Travelling numpties again and this came off the printer in Mark and Dani’s Internet cafe in Sant Eularia on Ibiza. Well, it very nearly didn’t come out of the printer. How do you say in Catalan “I seem to have got a paper jam”? Then a delighted smile as we saw that this was one of Ifor’s.
Skippers! Is this going to be about kangaroos? It looked likely when one of our earliest solutions was ‘Pained groan piercing spirit of old man, say (8)’ GROAN anagrammed in KA + O (I’m writing on a French keyboard that doesn’t have an asterisk key and Ifor had rather a lot of anagrams in this one didn’t he!)
These clues were generous and it didn’t take long to confirm Ifor’s membership of the tipsy Listener setters’ tippling club with his ‘Almost blended, so turned out whisky(4)’ ALMOST less SO anagrammed, giving MALT, then ‘Oz dog better giving up halves of bitter, maybe? (4)’ Does he even feed his dog bitter? (I once knew a ski-ing Ozzie dog but a tipsy setter of the non-Listener kind?) Ah, no we’re in Wizard of Oz country – it’s that TOTO dog.
Looking at the surface readings of the clues we couldn’t help noticing two things. Some familiar names appeared, Maltby and Gibson, and there seemed to be an unusual number of clues that tallied with what that was hinting at; ‘Unit breaching position with fourth from Maltby (5)’ POSI + [Mal]T[by] = POSIT. Wasn’t Maltby the fourth bomber of 617 squadron (the Dambusters) and the one to breach the MOHNE dam? ‘Utter surprise in build up — try again (5)’ REHEAR, ‘Arranged time — maybe Gibson to lead aerial blast in the east? (7)’ MELTEMI What a sneaky trick to lead us on a red herring chase after a different Gibson (MEL) with TIME anagrammed = MELTEMI.
It’s astonishing how many of the clues were thematic. We had things climbing, slamming, being thrown out, turning turtle and freewheeling, deploying lifebelts – and they were not disheartened at No 10, either, so the theme seemed to be what we suspected. What’s more, a lovely line of bouncing Os was appearing and heading towards what was clearly a demolished MOHNE dam. Weren’t we all reared on this series of events that has become a national legend (stirring stuff that overlooks the fact that over half the human victims were prisoner-of-war slave workers). Operation Chastise happened just weeks before I was born but I understand my US friend who was quite mystified by the references and equally by a young crossword setter who doesn’t sit through the interminable repeats of the film with that well-known march and found the theme difficult to identify.
A full grid then – or almost – the usual handful of doubts – did we need SIMOOM or SIMOON at 45a? Well, the endgame resolved that when we reconstructed the dam and needed SIMOON. MALTBY would clearly become GIBSON, too, producing the required ‘nominal replacement’ of the preamble. How chuffed Ifor must have been when he realized he could make a Ximenean grid with both of those adaptations and only real words appearing in the final grid. One triumphal playing of that march for Ifor.
Doesn’t this solve sound easy! We even imagined that the message was going to have something to do with those clue numbers 16 and 17 that were strategically side by side but it was growing late and we hadn’t busted any dams yet. We thought we had cracked the code by calculating the height of those bombs as they spun and bounced – 8 7 6 5 4 3 4 3 4 3 2 and we began to relate them to letter positions in our clues. (A friend has pointed me towards a clever little animation of the bouncing bomb on Wikipedia. Click on the link.)
POSIT had no definition so we ignored it and got REPEAT ONE E … gobbledygook. Back to Numptyville – we’ve been here before (and will, no doubt, be there again if we don’t abandon the Listener forever if the Times extortionists carry through their intention to oblige us to have a £104 annual subscription to access the Crossword Club – there’s my political whinge of the week!)
The error was that we were attempting to work out the message after removing only eleven clues with Os. It took me a good hour of flailing to understand that both ANGORA and NON-QUOTA had lost Os and, therefore, that both counted as clues to be ignored.
REPEAT ONE ENTRY NUMBER SIX PLACES EAST; It was after midnight when I finally understood that it was the 1 that had to move ‘EAST’ to give 617 – the ‘Unit breaching position with fourth from Maltby’. How beautifully this all came together in the end and what a multi-faceted crossword. Many thanks and congratulations, Ifor.