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Listener 4292, Going Out In Style: A Setter’s Blog by Homer

Posted by Listen With Others on 24 May 2014

The idea for this puzzle hits me when I’m at a party where there’s an accordionist playing. I notice that the bellows on his instrument have a pattern printed on them, which seems to change as the bellows go out and in – and sometimes the pattern can’t be seen at all. I begin to wonder if this property could be used for a crossword in some way. I make a mental note to explore this further, and hope that I can still remember about it next morning.

A few days later, I start to experiment with a piece of paper folded accordion-style. It does look like something could be of this, as squeezing the “bellows” in and out could conceal every other column in a grid (depending on the angle at which the grid is viewed), and when fully closed, the left and right columns come together almost seamlessly. I begin to imagine an endgame where the grid is folded like an accordion, and words appear in sequence when the instrument is “played”. The words would alternate between the “bellows” and the end columns, and they’d have to be the words of a song – preferably one associated with accordion music.

I sketch an outline of a rough idea which would leave plenty of clues for solvers.

Listener 4292 a

That’ll do for now. I need to find a suitable song which has enough shortish words to make it all work. After a lot of digging, I can only find one serious candidate – Mairi’s Wedding, and the opening two lines of the chorus:

Step we gaily on we go
Heel for heel and toe for toe

But, there’s a problem. The song isn’t in any of the standard Listener references, and while that doesn’t completely rule it out as a theme, it does make it much less likely to be accepted. It does have an entry in Wikipedia, of course, which shows that it’s been recorded by a variety of artists, including The King’s Singers and Van Morrison. So, maybe there’s some hope that at least a few solvers will have heard of it. I wonder how I can get a feel for how widely known it is.

Fast forward nine months, and I’ve decided to test the waters at the York Book Fair. Secondhand book dealers from all over the country have descended on York for a two day sale, one of the largest in the country. As I’m strolling round the aisles, I spot a dealer sitting by one of the stalls, holding a newspaper in one hand and a pen in the other. Yes, he’s doing the crossword! I take a deep breath, sidle up to him, and ask “I was wondering if you’d heard of a song called Mairi’s Wedding?” He looks at me. “Sorry, I don’t have anything on music” he replies, and returns immediately to his puzzle. I mumble an acknowledgement and move on. A few minutes later and several aisles away, another bookseller just gives me a blank look in response to the same question. I decide that the theme isn’t well enough known, and that the puzzle isn’t going to go anywhere.

I return to Edinburgh, abandon the idea and start to work on a completely different theme, not involving paper-folding at all. However, this too comes to nothing, and I return to look again at Mairi’s Wedding. In spite of all the weaknesses, it does seem to have a lot going for it – shortish words, with mostly very common letters, which should help when it comes to filling the grid. Playing around with the positions, I’ve found that I can get a KEYBOARD in the last column intersecting with FOR, and another in the symmetrically opposite position intersecting with AND.

Listener 4292 b

I decide that I have to progress this, and hope that if I can get a really good grid designed, I might just get away with it. I start work on the grid, making good progress, and over a period of a couple of weeks my spare evenings are taken up with the task. I try some cosmetic surgery by altering the positions of the HEELs and TOEs as there’s some freedom there, though symmetry is obviously preferred. Several times I manage to get a near miss, with only one or two residual cells which are impossible to fill. Eventually, I arrive at a completed grid. It seems to meet all the Listener requirements – the average entry size is 5.6, and only ARD and KEY contravene the requirements for checked letters. As they’re silently checked by the KEYBOARDs, I think it’s OK. There are some interesting words in the grid which I’m looking forward to cluing – WARRAGUL and BLETHER, for example.

I print out a final mock-up of the grid, just to double check that everything works as expected – and it does, but just as I’m about to put it to one side and start writing clues I notice that there’s a problem. A big problem. On the opposite side of the bellows, a decidedly “non-drawing room” word appears when the bellows are expanded. I’m horrified. I can’t imagine that the vetters would allow that. I decide that I can’t risk it, and try to tweak the associated answers to see if I can get rid of it. But unfortunately, the interconnectedness of it all means that as I try to unpick it, I need to make more and more changes in the surrounding area, and end up almost back at an unfilled grid before I can start to rework it properly. This is a real setback.

Fast forward another couple of months, and I’ve now got the final grid. I’ve managed make it a pangram, and as a bonus, I’ve managed to sign off with my name in the bottom corner – not something that I set out to do, but given the choice between DENIAL and DELIAN I’m happy to take the latter. This time, when I fold the grid, I can’t see any undesirable words, so I think I’m almost there. The misprints in the grid are scattered all over, so to spell out MAIRI’S WEDDING with the correct letters I’ll have to sort them by alphabetical order of the clues, I think, as normal grid order won’t work. The remaining clues will have misprinted definitions and spell out MAKE ELEVEN FOLDS IN GRID. PLAY SQUEEZEBOX. As the name of the song is going to be spelt out by alphabetical order of clues, it seems natural to spell this message out in alphabetical order of the answers – I think that’ll work OK but it does mean that it’ll be late in the solving process before the message is revealed.

I’m almost ready to start writing the clues, but the puzzle doesn’t have a title yet. I decide I need one before going any further. Bearing in mind the advice “Solvers who are stuck should turn to the title” I try to think of something relevant. Out and In? Less than inspirational. Outing? Better, but not quite there. Bellowing? Still not right. I decide to check the crossword setting and solving aid TEA. In a few moments I have it – “Going Out In Style”. That loosely summarises the highlighted words, and hopefully will provide an extra hint about the “out in” style of playing an accordion, and the required manner of folding. I think I’m done, apart from another few weeks writing the clues, frustrating a test-solver or two, and sending it off to the editors to see what they make of it.


2 Responses to “Listener 4292, Going Out In Style: A Setter’s Blog by Homer”

  1. apaultaylor said

    We made a video of (a copy of) ours:

  2. Homer said

    Very good, apaultaylor – thanks for posting that.

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