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Archive for December, 2020

Listener No 4636, Monkey Business: A Setter‘s Blog by Skylark

Posted by Listen With Others on 27 December 2020

In sixth-form our head of English was so concerned that us scientists might stop reading that one lunchtime she dictated to us a Recommended Reading List. Rather disgruntled by her mediocre rating for Right Ho, Jeeves, I nevertheless took it to our local library that night, and found one book with a particularly intriguing title: Cold Comfort Farm.

Reading it that night had me howling with laughter. Jokes like:

The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm

…and the invented language which urbane Flora struggles to understand, such as Reuben’s statement:

I ha’ scranleted two hundred furrows come five o’clock down i’ the bute

…delighted me, as did the skewering of rural novels, though not knowing Mary Webb, I assumed the target was DH Lawrence – the mollocking certainly seemed to fit.

For a while I considered it my favourite book – and writing to Miss Gibbons to tell her so, was thrilled to get a reply, saying that over half a century later, she could hardly believe that she had written it, but expressing pleasure that it was still entertaining readers then.

CCF still entertains me now, so I stuffed the grid as full of thematic words and characters as I could (though the editors wisely eradicated the names of Adam Lambsbreath’s four cows I had artlessly shoehorned into clues: Graceless, Aimless, Feckless and Pointless).

The title was inspired by the author’s unusual surname, and in homage to the book, I did aim to get ream, page and letter into the grid, but some of the other examples Tim / Encota cleverly highlighted were completely unintentional – though mother’s ruin wasn’t. Reading Shirley’s kind blog, I was thrilled to learn that I can join other Listener Setters at the Oenophile Bar.

I was particularly thrilled this puzzle was published, since shortly after I’d submitted it, I’d feared it was as doomed as the Starkadders, following the publication of Augeas’s excellent Inquisitor 1640: A Spot In The Country, with the same theme, although it was very differently executed, which may have been my saving grace.

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Monkey Business by Skylark

Posted by shirleycurran on 25 December 2020

Skylark- one of the rare Listener lady setters. We smile when we see just a brief preamble and a fairly short set of clues (explained, of course when we read that five names will circle the perimeter and a sixth appear clued in the grid). We count and find that there will be just eight clues with no letter to be extracted to produce a quotation.

I also check, of course, that Skylark has reserved her place at the Zoom bar with the Listener Setters’ Oenophile Elite and proof is there. ‘Mother’s ruing trailing the Spanish in northern town (5)’ We realize that ‘mother’s ruin’ or GIN is going to trail EL (the Spanish) and give us ELGIN. Before long, that GIN has become a whole GALLON, ‘Characters impressed person offering hire in galleon (9)’ We extract an E and produce LETTER (the person offering hire) IN G (gallon). Well, that gallon of gin should suffice – Cheers, Skylark!

Solving goes on steadily with a fine set of fair and fairly gentle clues though we wonder when the wordplay ‘The author with stuff involving one girl (6)’ spells MERIAM (ME + RAM around I) since Chambers doesn’t give that as a girl’s first name. That just goes to show our ignorance: we’ve both heard of the novel Cold Comfort Farm and recognise that famous quotation ‘I SAW SOMETHING NASTY IN THE WOODSHED’, but neither of us has read it and we have no idea about the names of the characters.

Luckily for us, that very quotation slowly emerges and we are able to consult Wiki for a list of characters. MERIAM now makes sense and we smile at ADA DOOM, MRS MURTHER, SETH STARKADDER and MR MYBUG (and sympathise with Flora Poste – what a crew to cope with!)

All that is left to do is find three activities from the novel. From what Wiki tells us, they don’t do what so many farms are now having to do to survive with Brexit looming – make CREAM TEAS – a bit of a red herring, that one. We opt for words ending with ING, that will provide a total of 32 letters and find MOLLOCKING, CLETTERING and SCRANLETTING. I wonder what Stella Gibbons would have thought if someone had told her that her inventions would appear in a crossword in 2020. Many thanks to Skylark for a bit of fun.

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L4636 ‘Monkey Business’ by Skylark

Posted by Encota on 25 December 2020

If you wan’t some alternative explanation of this puzzle then read other blogs at this site. However, clearly – hiding behind the pretence of a theme of a novel by Gabby Gorilla or some such similarly implausible pseudonym, this puzzle is actually about writing in general, as one might expect from a setter with a background such as Skylark’s.

You don’t believe me? Then look again at the grid. Why else would one be able to find various papers, forms of paper, abbreviations for manuscript, items for letter-writing, proof-reading terms etc., so blatantly hidden?

I rest my case.

Cheers all,

Tim / Encota

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Listener No 4635, Two Listeners in One: A Setter‘s Blog by eXtent

Posted by Listen With Others on 20 December 2020


When looking for a theme, I very often read through Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. I was reading the entry for King Midas, which featured the myth about Apollo giving the king ass’s ears as a consequence of judging against him in a musical contest. I had seen an animation based on the story of a king with ass’s ears, the secret with the barber and the subsequent betrayal of the secret by musical instruments, but I’d never linked it to King Midas (I think it may have been based on the Portzmach story, which is under the same entry). I then looked at on-line accounts of the myth to see whether I could get further detail to establish a thematic idea for a puzzle and various other versions mentioned donkey’s ears rather than ass’s ears. DONKEY’S YEARS suddenly came to mind as a potential way of hiding the donkey’s ears and noticing the accounts of them being covered by a Phrygian Cap with Midas being a king of Phrygia developed the thematic idea further. I noted that the second Y would need removing to reveal the ears and, as luck would have it, PHRYGIAN CAP contained a Y. This meant that I could have two large thematic entries in the grid with the ears being hidden in plain sight, rather than being hidden over bars through various entries or on a diagonal, for instance. That was immediately appealing as something a little different from the norm and potentially amusing for solvers, thus the endgame was born.

I decided to just check in Qxw that I could get a skeleton grid where the two long entries crossed and PHRYGIAN CAP could be removed leaving real words across the gap (a necessity, in my view). This is quite simple using Qxw’s free-light facility and I found it could easily be done with very few constraints on the grid-fill. It was quite obvious to me that the better-known myth regarding Midas should form the core of the puzzle, leading to the identification of the person. OR and AU are cryptic stalwarts and transformations are often used in barred puzzles, so the next question was how to implement this. I favoured the transformation being done in answers rather than clues, as OR and AU would be easy to see in clues once one or two had been found, although it could have been done the other way round with letters needing to be changed to gold. It seemed the way to work towards the endgame would be for the letters of MIDAS to be linked to the AU/OR transformations, so I did some checking in Qat to look at the possibilities and it confirmed that there were very many candidates for various positions in entries.

I have collaborated with Serpent on various puzzles (Two Listeners… is our twelfth published puzzle) over a few years and we pitch ideas at various stages of development. Sometimes, I will approach Serpent when I have an idea which is beyond my technical expertise, but at other times, it can simply be that we haven’t done a puzzle together for a while or that we don’t have many in the various barred-series’ pipelines. It must have been time for a collaboration, so I shared the idea and he was quite interested in working on it with me. He was a bit dubious as to whether we’d be able to get the five transformations for MIDAS in the puzzle, given the constraint of the real words remaining after the removal of PHRYGIAN CAP, so suggested using the gimmick in clues rather than the grid. He was quite busy at the time, so we decided I should try to produce a grid, firstly using the idea of the gimmick in answers.

The first thing to decide on was grid dimensions — DONKEYS YEARS is 12 letters, so I tried 12×12 grids, looking mainly at the two long entries which would be placed in symmetrical opposition to the ears and cap. With 12×12, the partner to DONKEYS YEARS would go through the C of PHRYGIAN CAP and the best I could come up with was WAPPENS(C)HAWS, which seemed very obscure. Changing to a 12×13 grid meant the long partner to the ears would go through the N of the cap, giving SOUTHER(N)MOST as an option as a more solver-friendly candidate and giving SEA ELEPHANT as a nice option for the partner to the cap, always better than some dull and obscure chemical compound.

I proceeded with the 12×13 arrangement and experimented with various options for the AU/OR words, making sure these were always in checked cells. I think I decided to have the ‘untouched/untransformed’ words in the grid, so that there weren’t so many AU/OR combinations within it. I realised that I could achieve a good grid with MIDAS being produced in clue order with the aforementioned constraints of cap removal, so decided to try for KING MIDAS, which would provide a more satisfying challenge for the solver and mean that we didn’t have to consider producing KING in some other way, such as from the clues . I managed to get a fill with 5.7 average word length, no entries smaller than four letters, only a pair of fully-checked fives and few obscurities. There would be various other combinations to check, but I was happy with this as a start and sent it to Serpent for further discussion/work.


The credit for this puzzle’s concept must definitely go to eXternal. (It is an understatement to say I was “quite interested in working on it”: I thought it was a really cute idea and was delighted to be able to contribute something to the puzzle.)

By the time I got properly involved in the development of the puzzle, eXternal had already established that it was possible to find a grid-fill satisfying the thematic requirements and having a respectable average entry-length. It remained to finalise the grid-fill, preferably using as few plurals, inflected forms and obscure words as possible (something we both set considerable store by). I set to work on the skeleton grid containing the four long entries, using Qxw and a customised dictionary, and fairly soon we had a grid we were both happy with.

All that remained was to write the clues. eXtent puzzles have 50% eXternal and 50% Serpent clues, written independently, then checked and commented on by each other. (The reader might like to speculate as to which of us wrote the across clues and which the downs.)

We then sent the puzzle to our estimable test-solvers, David Thomas and Norman Lusted. Their feedback was encouraging but it did prompt us to require the solver to demonstrate understanding of the theme by writing KING MIDAS under the grid.

As always, we received comprehensive feedback from the editors, which helped to improve a number of the clues and the preamble, for which we are very grateful. (I was pleased to see they retained “untouched” in the preamble and the title, both suggestions of mine.) We’re equally grateful to all solvers who provided such nice feedback via John Green.

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Listener No 4635: Two Listeners in One by eXtent

Posted by Dave Hennings on 18 December 2020

Here we had the second Listener from eXtent, which is the pseudonym of two eXpert setters. Their first was based on the Flower of Life and had a complex hexagonal shaped grid with entries going in somewhat higgledy-piggledy. A simple 12×13 faced us this week with a name to go underneath.

Nine clues had the answer as the result of the thematic person’s influence on the grid entry. Somewhat back to front, but time would tell what was going on. SPLASH, PARTY, AGAPE and REORDER went in first, except the last had to be scrunched into a 6-letter. Hopefully nothing too complex would be needed.

I had failed with the 12-letter entry at 17ac Variable padding put on essential brands for ages (12, two words) but 28ac Harry Styles gutted them on tour, being extremely distant in One Direction (12) was clearly an anagram of S(tyle)S + THEM ON TOUR: SOUTHERNMOST. Lots of misleading capital letters in that one for a fine clue.

A few more acrosses followed by some early straightforward down clues got me to 11dn Sizeable beast in pasture overturned in ooze, hard on insect (11, two words) and I was pleased to get SEA ELEPHANT with H + ANT at the end helping. 13dn was ADORERS and had OR just like REORDER, but so what!

The other 12-letter down clue at 13 Short graphic cyan oddball beneath Papa Smurf’s hat (11, two words) was less obliging, especially since I’ve never been a fan of the blue Belgian characters. Wiki did tell me that they were originally called Les Schtroumpfs with a link to Phrygian caps just below. Ah, PHRYGIAN CAPS [(GRAPHI(c) CYAN)* after P].

Eventually DONKEY’S YEARS went in at 17ac [Y in (DON + KEY + SEARS)] and a bit of head-scratching sorted out the obvious ONER at 18dn Expert [wiser] about casualty at Gettysburg (4) with the ER being the US equivalent of A&E.

Favourite clue had to be 40ac Row stops lad hiding face with fake tan? (6) to give ORANGEY [RANGE in (b)OY, but entered as MANGEY], with its Trumpian reference.

And so we had answers containing either AU or OR. The letters replacing these, in clue order, gave KING MIDAS and it was his touch that had resulted in the substitutions.

Answer Definition   Entry
ORATE opening GATE

Another bit of Wiki reading soon revealed that he was king of Phrygia. No great leap to see that the PHRYGIAN CAP was the entry that the preamble said needed to be removed. That changed 17ac into DONKEY’S EARS which Midas was afflicted with by Apollo after upsetting the god. Midas was also an early wearer of the Smurfy headgear, and understandably so in the circumstances. Sadly, I found no pictures of the king, either with or without his cap!

Yet again, a figure from history obliges our setters, this time by deciding to wear a Phrygian cap (not a bowler), and having been saddled with donkey’s ears (rather than a hunchback). All so that eXtent could devise a superbly crafted grid!

Great fun. Thanks, eXtent.

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