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Archive for March, 2017

It’s Dark Up Here by Colleague

Posted by shirleycurran on 31 March 2017

I wonder how many other solvers initially imagined we were somehow going to be considering the legendary flier Icarus (though obviously it wasn’t very dark where he flew – so near the sun that his wings, glued together with wax, melted). We were at the Annual Listener Setters’ dinner event and the hotel had kindly printed out the puzzle for me but the grid hadn’t appeared, so while the other Numpty began to solve, I was hand-drawing the grid into the empty square. I realize that this passion is some kind of OCD (Obsessive Crossword Disorder). I wonder how many other crossword solvers would go to that extent!

Still, I did have time to check Colleague’s right to admission to the Listener Setters’ Imbibers Outfit and thus to check whether he would be among the valiant band who survive the post-dinner party where the ultimate heroes last almost until dawn, at the bar. I didn’t have to read far. ‘A degree of acidity (to such a degree a taste of tannin is lacking) is a symptom of thrush (6)’ (A PH + THAT – T[annin]. The Australian Shiraz we chose was most acceptable so I don’t know where Colleague got his acid beverage with no taste of tannin but “Cheers!” anyway, Colleague.

Actually, the situation worsened with, ‘Turned right on with a mix of acid and cleaning agent perhaps (5)’ giving RT< + ON A and Chambers confirmed that TRONA is a ‘native combination of acid and normal sodium carbonate’. No wonder we had the clue ‘Disheartened [Circassian] is one who commonly vomits (6)’ HUR[d]LER.

The word CIRCASSIAN stood out as being an ‘extra word that must be removed’ in that clue and, as our grid filled, we removed a ‘series’: ANTARCTIC, VIRTUOUS, TRAFFIC, FAMILY, DRESS, CROP and HUT. We had country dance lessons at school and the ‘Circassian Circle’ was a popular dance and we soon saw that the other words could all be followed by ‘Circle’. It was the other Numpty who commented that each was a letter shorter than the preceding one so that these were ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’ but we overseas solvers were, as usual, totally ignorant of a TV series of that name (helpfully, of course, provided by Wikipedia).

Wiki gave us a list of names: MARTIN, ANN, PAUL, HOWARD and HILDA and four of them appeared almost symmetrically around the margins of the grid with HILDA being spelled out by the five letters that had filled those circles. A little bit of head-scratching followed. We found the name of the series that we had to highlight, with six Os completing the name but that gave us only 20 letters and we needed 28. Who was the flier?

Clue 29 had given a hint that hadn’t meant very much to us at first, ‘Greatly affect where our flier disappears (5)’ clearly had to be UPEND. When we drew ‘ever-diminishing circles’ with the names in the outer one of the grid margin, an inner circle, using the double-letter OR of DIOR and CENSOR, that had intersected, and the OD of BLOODHOT, that we had squeezed into one cell spelled OOZLUM BIRD.

Faithful Wiki told us that this was a legendary bird that flew backwards in ever-decreasing circles until it disappeared up its own fundament. Could The Times really be telling us that the bird was to complete its peregrinations up its own rectum? We laughed and decided that it had to be so – but dilemma! How do we depict that?

If the bird is flying backwards (DRIBMULZOO) then the DR is going to disappear into the OO and that would satisfy the hint in the preamble that the fifth character was displayed in a thematic manner (her letters were in circles). However, if the bird is to disappear when it enters its anus, we shouldn’t see the D and R any longer. Dare I do that? It leaves CENSOO and BLOOHOT with a fashion designer DIO. No! It’s almost impossible to create an advanced cryptic crossword without this sort of ambiguity isn’t it! Many thanks to Colleague, anyway. A relatively gentle puzzle for what was a busy time for setters and solvers.

Post script – the GOLDEN HARE? “Hare” was a forbidden word last night at the dinner since a large number of potentially ‘all correct’ solvers had been eliminated because of that elusive beast. Each year, there’s a table quiz and the team at the winning table fills its bronze casket trophy with sweets to be distributed the following year. Last year’s winners had a sense of humour as what was hiding underneath all the fudge and caramels? Not just one but a whole series of little golden hares! Here’s one of them.

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Listener No 4441: It’s Dark Up Here by Colleague

Posted by Dave Hennings on 31 March 2017

Colleague’s seventh Listener greeted us this week. His last had the Aubrey holes at Stonehenge (Spots), and then there was the sneaky How to —— (with Hotel as its missing word rather than Spell) from five years ago.

This week, just eight down clues with an extra word and no misprint wordplay shenanigans. Solving started relatively quickly with acrosses 1 APHTHA, 9 NEUR (the prefix mentioned in the preamble) and 15 LAIRS enabled downs 1 AND HOW, 2 HURLER and 4 HASID to be slotted in. Thus the top left quadrant was soon fleshed out, despite never having come across the slightly weird 13 Work at growing up becoming like one-time immigrants to Crete (8) for DORISING.

Two extra words that I had ditched from down clues were Circassian and Antarctic and these were soon joined by dress as LIENTERY was slotted in at 12. It seemed to me that any similarity between those three extra words was purely in the mind of the setter.

It hadn’t escaped my attention that three clues had letter counts that disagreed with their entry lengths. 18ac Spiritual guide drops in reference to court fashion designer (4) was DIRECTOR – RE CT to give DIOR but it took some time for me to suss 5dn Homer keeps being virtuous for moral guardian in Rome (6) where the inclusion of Homer and Rome prevented me from seeing homer=cor which would normally come to mind fairly quickly. [You know Homer was Greek?! Ed.]

I strayed down to the bottom right and that was soon fairly complete, followed by the bottom left where I don’t think I’d come across DODDY before, and was surprised that the clue didn’t reference Knotty Ash! SCHMELZ at 24ac Decorative glass produced by East London rascal with earlier marks unknown (7) was also unknown, as was its subsidiary SCHELM (SKELM), a rascal in South Africa (not Whitechapel).

After about 2½ hours the grid was complete, and time for the endgame. It included BLOODHOT at 21ac where the OD had to occupy the same cell, as did the OR at 18ac and 5dn.

In the end, th extra letters in the down clues had no meaning in common but were of decreasing length from 10, 9, 8 letters down to 3. This brought to mind Elfman’s Revelation of John in June 2015 where the countdown led to Rocket Man.

Four characters from a related series were also in the grid together with a fifth in the circled squares. I jotted down H A D L I, but don’t ask me why I went anticlockwise. It didn’t take long to see that it should be HILDA, nor that there were four other names in the grid: HOWARD, MARTIN, PAUL and JESSE. Luckily, despite not having seen many episodes, I was aware of the programme Ever Decreasing Circles, a BBC sitcom starring Richard Briers and Penelope Wilton. I was also aware that there wasn’t a character Jesse, but ANNE (or was it ANN), to be found here in the top row.

Back to the preamble which required us to find both a legendary flyer and its habitual flight path. Pegasus, Unicorn, Roc and Emu all crossed my mind while trying to unravel this bit. And what about that OR and OD crammed into single cells? Did they form part of this flyer? However, I remembered that I hadn’t fully resolved 29dn Greatly affect where our flyer disappears? (5) with its reference to our flyer who disappears UPEND. Ah, yes, the OOZLUM BIRD, and in the course of the next ten minutes, I had it highlighted in the centre of the grid and EVER DECREASING OOOOOO around it.

Now, I have to admit that the programme wasn’t one of my favourites. I found the lead character, Martin, extremely annoying with his obsessive attention to procedure and detail. [Having said that, I’ve just watched a few minutes on YouTube and it had me giggling!!] Despite that comment, I thoroughly enjoyed Colleague’s puzzle with all its thematic content — and its title! Thanks a lot.

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Listener No 4440, Nostrum: A Setter’s Blog by Mr E

Posted by Listen With Others on 27 March 2017

I guess I must have come across the phrase “sea legs” while reading something, and had “C legs, centipede” occur to me. That led me to make up the riddle, “Why is a sailor like a centipede?”. And when such an idea occurs, I naturally wonder whether there might be a puzzle in it.

It was natural to compare this to Carroll’s “Why is a raven like a writing-desk”. And I was aware of the reply “There’s a B in both”, not from Huxley, but I believe from having read one of the Thursday Next books (which if I recall correctly did not include the “and an N in neither” part).

I did not want to put sailor, centipede, raven and writing desk directly into the grid but make the solver work a bit for them. When I discovered that I could use DRIVING TEST with a change of four letters, I decided to put that and RIVEN into the grid. I had once experimented unsuccessfully with a puzzle where pairs of clue-answers had to be jumbled together to make the two entries, and I used that here with PLEASE and DIRECTION becomong SAILOR and CENTIPEDE. As for the sea, Caribbean might have worked but Mediterranean felt good. I was pleased that it was not too difficult for me to fill a grid with the necessary elements, including LEGS properly placed. (I am not one who can make up grids where lots of fancy things have to happen . . . but I have some ideas for puzzles that require such – maybe I should seek a co-setter?)

I decided not to attempt misprints in the clues but just go for the easier ‘extra letter indicated’ to get the messages.

I hoped that the editors would consider the quote familiar enough even though not in ODQ, but they decided a pointer to it was needed; that led to the circled cells with MAD HATTER (which, I did not realize [apologies for that z, I’m American!], was not a phrase actually appearing in the Carroll book). I considered that solving the clues and then solving the riddle felt like difficulty enough; thus I chose to indicate MAD HATTER rather than something less specific like CARROLL.

My hope was that the solver’s path to the end would be something like this:

centipede => 100 legs (what else is there to think about a centipede?)
sailor + 100 legs => sea legs, C legs
LEGS is easily found in the grid
13 more letters needed, sea and C shape, and title ‘Nostrum’ => Mediterranean in a C shape in the grid.

The editors decided that symmetry ‘about a horizontal axis’ needed to be in the preamble.

Regarding specific clues:

14ac I started by defining Elmo as the Sesame Street character; it was decided that that might not be familiar enough, and was changed to refer to St Elmo.
1dn – I have no sense of cricket vocabulary; hope the surface sense (with help from editors) is ok. I do tend to spend a lot of time working to come up with clues with natural-sounding surface sense.
28dn – intentionally phrased to suggest The Raven . (not planned in advance, just happened when writing the clue)

I have not yet seen solvers’ comments, but I feel happy with how the puzzle turned out.

Mr E

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Listener No 4440: Nostrum by Mr E

Posted by Dave Hennings on 24 March 2017

One of the trickier setters faced us this week, with Mr E’s ninth Listener. I know that he’s tricky because he’s tripped me up once in the last ten years. This week, there was quite a long preamble, telling us that 25 clues had the good old extra wordplay letter. The difference here was that they didn’t lead to an instruction but to a question with two words missing and a post hoc answer which had also affected definitions in two clues.

My first job was to look up post hoc in Chambers, where it was defined as “after the event”. Hmmm…! The rest of the preamble made some sort of sense, and I wrote the key elements at the top of my solving notes: circled letters = two-word description; two normally-clued entries needed to be changed; two normally-clue entries needed to be jumbled together.

I was happy to get 11ac Page consisting of stories about Britain’s first slot machines (9) gave PINTABLES on my first run through the clues, but disappointed that I initially failed the preceding clue Nancy’s score in extremely precise examination (11, two words), despite recognising that Nancy’s score was probably VINGT.

I must admit that my success with most of the acrosses was minimal, so I hoped for better luck with the downs. 2 Like meadows in Peru (6) was PLEASE, but that clashed with 11ac. It was at this point that I read my notes at the top of the page to try and help with understanding this clash, but I wasn’t sure what was going on.

A few downs dropping from the top row enabled DRIVING TEST to be slotted in. One of these downs was what looked like Joe ORTON, but the clue Who was heard by which protagonist? He wrote plays (5) had to wait until the end for me to rationalise it. [I’m sorry, but Horton Hears a Who was something I was only vaguely aware of.]

With the grid about three-quarters filled, 2dn was S•IL•R, so SAILOR. Rereading the preamble made me realise what was going on, and given 36ac CENTIPEDE, a bit of reverse solving enabled me to get Dreadful battle without a sense of purpose (9) (DIRE + ACTION – A). Thus (PLEASE DIRECTION)* gave SAILOR CENTIPEDE.

After about three hours of solving, I had a full grid and only one clue left to rationalise, that at 24dn Saw results with prover accepting this alteration of rules (7) which was BEDDING, BEADING or BENDING, and my money was on the last. Obvious, really… PROVERB (saw) resulting from PROVER given a B ending!!

So, what now? I suppose we had to solve the riddle: Why is a SAILOR like a CENTIPEDE? There’s a B in both! I needed help from the circled squares which I jotted down as D M H A R E T T A. Well, blow me, there’s that bloody HARE again! [Careful, you’re beginning to sound like Shirley. Ed.]

It took a few seconds to see MAD HATTER, at which point the riddle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland rang bells. I needed to check my copy of the book (so much more rewarding than googling) to remind myself of “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” More bells rang, this time closer to home, as I saw the similarity with DRIVING TEST where the unchecked letters could neatly be changed to give WRITING DESK, and with RIVEN becoming RAVEN, I was beginning to see where Mr E was coming from.

Solving the riddle, “Why is a sailor like a centipede?” didn’t take long: “They both have C (sea) legs.” And there at the edge of the middle row were the LEGS, and just above it SEA. What an annoying SEA that was, as I spent ages on and off trying to map ten more letters “symmetrically about a horizontal axis”.

In all, it took at least another hour before I saw TERRA dropping down in columns 4 and 5, and working from there, MEDITERRANEAN appeared in the shape of a C. And that explained the title — Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) was how the Romans referred to the Med.

What an enjoyable puzzle, Mr E, despite the fear that I wouldn’t get there. Looking forward to next time.

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‘Nostrum’ by Mr E

Posted by Encota on 24 March 2017

Or should that read Nostrum by Mare, i.e. Mare Nostrum, ‘our sea’, the old name for the Med?  Or is Mr E of French origin and the E stands for Ed -> M.Ed?  Unlikely but possible.  No quack remedies here: enough of the Title and on to the puzzle…

What a fine puzzle and a great theme – thanks Mr E!

Alice in Wonderland – a favourite theme of many Listener solvers, I suspect.  For example, who can forget Sabre’s Listener 2613 puzzle from 1981, where 18 across…

         The ending of Alitji is certainly aboriginal! (5)

…had a one letter entry ‘i’ derived from the answer ‘iiiii’, where the only reference in which it could be found was in the Pitjantjatjara aboriginal language version of Alice In Wonderland?  And who said that Listener Preambles can sometimes be slightly obscure 😉


Back to the plot.  Mr E has very cunningly hidden the Mad Hatter’s phrase, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” in the Across clues – but without the nouns.  With a bit of investiGoogling I find four possible answers:

  1. The original: “I haven’t the faintest idea”;
  2. Mr D’s rather flat afterthought: “Because it can produce a few notes, though they are flat; and it is nevar (sic) put with the wrong end in front”;
  3. Better: “Poe wrote on both”
  4. Aldous Huxley: “Because there’s a B in both and an N in neither”

Now 4 really appeals to my sense of humour.  It’s a little bit like that piece of card in beginners’ Philosophy that on one side reads THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS CARD IS TRUE and on the other reads THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS CARD IS FALSE.  In Huxley’s case, like the card, it’s true but (at least partly) false at the same time.

So, as the hidden letters from the Down clues began to appear, I’m delighted to see that Mr E has picked option 4, as they seem to read THERE’S A B IN BOTH.  There’s also an additional B in two of the definitions – 15a and 9d – which need removing before solving.  I found the Down clues much harder than those Across but all seemed to fall into place ok, so I’m hoping I haven’t missed something significant.

So the two words DIRECTION and PLEASE that needed jumbling together to form new words?  Was I the only person to wonder whether ELECTION DESPAIR was a topical possibility, or LADIES RECEPTION, or INDELICATE PROSE, or several ruder options I won’t include here?  No.  Of course, given the checked letters, it meant they had to be SAILOR and CENTIPEDE.

With a grid filled I was stuck for a moment.  Luckily, when I mentioned the new question “WHY IS A SAILOR LIKE A CENTIPEDE?” to one of my sons, he immediately came up with BECAUSE THEY’VE BOTH GOT SEA-LEGS / C-LEGS and I was away again.  The title seemed to point to the Med, but that was only 13 letters not 17 as per the preamble.

I could see LEGS at the end of the central row, so maybe MEDITERRANEAN was hiding somewhere?  Like Listener 2613, 18ac did feature one ‘i’ but the correct one appeared in 15ac and the word formed a symmetrical letter C, centred on the very middle of the puzzle.  C LEGS and SEA LEGS – very clever!


All in all a great puzzle – many thanks again to Mr E!


Tim / Encota

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