Listener No 4417, HMS Arcady: A Setter’s Blog by Hedge-sparrow
Posted by Listen With Others on 16 October 2016
Like many people, I learned and enjoyed John Masefield’s poem Cargoes at school (it doesn’t seem to be taught much these days, so perhaps you need to be of a certain age to be familiar with it). I generally set puzzles on subjects which are of personal interest, and when I was considering ideas for a new puzzle a few years ago, this poem came to mind.
My original attempts to set a puzzle with Cargoes as the theme were nothing like the final result: I remember playing with a grid which had the phrase “smoke stack” entered vertically and the word “salt” going around it in some fashion – I think at first I’d decided to set a puzzle based just on the third verse of the poem – but none of these early attempts were at all satisfactory. At some point, I had the idea of using the various bits of cargo as thematic entries in the grid, and it was as I began considering these more carefully that I noticed that the letter lengths of the various bits of cargo mentioned in verse 2 exactly matched those of the cargo mentioned in verse 3 (ignoring the adjectives “gold” and “cheap” attached to the final bits of cargo in each case). I thought this was quite a coincidence, and it immediately led to the idea of somehow pairing the respective cargoes from verses 2 and 3 symmetrically in the grid, with those from verse 1 being derived in some manner from the clues to make the full set.
I began to play about with this idea, placing the cargoes in different positions in the grid to see how the thing looked. What I certainly never expected was that it would be possible to form symmetrical, interlocking groups of the respective cargoes, but I remember one day experimenting with such a pattern, and being absolutely amazed when it worked. Even more remarkably, there was also an ideal symmetrical position for the respective vessels – “galleon” and “coaster” – to fit in amongst their cargoes. I still think that it is an amazing coincidence that the thematic terms in the second and third verses of the poem can form a symmetrical, interlocking pattern in the way that they do (and still enable the rest of the crossword to be completed with real words, albeit with a somewhat inelegant bar pattern).
With the thematic items in place, I managed to complete the rest of the grid in a way which enabled the poet and poem to be identified from additional letters included in each of the non-thematic across clues. I decided to include the items of cargo from verse 1 as letter mixtures in six of the down clues (I quite enjoy this type of clue myself, though I’m aware that they’re not everyone’s favourite). Finally, the remaining ship could be identified by solvers and written below the grid (with potential confusion over the spelling – “quinquereme” in Chambers, but “quinquireme” as used by Masefield – resolved by specifying the Chambers spelling).
I think HMS Arcady was generally enjoyed by solvers, but there were a few points which (justifiably, I think) attracted some criticism. One was the fact that the wordplay of 23 dn was not justified by Chambers. This is quite true, and was an error on my part: when the error was pointed out, I thought it might have been because I’d used an older edition of Chambers when compiling HMS Arcady, but I’ve checked back and that doesn’t seem to be the case, so I think I simply made a mistake. Another issue raised was the fact that, once the theme and therefore the thematic entries had been identified, filling the rest of the grid was very straightforward. Again, this is true, and I was aware beforehand that this would be the case, but I was so pleased with the symmetrical nature of the grid, with all the thematic items in place, that I didn’t want to change it (sorry!).
The main point of contention, however, was the inclusion of the wordplay-only clues for the thematic entries, which several solvers indicated were not necessary for solving the puzzle. HMS Arcady was compiled a few years ago, and I felt at that time that there was a desire amongst solvers – perhaps more than there is now – to be able to solve puzzles completely using only Chambers, their own general knowledge, and the information contained within the puzzle, without having to resort to the internet or even a trip to the local library. Since there were likely to be solvers who didn’t know Cargoes, or at least not well enough to be able to list all the items of cargo, I felt that the inclusion of thematic clues (which would at least enable confirmation of thematic entries, even if the clues were difficult to solve “cold”) might be necessary.
Later, however, when HMS Arcady came up for publishing, I’d changed my mind, and actually suggested to the Editors that the thematic clues could be removed. Quite understandably, they were reluctant to do this at such a late stage (they had already vetted the puzzle), so the thematic clues remained. Although a number of solvers found this a bit of an irritant, I still hope there may be some who did find them useful for confirming the thematic entries.
One final point of interest about HMS Arcady, which I don’t think anyone noticed (not surprisingly, as it’s a bit obscure), is the title. The title “HMS Arcady” is intended to suggest the “ship” theme of the puzzle, particularly the quinquereme and the Hellenistic era evoked in the first verse of Cargoes. But “HMS Arcady” is also an anagram of “March days”, as used in the phrase “mad March days” in the third verse of the poem.
As ever, I would like to express my thanks to the Editors for their help and encouragement in getting HMS Arcady ready for publication, and also to John Green for the amazing job he does in checking Listener entries, compiling statistics, and not least passing on to setters comments he has received from solvers. These are always welcome, either as sources of encouragement, or as the means by which errors and flaws can be identified and (hopefully!) avoided in future Listener submissions.