Songspiel – Blog
Listening to Nashville Skyline (the later, mellower Dylan) I cast my mind back to some of his earlier music, recalled The Times, They are A-changin’, and saw potential for a puzzle. I assumed there had been other puzzles on the theme of time but hoped this particular song hadn’t featured.
My initial idea was to include a number of anagrams of ‘time’ words. I drew up a list of the latter, ranging alphabetically from ENEMY/YEMEN to YEARS/EYRAS (a surprisingly short list). I wanted at least one that was figurative or idiomatic and was particularly taken by the transformation of PORRIDGE to PERIGORD. I then set about constructing the first grid. Early on, I decided to extend the theme, using words that would convert to other words when T’s were altered. Initially I wasn’t sure whether to hide BOB DYLAN in the grid or include him as an unclued entry, but after a few trials I saw the potential for the name to emerge in the top row of the grid by altering T’s, so those letters and some thematic anagrams determined the shape of the grid.
In the course of experimenting with various grids I had my first serendipitous moment, which suggested the next thematic layer – Sympathy put ANZIANI into the top row, using the AN of DYLAN. I did not know the word, but after checking the meaning I knew I had some more thematic material and decided to incorporate the other groups in the grid. It was simple to find synonyms for ‘mothers’, ‘fathers’, ‘writers’ and ‘critics’ but ‘congressmen’ was difficult. This is where I decided to make congressmen a special group for solvers to add below the grid. Constructing the grid now became trickier, not least because I wanted to avoid multiple occurrences of MAS and PAS (at that stage I was anticipating a highlighting requirement). After many failures using Sympathy, with MAS and PAS occurring all over the place, I began constructing the grid manually, using Tea rather more effectively, and going back to Sympathy for some final filling. In the end I ditched the highlighting requirement. The other difficulty, of course, was constructing a grid that did not use that rather common letter, T. I tried entering ‘*T*’ in the ‘kill list’ in Sympathy, but that didn’t work, so I simply added words containing T to the ‘kill list’ as they appeared.
Once I had a selection of grids, I scanned them to see where T could be substituted in a checked cell to form a new word, which would be the one to be clued. SOLDERING/TOTTERING in 15 down was a late discovery, though I wondered whether I should use it as a thematic item. With two unchecked letters and three clashes, solvers had only four checked letters to go on, though the most likely ending would be -ing, reducing the clashes/unchecked letters to four. I also reasoned that once solvers had spotted the theme, and realised that all changes made real words, it would be easier; failure to solve the clue would not, in any case, prevent solvers from completing the grid. I was reassured when the test solver didn’t object to the number of changes. In the end 39 down appeared to cause more problems.
I chose to convey the song title through definition misprints as a self-imposed discipline, since I’d not used this device before. Once I started looking at the words to be clued I found that it was easier if I alternated between misprints and correct letters (even if this made things simpler for the solver), but even allowing myself this latitude, 2 and 30 (both needing a misprint of H) presented particular problems.
Finally, I wanted to present solvers with an additional puzzle with the ambiguities in the top row. I didn’t want to be explicit, but some hint was needed. ‘Nominally’ seemed a suitably cryptic hint to lead solvers to the final penny-drop, though for some the penny dropped rather earlier.
There is an eerie postscript to the puzzle, published three days after the election of Senator Barack Obama as the next US president. I’m indebted to Derek Arthur for pointing out that in addition to congressmen and senators, OBAMA features at various points in the puzzle. There is the coincidence of his initials, BO, in the NW corner; he can be traced via knight’s moves starting with the O of SOLDERING and ending with the A in cell 25; there is also a jumble of OBAMA involving the A of MASE, the B of EMBRUE and the AMO of AMOEBA. The Delphic Oracle works in mysterious ways.
The times, they are a’ changin’, in America at least.
Andy Stewart (Dysart)