Listen With Others

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Listener No. 4666, Octet: A Setter‘s Blog by Hedge-sparrow

Posted by Listen With Others on 25 Jul 2021

Growing up in urban Luton, I remember my Mum, particularly during the winter months, regularly hanging a net of peanuts on the washing line: and very quickly, the net was full of blue tits eating their fill. These were not the anti-squirrel, anti-pigeon, antibacterial, scientifically-proven bird-feeders of today: they were simply net bags full of peanuts, and the blue-tits and great tits and others came in their droves to feed from them.

These days, Catherine and I have a number of the modern, scientific bird-feeders in our suburban Birmingham garden, and we do indeed get some birds visiting them. (Or rather, we did, until our next-door-neighbours acquired a couple of cats: the cats are lovely, but unfortunately, they tend to discourage other creatures. So whilst next-door’s cupboard-under-the-stairs mice have now moved into our cupboard-under-the-stairs – and who can blame them, poor little things – and the humane trap deployed, nearly all our garden birds, sadly, have flown.) But for anyone of a certain age who has an urban or a suburban garden, it’s impossible not to notice the decline in the number of garden birds compared with 50 years ago, and this includes our resident blue tits and great tits and other titmice, even though (according to the 2021 RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch) they’re actually doing reasonably well compared with many other species.

So my love of, and concern for, our British birds and other wildlife, mean I often return to this source of inspiration for my crossword puzzles, and I do hope the puzzle-solving community will forgive me for it.

Anyway, on with the blog for Octet. The idea for the puzzle was suggested by the fact that the word TITMOUSE has eight letters, and there are eight different titmice native to Britain: although, as the preamble to the puzzle hinted, two of these – the LONG-TAILED TIT and the BEARDED TIT – are tits in name only, and actually belong to other families. Exploring this a little further, I noticed that the letters of TITMOUSE occurred one-by-one in the names of the different titmice in positions that would enable the formation of new words by substitution of alternative letters (e.g. CRESTED -> CREATED). Reversing this process was therefore the basis for the puzzle: to have solvers discover the TITMOUSE theme through the clues (from corrections to misprints in eight definitions), and having done so, to use the letters of TITMOUSE to alter entries in the grid (always leaving real crossing words, which is the expectation these days) to create the names of the eight British titmice.

Several years ago, I had a puzzle published whose theme was British owls, and solvers were required to shade the names of the owls in the final grid. Unfortunately, I neglected to indicate (in the preamble, or elsewhere) that the theme was actually British owls: as a result, solvers quite legitimately found all sorts of other owls in the grid (sea owls, desert owls, Tasmanian three-legged owls, and any number of others 😊), at least some of which had to be accepted as legitimate in submitted solutions. It was a little embarrassing for me. Still, I learned my lesson, and as a result, made sure that in Octet I established the “British Isles” context, this time through pairs of extra letters appearing in six other clues.

On that basis, I formed my puzzle grid, created my clues, wrote my preamble, and that was that. Except, as is quite typical with me, it wasn’t. I decided I didn’t like the fact that, to create BLUE (for BLUE tit), for example, solvers had to replace the unchecked third letter of BLEE (an archaic word meaning “complexion” or “colour”) with the “U” from TITMOUSE. I asked myself: “Since the letter to be replaced is unchecked, why wouldn’t I (as the setter) just use the obvious ‘blue’ in the grid, rather than the obscure ‘blee’?” And, not being able to answer myself convincingly, I decided to start again, this time trying to ensure that any grid entries requiring letter replacements to create the thematic names, were not themselves too obscure.

In the second “final grid” I came up with, seven of the eight letter replacements that were required to create the names of the titmice also formed new crossing words, the exception being MARSH (formed from HARSH) whose first letter H was unchecked. I rather cravenly decided I couldn’t quite face starting yet again to try to get all eight modified entries also forming new crossing entries, so left it at that, and submitted the puzzle to Roger and Shane at the Listener. When Octet’s turn for review came, they kindly agreed to its publication, and after a few final edits, it was ready to go.

Following publication, I received a number of kind comments about the puzzle, and I really do thank the solvers who took the trouble to write these, either on-line or to me personally: they are very encouraging and are much appreciated. One consistent comment was that the puzzle was relatively “easy”, certainly as far as Listener puzzles go. This surprised me a little, as I hadn’t realised that was the case: I certainly didn’t deliberately make it so (though neither was it intended to be at the super-tough end of the scale!) Still, perhaps it’s no bad thing to have a simpler puzzle now and again, and hopefully it still gave enjoyment.

Finally, as ever, many thanks to the Listener editors, Roger and Shane, for their unstinting efforts in getting these puzzles ready for publication each week.

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