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Listener 4079: Sine Qua Non by Shackleton (or • —   — — •   — • — •?)

Posted by Dave Hennings on 16 April 2010

As I started this puzzle, my recollection of Shackleton from the Listener dinner in Chepstow was of a relaxed, easy-going bloke interested in hill-walking. Little did I realise that, behind that innocent looking exterior, an evil genius was lurking! This is his third Listener, the previous two being 3887 Count Down to Re-entry about Bela Lugosi, and last year’s 3041 Much Ado About Nothing about Jackson Pollock, and absolute hell to check!

The preamble had lots of segments. The correct letters of misprints “reveal hints for deriving two versions of a question”; that sounded as though some sort of mental jump might be required, and I’m often not very good with those! And then there was key information (sounds musical) and an initial representation (a person’s initials) which must be highlighted. And that was only the first paragraph! There was only one thing for it … just solve the puzzle and take it from there. How often have I said that?

Well, that was the easy bit!! Actually, it was the fairly easy bit. I don’t know how long it took, but it wasn’t five minutes. I couldn’t blame the clues since they were very fair and, in some cases, an absolute joy, especially …

19ac: Perhaps referring to stroke in eighty year old, retired — ultimately monoplegia’s assumed  (eighty → eights)
38ac: Ely cathedral in need of repair — odd details withheld  (Ely → Sly)

Some of the misprints were a little more cunning, and was 1dn quality of mage or quality of magi? Time would hopefully tell.

So, on to the final step (which, for me, turned out to be more like a marathon). First of all, there were the extra letters: DOT ONE’S I’S AND CROSS ONE’S T’S for the acrosses, and EDDY/IDDY UMPTY for the downs, EDDY being the most likely. (Those of you not side-tracked at this point are lucky!) Looking the first saying up in Chambers gave to pay great attention to detail. Well, I try and do that with all Listeners these days, especially since I’m over a year without a mistake (as far as I know). And eddy and umpty looked like they could be a headless TEDDY (Andy Pandy?) and HUMPTY (Dumpty); perhaps the theme was going to be children’s games or nursery rhymes. The hidden five-letter word was PAEON in the fourth row, which is a foot of one long and three short syllables (in any order). So perhaps it does have something to do with nursery rhymes or poetry.

It was about this time that I noticed that the grid was pangrammatic, and that had to be relevant. Also, the title Sine Qua Non contained one each of the five vowels, and Shackleton has no repeating letter. I was on to something, wasn’t I? No I wasn’t. Nothing really helped here.

Back to the messages. I couldn’t see how the across one could be used to interpret the non-misprint down clues, and spent some time just staring at the grid. As has happened a few times recently I got that horrible feeling that I wasn’t going to solve this one. It is easy to get stuck in a rut and not be able to think outside the box (horrid expression!). I consulted my Top Tips for the Listener (especially if you’re stuck), and found the following:

Rule 4: In any message, do not dismiss a weird sequence of letters just because it is a weird sequence of letters.

I had looked up EDDY, but decided to try IDDY, and there it was, IDDY-UMPTY, military slang for Morse Code, which tied in nicely with PAEON. So this puzzle was about Morse Code, not nursery rhymes! It wasn’t too long before the letters B, F, L and V crystalised as each being one dah and three dits. Superb, and a warm tingly feeling ran down my spine as I shaded in the only occurences of these four letters in the grid. Rereading the preamble for the umpteenth time, I decided to look up the four letters in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Voila! “Do you spell it with a ‘V’ or a ‘W’?” inquired the judge, referring to the spelling of Sam Weller’s name in Pickwick Papers. The warm tingly feeling evaporated as this led absolutely nowhere!

It was only when I decided to use my yellow highlighter that the initials LVB seemed so obvious, and things really started to fall into place. I had tried the first letter of the first word, second of the second, etc, but had made a silly transcription error when copying the clues to paper, so I failed to see DIAMETRIC EXCHANGES at letter V of word V. That may well have speeded things up earlier on, since it enabled the DIT DIT DIT DAH to reveal itself in row four after the swap. Exactly when or how Beethoven’s Fifth came into my head is difficult to say; I just found myself dah-dah-dah-dumming it! And it was in C Minor, enabling FONE to become CONE and A MAJORI to become A MINORI.

I finally realised how to translate the non-misprint down clues into one of only two quotations ascribed to Beethoven in ODQ: Muss es Sein and Must it be. Hence the two versions referred to in the preamble.

The puzzle had one last, albeit unintended, trap. Rule 2 in the Top Tips for the Listener (especially if you’re stuck) states “After filling in the across answers in your final submission, double-check against the downs. Even though I had caught a transcription error (I had entered MEIN for MIEN at 46ac), I got a horrible sick feeling in my stomach, realising how close I had come to making a mistake.

I don’t think that I can understate what a tour de force I feel this puzzle to be. So many wild goose chases (for me at any rate) and an absolute joy at every level. Whatever thoughts go on in your head, Shackleton, a thousand thanks for them, and here’s looking forward to your next puzzle. I hope I have a vote for the Ascot Gold Cup come year-end so that I can show my appreciation.

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