Listen With Others

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Listener No 4588, Black Maria: A Setter’s Blog by Agricola

Posted by Listen With Others on 26 January 2020

Black Maria is dedicated to my maternal grandparents, to whom I owe the two albums that inspired the theme. The first of these is the Brooke Bond tea card album The Race into Space (1971). At the age of six, I was addicted to collecting Brooke Bond tea cards, and my indulgent grandparents bought far more tea than was really necessary. I still have the complete album on my shelf. In the middle of the Cold War, despite – or perhaps because of – the album’s preoccupation with the American space programme, I was especially fascinated by the 12 cards depicting Soviet missions, including card #20 (the Luna programme).

The second album is more obscure. Grandad was a shop steward at the local Leyland Bus factory, and through the AEEU, he acquired a cut-price holiday to the Soviet Union in 1975. Nanna was up for the trip, despite never having travelled outside England, because of her experiences running a thermal underwear stall on Fleetwood market. Her most lucrative customers were sailors in the Soviet trawler fleet, and she had always wondered about their homeland. My grandparents were an atypical couple on this journey, since neither of them had any sympathy with the British Communist Party, Nanna being an entrepreneur and Grandad being passionately loyal to the L​abour Party. All was going smoothly until the penultimate day of the holiday, when Grandad wandered up to a guard in the Red Square to ask the poor young man if he believed in fairies. Unappreciative of British working class humour, the Intourist guides whisked the couple away to be kept under close supervision until the following day, when they were packed off to airport with even fewer smiles than normal. My grandparents had hardly any time to buy souvenirs, but in their haste, they did come across an album of commemorative stamps from the 1960s and 70s. I still have that album too; the largest section features the many cosmonaut-heroes of the Soviet Union, along with all of the Soviet missions, including Luna 3. Without that question about fairies, Black Maria would never have been.

This was my first attempt to write a minimally gimmicky thematic puzzle with normal clues, no word search, no origami, and no Playfair. In retrospect, I wonder if it would have been better to introduce some tweaks to raise the difficulty level slightly. (For example, as Phi pointed out, it shouldn’t be too hard to re-jig things so that the thematic entry at 2 appears at 41 instead.) Still, working with a normal set of clues gave me more freedom to entertain myself, and, I hope, some of the Listener’s regulars. Finally, if you don’t know about it already, do please visit The Far Side.

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