Listen With Others

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Listener No 4577, The Gaudy: A Setter’s Blog by Paddock

Posted by Listen With Others on 10 Nov 2019

I can’t say that I am a particular fan of Morse in either his literary or televisual (pre-Endeavour… or do I mean post-Endeavour?) incarnation, albeit Last Bus to Woodstock is as far as I know the only novel wherein every character shares their surname with a distinguished competitor in the Ximenes competitions of the latter half of the 1960s.

However, I believe that Colin Dexter’s clues for the Azed competitions between around 1980 and 2005 mark him out as arguably the finest precision clue writer of that period, and I was keen to produce some kind of homage to the man known to Azed aficionados simply as ‘NCD’.

Digressing slightly, when I started setting puzzles a few years ago I decided that I wanted my thematic crosswords to be rectangular in shape, to use only real words (and no proper names unless they were directly linked to the theme), and not to require shapes to be drawn in the grid, which would demand far more imagination and artistic skill than I possess. I decided more recently that I would also avoid certain clue gimmicks, such as deliberate misprints, which I felt were overused (not least by me!). These strictures limit the range of my output, but I know that there are lots of less inhibited setters out there to redress the resultant innovation deficit. I also try to choose themes, or treatments thereof, which do not substantially favour solvers who possess relevant knowledge. I didn’t manage to achieve that here (of which more later).

In this crossword I planned to include the pseudonym which NCD used for his puzzles in the Oxford Times, ‘Codex’, and to bring MORSE into the final grid, ideally replacing CODEX, since the latter also means ‘code’. I hadn’t previously seen a puzzle where specific phrases were omitted from the clues, and I thought it could work if the surface readings were sufficiently helpful to solvers. Using phrases of more than two words would have made it well-nigh impossible to write proper cryptic clues that also gave a good pointer to what was missing (eg “Fellow sleuth’s [last seen wearing] hat” could indicate the last letter of ‘sleuth’ being contained by ‘cap’, giving CHAP, but how is the solver to deduce ‘seen’?), and I rapidly rejected the idea of using the first two words of each title, three definite articles adding up to one definite ‘no’. There were sufficient titles for eleven ‘missing phrase’ clues, but six seemed about right, so I identified six words for which I could write suitable clues (this was far and away the most difficult part of the setting process), and replaced the missing words in these clues with ‘# #’ (no lengths being given for the absent words).

I had the PADDOCK/DEATH thing lined up, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the letters of DEATH could be taken from THE REmorseFUL DAY (which features the DEATH of MORSE) leaving REFULY, the constituents of FLEURY. The time had arrived to populate the grid (trying to arrange the six pre-selected solutions so they didn’t cross each other in too many places), write the remaining clues, and submit…

[Spring turns to Autumn]

I don’t use test solvers, so the editors were the guinea pigs. Neither was familiar with the titles of the novels, and the absence of lengths for the missing words caused them problems in the solve. Hence they decided to replace my original hashes with the word lengths in square brackets. I’m sure this was the right thing to do, making the puzzle fairer for everyone, but it did perhaps mean that those familiar with the books (who were always, unfortunately, going to be at a significant advantage) could identify the theme even more readily. As ever, the editors did a great job of improving the preamble and adjusting/abridging a few clues.

Feeling that the thematic aspect would be relatively straightforward to untangle, I had tried to make the clues quite tricky, eschewing lurkers (and homophones, but I never use them anyway), and limiting anagrams to just the non-standard clues. I took particular care to ensure the soundness of these six clues, not wanting to have to rewrite any of them! The editors did raise a question over the use of ‘bodies’ in 27d as a containment indicator, and while Chambers gives one meaning of ‘to body’ as ‘to embody’, the examples given by OED are only as convincing as one chooses them to be. I wanted this clue to work, because the surface gives a clear indication of the missing words, but in hindsight I should have gone back to square one with ‘the dead’. Moral: if you as the setter are having to justify the legitimacy of any element of a puzzle to yourself, then even if it is technically sound it is almost guaranteed to raise questions in the solver’s mind and detract from the overall effect of the puzzle.

The title of the final novel, The Remorseful Day, has its origins in Henry VI, Part 2 (“The gaudy, blabbing and remorseful day is crept into the bosom of the sea”), and subsequently appears in the poem How Clear, How Lovely Bright (“How hopeless under ground / Falls the remorseful day”) by Morse’s favourite poet, A E Housman (coincidentally also much liked by Dexter!). I felt the title ‘The Gaudy’ offered a whiff of Oxford but didn’t give too much away; ‘Gaudy Day’ and ‘The Gaudy…’ were other possibilities which would probably have been no more and no less clear (or lovely bright) to solvers. ‘Crimes to Person’ had a certain appeal, but was rather obviously an anagram and could have given the game away at the outset. Anything that involved ‘Blabbing’ was way too googleable.

My original clues for two crossing entries (26a and 21d) both included obscure words in the wordplays for solutions which are themselves obscure. I had clearly been trying a tad too hard to make the clues tough, as I normally view this type of clue with the same degree of enthusiasm as I do a plate of broccoli. I rewrote both clues, and the new clue to 26a was probably my favourite of the lot – not up to NCD’s standard, of course, but I’d like to think that it might at least have given him a smile…

Paddock, October 2019


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