Listener No. 4325, Christmas Break: A Setter’s Blog by Poat
Posted by Listen With Others on 12 January 2015
Shirley requested a setter’s blog for this puzzle, so I hope my overview of the process will be of some interest. A favourite English teacher had introduced me to a number of war poems which still often resonate, and had got me thinking about possible crossword treatments. One possibility that came to mind was using ‘pararhymes’ – Wilfred Owen sometimes relied on repeating consonant patterns with vowel variation, so a puzzle could revolve around (e.g.) clueing ESTOCS with a grid entry of ASTUCIOUS, etc.
That never came to anything, and instead this idea occurred to me in mid-2008. I pretty quickly mocked up the concept of soldiers in opposing trenches facing a “no man’s land”, where letters would be changed to reveal the Christmas activities etc. The thematic idea was always to have two letters moving out of clued entries, comparable to the soldiers trepidly leaving their trenches, and with subsequent changes requiring a thematic amendment to the letters involved. At first I toyed with RESPITE from BATTLES, but after a few attempts I couldn’t get a reasonable grid fill even after abandoning symmetry – which itself can be justified as thematic:
No Man’s Land is an eerie sight
At early dawn in the pale gray light.
Never a house and never a hedge
In No Man’s Land from edge to edge,
And never a living soul walks there
To taste the fresh of the morning air;—
Only some lumps of rotting clay,
That were friends or foemen yesterday
(James H. Knight-Adkins, 1917)
I then decided to include SILENT NIGHT as unclued (toying with the idea of requiring an amendment to STILLE NACHT), settling on achieving RELIEF from BATTLE and fixing the grid in an approximately cruciform or medalliform shape.
Clue-writing for me is an agonisingly slow process, though I don’t normally require six years to put together a puzzle. But it was clear I had to wait for the 2014 centenary, and therefore put it on the back burner with a view to submission in late 2012 – this would give the editors ample time to review it, with the possibility of various other WW1-themed puzzles proliferating in the year (in the end there were only two, I think, though Colditz Castle made an appearance and coincidentally also had a six-letters-in-alternate-cells denouement). My usual method is to set up a spreadsheet listing all answers with their Chambers definitions, then to jot down ideas for each clue on another sheet. One by one they are whittled down until none remain. In this case I had to use two non-Chambers words (TRICEP and TATSOI), vainly hoping they would show up in the 2014 edition – at least the first is easily guessable, and the second can be seen on many a supermarket shelf. I wasn’t sure how to refer to them in the preamble, but the editors took on board the suggestion that it should refer to the Scrabble dictionary.
One thing I need to watch while devising clues is a false equivalence when the answer has been adulterated somehow. It isn’t fair to use link words such as ‘giving’, ‘for’, ‘is’ etc, because the actual entry is NOT the word defined. There were also a few naughty definitions by example which required minor amendments here and there, but for the most part my earlier drafts remained reasonably unscathed. Thanks to the editors for their fair comments, as well as my testers for confirming it was solvable in the first place. And thanks too to Messrs Sainsbury’s, who ensured the theme was at the forefront of minds by way of a well-publicised advertising campaign (which even reached my eyes in Melbourne).
I’ll conclude with one of Owen’s most affecting poems, Anthem for Doomed Youth:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.