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Listener No 4440: Nostrum by Mr E

Posted by Dave Hennings on 24 March 2017

One of the trickier setters faced us this week, with Mr E’s ninth Listener. I know that he’s tricky because he’s tripped me up once in the last ten years. This week, there was quite a long preamble, telling us that 25 clues had the good old extra wordplay letter. The difference here was that they didn’t lead to an instruction but to a question with two words missing and a post hoc answer which had also affected definitions in two clues.

My first job was to look up post hoc in Chambers, where it was defined as “after the event”. Hmmm…! The rest of the preamble made some sort of sense, and I wrote the key elements at the top of my solving notes: circled letters = two-word description; two normally-clued entries needed to be changed; two normally-clue entries needed to be jumbled together.

I was happy to get 11ac Page consisting of stories about Britain’s first slot machines (9) gave PINTABLES on my first run through the clues, but disappointed that I initially failed the preceding clue Nancy’s score in extremely precise examination (11, two words), despite recognising that Nancy’s score was probably VINGT.

I must admit that my success with most of the acrosses was minimal, so I hoped for better luck with the downs. 2 Like meadows in Peru (6) was PLEASE, but that clashed with 11ac. It was at this point that I read my notes at the top of the page to try and help with understanding this clash, but I wasn’t sure what was going on.

A few downs dropping from the top row enabled DRIVING TEST to be slotted in. One of these downs was what looked like Joe ORTON, but the clue Who was heard by which protagonist? He wrote plays (5) had to wait until the end for me to rationalise it. [I’m sorry, but Horton Hears a Who was something I was only vaguely aware of.]

With the grid about three-quarters filled, 2dn was S•IL•R, so SAILOR. Rereading the preamble made me realise what was going on, and given 36ac CENTIPEDE, a bit of reverse solving enabled me to get Dreadful battle without a sense of purpose (9) (DIRE + ACTION – A). Thus (PLEASE DIRECTION)* gave SAILOR CENTIPEDE.

After about three hours of solving, I had a full grid and only one clue left to rationalise, that at 24dn Saw results with prover accepting this alteration of rules (7) which was BEDDING, BEADING or BENDING, and my money was on the last. Obvious, really… PROVERB (saw) resulting from PROVER given a B ending!!

So, what now? I suppose we had to solve the riddle: Why is a SAILOR like a CENTIPEDE? There’s a B in both! I needed help from the circled squares which I jotted down as D M H A R E T T A. Well, blow me, there’s that bloody HARE again! [Careful, you’re beginning to sound like Shirley. Ed.]

It took a few seconds to see MAD HATTER, at which point the riddle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland rang bells. I needed to check my copy of the book (so much more rewarding than googling) to remind myself of “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” More bells rang, this time closer to home, as I saw the similarity with DRIVING TEST where the unchecked letters could neatly be changed to give WRITING DESK, and with RIVEN becoming RAVEN, I was beginning to see where Mr E was coming from.

Solving the riddle, “Why is a sailor like a centipede?” didn’t take long: “They both have C (sea) legs.” And there at the edge of the middle row were the LEGS, and just above it SEA. What an annoying SEA that was, as I spent ages on and off trying to map ten more letters “symmetrically about a horizontal axis”.

In all, it took at least another hour before I saw TERRA dropping down in columns 4 and 5, and working from there, MEDITERRANEAN appeared in the shape of a C. And that explained the title — Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) was how the Romans referred to the Med.

What an enjoyable puzzle, Mr E, despite the fear that I wouldn’t get there. Looking forward to next time.

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‘Nostrum’ by Mr E

Posted by Encota on 24 March 2017

Or should that read Nostrum by Mare, i.e. Mare Nostrum, ‘our sea’, the old name for the Med?  Or is Mr E of French origin and the E stands for Ed -> M.Ed?  Unlikely but possible.  No quack remedies here: enough of the Title and on to the puzzle…

What a fine puzzle and a great theme – thanks Mr E!

Alice in Wonderland – a favourite theme of many Listener solvers, I suspect.  For example, who can forget Sabre’s Listener 2613 puzzle from 1981, where 18 across…

         The ending of Alitji is certainly aboriginal! (5)

…had a one letter entry ‘i’ derived from the answer ‘iiiii’, where the only reference in which it could be found was in the Pitjantjatjara aboriginal language version of Alice In Wonderland?  And who said that Listener Preambles can sometimes be slightly obscure 😉


Back to the plot.  Mr E has very cunningly hidden the Mad Hatter’s phrase, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” in the Across clues – but without the nouns.  With a bit of investiGoogling I find four possible answers:

  1. The original: “I haven’t the faintest idea”;
  2. Mr D’s rather flat afterthought: “Because it can produce a few notes, though they are flat; and it is nevar (sic) put with the wrong end in front”;
  3. Better: “Poe wrote on both”
  4. Aldous Huxley: “Because there’s a B in both and an N in neither”

Now 4 really appeals to my sense of humour.  It’s a little bit like that piece of card in beginners’ Philosophy that on one side reads THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS CARD IS TRUE and on the other reads THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS CARD IS FALSE.  In Huxley’s case, like the card, it’s true but (at least partly) false at the same time.

So, as the hidden letters from the Down clues began to appear, I’m delighted to see that Mr E has picked option 4, as they seem to read THERE’S A B IN BOTH.  There’s also an additional B in two of the definitions – 15a and 9d – which need removing before solving.  I found the Down clues much harder than those Across but all seemed to fall into place ok, so I’m hoping I haven’t missed something significant.

So the two words DIRECTION and PLEASE that needed jumbling together to form new words?  Was I the only person to wonder whether ELECTION DESPAIR was a topical possibility, or LADIES RECEPTION, or INDELICATE PROSE, or several ruder options I won’t include here?  No.  Of course, given the checked letters, it meant they had to be SAILOR and CENTIPEDE.

With a grid filled I was stuck for a moment.  Luckily, when I mentioned the new question “WHY IS A SAILOR LIKE A CENTIPEDE?” to one of my sons, he immediately came up with BECAUSE THEY’VE BOTH GOT SEA-LEGS / C-LEGS and I was away again.  The title seemed to point to the Med, but that was only 13 letters not 17 as per the preamble.

I could see LEGS at the end of the central row, so maybe MEDITERRANEAN was hiding somewhere?  Like Listener 2613, 18ac did feature one ‘i’ but the correct one appeared in 15ac and the word formed a symmetrical letter C, centred on the very middle of the puzzle.  C LEGS and SEA LEGS – very clever!


All in all a great puzzle – many thanks again to Mr E!


Tim / Encota

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Nostrum by Mr E

Posted by shirleycurran on 24 March 2017

‘Nostrum’ said the other Numpty – well, that’s Mare Nostrum, the Med, isn’t it. But we shelved that useful bit of information and it was quite a long time before we returned to it.

sea-legs-001It didn’t take long, though, to confirm Mr E’s continued membership of the Listener Setter’s Tipsy Club, though we realized fairly early on, when the letters in the circles produced MAD HATTER (a great favourite of mine) that we were at a tea party, of all things, with Alice, the Dormouse and the March Hare. (That dratted HARE. I thought Hedge-sparrow had done for him a week ago by having the four HARE letters in a straight line run over by the HIGH SPEED TWO!)

Mr E gives his game away at once, ‘Relating to absorption of smells surrounding drunkard (7)’ gives OSMIC around [S]OT = OSMOTIC – so we have a ‘sot’ and ‘drunkard’. Apologies Mr E but there it is in the clues! See you at the bar next Friday? Cheers!hare-and-hatter-001

We back-solved, really, since as soon as we had the MAD HATTER, we were able to complete the truncated question produced by the extra letters in the wordplay of clues.  ‘WHY IS A RAVEN LIKE A WRITING DESK?’ has produced years of entertaining answers (even though Carroll himself told us that ‘The Riddle. as originally invented, had no answer at all’).

Our friend that elusive HARE isn’t much help in solving the riddle as we are told he hasn’t a clue either:

`Have you guessed the riddle yet?’ the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

`No, I give it up,’ Alice replied: `what’s the answer?’

`I haven’t the slightest idea,’ said the Hatter.

`Nor I,’ said the March Hare.

We could see where to change a solution to insert RAVEN. RIVEN had already appeared in our grid ‘Poet’s raft, forcefully sent away without leader (5)’ = [D]RIVEN, Keatsian RAFT and the Spenserian word for the past participle of RIVE, and the only likely place to insert WRITING DESK was where we had DRIVING TEST, ‘Nancy’s score in extremely precise examination (11, two words)’. How I like that clever clue: VINGT in DRIEST. In fact, our first scan through the clues had shown us a whole series of beautifully convincing and deceptive surface readings – what a fine compilation!

001Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is the source of so many great crossword themes and Martin Gardner’s ‘The Annotated Alice – Lewis Carroll‘ exhaustively deals with the details of Carroll’s brilliantly absurd fiction. I remembered that E.V. Rieu provided the most popular solution to the riddle which is as absurd as the riddle itself – and Gardner’s note confirmed it: ‘There is a B in Both’ (and an N in Neither’ is often appended).

We still had to find the two solutions that were to be jumbled to produce a new question and Mr E’s grid made it clear where they were to be found since the answer to 2d was obviously PLEASE: ‘Like meadows in Peru (6)’ LEAS in PE, and 36ac seemed to be DIRECTION: ‘Dreadful battle without a sense of purpose (9)’ DIRE ACTION less A. So we had to jumble PLEASE with DIRECTION to produce the two words that were to fit into those lights and complete a new question. TEA is so useful for such problems. I do sometimes wonder how solvers with no access to such tools manage to solve complex anagrams and the like. We are given the words that clearly fitted those lights in the grid – CENTIPEDE and SAILOR.  With a whoop of triumph, I announced ‘Why is a sailor like a centipede?’ It’s yet another of those groan-worthy Christmas cracker jokes isn’t it? ‘They both have C legs’. We thought all was done and dusted – but oh no, we had a considerable amount of head scratching before seeing the C formed by MEDITERRANEAN, even though the LEGS were leaping out of the grid at us.

Mr E had given the essential clue hadn’t he? ’17 cells, located symmetrically about a horizontal axis: that told us very clearly that one cell (at least) had to be in the centre row of the grid. Thank you, Mr E. Great fun.

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Listener No 4439, Where Falls the Axe?: A Setter’s Blog by Hedge-sparrow

Posted by Listen With Others on 19 March 2017

The inspiration for Where Falls the Axe? was an article I read about the proposed felling of a tree known as the “Cubbington Pear” to make way for the HS2 railway line. Being about 250 years old, the Cubbington Pear is believed to be the second largest and possibly the oldest wild pear tree in Britain, and living fairly nearby in Birmingham, and having friends actually living in Cubbington, I feel some particular affinity to it. See, for example, The Woodland Trust. Reading a bit further, I was saddened to discover just how many ancient woodlands are in line for disruption or complete destruction when the first stage of HS2 is built, despite the efforts that are being made to minimize the damage.

The theme seemed to me to be suitable for Listener crossword treatment. I was aware, of course, that it was a contentious subject, and particularly so as, in the way the puzzle turned out, my own feelings on the matter were made plain, and many people might well hold the opposite view. In my submission, I did indicate to the editors that I’d be happy to adjust the puzzle, removing references to my own stance to make the puzzle more “neutral”, but they seemed happy to proceed with it as it was. I do hope that no one was too offended!

From the start, I had in mind the idea of the term “High Speed Two” being inserted along the NW–SE diagonal (roughly representing the respective geographical locations of Birmingham and London), and cutting through a series of trees representing the ancient woodlands. The fact that “Curzon Street” (the proposed Birmingham terminus for HS2) and London Euston both comprise pairs of six letter words suggested the unusual grid shape. I probably should have had the term “High Speed Two” running SE to NW rather than the other way, but living in Birmingham, I always tend to think of HS2 in terms of going to London.

How to bring in the trees? I didn’t want the theme to be apparent too early on in the solving process, so I decided to make the insertion of the phrase “High Speed Two” complete the names of the trees. Thematically, this is a little bit the “wrong way round”, since the trees should really be there before HS2 arrives. I also decided to use jumbled entries further to try to disguise the presence of the trees in the grid. However, I rather regret doing this now: there is not really any thematic justification for the jumbled entries, and I think an alternative construction in which all entries were real words would have been possible, and more elegant.

To complete the theme, instructions derived from extra words in the clues told solvers to insert “High Speed Two”, and then remove six trees from the grid (representing the destruction of the ancient woodlands), keeping HS2 in place. The preamble carefully stated that the actions of the second instruction were dependent on those of the first: this was to try to prevent solvers finding and removing other trees which might appear in the completed grid (such as “ti” which appears in 14dn). The final grid is perhaps a little chaotic, but I justified this to myself, at least, on the basis that construction of HS2 will lead to quite a bit of chaos!

The idea for the phrase “Can’t see the wood for the trees” actually came a little later in the process of compiling the puzzle. Looking at the partially-completed grid I had at that stage, I could see that – by good fortune – I already had cells in normal grid order which virtually spelled out the first part of the phrase. The “Can’t see the wood” part is obviously appropriate for the final grid, and with the “For the trees” part representing my own view, I hoped no-one would mind my wearing my heart on my sleeve in this puzzle.

The Listener editors worked hard to schedule the publishing of the puzzle as close as possible to the granting of Royal Assent to the HS2 bill. This process has taken several years, and even when it was clear that the granting of Royal Assent was soon to happen, the actual date was never certain. In the event, the editors got it absolutely right – Royal Assent to the HS2 bill was granted on 23rd February, 2017, just two days before “Where Falls the Axe” was published. The Listener editors are wonderful!

With Royal Assent having been granted, construction of HS2 is due to begin soon. Sadly, the Cubbington Pear, and all the other ancient woodlands remembered in this puzzle, still stand in its path, and will be cut down. We will never get them back.


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‘Where falls the axe?’ by Hedge-sparrow

Posted by Encota on 17 March 2017

What a clever puzzle!

As the theme began to surface, combined with a Title like that, there had to be a chance of Dr. Beeching making an appearance – but if he did, I couldn’t find him.

The Down clues each contained an extra word, the first letters of which appeared to spell out:


and the fourth letters in order seemed to spell:


But of course they didn’t mean these at all – but really were some 26-letter hidden anagram-based slogans.  From the ‘For The Trees’ camp:

  • Turn yew and poplar trees into worse

And from the Pro-Training camp:

  • Different view: must book ‘The Tree Express’

Well, perhaps 😉

Slightly more seriously for a moment, one of the clever parts about this puzzle was that, to add HIGH SPEED TWO onto the leading diagonal required six letter changes to the initially-filled grid.  And each of these six changes created a tree in its row: HOLLY, GARDENIA, SYCAMORE, YEW, ELDER and SALLOW.  (Of course that Cometary* anagram entered at 19a as TYCAMORE was a pretty big hint!)

That left the final instruction: REMOVE SIX TREES BUT KEEP HS-TWO.

I’ve read that to mean delete all the characters of the letters in the six Trees apart from those on the leading diagonal, so that the -OLLY of HOLLY is deleted, for example.  Seems to meet the Preamble’s requirements, anyway!

And the phrase in the circles reads CAN’T SEE THE WOOD, so Hedge-sparrow is clearly FOR THE TREES (I’d expect nothing else from someone with such a pseudonym, of course).

And I see there is initially that elusive HARE in Column 8 too – at least you think at first it’s HERE, but then it is (and so isn’t).  Simple, eh?

Great fun – thanks Hedge-sparrow!

cheers all

Tim / Encota

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