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Listener 4120: Cross-country by MynoT (or These Pencils Won’t Last Long!)

Posted by Dave Hennings on 4 February 2011

If memory serves me correctly, MynoT’s puzzles have tough clues but very nice themes. His last Listener (4073, Quartet) was based on a quotation from Confucius: “The four seasons run their course and all things are produced” and had SPRING, SUMMER, AUTUMN and WINTER in the two main diagonals. Before that, there was 3995, Past Times, with its strange yet symmetrical diagram, based on the French Revolutionary calendar, making use of the fact that 3 months ended with -aire, 3 with -idor, 3 with ôse and 3 with -al.

This week’s title brought back gruesome memories of school PE involving runs through the mud and rain of the English winter. I shuddered as I started the puzzle! One letter is dropped from every clue, and these spell out an instruction. We solvers have to deduce the theme and enter it in the box. I hate that word deduce. As I’ve said before, it normally implies some mental leap, which will either come quickly and naturally (like seeing LAB in last week’s grid gave me the CERN theme very early), or I will stare forlornly at the grid for hours or even days before something pops into my head, almost subconsciously. Which will it be this week?! (It isn’t giving too much away at this stage that it was the latter!) (Oh! And just wait until next week’s blog!!)

For my initial run through the clues, I decided to attack the downs first, just for a change. Bingo! 1 is COLLEEN and 2 is FOETOR, so they get pencilled in lightly, meaning that I haven’t identified which is the missing letter. I suppose I could enter for 1dn C/O, O/L, L, L/E, E E/N in each of the squares, but that gets too fiddly. However, the E and L can be entered firmly in squares 3 (unchecked) and 5 respectively. I decided to abandon my trawl through the downs, but work on the top left corner acrosses. 1ac is OFFENCE, so that fixes 1dn as [C]OLLEEN; 10ac is LOO ROLL and 16ac [R]ETELL. Then 17dn is LASSOED, and I suddenly found myself attacking the clues in a somewhat higgledy-piggledy fashion. I went back to resume my first pass through the clues, and vow not to get sidetracked again without good reason.

A good move this as a number of clues were pretty easy, especially 44ac ECLAIR, using one of Chambers’ humorous definitions (a cake long in shape, but short in duration), and an amusing clue in it’s own right at 37dn He had parts in swashbuckler roles (ERROL). 13dn took me some time to suss: 100,000 taking music test paper once. Looking in the back of Michael Kindred and Derrick Knight’s excellent XWD book of abbreviations gives Roman numerals for 11,000 (O), 40,000 (F), 70,000 (S), 80,000 (R), 90,000(N) and just when you think there’s going to be 100,000 (?) it jumps to 150,000!! I never new the Romans were that erratic … and what have they done for us?! Anyway, it turns out to be LACMUS, an old form of LITMUS (LAC being 100,000 in Hindi + MUS, music). There were a couple of other answers that took me a bit of time to find in Chambers, and which I needed to find in order to fully solve the puzzle (since there was no reference to their not being in C): LO-CAL which can be found alongside low-cal under low, and arch-foe which is under arch-enemy, having an entry in its own right rather than under arch (strange).

So the puzzle was finally completed in a little over two hours, and the message had been spelt out: COLOUR APPROPRIATELY CELLS CONTAINING LETTERS OF THEME. A quick look at the grid, and it obviously wasn’t the letters E, M and T which needed colouring, but the use of the word appropriately shouted out the need for a certain colour to be used. I started staring at the grid. I was pretty sure from the title, cross-country, that there was some sort of mountainous trek or road involved, like the Fosse Way. There was even an area in the centre right of the diagram where SUMMIT could be seen. But 21 squares … that’s a lot, so perhaps I was looking for an alternative name to the theme which was to be entered under the grid and which had fewer letters. I started looking for things like trans-pennine and trans-alpine but no luck. And then there was YELLOW in column 3 and row 7 suggesting the colour to be used; well, ELLOW actually and I hadn’t made a mistake. And also, ERRANT at the end of row 10, but I really was clasping at straws here. All those Ss in the middle looked suspicious, but I didn’t know what to do with them. It was obvious that this theme wasn’t in the process of jumping out and hitting me between the eyes!

Over the next couple of days, I picked the puzzle up … and put it down again! But suddenly those neural synapses aligned themselves correctly: instead of saying to myself cross-coun’try, for some reason I said cross’ country with the stress on the first syllable and no hyphen. Well of course, the country most well-known for a cross on its flag is Switzerland. I looked up CH in Chambers to confirm, as given by the preamble, that it was there (which of course it was) and counted the number of letters in CONFEDERATIO HELVETICA. I scanned row 1: all letters in CH; row 2, all letters in CH; row 3, all letters in CH. I was now worried that the whole puzzle consisted of the letters in CH, but there in the middle of row 4 were S and M, followed by S and U and then SSYSUM. I didn’t waste the lead in my red colouring pencil — that would come later, but just put a red outline around the little 6×6 white cross in the centre of the grid.

Well, yes I know, it was obvious really! Given that the occurrence of 21 letters were to be shaded, that meant most of the grid rather than just a small left-to-right band across the grid, but hindsight, they say, is 20-20.

This week’s reminiscence is comparatively recent compared to most, and is from QI with an exchange between Stephen Fry and Alan Davis:

AD: I know something about Switzerland.
SF: Yes, tell me about Switzerland.
AD: Switzerland has 4 official languages —
SF: Yes.
AD: — none of which are used on their stamps.
SD: None of which is used on their stamps!

So thanks to MynoT for another really good puzzle. Let’s hope there is no requirement for any red colouring in the near future! And I’m looking forward to a couple of puzzles about Windsor and Maidenhead soon, Shirley!

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