Listen With Others

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Listener No 4445, Strange Requests: A Setter’s Blog by eXternal

Posted by Listen With Others on 30 Apr 2017

I first heard about Fool’s Errands about ten years ago. Most of my jobs have been within manufacturing companies and I am used to working with engineers and storemen. I was having a bit of banter with one of the guys in the workshop who was reminiscing about his previous foreman sending a greenhorn off to the stores to ask for a ‘long weight’. I didn’t really see anything odd in this, as I thought there must be weights that are long. But he then told me that the storeman told the apprentice to sit down while he fetched it. Of course, he just went and read the paper and came back about ten minutes later to send the apprentice back empty-handed. That’s when I got the joke and I found it quite heartwarming to be able to share an enjoyment of what is effectively wordplay with a potty-mouthed bloke from the Isle of Sheppey. Fortunately, I was never sent on any such errands, I am sure I would naively have fallen for them. I think it’s a bit of harmless fun, but I guess you might get in trouble for doing something like that in some companies nowadays.

I hadn’t even contemplated setting crosswords at that time, so it never occurred to me that it would be a good idea for a thematic puzzle. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I was fondly remembering that job that it suddenly dawned on me to use the idea. I remembered being told about a few other items to be retrieved and did an internet search to see if I could find a list. There was quite a lot of information, once I had found out that the prank is called a Fool’s Errand.

Most of the items are made of two parts, usually an adjective used with an engineering item. It seemed a nice idea to clue one part and have the other part for entry. In this way, I could probably incorporate quite a few examples into the puzzle. It was also good that we have so many words for fool in the language. I looked up fool in Bradford’s and the Companion and realised that many of the words could be used in longer words. I used QAT to check whether any could be taken from longer words and still leave real words, as I liked the idea of the fools being sent off to retrieve the items and thought this would be a good way to represent it. There were a good many I could use, so I picked some nice looking ones such as fiSHMOnger and CLOThears. I decided to use some of the more obvious items such as stripy/tartan paint and long weight, as some solvers might recognise them. Brewer’s describes the prank under the entry for elbow grease, so that was also going to be in the grid as one way for solvers to check the theme.

I think many people get irritated by grid-staring and word searches, so I determined to make the endgame quite easy by using the lead diagonal to hide an item to be highlighted. Making a grid was fairly simple, as this wasn’t a particularly complex puzzle. I found I could fit in 6 words with fools disappearing and 6 items, which seemed a good number to explore the theme. I was a little worried that the puzzle could be solved without understanding the theme, although test-solvers assured me that was unlikely. Some people commented that I might have written the puzzle with April Fool’s Day in mind. However,  I submitted it in June 2015, not realising that April 1 2017 was to be on a Saturday.

By the time of the Listener bash in Gateshead this year, the puzzle had been scheduled for 8th April. I had wondered why it wasn’t given the April 1st slot, but a conversation in the pub before the dinner with barred puzzle guru, database custodian and blogger, Dave Hennings, set things straight. He told me that puzzle 4444 was coming up on April 1st and he would be willing to bet good money on Kea being in that slot with a special puzzle. Of course, it turns out he was totally wrong and that I should have relieved him of his money.

The notes and letters from solvers passed on by John Green were mainly positive. I had a few people recounting tales of similar pranks that they had witnessed or been part of, which was quite amusing. I do accept the criticism from one solver that the 3-letter entries were effectively underchecked and I could have made them into 4-letter entries. Thanks to everyone for their comments.

One Response to “Listener No 4445, Strange Requests: A Setter’s Blog by eXternal”

  1. dyste said

    I don’t really see the force of the criticism that the two 3-letter entries are effectively underchecked. The final grid consists of proper words so the checking is normal. The clues were perfectly straightforward and making the entries 4-letter words wouldn’t have made any difference to the solving. The effective checking may be affected in any puzzle in which entries are different from answers. The critic would be on firmer ground if he argued that all the six thematic answers had three to five consecutive unches since the ‘fool’ elements weren’t in the grid, but that also is the inevitable result of the gimmick used here. It took me ages to get 1d and 38a, but that was part of the challenge of the puzzle, and not a cause for complaint.

    I wouldn’t worry about the criticism.


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