Listen With Others

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Listener 4752: A Few (Asteroids) Far Between by Nutmeg

Posted by vaganslistener on 17 Mar 2023

A strange title… I wanted to pencil in “and” before “far”, so why wasn’t it there? I tried Googling the phrase as it stood but that got me nowhere. When the theme turned out to be THE ASTEROID BELT (arrowed: top left to bottom right) the drift of it made sense as (contra those exciting Sci-Fi films) the average distance between them is about a million kilometres, but I am awaiting further elucidation as it may well be more subtle than that.

Since the clashes were the only “gimmick” the plan was to dive in and find them. Pencilling lines along the entries where the stated word-length was longer than the entry (thankyou for that Nutmeg!) gave an indication of where some where going to be, and seeing that 1a was amongst that set of entries, the top left was the place to make a start. “Hawk caught and beheaded songbird in maple tree (9)” sent me scurrying to Bradford’s to look at the longish list of words for hawk and falcon etc, with one of those likely to be the definition, with the wordplay being a word for a songbird without its leading letter inside one for a maple tree. ACCIPTER and ACER, with (P)IPIT in the middle met the bill nicely. 

Then on to the down crossing with 1a, with 5d marked as thematic. “Only provider of coating for former magistrate (8)” propelled me to Bradford’s again to look at the equally long list of magistrates, and JUSTICER made up of JUST (“only”) + ICER “providing of coating”. Nutmeg can be relied on for neat and interesting clueing, which often uses a turn of phrase rather than a simple dictionary definition, which makes the clues classy and rather more difficult than I making them sound.

Anyway, looking at where the two words met we had JU starting 5d and PITER ending 1a, so JUPITER it was. (Incidentally another classy feature was that the emerging words were always built from the fragments without anagramming. Nice.) So – heavenly bodies, Greek gods, or some other more abstruse set? HERA emerging from HERoes and AHORSE in 11d made me think it was gods and goddesses, and the full set proved to be JUPITER, HEBE, HERA, IRIS, IDA, VESTA, DORIS, CERES, METIS, EUROPA, EROS and MARS. As the list grew the divinities idea started to look awkward – what a strange selection – so I turned to heavenly bodies. At first the presence of both planets and minor bodies threw me, until I remembered that THE ASTEROID BELT lay between JUPITER (at the top in the grid and MARS at the bottom. The asteroids hardly have a fixed pattern so as far as I can see the arrangement of the grid is perhaps better described as “representative” than “approximate”.

The only one of the asteroids to lie on the diagonal was VESTA. 22+5+19+20+1 = 67 =2 6+26+15, with O as the 15th letter in the alphabet replacing all the heavenly bodies, and the puzzle was complete.

The hardest part of the solving for me was in fact keeping my head clear as to whether I was looking for the letters to make up an entry, or the letters to make up the asteroid. Often the key to entry was deciding on the correct element of the clue that was the definition (so “battle” in 31a or “on the continent” in 32d), which the clueing style often disguised well. The only one that proved resistant to parsing was 13d “On reflection, forward virtually weightless rock (6)” where TEETER “rock” is surely the answer required by the crossing letters but the wordplay eludes me.

Many thanks indeed to Nutmeg for another fine puzzle.


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