Friday 1st August, 7.00pm For once a setter that needs no introductions with this his eighth Listener since 1994 although of late he has appeared more frequently as one of the Mango triumvirate. Radix has always proved to be a daunting challenge and I failed with two of the previous seven (A Jigsaw Puzzle and Kid’s Stuff) one of my worst records with any setter. The Listener used to be the highlight of my week with many puzzles taking a week or more to crack but I wouldn’t say that now and this is due in some part to another of Radix’s works – the magnificent A Chessword Puzzle that was the Crossword Centre’s puzzle for July 2004. It was clear that this had been set with the Listener or equivalent in mind and rightly or wrongly I have never forgiven the editors for nearly denying us this gem. It took me the best part of two weeks to complete so technically would have been a Listener failure for me but then I consider myself a slow solver. I still remember it as one of my favourite puzzles of all time and another Radix, Bunged Up, is not far behind.
But back to the present if only for an instant: when did we last see a Playfair puzzle? A quick look through the files reveals Countdown to Re-entry by Shackleton (3887, July 2006) by a coincidence another of the Mangoes. I have always liked the way that the elusive key looks so obvious in a page full of Playfair trial squares.
The preamble is fairly concise but means little yet so let’s get started on the clues with that intriguing onomatopoeia:
20ac A simple anagram of wham giving us mwah (smacking as in kissing).
31ac Another simple anagram, of Crete, giving erect (upright).
26dn Ta-ta (goodbye).
36dn Per (by) reversed giving rep (salesman) or vice versa per.
25ac Anagram of trench-feet minus ch (surgeon) gives enfetter (I meant to hobble). Trench feet is not hyphenated in Chambers (2003) although was in earlier editions.
5dn Anagram of melinite giving the mineral ilmenite.
1dn Con + sider = consider (deliberate).
22ac Dis – two definitions: Detective Inspectors and treat with contempt.
6dn N + AS = nas (an old word meaning was not). Antisubmarine is another not hyphenated in Chambers (2003).
2dn Wharfs (piers) – W + RF (république française) in HAS.
That is a quarter of the clues solved in an hour or so, which I would say was not as tough as Radix can be. However, I continue to make steady progress and have all the clues solved before 11pm.
The message appears to be:
In four pairs, both words must be permuted similarly and one then encoded.
My normal practice is to add an asterisk to any clue that I have doubts about and I have six such clues:
35ac I have entered neural (bone) but it is only vaguely a bone in combination with plate or tube.
39ac Slipover does not fit the definition – to escape the notice of.
19dn the fool appears to be superfluous although the quotation marks give “play the fool” a certain unity.
21dn Headlong does not fit the definition – dolichocephalic type.
27dn The wordplay, HYD(E) + RIA(L) gives the entry hydria but the definition appears to be for Riyadh – it’s capital there (SA). Riyadh/hydria are anagrams so this must be what the preamble means by wordplay always leads to the entry.
33dn I have never heard of Ronnie Rat (rats) but the Internet has. This time the definition (brilliant) does fit the entry (star) so this is very doubtful.
Taking Riyadh/hydria as the template I see that the anagrams overslip and long-head do fit their respective definitions so are these six of our eight one-word answers:
Riyadh/hydria overslip/slipover long-head/headlong?I spend the rest of the day trying to find the key to encode Riyadh as hydria, overslip as slipover etc but it doesn’t seem possible. I once stayed up until 4am completing a Listener and vowed never to do so again so call it a day at my usual bedtime of 12.30am – sleep often aids inspiration.
Saturday, 11am But not this time. Life is too short to spend all day on a dénouement but here is a review of what I have:
The six answers are all anagrams and the entry cannot be the defined word Playfair-encoded with the same key (I am not ruling out the possibility of four keys despite the preamble). Nevertheless, is the Playfair key something like anagram but without repeated letters?
There are some oddities in the preamble:
crucial message A reference to the permutation being crosslike?
eight one-word answers Why is this specified? There is only the one two-word answer in the grid – camino real.
something in common Something old, something new …?
The same Playfair key applies throughout Most clues seem to be perfectly normal, bar the extra word.
The title, Argentum, might or might not be Playfair-encoded but it is an anagram of argument (a possible keyword that I try in vain).
The day is not totally lost when my Muse comes to the rescue with the following:
33dn is a normal clue – pear (brilliant).
35ac is a fourth thematic clue, ulnare (definition bone); neural (wordplay and entry).
Sunday, 12 noon I now consider neural/ulnare slipover/overslip headlong/long-head and hydria/Riyadh as the eight words to be paired off. I find four of the five four-letter chemical elements (not zinc), referencing the title, but they were obtained without a satisfactory method.
As a last resort, I go to Quinapalus’ Playfair Breaker and enter aefc befc … zefc as the ciphertext. I do the same with ahpl bhpl etc. Nothing likely turns up until beep, where the key mince words returns hint. Q’s Playfair Breaker isn’t perfect and the vital key only shows up under beep and was nearly missed but it was fairly easy to deduce the others knowing half the word and I eventually also find sign, talk and news, which are all synonyms of one another.So the grid is complete by 4.30pm:
However, I feel little sense of achievement in having used such an appalling method to complete a grid that I barely understand.
Post Mortem This is what was missed:
The eight words were slipover, headlong, hydria, neural to be paired with the grid opposites winsomer, consider, wharfs and sprent.
As OVERSLIP permutes to SLIPOVER so WINSOMER permutes to OMERWINS, which encodes as WINSOMER.
As LONG-HEAD permutes to HEADLONG so CONSIDER permutes to IDERCONS, which encodes as CONSIDER.
As RIYADH permutes to HYDRIA so WHARFS permutes to SAFWHR, which encodes as WHARFS.
As ULNARE permutes to NEURAL so SPRENT permutes to RTSNEP, which encodes as SPRENT.
The crucial message: In four pairs, both words must be permuted similarly and one then encoded seems almost totally unhelpful in indicating this and the words to be encoded are not even real so I will be astonished if many solvers complete the puzzle using the intended method.
As it was, I was right off track by assuming that the four unclued words were permutations from the eight, the same as those encoded according to the message. I freely admit that this looks ridiculous with hindsight.
I have said in the past that I prefer preambles that don’t give too much away but feel that this could have been better worded – a crucial message about eight grid entries and in addition, four unclued words … must be Playfair-encoded – for example. If the message had then alluded to symmetrical pairs then I think that this would have been a much better and more enjoyable puzzle.
The only two-word answer, camino real, has no anagram that I could find and its pair, enneagonal, does not decode as a jumble of itself so I see no reason for having one-word answers mentioned in the preamble.
The title, Argentum, is also not encoded but its anagram, argument, has the synonym theme according to Chambers Crossword Dictionary or does it just loosely suggest mince words?
The entry at 5ac, winsomer, is interesting to consider. As a regularly formed comparative it is typical of many of the words that we come across in puzzles in that few native English speakers would dream of using it – it just does not trip off the tongue. The syntactic form, more winsome, would be most people’s preference as is evidenced by invoking Chris Lear’s Trial by Google – “more winsome” beats winsomer by 6780 to 1270. Even then, I had to go to result 35 to see winsomer used in a normal sentence – most results are dictionary entries.
Early editions of Chambers Words used to list all possible word endings after each entry, useful if you are ever unsure of a plural form say. So, under the 7-letter words we have: winsome -r, -st. It is one of the reasons why I keep my raggedy copy, another being that I am genetically incapable of throwing anything away.
To sum up then, an easy crossword that was completed by a gimmick that was just too obscure for me. Therefore not particularly enjoyable and I regret not getting to play around with the Playfair code properly. If I had a magic wand then Argentum would have been the CC’s puzzle for July 2004 and A Chessword Puzzle Listener No.3993. For those who have not seen it, it remains available with solution at the Crossword Centre under Puzzle Index.
To end on a positive note, the relationship between those four pairs of words looks nothing short of miraculous, easily matching the wonders that Sabre might come up with as he so often does. Would it be unfair to suggest that this was computer aided design? I am not complaining, for while the computer has been accused of making life too easy for solvers it might also benefit with the setting of some spectacular puzzles.