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50-50 by Phi

Posted by shirleycurran on 11 December 2009

While Phi celebrates, the perplexed solvers hang on by their fingernails and scratch their heads in bafflement.

This was our second Listener Phi (even if it was his fiftieth) and we didn’t find his ‘Disorders’ easy, but he is a familiar setter and has never caused us great anguish in the past. Just pleasure. The Junior 8X8 easy clues coffee break solving team was not over-anxious – YET. We saw the grid and read the preamble and consternation dawned.

I have imagined a scenario. Phi produces a standard grid, with clue numbers, fine clues and bars etc. to celebrate this anniversary and Mr Listener says, “Far too kind. Solvers are becoming hooly namby pambies. Cut the bars, cut the clue numbers, no clue lengths. While you are at it, you might as well separate most of your definitions from the wordplay. In fact, why bother with a grid at all? Give em ‘ell!” – and so he does! Or perhaps hitting the half century has simply made Phi change tack and decide to be a draconian curmudgeon for his next half century. Either way, we suffered.

Act 1: We threw up our hands in despair with memories of a maze that we never even managed to get into about a year ago – and, as usual, we hadn’t even read the preamble correctly. Just a few regular clues yielded solutions: TASTE, EFFED (and we did), SUMMA, and RESELLER. We saw ESCHALOT, CEORL and OCTAVIA of those that were separated from their wordplay (but could we find the wordplay? Oh dear, no).

Act 2: Kind friend pointed out that the wordplay and definition partners were in sets, so that if we found one of a pair, we had the other. With lots of help and prompting, we began the difficult process of attrition – grinding down those clues and cold-solving. This wordplay was tough, and I struggled to understand where the anagrind was in ‘Enlargement of gland must start to atrophy – doctor finally called in’ (for STRUMA). The genius of this clue was explained to me, ‘Enlargement of gland = STRUMA, made up of STUM (another word for MUST, as in unfermented grape juice) + A (start to (of) atrophy), with R (last of doctor) called in, so ST(R)UM-A?  Brilliant!

 Act 3: With three-quarters of the clues solved, we addressed the question of reflective symmetry. A suspiciously large number of clues had five letters and they were significantly placed near the beginning and end. A diagonal line would conveniently split an L. Fumbles with a putative L grid were fruitless. 50-50? Could it be two Ls? One nestling inside the other to preserve the symmetry. There’s a problem there. I quote Don Manley’s Crossword Manual, ‘Nowadays we would expect a grid to show total connectedness with no isolated portions’. (Clearly the Listener applies the same rule – as we found later, though I imagine a setter as experienced as Phi could have sneaked round a few of the hurdles had he felt like it.)

Act 4: This was fun – fitting those solutions into a couple of Ls. TEND and DETH caused some heartache until it became clear that there were two words linking the Ls (SPLIT END and DETHRONE). Now the obscure clues began to fit into the gaps. NINE-EYES, ADEEL, LOOK-SEES and MEHDI.

Act 5: Strange-looking gaps were left; those unclued names had to be found. Our clever friend had finished by now but I spent time hunting through the initial letters of all the clues that had more than five letters. How did he know to go straight to those with six letters in order to produce SINGER? The singers appeared very quickly (though ignorance here had never heard of any of them – I was surprised to learn that my French friends all know of YOUSSOU NDOUR!)   Obviously singing is not the talent that Phi shares with these three so what is it? Aha – they were all born in 1959. Not only that, the way their names fitted together coupled with that unusual bending of SUZANNE VEGA gave us two more Ls to add to the two clued ones and the two L-shaped blanks. Thematic in a graphic way. Superb Phi!

Epilogue: we were invited to shade or leave blank those unused cells. Out with the pencils – this one requires celebration (even if it is only of the fact that we completed it). Here’s to Phi’s next fifty!


2 Responses to “50-50 by Phi”

  1. erwinch said

    Dear Shirley,

    I am rather disappointed that I should be the first to comment on your marvellous illustration that so complements Phi’s wonderful puzzle – surely a candidate for Listener of the year. This is your best yet and you could certainly add illustrator to your CV or is it just a hobby? Did you use any models – is that perhaps you in the middle with Charles lying exhausted at the bottom?

    Very well done,


  2. Dear Erwinch,

    Yes, you spotted us! Indeed, the illustration was light relief, to salvage my pride after it took such a knocking with the hard struggle we had to manage this one. But I did think Phi deserved a birthday cake. I suspect (from a photo on page 196 of Don Manley’s manual – my model) that he is not quite so skinny, black-bearded or grey suited.


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