Listener 4185: Ballad by Elgin (or Are Scissors Really Necessary?)
Posted by Dave Hennings on 4 May 2012
Elgin’s previous Listener was the entertaining A Change of Clothing with its Wallace and Gromit theme (and not Batman and Robin as many indications in the puzzle implied). I managed to solve it without too much of a sidetrack. About 6 years ago, however, there was his infamous Asylag, which attracted a very high error rate. It was before my current Listener solving streak, so I don’t know how I’d have got on … but I suspect I’d have failed.
Well, that was then and this is now. However, a slow read of the preamble and I realised that Elgin seemed to be in a quite a vindictive mood: not all across answers appeared in the grid, they were in alphabetical (mot grid) order, they could go forwards or backwards, one row wasn’t clued, two clued entries overlapped, and one column was missing. I was thankful that we were at least provided with some sort of diagram in which to enter our answers. But where to start?
I was somewhat relieved that the first two across clues were pretty straightforward: clue A was McGonagall’s simple name of ballad is regularly forgotten, leading to AEFALD, and clue B Origin of radio telegraphy in Bosnia-Herzegovena was BIRTH. But where they went, and in what direction was anybody’s guess.
So, I decided that I should deal with the downs first, since they were at least numbered and fixed. 1 EARTH, 3 YAPSTERS and 9 DICIEST were easy to spot. I don’t know whose puzzle first alerted me to ‘Nancy’ referrring to the city in France, but it now jumps off the page at me, and D + ici est gave me DICIEST. About ten more clues, mainly downs, came next, but after that, progress was in–cred–ib–ly slow!
I placed TRUSTLESSNESS across the bottom of the grid, since a number of down clues seemingly prevented it from going anywhere else. If it did indeed intersect with SEDER at 18dn, that presumably meant that the first letter was to be dropped and thus represented the missing column. However, in this puzzle I felt that there was precious little that could be taken for granted. I was beginning to get a trifle frustrated with the whole enterprise, but my curiosity had already been piqued.
It was a shame that I didn’t quickly get the entry across the top of the grid, the other 13-letter entry. Flier from Perth’s spinner to fielders stumped me for ages. Was Perth referring to Scotland or Australia? Was the definition ‘flier’ or ‘fielders’ (my guess was that it was the former)? And where did all the other across clues that I had solved fit into the grid. Head and brick wall came to mind.
After about five hours of solving over two days, I still had about a dozen clues to solve. However, I had discovered that across entries were to go in the grid cyclically, with answers running off one side of the grid and appearing at the opposite end of the same row. Even so, fitting them all in the grid was finnicky to say the least.
I don’t know how much easier the puzzle was for those solvers who twigged the theme from BIRTH, BORDER, BREED, etc. For me, EAST and WEST were not enough to trigger the leap to Kipling’s Ballad of East and West:
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!
As I write this blog, I notice that the crucial phrase is spelt without its first E: ‘Judgment Seat’, but Chambers has it as judgement-seat. Even without the J of ‘Jenny’, JUDGEMENT-SEAT was obviously the contents of the missing column.
I was unsure of the ‘overlapping’ clues for a long while … with emphasis on the ‘long’! I had spotted HECTOR in row 5, and he was part of the row without clues, and for some reason, I pencilled SEDUCEE immediately after him. So whom did Hector seduce? Unfortunately, my pencilling of ‘seducee’ was quite heavy, and it stayed in the grid for a ridiculous length of time … until Chambers declared that there was no such word! It was only when I realised that it went left to right but that its opposite number, STITCHES, went the same way, that I spotted my error and with the ‘two strong men standing face to face’, that part of the conundrum resolved itself. We had STITCHES and STRAIT plus HECTOR and HERCULES sharing their first letter. What’s more, they were at the end of the eartH … OK, not ‘ends‘, but I was happy.
Finally, after over twelve hours of solving, I had the completed grid.
However, one question remained. although it was one that we hadn’t been asked … what to do with the SKY in the top right!? I reread the preamble a few times: ‘One column has been omitted from the grid shown’. ‘Shown‘. Was that just the editor’s style, or was something else being alluded to? I eventually decided that EARTH and SKY needed to go east and west and stand presently at the judgement-seat. That needed a pair of scissors to cut the grid into two and have them running down the central two columns of the grid next to each other. That seemed quite drastic and a major bit of information that was actually missing from the preamble. I was probably digging myself a nice hole!
I have to say that I ummed and aahed for some time. After all, the third line of the ballad indicated that there was no east or west. By this time my brain was nearing meltdown and I decided to go the whole hog. I did indeed cut the grid in two and stick the two halves together to represent earth and sky standing together at God’s judgement-seat. Having done that and about to pop my entry in an envelope, I decided to ignore the ‘solvers are not required to reinsert it [the omitted column]’ and prepared another grid with JUDGEMENT-SEAT running down the centre. After all, ‘not required’ implied to me that it was an optional step rather that a forbidden step.
And that was my submitted solution and the end of this, for me, gargantuan puzzle. I went from ‘this is ridiculous’ to ‘what the hell is going on’ to ‘they’re having a laugh’ and eventually to ‘I hate this puzzle’. That was followed by ‘oh that’s what it means’ and ‘well … I think I quite like it after all’! Whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong, I have to congratulate Elgin on another masterpiece. It really would be interesting to know how many of the hurdles that were put in our way were there from the puzzle’s initial concept.
As I said at the beginning, at least we were given a grid to fill in … this time!