Listener No 4436, Clean-up Operation: A Setter’s Blog by Aragon
Posted by Listen With Others on 26 February 2017
An idea right on my doorstep
What sort of person paints their doorstep? One person at least has already asked that question. What sort of person paints their doorstep and then decides to compose a crossword on the subject? Erm, well, you see, it was like this…
The previous evening, in September 2015, Northern Ireland had seen off the Faroe Islands on their way to qualification for Euro 2016 and a glass or two of wine had been drunk to celebrate. It was a sunny day and there was a pot of dark brown doorstep paint from Homebase needing to be used, so I set to if not with a vengeance, then at least with a will, of sorts. Some time later, admiring my handiwork only briefly, I suggested to our son that he might like to make a sign to warn people not to stand on the artist’s fresh canvas, which he duly did. Admittedly it was perhaps not the most artistic or dramatic notice ever constructed in the annals of doortstep DIY (a scrawled WET PAINT ON DOORSTEP! on a side of A4). Nonetheless I was (more than usually) dismayed to find, shortly afterwards, that someone had dropped a flyer through the letter box. It is not really possible to do this without standing on our doorstep, so I had a quick look to see what damage had been done. Imagine my horror when I saw a trail of seven dark brown footsteps proceeding in a series of steps uncannily resembling the moves of a chess knight, as far as the foot of a receding postman. Actually, I made that last bit up: in fact no damage at all appeared to have been done: there was nothing to clean up. All was as it should be on the doorstep front. However the seed of cruciverbal inspiration had been sown and over the next few days I worked out a possible way of transferring the idea into a crossword.
By the following Friday I had worked out enough in my mind, and in a few notes, to attempt to construct a grid. This would contain the word DOORSTEP (probably at the bottom, of course), the name of the person who’d trodden on it, and a warning sign. Having constructed a few puzzles in the past where changes to the grid left non-words, I was determined that on this occasion the “clean-up” theme would leave everything “normal”: no nasty paint stains, no non-words.
So I sat in the garden and beavered away on a grid fill, which proved extremely tricky given the constraints set: DARK BROWN was the colour chosen, partly to reflect real life, and partly because it neatly could begin on the D of DOORSTEP and end on the foot (N) of the POSTMAN. Only the intermediate seven letters would clash: the colour would be spelled by one set of clashes, and the letters for the warning sign would appear in the other set. As there were fewer letters available than the letters required for the warning, this meant that some of the latter would have to appear in the grid: this was a good thing, really: I could start the message off in the grid and this would provide a clue as to where the rest of it was to go. Originally the idea was to make a T-shaped sign, but that would have meant the DOORSTEP appearing higher up, and it didn’t seem to add much. Better to stick with a continuous line of squares to be highlighted. The tight grid constraints meant that the average word length was marginally under the minimum recommended in the setters’ notes. I also had to resort to using UNTOGAED (in Webster, as it turns out, but I took heart in any case from the fact that TOGAED is in Chambers, and the principle that you can shove UN- in front of pretty much anything — especially when you’re desperate). The name of the Co Kildare town of NAAS is well-known enough to me as a native of Ireland, but it was another final entry I was less than happy with.
The idea of the exclamation mark came early on: this made TEPID a very handy candidate for the bottom row, and I toyed with one or two possibilities for the dot-provider: phrases ending in PERIOD were among them. BARDOT was chosen for being comparatively short — and working with a cross-checking I of course.
The clues were not written until two months later: originally the idea was that there would be no gimmick, and therefore no concealed information but the way things worked out, this of course became necessary. The “dropped letter” idea was related to the postman: the idea was that he’d have interfered with perfectly normal-looking clues, which meant effectively that most clues needed to have two surfaces: this presented something of a challenge and meant that it took two days of solid effort to produce an initial set. I sent the finished article off to my trusty vetter, who made several very good suggestions, all of which I took up: originally the preamble did not state how many letters were involved in the trail, and I saw that this was potentially confusing. His main difficulty, as I had feared, was not knowing where to place the extra letters to make the warning, although he eventually spotted that BOHE — left after removing the clashes from BOHEA — was not a real word. I think several other solvers gained enlightenment that way also, as it turned out. Finally, he wasn’t keen on the fact that TEP!D wasn’t actually a real word (as neither is BARI. of course), hence the instruction to “ignore the point” in the final version of the preamble, when considering what constitutes a real word in the completed grid. I decided that the preamble also needed to state that the letters of the message read continuously and hoped this would also lead solvers to consider column three as the likely candidate.
I sent the final version to the first vetter a month later, and after learning from him about the huge backlog of submissions in his intray, I had a further invitation to consider altering the grid to increase the average entry length (and this even before solving!). I had a go, with little hope of success, and so it proved.
The next thing I heard was from the the editor, with a suggested, shorter, preamble, and a few suggestions to shorten a few of the large batch of clues. Several of the alterations to “extra letter” clues had affected the surface reading of the originals, so I spent some time re-doing them. It may be that the brilliant job Roger did with the preamble (originally I think even scarier than the final article) caused some doubt in the minds of solvers about the shading of the DOORSTEP section. Many did not use their version of the Homebase pot of paint. For interest, here’s one earlier version:
“A job has been completed — with an unfortunate consequence. In a number of squares entries clash. These clashes complete a nine-letter trail which proceeds, in a series of knight’s moves, from the scene of the work to the perpetrator (who is to be highlighted). Across entries in the trail set the tone, which should be used to highlight the work area (other highlighting in the puzzle need not comply with this). Some clues have had an extra letter dropped into them which needs to be removed: these letters spell out instructions for the clean-up operation, and what to arrange to create the first part of a warning, to prevent a recurrence of the mishap. This will involve replacing letters in part of one column of the grid (one letter matches its replacement) and highlighting them. The warning should be finalised by the symbolic resolution of a further grid clash (also to be highlighted), completing a message that reads continuously in a series of 19 squares. Missing the point in one square, all entries in the final grid may be read as real words or proper names. Numbers in brackets refer to lengths of clue answers. Chambers (2014) is the primary reference, but does not give one prefixed form, nor the definition at 8 (in Collins).”
But leniency, and a desire not to alienate a large constituency of solvers so early in the year (Donald Trump hardly even having warmed his seat in the Oval Office) prevailed. I believe that that was the correct decision.
But beware: the next Listener Doorstep Challenge will require those finished articles to come out browner than brown!