Listen With Others

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Listener No 4750, I Want You: A Setter’s Blog by Twin

Posted by Listen With Others on 5 Mar 2023

I’ve been keen for some time to write a crossword where all the clues were thematic in some way, but had a little difficulty settling on what the theme should be. I’ve got somewhere a half-written puzzle with Agatha Christie references in each clue, and had considered one or two other possibilities that I won’t disclose in case I ever come back to them, before deciding I’d found the right idea when I settled on Bob Dylan. After all, even Agatha Christie only reached double figures in her number of published books, whereas Dylan has written many hundreds of songs, giving lots of thematic possibilities. If, say, I found myself needing a one-word title beginning with H, he was sure to oblige: Hurricane — or, if by any chance I’ve used that in another clue, Hazel — would fit the bill.

I hesitate to call myself a big Bob Dylan fan, as in the world of hardcore Dylanologists I am certainly out of my depth, but I have nearly 40 of his albums and count him as my favourite artist other than the Beatles. I’ve only seem him once live, though; 18 years ago in Birmingham (Midlands, not Alabama), so perhaps it’s time for me to go to another gig and experience his genius afresh.

Having decided on a Dylan theme in the clues, I needed something to draw them all together in a final grid — but what? It felt a bit unsatisfactory just to have some highlighting related to a particular song, say, because that would be picking one from his catalogue, whereas the puzzle would already be drawing on so many. For a while I went down the route of a Dylan Thomas crossover (not as arbitrary as it may seem, as Bob Dylan chose his pseudonym in honour of the poet — and it would also be a cheeky reference to my own surname), but since I know little about Dylan Thomas, it also didn’t feel very satisfactory. I also spent some time tinkering with a George Bernard Shaw link, as he and Dylan are currently the only two people to win both Nobel prizes and Oscars (Kazuo Ishiguro could join them this year, having received a nomination for the Living screenplay), but couldn’t get it to work — and then that idea was done beautifully in the Magpie last year by Porlock.

Separately, I’d started musing on the Listener puzzles in the past where the solver has had to erase the entire contents of the grid, and wondered if there were a way to go one step further — perhaps by cutting out the grid altogether? And… maybe using the space left by the excised grid as a frame? I enjoyed the idea, and realised I could combine it with the Dylan crossword I was already trying to put together, given his (infamous) Self Portrait album. By the bye, it was pure luck that this was his tenth studio album, allowing me to use ‘X’ in the preamble.

Thinking up a new (or newish) way of hiding a message is always difficult, and in this case I wanted to make it as unlikely as possible that solvers could figure out what to do without solving all the clues, or at least the significant majority. Unchecked cells seemed to work, even if it wasn’t particularly thematic, and it also made for one of the easiest grid creations I’ve ever done, as there wasn’t too much to work around. I was even able to use an existing grid structure I found online, rather than creating one from scratch, and make it work with minimal tweaking.

The only answer I put in the grid with an idea in advance of how I was going to Dylan-ise the clue was DADOES, as I wanted something I could use with ‘Tangled Up in Blue’; for the rest, there were some song titles I was confident I could adopt somehow (‘Stuck Inside of Mobile’ was perfect, if an abbreviated version of the actual title), and I certainly wouldn’t run out of anagram indicators, but I didn’t try in particular to use grid entries that matched Dylan songs. In fact, writing the clues worked in both directions, either with ideas from song titles coming first — ‘Dylan’s Fourth Time Around’ gave obvious cryptic possibilities, for example — or the other way round, as the ‘Hazel’ example above demonstrates. I think my favourite was ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’, as I enjoyed the definition for EULER and the way that ‘rue’ could work in the clue.

The feedback pack has come through the post, and it seems that I have divided the audience once again. Among the many kind and positive messages, including a Mr. Happy card (I don’t know if the sender knows that I am a big fan of the Mr. Men, but it made me appreciate it even more), there were a few missives that drew their inspiration more from Mr. Grumpy. That’s fair enough, I think I knew in advance that this wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was a little surprised by those who found the instructions ambiguous. Obviously I’m far too close to it to be objective, but I’ve genuinely struggled to think what ‘cut out grid’ could mean other than to cut out the grid, and from there I didn’t think it was a huge leap to work out that the frame was what’s left. I did spend time trying to make the instruction as clear as possible, and I was grateful to the editors for adding to that clarity with the phrase about ‘replacement’ in the preamble, to emphasise that the self portrait alone was needed (although I don’t believe anyone was penalised for sending in the grid as well). Still, it’s a shame if that marred anyone’s enjoyment, and I do thank them for their gentle — and sometimes not so gentle — words to the wise.

To prove that I’m on the side of those without artistic ability, here is my own submission, which I couldn’t resist sending in. A few people have asked if we’ll see a gallery of the self portraits at the Listener dinner, which I’ve also suggested would be fun — I don’t know if that’s on the cards, but I’d love to see it. As I write, the dinner is a week away, and I’m looking forward to it immensely either way.

Thanks as ever to my test solvers, to John Green, and to the editors for letting me get away with this.


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