Comments from the family included, “They’ve forgotten to print the clues!” ”Perhaps Sabre is not paid enough – he must be doing a go-slow to improve the pay of compilers.” “Well, can you send an invisible solution? Oh-o no, they’re a clever lot – it says, ‘Solutions in invisible ink will not be accepted’- darn it!”
So we set to work. We highlighted the lights that were going to be filled by clues and saw that that was most of the crossword. Obviously, we had to cold-solve all that we could and fill the solutions in normally, before even considering attempting to encode them. There were only 21, so that task should have been easier than usual but, of course, the numpties were rather daunted by the task.
In 22ac, for example, once we had solved VACATE at 13d (‘The old annul caveat, being out of order’) we had ?????T?? for ‘Small number in narrow-minded Aussie crew’. Seven unchecked lights – is that cricket? Perhaps the clue was fairly transparent. N was going to be number, and we had to fit it into ‘limited’ or ‘bigoted’ but BIGNOTED doesn’t appear in an alphabetical position in Chambers, so we were left wondering for a while. ‘Crew’ in its biblical ‘cock crew’ sense was obscure enough to trick us. Am I grumbling again? I suppose it was a very subtle and ingenious clue.
Obviously there must be cricket going on somewhere in the world – we had a few references – that word BOILOVER (‘Bowled well, carrying half of Oval – a surprise down under’) ARILS (‘Covers for seeds, half of each bear snails’), ABATE (‘Allow a cricketer what’s left of éclair’). I suspected our white spaces, when exposed to a bit of Aussie sun, were going to yield names of Test cricketers. But it was not to be.
Soon we had a complete grid, with the exception of 31d, (Skein of geese are a very approximate ell?) and that seemed to be a fair starting point for decoding – or encoding. ‘A simple substitution type …’ That sounds promising – A BC D E, can become M N O P Q, for example. Don’t be so naïve! There’s that word ‘permutation’.
So we print a new grid. The starting point is obvious, as we have BEBOPBOP at 5d. There can’t be many words in the English language that fit that pattern. Eureka! There is only NONSENSE. We’re on our way. Our second word, 6d, OTLTOIO produces four possibilities but we opt for SIZISTS or SIZISMS and hit 8d. I don’t know how anybody could work out this code without the help of Chambers on-line or an equivalent word-finder. Sadly, though, the on-line version gives no solution for O?B?PO?R?I?P.
I slept on it, and, in the morning, realized that SYNAESTHETE would fit the pattern – it was a simple matter of putting the word in the plural. It took two of us to complete the task, carefully checking that we were not skipping a row or column or confusing the original letter with its encoded version.
The new grid filled but we still had to work backwards to find 31d. We had two letters of the unencoded word and were looking for ?AR? We started with the conviction that we were looking for a measure; thus the skein of geese had to be part of the wordplay. (They fly in Vs, not Ells don’t they) Chambers confirmed that V can be anything in a V shape. Still we struggled, as VARA seemed to be a measurement, but we needed VARE, to produce BOTANISE (and not BCTANISE). Sure enough, there it was, hiding inconspicuously at the head of the Chambers VARE head word. Sneaky!
We had to rethink our putative ELK/KRONAS/ZONAL – which was causing us trouble anyway, since clearly a unique solution had to exist – we were not going to be faced with a choice of ZONAE or ZONAL. I flailed for a good hour before finally opting for E-LA, AROBAS and ZYBAN. I am not happy with my solution but all the words are in Chambers, even if one of them is a trademark. I wonder if there is a more satisfactory, alternative solution!
This was tough.Thank you Sabre for filling most of my weekend. I recognise the brilliance of the construction and imagine the experts will have done it on the train home, as usual but please, Mr Listener, have pity on the numpty solvers. Can we have a bit more ‘Stripey horse (5)’?