Back in 2008 I decided I’d have a go at compiling crosswords and, aiming high, I resolved to have my first published as a Listener before my 60th birthday. This is the puzzle that was going to realize that ambition for me.
I started it soon after solving Sabre’s “Lip Service” (Listener 3981), an offering from the master featuring a code. Inspiration for sure, and I was thereafter determined that my debut also had to feature code. However, I also needed it to be something different, not the oft-used playfair or straight letter substitution – so I might face a challenge without resorting to a half-page preamble.
My best option would be to find some way to let a third party describe the code, leaving me to just steer the solver to that party’s text – and I recalled an occasion twenty years earlier when I had been so directed. That occasion was when I read Alan Garner’s ‘Red Shift’.
At one point in the novel, the dialogue reads “I’ll teach you Lewis Carroll’s code, and we’ll use it for your letters. If she can crack this she’ll deserve a medal. It’s quite simple —.” That’s all you get … apart from the encoded text of a letter across the book’s endpapers
Clearly, finishing the main text of the book was no longer enough. There was no way to feel the experience was complete without decoding that letter.
In those pre-internet days I found the description of Carroll’s cipher in a copy of his complete works, unearthed in Shoreditch Library. It’s not strictly his code – his 1858 article “The Alphabet Cipher” describes the Vigenère cipher. It needs a key word or phrase – and there was no explicit indication in the novel of the required keyword so I managed the deciphering by guessing a few of the words which might be in it, thereby back-identifying the key.
In the Listener puzzle, I clearly did have to supply a key and settled on ‘Alan Garner’, attractive because that would only oblige me to change 8 letters on the diagonal (despite that, still changing about 14 words to different ‘real’ words).
I thought it would be neat to clue in a vaguely thematic way, so decided to try and ‘shift’ those words from the 18 across definitions – it worked not too badly even if there was a resultant forced look to the occasional clue.
After completing the puzzle, I asked on Derek’s board for assistance in test solving and quickly received four kind offers to test my effort. I must make specific mention here of Ian Simpson and Brian Medley who went to great lengths to help polish my rough offering, giving me invaluable insights from the experienced setter’s perspective. Those lessons learned have served me very well over the time in between. Thank you both (I know you hate setters’ blogs Brian, so you probably will not see this but thanks anyway)
Thanks also to Roger, not just for vetting and tidying up the final article, but also for this link sent to me just after the puzzle was published. It seems that at the end of March, Alan Garner gave the inaugural Garner Lecture – as reported in the New Statesman on April 2nd, just 2 days away from publication of my Red Shift. As part of that lecture, Garner expanded on the various strands which had combined to influence his Red Shift.
Aside from the above-mentioned, my thanks go to all who helped in preparation of the puzzle – plus of course John Green – and all who have provided most welcome feedback both directly and indirectly.
Those who had not heard of Alan Garner did not seem unduly perturbed, maybe because the preamble had been modified from my original version – which gave away very little – to try and accommodate all of those likely to be unfamiliar with the theme. Although mention of the ‘13 letter title’ and ‘new words in the grid’ offered a shortcut, not too many availed themselves of it and most seem to have enjoyed solving the puzzle in the way I had hoped. It appears to have been a fairly well received ‘debut’ which at least appeared before my 65th.
(And I did manage to have my first Listener published whilst I was 60, so not too far off target, even if it was not with this one.)