We were travelling on a hopscotch ticket in the Outer Hebrides when we downloaded Ifor’s A1. Our first reaction was consternation as Ifor, in the EV and IQ series tends to challenge our solving ability. What’s more, we were house guests and I am sure you know how embarrassing it can be to lose the thread of Friday evening’s conversation as you surreptitiously glance sideways and attempt to fit a seven-letter plant to “Air’s on fire, whirling round evacuated butane plant”. (Yes, it gave us ASTILBE with the extra IR of the clue going into a Scottish name – ALASTAIR – one of a number that seemed to be appearing as we solved).
Only one numpty was able to really devote full attention to the solve but, happily, it proved to be a generous compilation with some fine gifts of clues “Free to gain cue from within oneself” (AUTOGENIC) – but what compiler could resist such an obvious anagram? “Box of Lego sorted out” (that one too! A friend has moaned to me that it was rather obvious but it would be difficult to find a finer clue for LOGE and the numpties, reared on “Stripey horse (5)” have no problem with a few obvious clues).
I was looking for the usual Listener compiler touch of the strong stuff but found only a few wine bottles in the clues, together with some breakfast cereal and an Ecstasy drug bust, but what did emerge was a glaring predominance of railway references – the LNER, a ‘non-stopping train’, ‘Edinburgh and London – capitals connected by line’, ‘Train heads to an over-the-border destination’, ‘Express train left after a series of years’. We were beginning to suspect that we were on familiar ground. I remember waiting for hours with my train-spotting mad cousin Mac on the platform at Hellifield station because the 4472 was exceptionally expected to come through there at some time in the day. Oh, the joys of those little books of train numbers that we crossed off when a previously un-spotted engine puffed its way through the station.
And, of course, there it was. Clues 24d, 44ac, 7d and 2d seemed to be the ones with no definitions and produced the company LNER and the culprit, the FLYING SCOTSMAN. Those Scottish names now made sense – they must have been his Annie and Clarabells (or were they just Scotsmen?) and, of course, it wasn’t difficult to find L on DON (LONDON) and ED in BURGH (EDINBURGH), though the rail line between took us a little longer, even if it did snake rather appropriately up the east side of a putative east coast. That’s another ‘old hands’ trick’ if, after nearly four years of Listener solving, we can call ourselves that. If you don’t find the hidden message on the diagonal or running in a circle round the centre, see if it is laboriously hauling carriages from the bottom of the grid upwards – the unlikely direction that is invariably more difficult for solvers to find.
Nice one, Ifor, thanks.