Listen With Others

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How hard should a Listener puzzle be?

Posted by Encota on 18 Oct 2021

I very recently put very similar thoughts in a letter to the Editors and thought it might be interesting to share them here.

“One of the really attractive qualities of The Listener to me is the unannounced variation in the level of difficulty. Keep the variety of difficulty coming!  For me, most puzzles last a few gentle hours.  And for me, a perfect ‘annual’ mix (should you be interested) would look something like:

  • 10 to 15 puzzles per year that take through to the Monday morning until I have completely solved them.  These are ones where, in the early stages at least, I am often wholly unconvinced that I’ll be able to finish successfully! Very satisfying when you do!
  • Another 10 or so where I put the finishing touches in first thing Saturday morning (either parsing that last clue or two, or finalising what the endgame is actually talking about!)
  • The majority to last me a good few hours i.e. until mid-to-late Friday (as part of the ‘starting at Friday 4pm club’!)
  • Perhaps up to five a year that are easy enough for me to solve in under 2 hours.  I can normally solve most things but I am not the speediest of solvers!
  • Under an hour for the whole thing is too easy – these are Listener crosswords, after all!

Roger & Shane, from what I have seen from your test-solving of my published puzzles, I solve at perhaps half your speed, if you wanted to try and vaguely ‘calibrate’ the above at all.  I hope this is of some use – I am sure you have some form of ‘profile’ already in operation.”

Does anyone else have a view that they’d care to share, just for fun? Re-reading the above, I think I’d already adjust the first bullet to read ‘up to 10’. 15 is a bit brave 🙂


Tim / Encota

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Listener No. 4678, Bleak Expectations: A Setter’s Blog by Mira

Posted by Listen With Others on 17 Oct 2021

Five years ago — more than 40 years after I’d begun solving the sort of puzzles that required recourse to Chambers — I felt privileged to form half of the setting team (along with David Harry) that comprised Dragon, whose puzzle ‘PD’ (Listener No. 4385) graced the Times and was my first ever contribution to a published crossword in a national newspaper. The idea behind the puzzle was all David’s though, he wrote the Across (Printer’s Devilry) clues while I was responsible for the thematic Downs.

Thus encouraged, I began to consider a venture of my own making and spent quite a while on a project that, following test-solving, never actually made it as far as submission, chiefly because the theme had appeared previously. So I started again, this time checking Dave’s Crossword Database in advance, in case a similar idea had been used elsewhere. I honestly can’t remember what made me suddenly think of the iconic scene from Goldfinger but once I hit upon it I knew exactly what the title was going to be — and how I might use Dickens as a red herring here and there in the clues. The puzzle has now finally appeared, but not before two major hiccups on the way, which are detailed below.

To compile the grid and entries I used Qxw and only had a couple of specific requirements:

  1. For the total number of clues to be sufficient to allow the selected quotation to be spelled out (with a few to spare to indicate LASER); and
  2. For the grid-fill to choose only entries that excluded B, O, N & D other than in the small area where I needed those letters to appear.

It was pleasing that I could form the ‘matchstick’ Bond spreadeagled in the grid with exactly three occurrences each of B, O, N & D.

Writing the clues took me quite a while as I am always concerned that surface readings of clues matter and it’s even trickier with Misprints where one is attempting a smooth surface reading while also requiring the corrected wording to make some sort of sense as well as the corrections themselves spelling out specific letters.

In my keenness to slightly up the level of difficulty and to keep it from being ‘just another Misprints’ puzzle, I endeavoured to subtly indicate the Bond theme by coding the quotation with a simple Caesar-shift of seven places every third letter (i.e. 007) the result of which meant that the misprint corrections spelled out:


After decoding and supplying punctuation (and adding the missing word) this produces:


Following the puzzle’s submission to the Listener editors, it joined the long queue then awaiting test-solving. Shane eventually contacted me to say that he’d solved all the clues but despite the preamble indicating ‘a simple thematic code’ unfortunately he could not make sense of the disguised quotation and would have to reject the puzzle. I then realised I had perhaps gone too far with my disguise so immediately offered to rewrite the offending clues so the message was spelled out en clair … and this was deemed acceptable, assuming Roger was also happy with the puzzle. Not long afterwards I was extremely pleased to hear that the puzzle had been accepted for publication, albeit with the usual corrections and suggestions from the editors. Roger in particular was keen that we pushed the Dickens red herring as far as we could, so several other clues were then adapted to fit that requirement.

I had hoped that the puzzle might see the light of day in time to coincide with Sir Sean Connery’s 90th birthday on 25th August 2020 but the August numerical puzzle and another date-specific puzzle already scheduled meant that its publication was put back to 7th November, that was no problem as far as I was concerned. However disaster struck on Saturday 31st October when I heard on the radio that Sir Sean Connery had just sadly passed away. I immediately emailed Roger and we could see that it was not going to look good if we went ahead with publication the following weekend knowing what had happened — and in particular bearing mind the sentiments expressed in the quotation.

A replacement puzzle was hastily inserted and I had to try to explain to a few friends I’d already alerted about my puzzle appearing why it had suddenly been dropped, without giving the game away. Time passed and so did the date of the premiere of No Time to Die (a handy peg on which to hang the puzzle) until eventually Bond’s awkward dilemma got nationwide exposure again in September 2021. I hope that some of you thought it was worth the wait anyway. I would reiterate my grateful thanks to David Harry for his encouragement when I was thinking of embarking on a solo project… and also to Roger and Shane of course for their assistance in getting it over the line.

Thanks for reading.

Mira (Robert Whale)

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Listener No 4678: Bleak Expectations by Mira

Posted by Dave Hennings on 15 Oct 2021

The first new setter for a few weeks with Mira and what looks from the title like a bit of a Dickens mishmash. Some dialogue to be uncovered here via misprints plus a few extra words. A brief scan of the clues identified Sowerberry, Scrooge and Snodgrass lurking within, further hinting at the Dickens theme, although I’m not sure that Mr Muscle or Poldark appeared in any of his novels!

I do enjoy misprints, mainly because they make a welcome break from extra letters in wordplay, but I may be in a minority here. That the misprints were in the definitions made life somewhat easier.

I got off to a slow start, especially since I was convinced that 1ac Mining colleagues requiring smeary dirt steam treated (9) was a sop to Ms Curran, Mining being a misprint for Wining! After solving 11 Roesti cooked after Mum turned pan off (8) for AMORTISE [MA< + ROESTI*] and 12ac Why was The Avenger, Pip’s servant, ultimately engaged? (5) STEED [SEED around (servan)T with Why the misprint of Who], I moved onto the downs and 1dn MISE [MISE(r)] enabled me to see that we were talking about Dining colleagues at 1ac with MESSMATES [MESS + STEAM*].

Onwards and upwards and the grid filled nicely, pretty much top to bottom although it was by no means a very easy solve. Along the way, there were some entertaining clues, including the Avengers one mentioned above.

17acBudding wine fancier uses a round schooner (9)SAUTERNES(USES A)* around TERN with Budding for Pudding
37acMr Muscle flexed for Baz’s top luvvy (8)CRUMMLES(MR MUSCLE)* and Baz for Boz — Dickens again!
5dnIt’s thought we heard crackers on small plate being served up (6)MADGESMAD + SEG< with heard for hoard
26dnGerman formerly in the House, possibly lacking aspiration, lost her seat (6)TERESA(HER SEAT – H)*; a reference to the late Teresa Gorman, British MP; toughie for overseas solvers

There were also a couple of sneaky clues. 15ac Part of Hertford’s repast, regurgitated? (3) which was a sort of &lit (the first time I’ve seen that with a misprint, I think) for ERS with the definition requiring Hereford (cows) and the wordplay (Hertford’)S RE(past)<. I think! And 3dn Maxes out credit card — starting thus? (4) for SEES with Maxes for Makes and credit card beginning with two Cs! Moreover, I don’t think I’ve ever used a SQUILGEE before!

And so we had corrected misprints revealing “Do you expect me to talk?” “No, MrI expect you to die.” I needed to google to reveal the Goldfinger scene in the laboratory where Bond is about to be sliced in two with a LASER, from the extra words in clues — Leeford, Augustus, Sowerberry, Endell, Rouncewell.

A nice bit of highlighting finished things off with the letters of BOND in the shape of Sean Connery (?) and the LASER beam rising up to almost meet him.

Great fun, Mira. It’s always nice for the endgame to produce a smile.

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Bleak Expectations by Mira

Posted by shirleycurran on 15 Oct 2021

After last week’s long haul solving the Enigmatist Variety Show, we were hoping for something easier and it was a relief to download Mira’s 13 X 13 grid with just five lines of preamble, symmetrical bars, a set of across and a set of down cues and only a pair of identified clue gimmicks. Mira? A new setter? We asked ourselves, but the quality of the clues soon suggested that he was not quite a newcomer.

Still, I needed to confirm that he retains his place at the Listener setters’ bar (even if that’s the last place I remember seeing him). He gave us little doubt, ‘Budding wine fancier uses a round schooner (9)’ I’m not sure that we would regard SAUTERNES as Pudding wine, but the verbal exchange soon gave us that P, and we produced a ‘fancier’ (anagrammed) USES A round a TERN for the schooner. Then he was into the beer, ‘Whence inspiration for the Kop? Half a pint at least (5)’ His Kop became a ‘Koi’ which breathes through its gills and, of course two GILLS produce half a pint – what a fine play on words!

There was a short diversion into ‘dry’ or TT in the wordplay of PETSITTER (one in charge of mewer) but he was soon back on the beer, ‘Flaws in Poldark’s ego, lifting European beer(5)’ Chambers tells us that ‘CH’ is I in south-west England, say Cornwall, where Dickens was so shocked by the conditions in the Poldark mine. So we raise that ALE in CH and produce CHELAE (maybe the claws of the petsat cat?)

Still more mixing of the wine and beer. ‘Alcoholic drunk briefly excited (4)’ Oh dear, that had to be the setter’s favourite ASTI (not quite ‘astir’) giving us an alcoholic drink. What can I say? Cheers, Mira!

There were lots of smiles, and the title and all those Dickensian names in the clues (Pip, The Avenger, Leeford, Endell – yes, she’s in David Copperfield – Sowerberry, Rouncewell, Wardle, Augustus Snodgrass) and CRUMMLES as a solution led us on a fine goose chase but the exchange that emerged from the corrected misprints “DO YOU EXPECT ME TO TALK?” “NO MR [BOND] I EXPECT YOU TO DIE” took us to Goldfinger and a fine endgame where, in a kind of lipogram, we highlighted the only examples of the letters BOND to produce a mini James Bond shape and saw that evil LASER directed at him.

Impressive setting and fun to solve. Many thanks, Mira.

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Listener No 4677, Variety Show: A Setter’s Blog by Enigmatist

Posted by Listen With Others on 10 Oct 2021

This all happened in a very short space of time. My thanks are due to Roger, Shane and my test-solver – who I will forever think of in the context of this puzzle as “Poor David”. He had no letter-counts to work with, you see – and a considerably shorter preamble.

For reasons more relevant to writing topical thematic pub quiz rounds than to do with anything remotely cruciverbal, one of my regular tasks is to scour the weeks and months ahead in search of divisible-by-five anniversaries. Which is where, around the end of June, I found The Spice Girls. And learned that it was (good grief) twenty-five years ago that Posh and co announced their arrival on the music scene. Excellent material for ten pub questions – answers hiding their five real names and their five spice names – but, really, 25 years…

On another front, I was looking for a theme for the second puzzle of the year that I am duty-bound as editor to set for the Inquisitor series. Naturally I wondered about killing two-birds with one stone. Could 2 Become 1?

Looking at the cover of the debut album, released on September 19 1996, it was noticeable that the letters of the title SPICE were relatively square in appearance, and also that – aside from those letters – the cover was, bar the much smaller word GIRLS and a small gold ring, completely white. Could the album cover be reproduced in some way as the solution to a puzzle? I’d fond memories of Jambazi doing something similar with the cover of Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (Inquisitor 1307, if you’d care to Google).

Well, I opened up trusty Crossword Compiler and had a play around. For a reasonable representation of the sleeve, it looked as though the puzzle would have to be 17 cells wide and, for the sake of proportion, 12 or 13 cells deep. On the album cover, within the letters of SPICE, the images of the five performers appear. Could they perhaps be represented in some way in a solution? Maybe crossing down solutions? Possibly synonyms of ‘Posh’ etc within the letters of the appropriate length (8, 10, 5, 11 and 8)? Which of the two? Not both, presumably – wait a minute … unless clashes were in some way involved?

Cue more playing around with possibilities. It quickly became clear that the representations of the Girls could not be in sleeve order if any or all of the above were to happen. Also (Aaargh!) there’s no letter common to BABY and SPICE – so Emma will have to be used (and one other real name so that it doesn’t look like an error). And I might have to nip outside Chambers for a couple of answers. But let’s see.

What became obvious, very quickly, was that this was not going to be a puzzle for the Inquisitor series. The Listener? Surely too big for the slot with the grid size and 50-odd clues, not to mention keeping a preamble short enough to convey what information was required.

Well, I thought, I can only ask. And so, on July 1, I did – and the rest is history. Poor, poor David.

John Henderson
York, October 2021

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