Listen With Others

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Listener No 4589, Progress Report: A Setters’ Blog by Tibea

Posted by Listen With Others on 2 Feb 2020

As editors of the Listener crossword, we have an eye on its history and feel some responsibility to celebrate its interesting milestones. Seeing that the 1500th crossword since the demise of the BBC magazine The Listener and the consequent migration of the crossword to The Times was approaching, I (Kea) wondered about how to mark it.

Doodling around, I pondered THOUSAND AND A HALF as a slightly less obvious way of indicating the number, and found that if written in a 4×4 square it looked like it could be hidden in a grid with words reading naturally both across and down. Then, to flesh out the thematic context, THE TIMES LISTENER similarly arranged also looked promising. So I constructed a grid with those two blocks opposite (SAND and LIST serendipitously forming opposite grid entries), focusing on generous checking in the two thematic areas, and avoiding an excess of short words that often occurs in over-constrained grid fills. (The result, a 12×12 grid with 36 entries of average length 6.33, is typical of those produced by Azed.)

The next step was how to make a puzzle of it. My first thought was normal clueing (as it was to be the second puzzle of the year and we didn’t want it to be too complicated) with the solver having to find and highlight the message, but that felt too basic, not “Listenery” enough. So I thought of jumbling the 32 letters in the grid, clueing the jumbled forms, and having the solver sort the letters into the final message. At the time I wrote, “It’s pretty contrived, though if the initial arrangement could be an apt anagram of THOUSAND AND A HALF THE TIMES LISTENER it might work.” My first anagram attempt was IN A FLASH THAT’S A THUNDERED MILESTONE, referring to The Thunderer as a nickname for The Times, but it was clearly not good. A few days later I found LAST OF LINE UNDERNEATH THIS MASTHEAD, which I was much happier with, though I wondered if solvers might take it as an announcement of the end of the Listener crossword in The Times.

The next question was whether it was solvable. If the clues for the affected entries (pleasingly, exactly half) had normal definitions but wordplay for the mutilated initial forms, then solvers might be able to complete the final grid from the definitions alone, without ever seeing the initial anagram. So I decided to try switching the definitions around, at the risk of making the puzzle harder than I wanted. My co-editor Tiburon and I then split the clues and wrote half each (taking special care to make the wordplay for the mutilated entries as clear as possible), before comparing notes. We then asked Dimitry (a former Listener editor) to test-solve it for us, which allayed my fears about its solvability and led to a useful preamble change clarifying that the first message was about The Listener masthead and not The Times.

The consensus among the comments we received with solvers’ entries was that the puzzle was tricky to start but got easier, and as a whole wasn’t as hard as it first appeared, which was a relief to me. And for any solvers still unclear about the Listener crossword’s history there’s a lot “more information at”, as the solution notes always say.


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