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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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