Listen With Others

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Listener No 4658, Marxist Doctrines: A Setter’s Blog by Charybdis

Posted by Listen With Others on 30 May 2021

I find writing a setter blog a bit like putting together an archaeological report. I do my setting on Sympathy and frequently save in case I need to backtrack from a dead end, so there is usually some kind of electronic paper trail I can follow long after to remind me of how a puzzle developed. In this case, I suspect Groucho’s comment came to mind while regarding the political landscape of these times and I imagine the idea of finding principles in Chambers and substituting them with others was more or less there from the start.

My first idea, I see was to fit the quote around the grid perimeter.

Three days later (clearly uninspired by that!) I have a second grid, which shows that that perimeter fill was too restricting. I recall trawling Chambers [the CD-ROM] listing all principles included therein, matching lengths to enable substitutions, and then noticing the coincidence of shared letters in unCertainTY and reCiprociTY and the potential for swapping them over, given the aptness of their meanings. As a setter, this is the sort of happy coincidence that gets me going.

While looking for other pairs of principles to share same grid locations, fOuriER/dOpplER was a shoo-in. As for PETER/VITAL, it took a bit of playing around before I realised that peTer/viTal was less good than the first E of pEter matching the I of vItal as uncErtainty and recIprocity swapped. Another happy accident.

EXCLUDED MIDDLE would have been a bit of a handful to gracefully incorporate into the grid. All the same, the principle of the ‘excluded middle’ led me to pick up on the coincidence that both PEtER and VItAL are still words when their middles were excluded. Although this idea didn’t survive in that form, the concept of words with excludable middles did survive, fortunately.

So these two grids show how the gridfill stood at the start and end of a day of work on it, including extensive use of the cell properties/numbering feature on Sympathy to record alternatives. I know it looks slow but I find it’s often a case of More haste, Less speed when getting alternative valid fills to work.

The rest of the gridfill was ‘simply’ a case of getting the numerous cell letter-changes to work creating real words. I use the cell numbering properties feature of sympathy very heavily to help me with this. A further 7 hours’ work had progressed the grid to this point [below], with greyed cells containing unresolved letter changes. I had deliberately introduced at 14Dn a non-word [TEMIT] that would only be resolved by swapping uncertainty with reciprocity.

Having eventually filled the grid with the two alternative final gridfills I recall that I was still undecided about which of the two versions of principles should first appear in the grid and which should feature in the final version, both being equally valid. Or so it seemed … (By the way, I see that 1Ac was originally stridOr, not stridEr. The published version clued stridEr so this grid was still at the pre-clueing stage).

As it happens, I see I recorded notes to myself on how to do the post-grid thematic mechanics, and they really are quite a garbled mess as I look back at them now as I constantly jotted ideas and discarded or refined them. But they made sense at the time, I’m sure! In the end I picked up on the idea of those ‘excluded middles’ of VI(t)AL and PE(t)ER as a way to delay discovery of how to eventually change the grid. I liked the idea of using the hackneyed ‘first letters of extra words’ method to give THESE ARE MY PRINCIPLES [and if you don’t like them – well, I have others], while simultaneously hiding the letters of [in my first version] VITAL, FOURIER, PLEASURE.

A good moment to stop and insert thankyous here. To Ross Beresford for Sympathy, to Roger and Shane as ever for flawless patient editing but also to Quinapalus for his amazing QAT page Qat (

I used QAT to search for odd-lettered words in Across clues with the required first letter AND middle letter. Thus the T of ‘These are my principles’ matching the V of Vital etc…. This is going to be easy and fun, I thought! Haha! How we laughed! It didn’t take long however to discover that there is no odd-lettered word beginning with T and with a central V that makes a word when the V is removed. No matter. There are 6 ways of arranging vital/fourier/pleasure. If Pleasure came first [as it were] then there are several possiblilities, some quite nice like Topers and TopPers.

Many letter combos were rich in possibilities [e.g. S*R* gives not only the nice SquiRrely/squirely but for instance sarge scram scrum shred sorts sprat spray stray strew strop surds scarped scarred sharper sparred starred started starved] but then, with each ordering of my principles, I would eventually come up with an impossible one. This I really hadn’t expected.

So that is why I ended up going for the alternative set of three principles, and finding that even then, after exhaustive searching, there was only one possible ordering, the one in the final version of the puzzle, that worked for every required combo. Even then I wasn’t overly happy with e.g. YodEled (uniquely) or EngouEments – it was that or EmEus!

So it was a close thing and beginning to look like I’d have to use some completely different approach, but I just about got away with it. Nobody has ever needed the word ‘yodeled’ more!



One Response to “Listener No 4658, Marxist Doctrines: A Setter’s Blog by Charybdis”

  1. davey said

    I must confess I didn’t twig that removing the central letters left real words! All the more impressive for it of course.

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