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Listener No. 4384, XL: A Setters’ Blog by Harpy

Posted by Listen With Others on 28 February 2016

Jointly setting a crossword is an interesting business, and some people question how it can work. Well, there are quite a number of duos, trios (and more) around, so it clearly does! But this is the first time that this particular duo (who are also occasionally part of a trio) have written a blog. HARPY is cHARybdis and PloY, and in what follows we are referred to as C and P. Although occasionally meeting up, Harpy mainly operates by email. This may be a smart medium for collaboration since there is a written record to refer to and crucially it allows a lot of time to cogitate.

We seem to take it in turns providing the initial spark for a Harpy puzzle. In this case for a long while one of C’s vague back-burner ideas had been to do something cruciverbal concerning the former continents Laurasia and Gondwana, and perhaps Pangaea and the Tethys Sea. Then in July 2013 the phrase “the land of lost content” came into C’s head, though he couldn’t place it, and it made him think not only of content being lost but also of those lost cont(in)ents or possibly of Atlantis or Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

The quote turned out to be from one of the cheerier poems (it’s all relative!), numbered “XL”, from AE Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad”:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Unsure quite how to proceed, C felt more brains were required and emailed P with the idea of collaborating on what would turn out to be our fifth Harpy puzzle.

The kәn-tent / kon’tent duality was very attractive, as was cont(in)ent and “yon far country”. And XL, we were delighted to realise at a later stage, could also serendipitously refer to the eXtra Large original landmass! (Though we were not yet focused on it being Pangaea.)

P then came up with a list of about 40 country names which could lose some “content” to leave a real word. We especially noted those where the content was also a word, such as PA(KIST)AN and POR(TUG)AL. Since these were literally “lands of lost content” we realised that this was an element of the puzzle that was far too good to miss.

But a related possibility also emerged, that of constructing something vaguely thematic from available shorter “land” fragments such as the single letters A or I of SPAIN, maybe even a message, or indeed the name of one of those lost continents. We discovered that PANGAEA was maybe possible whereas Laurasia and Gondwana were not. (For instance, the U of laUrasia and the W of gondWana were not available for a start). So, PANGAEA became the focus, and the phrase “IN PANGAEA” was particularly inviting since the “IN” was the part that makes “CON*TENT” into “contINent”. Again, far too good to leave out.

C made proposals as to how the grid “mechanics” might work, and in particular how we might incorporate an element of continental drift. And we also played around with draft preambles. Following a suggestion by P, we decided that the puzzle would be better with time running backwards, with the final grid representing Pangaea (pre-drift). (As it turned out, not all solvers realised this was a nod to continental drift and the break-up of Pangaea, but this was not essential.)

We went through numerous ideas for placing the main elements in the grid, deciding at a fairly early stage to abandon symmetry in favour of increasing the amount of thematic content. Based on C’s ideas for the basic layout, P then set to work to see if a satisfactory gridfill was possible, to include LOST CONT(IN)ENT, as many thematic countries as possible, and the generation of IN PANGAEA. Fortunately P was able to construct such a grid (“No mean feat”, says C).

To achieve a satisfying dénouement, it was important that the discovery of “In Pangaea” should be more or less a final step, which is why we decided to present the puzzle as a jigsaw variety of crossword. It was then “just” a matter of writing the clues, which we split into our usual odd/even numbered allocations. During that time, P was on holiday in the blue remembered hills of Shropshire, where he was delighted to come across the following road sign, which he immediately emailed to C who was on holiday in Spain:

Listener 4384 Museum Sign

C was able to reply with a photo of a Harpy he’d just taken in the gardens of the palace at Aranjuez:

Listener 4384 Harpy

Having completed our draft, fifteen months after we started out on the puzzle, it was test-solved by a friend of C’s, and submitted to the Listener, where Harpy hadn’t appeared since 2008. We are very grateful for the pre-publication feedback which improved some of the clues.

Harpy.
 

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