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Listener 4162: Mash’s Twisted Carte Blanche (or This is Getting to be a Habit)

Posted by Dave Hennings on 25 Nov 2011

This is Mash’s second Listener. His last, with a Rugby Union theme was back in 2006, and that tripped me up, so I was determined to succeed this time. The trouble was that Mash, like Pointer three puzzles ago, is a regular Magpie setter … and most of his puzzles are a grade D (difficult)! This did not bode well, unless he had set an easy puzzle that was rejected as too easy for Magpie by its editors!

That particular thought soon vanished after I read the preamble. For a start, we had to ignore the printed grid since it was too small for the initial solution to the clues. The clues themselves were normal, but the down entries had to be jumbled before entry. At least we were given the order in which they had to be jumbled; I suspect that if this had been a Magpie puzzle, such help would not have been given! The last half of the preamble (which struck me more like a pramble) went on, in a very cryptic style, about what to do once we had completed the original grid. Don’t let it be said that the Listener doesn’t give value for money!

I started on the clues. Bingo! 1ac was KAMASUTRA (which I had thought was always spelt as two words … not that I use it a lot … either as a word or a reference manual!) and 3ac was FIRMAMENT, and I was off to a flying start. Eight more answers came over the next 30 minutes, but I soon came down to earth with a bang, as clues were solved more and more slowly. When I got 10ac Gold, sometimes tinned fruit, chopped, in chef’s first non-stick jam jar, I realised that Mash was superbly devious, giving us AU (gold) + TOMAT[o] (sometimes tinned fruit, chopped) + I (in) + C (chef’s first) = non-[gear]stick jam jar (rhyming slang for car).

Listener 4162 Symmetry CheckAfter exhausting as much cold-solving as possible, I decided to try and enter the dozen answers I had into the grid that was not supplied by the editors! Luckily a Word table 10 × 30 was easily produced. However, in the interests of full and frank disclosure, I have to confess a stupid mistake that only became apparent as I did this. The 9 digits in brackets after the down clues were supposed to give the order of letters. Thus, 5dn COLUMBATE was 956824173. I had initially marked this to be entered as AMEBOLTUC — in other words, the C went in position 9, the O in position 5, the L at 6, and so on. Instead it was (would ‘obviously’ be appropriate here?) EMBTOUCAL, with the 9th letter appearing first, the 5th appearing 2nd, the 6th third, and so on.

Once this mistake had been rectified, the grid started taking shape, and after about four hours of solving, it was complete. Three-quarters of the way there, I thought. (Would ‘naively’ be appropriate here?)

The only thing I hadn’t checked at this point was the symmetry of the grid which was mirror along both diagonals. I used Excel to produce the diagram to the right. I know we weren’t told that the symmetry was along the main diagonals, it seemed to me that it should be. In the grid here, although there is symmetry about the NW-SE main diagonal, it is only symmetric along one of the other NE-SW diagonals. I must have been missing something, but wasn’t too sure whether it was important.

Listener 4162 Initial GridThe next step was to transfer my solution to the 10 × 15 grid that was supplied by the editors. Well how? We had to think it over and see through it, so presumably inverting it in some way. I entered my grid into Sympathy to produce a neater version where letter patterns might be more easily spotted. There was nothing about using scissors, so I spent some time trying to twist it in some way (reference the title). Luckily, a game of golf interrupted my cogitation.

It really is amazing how the brain works, but half way down the 12th hole, I suddenly thought about letters that were symmetrical about their vertical axis, eg A, H, I, M, etc. Imagine my surprise when I got home and found that two of the columns in my grid had a dozen or so letters, and they were all vertically symmetrical. Of course, it looks in hindisght as though this is purely accidental (naive again?), but it did put me on the right track, and a short while later I had reversed the bottom half of the grid and mapped it over the top half, adjusting the columns slightly as well. Everything fitted, apart from the U of AMAUROSIS and the first L of BATIFEULL (BEAUTIFUL) …

… except that, of course, as I write this blog (well after the closing date), I realise that BEAUTIFUL had to be entered as BATIFEUUL!!

Whether this mistake was the cause of my total failure to find the hidden message, who knows. I will await the printed solution to see where the clashing letters actually occur, since I am in a mild form of the sulks. Anyway, I looked at my diagram using KAMASUTRA in the top row, then tried CARTESIANS in the top row. I then realised that the whole grid could be inverted. In fact, it could be entered in a whole host of ways — for all I know, KAMASUTRA appeared backwards in the seventh row, starting in column 4!

Brain strain got the better of me, and I turned my attention to finding the hidden message, which although may not be needed for successful completion, may in this case actually help me complete it. Alas, this too was unforthcoming, try as I might to deduce it from the initial letters of the clues advanced a certain number of letters, or the initial letters of the nth word, or the nth letter of the clues, etc, etc. Again, no luck, and I eventually conceded defeat.

I have not been in touch with anyone else to see whether they have or have not completed Mash’s offering, nor have I checked in at AB. I am hoping that I will be awe-struck when I finally see the solution in print. I suspect that I won’t be able to wait until I get Saturday’s Times, but will check in at the crossword site shortly after this blog appears. I will then read Shirley’s account of her successful solve, followed by George v The Listener and his success strory. I will then read the many posts on the Crossword Centre Message Board congratulating Mash on a great puzzle, and saying how the penny drop was so worth the effort.

Then again, perhaps none of these expectations will be forthcoming, although I naturally hope the first two are! Whatever happens, congratulations to Mash for stumping me once again. I look forward to the solution with huge anticipation, and will write my thoughts at that time in the post postscript below.

Post postscript

Well I did see KLEIN in the grid, but not seeing BOTTLE I thought nothing of it. If I had read the definition in Chambers, I’d probably have felt sick!

I think the main reason that I stumbled here was the phrase “reading partly from right to left”. This made me think that the hidden information could go in any direction rather than in straightforward diagonals. The hints were there however, from the wording of the preamble to the many vertically symmetrical letters and the grid not being quite symmetrical about both diagonal axes. All these are mentioned in the blog. Not reading “klein bottle” in Chambers was also a big mistake, although I have no idea whether I’d have seen BOTTLE lower down in the grid.

A tour de force from Mash which I would normally have expected to see (but not attempt) in Magpie. Perhaps this is a taste of things to come under the new editorship. I’d better sharpen my wits!

One Response to “Listener 4162: Mash’s Twisted Carte Blanche (or This is Getting to be a Habit)”

  1. shirley curran said

    Just like yours, my first attempts to convert the words according to the numbers were a complete disaster – I was entering AMEBOLTUC for COLUMBATE and the other numpty couldn’t see what my problem was. It is a relief to see that my flawed thinking was not so absurd!

    You were so near – just that final little twistI I can understand your frustration as I was in the same state for three days!


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