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Listener 4122: Phi’s Heart (or Shifting the Goalposts!)

Posted by Dave Hennings on 18 February 2011

One of our more prolific setters this week, Phi, and for those of you who remember his puzzle from November 2009 (4061, 50-50), a time to get rid of any distractions and knuckle down. So send the family off to the cinema for the latest 3-D cartoon and brew some coffee. I used to think of Phi as one of our more gentle setters, but not any more. 50-50 was a really tough puzzle; would this follow in its footsteps?

Well, it seemed that it would! It was just a single list of clues, luckily given in the normal order, but no division between across and down, and no indication of the lengths of either answers or entries! What’s more, the grid that we had been supplied with was probably not big enough to hold the crossword that we had to solve, and some squares were required to hold two letters! My first task then was to print myself a slightly bigger grid, so 15×9 became 19×11, and the solving process began. A thematic phrase (A B) had to be discovered, part of which was synonymous with extra words in some of the clues. There was additional thematic material to be found, but that would come later; for now I just concentrated on the clues, bearing in mind the extra words.

I was quite pleased with how well I started, despite being annoyed that 1ac wasn’t “at its natural location” in Chambers, and it was a two word answer so presumably stretched across most of the grid. I wondered whether this entry was chosen mischievously because it couldn’t be verified very easily. (I soon discovered that it wouldn’t be solved very easily either.) Anyway, 2 was KAABA (with extra word timber) and 4 was ORMOLU (with extra word mould). Moreover, the extra word in 6 would seem to be cleansing or denture, but what word could be synonomous with either of them and timber and mould? I’ve read comments before where people have stated that one look at the title of the puzzle has suggested the theme, and this week it was my turn to think I’d got it only about twenty minutes into the puzzle. Musing more on the dentures strongly suggested teeth or plate, and suddenly plate led me to think of plate tectonics or, since plate was word A, TECTONIC PLATES (both are in Chambers). Talk about feeling smug! Little did I know that this wouldn’t really help me much until most of the grid was finished.

Obviously there was a lot of cold solving, and I didn’t even attempt to construct a grid until I had about a third of the answers. I stuck KAABA in the top line starting in column 12 (seemed enough right). And gradually sketched out the beginnings of Grid 1. Surprisingly, although the grid was turning out to be a fair way wide of the grid that was required, it did help to fill in some of my missing answers. This led me to think of new rule for my Listener Crossword Help Manual (renamed recently from Top Tips for the Listener (especially if you’re stuck)): It’s never to early to start filling in a grid, even if there may not be a grid to fill in!

Quite early on in my solving I could see TECT in the top left and ONICS in the bottom right. I even spotted MERCAL which would presumably resolve into MERCALLI, whose SCALE of earthquakes is more widely used now than poor old Richter’s. It was when I finally got EAT IN that I felt I was nearing the end of lap 1 (probably two more to go). I had got the general gist of the clue, Perhaps avoid café chairs — not special, and no good [tableware], referring to not eating in a cafe, but SEATING – S (special) – G (good) still took some doing. And of course, that led to LEAF BEET which I found using my newly purchased Chambers Dictionary and Thesaurus on CD which I expect only to use in this sort of situation. It revealed that chard was the place to look.

And what I ghastly grid I ended up with. Time for a redraw, so I shunted LEAF BEET across into column 1, followed closely by KAABA. Well, POTVALOROUS didn’t fit, did it? I carried on regardless, putting the POT in the first row and VALOROUS in the second. It would be interesting to see how this went. Well phase II went like grid 2 on the right, with gobbledy-gook in the first column, but our lovely TECTONICS in the last. But this was 16 columns wide, so another redraft into a 15×10 grid gave me something that was getting closer to what Phi wanted.

Then it was just a case of finding how the original 15×9 grid could constrain the puzzle, and shunting the left-hand side up one square to give new letter pairs which needed to be added together to give: FAULT LINE. A simple sentence that actually took a few minutes to suss. And the icing on the cake was provided by good old MERCALLI and his SCALE in row 4.

An unbelievably superb piece of construction from Phi, taking a nice theme and creating lots of tortuous twists and turns to enable us to get from an empty carte blanche grid to the final submission. I naturally didn’t bother filling in any of the grid lines or clue numbers, since we weren’t required to; my thought would be: if they were wrong how would the puzzle be marked? Best not to find out the hard way! The only thing that would top this puzzle off would be a setter’s blog!

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