be a hint. Perhaps I'm reading the preamble too closely, but I'm going off the Dorrit idea – not least because it gives nothing sensible for the other entries. Hm, this isn't as gettable as I'd hoped. Put it aside and go for a long walk to see Eltham Palace.
Sunday, 9:30pm. I don't think there's anything hidden in the grid. You can always find coincidences if you look, but I remember reading somewhere that Sabre doesn't use software to fill his grids, so it's probably not going to be stuffed with thematic material a la Magoo. Perhaps the diagonal is three words, corresponding to the three unfinished unclued entries?
Monday. Can't remember the last time a Listener spilled over into a weekday. I list all the words I can think of fitting HSHS, from ANAN to YOYO. Nothing really works with 'general suggestions', or indeed 'lip service'. The diagonal isn't giving much either: the only phrase I can come up with which fits a four-letter word is WHO OWNS SAPPHO. Dear oh dear. DROOD fits the start of the diagonal. The Harry Mathews novel TLOOTH does, too.
Tuesday. The principal diagonal isn't specified in the preamble as being encoded. Might it, somehow, not be? It has twelve letters in all but only six distinct ones. The whole grid contains every letter except J, Q, W, X, Y and Z.
Wednesday. The unclued entries are of increasing lengths: 4 letters, 5, 6, 7 and 8. The first and last are fully checked. Oh, what's going on here? Why is 19a EEKS when EELS is a better word? Why GUAR rather than GEAR? Do all the coded words begin H? Two of them end in AT.
Thursday. All the letters of 'General suggestions' are in the unclued entries, except the O which is in the diagonal. So 'general suggestions' do 'occur' in the unclued grid entries (and the diagonal, but that's a minor point). Don't know what to do with that idea though. What fits HLESELAT? Proforma. Racecard. Firerisk. It's an anagram of ALL THESE… oh, I don't know what I'm doing. Dammit, I'm going to have to relax my standards and use a computer. It's either that or trawling Chambers. The only site I know of is something called Chris Johnson's Word Finder, but it seems to do the job.
I like DICACITY ('raillery, banter'). POTATOES fits rather neatly too. POTATORY. TENONERS. URETERIC and URETERAL are less likely, I think. MISUSING. OILSLICK. HATSTAND. AIRBRICK. AIRDRIES. ERGOGRAM. EXOTOXIN.
Not much time to spare for Lip Service on Friday and Saturday, but this damned code dogs my every waking moment. Nothing hangs over one like an unfinished Listener as the deadline approaches. I'm liking the idea of NONO as the four-letter word, as it means 'an impossibility, a non-starter'. Perhaps the whole thing's a joke.
Sunday morning. I've tried all sorts of ideas over the last week, most of them too silly to write down. (The given letters of the code make THE MINOR GAULS, or possibly MOTHER ANGLIUS.) Now I'm harbouring doubts that I'll crack it at all. Still, for the first time in a few days the house is silent and I have solitude. And a nice cup of tea. And I'm thinking…
POTATOES is a good, sensible word. Fits with PAPA for the four-letter one. General suggestions occur… information is provided…
Actually, POTATOES and PAPA do fit with LITTLE DORRIT if you code the diagonal backwards. Encode it, I suppose. What does that make the rest? PR_ _M, PR_ _ES and PO_ _ _R_. I'm trying not to get too excited here, but there's a scintilla of an iota of the first spark of something approaching hope. Flinging myself wildly towards the ODQ, I turn to Dickens.
Poultry, prunes and prism. 9:47 on Sunday morning. I don't think I've ever been quite so overjoyed to finish a puzzle, or so relieved.
Once I've come down, I'm able to admire the simplicity of the idea. And, of course, I'm sure that everyone else will have seen it in five minutes. Why didn't I go straight to the ODQ when I spotted Little Dorrit? I got hung up on the code, and I tried to read too much into a straightforward preamble.
Splendid stuff all round. Thanks to Sabre for a truly great puzzle.