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Four and a Half ….? by Sabre

Posted by shirleycurran on 11 Aug 2017

72 Bees

We were hoping for an easy puzzle as we had to get up early on Saturday morning to fly to Manchester to celebrate the 1500th appearance of the Inquisitor crossword together with the editor, John Henderson, his Fifteen Squared bloggers, his team of test-solvers, a large group of setters (including 15 or so Listener setters) and lots of enthusiastic solvers. “What a neat little grid and short preamble” I mused, and then saw the name of the setter. There is no way a Sabre crossword is ever going to be easy!

“A riddle taken from literature”, “nine extra words to be removed before solving”, “clashes”, “an ambiguous entry” and the requirement for “a literal solution to the riddle” in the final grid. It didn’t sound too ferocious and we set to work.

The ambiguous entry was the very first that we solved. ‘Spot bachelor, look, one of two in bathtub (4)’ gave us BLOT (B + LO + one of the two Ts in ‘bathtub’). Well, it gave me BLOT but it gave the other Numpty BLOB as there are two Bs in ‘bathtub’ too. Surely the editors wouldn’t allow Sabre to be so careless – but how was the choice of a T or a B going to resolve an ambiguity? Of course it did, some time later (7 hours for me!) when that small letter made all the difference.

Yes, I hadn’t forgotten to confirm Sabre’s continued membership of the Listener Oenophile outfit and he confirmed it rather dubiously with ‘Shrub drunk, Sabre not well (12, 2 words)’ giving SNOWBALL TREE. No wonder Sabre was not well as a few clues lower down we found, ‘Fruit, one half barrel’s gone off (12)’ another anagram of I BARRELS GONE with the first of the extra words we were hunting for (half). It hadn’t finished: ‘Philosopher’s active in drinking after hours (7)’ put A(ctive) into LOCK IN to give us LOCKIAN. Cheers Sabre! I hope you’ll cross the Atlantic one of these days so that we can mutter about fiendishly difficult crosswords and Knights’ moves at the bar at one of the Listener Setters’ dinners.

We were soon muttering about the extraordinary number of Bs in solutions like BOBBLY, HUBBUB, BIBBLE-BABBLE and BABBLER and about the numerous clashes that were appearing in more than half of the cells that intersected. Sabre’s clues are tough in any case and all those clashes meant that we were almost cold-solving. Our solving was interrupted by the need to react to a neighbour’s burglar alarm, the need to cook dinner and pour ourselves some stiff drinks (!) and it was approaching midnight before the light started to dawn (well, in a metaphorical sense!)

I suddenly realized that all those clashes were indeed consistent in nature so that if we had an A, the other letter would be C. An S could clash with a Q or a U – just two letters apart. TEA could, of course, help and our grid-fill speeded up. What’s more, we teased out something about THE SQUARE ROOT OF HALF A NUMBER OF BEES. I wonder how solvers who have no access to the Internet or who refuse to use it identified an 11th century Indian author’s riddle. I copied out what I was told was a quadratic equation and the other Numpty scribbled for a while then announced that the answer was 72, (since there are always two potential answers to one of those things and the other, ‘four and a half’ was impossible, as you can’t have half a bee). He retired to bed muttering imprecations about Bs and left me working out how my grid was going to contain 72 of the things.

Of course that explained the title too and I understand that some clever doggies actually managed to identify the theme from the words ‘Four and a half …’ What can I say?

That word ‘literal’ was a real give-away wasn’t it? If all of those clashes separated by 2 (2 = B) were added to the Bs in the grid we might get 72. It was 2 a.m. before I had a potential solution with a few loose ends – OPORICE? an old word for medicine? SEWEL? a malkin? – I actually resolved my last doubts on the train into Manchester for the IQ event, and, using BLOT, got to a grand total of 72 bees.

Poat’s HARE appeared gloriously in Serpent’s grid last week so I thought my desperate hunt for him was over BUT IT WAS NOT TO BE! “What is a malkin?” I asked Chambers and he replied, of course, “A cat (as in Greymalkin in Macbeth), a haggard old crone, a scarecrow (the SEWEL in this case) and a HARE”. Now that really was devious! The hare was not even crouching in the preamble just below the grid but lurking half way down the clues. There has to be a limit to these aberrations – any self-respecting hare would present itself properly in the grid!

All the same, this really was impressive! What a feat to manage to get all those bees into the grid. Thank you, Sabre!



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