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Archive for the ‘Setting Blogs’ Category

Listener No 4637, Realisation: A Setter’s Blog by KevGar

Posted by Listen With Others on 3 January 2021

I guess that the initial inspiration for this puzzle came to me whilst attending a concert early last year, when I thought that I would try to represent the layout of a full orchestra in a crossword grid. However, it soon became apparent that even using the various sections of an orchestra rather than individual instruments, it would be impossible to do this, so I quickly abandoned that idea.

I then decided to try to incorporate as many musical instruments as possible into a puzzle but rather than having the instruments as actual grid entries, I thought it would be more challenging for solvers if the instruments were somehow incorporated into larger words, replacing one or more letters from clue answers. I spent some time making a list of instruments and possible words containing these instruments.

Having manged to complete the grid, I felt that I had to make some use of the replaced letters and so came up with the idea that these letters should be able to be arranged to form other musical instruments. This resulted in me having to revise a number of my original clues/grid entries.

It took me a while to think of an appropriate title for the puzzle that wouldn’t immediately give away too much information about the actual theme. Eventually I thought that the same idea of replacing a letter(s) with a musical instrument would be the way to go and after much thought the word REORGANISATION as a title came to mind. Thus changing REALISATION into REORGANISATION seemed to be appropriate. Finally, I felt that it would be necessary to incorporate the dropped AL from the title into the formation of the other instruments. Once again this resulted in me having to change a couple of clues in order to form the 3 additional instruments as the finale to the puzzle.

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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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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 4634, Latin Primer: A Setter‘s Blog by Nipper

Posted by Listen With Others on 13 December 2020

I will begin by admitting that though I can get the Times cryptic out at marathon pace, I can’t do a word of your puzzle 92% of the time; but I have loved, and been in awe of, the mathematicals since The Listener moved to the Saturday Times. I’ve set Teasers in the Sunday Times since I was at school in the late 70s, and am well into three figures, but this is my first Listener.

In 2018 I set a Teaser based on Roman cubes, squares and primes, and I hoped Roman numbers might give me a Listener. Aristotelian unity said, ‘Just primes!’ and I immediately sketched a 9×9 grid because 7×7 felt cramped, 11×11 too baggy for a beginner, and even-sided grids give me flashbacks to Glasgow League chess matches in Knightswood and Bishopbriggs, desperate rear-guards under cover of my opponent’s pipe-smoke to reach the Dunkirk of move 40 and adjudication.

I only began to discover ‘Roman number theory’ as I filled the grid, and I hope solvers had the same pleasure in these discoveries that I did: all primes end I or IX; …XXC… isn’t properly formed; only II, CI and XI for 2-letter primes because MI is 7×11×13. I like the way prime numbers are a bit of a surprise beyond C: the cloudburst CI, CIII, CVII, CIX, CXIII, then the drought CXV, CXVII, CXIX, CXXI, CXXIII, CXXV, then the isolated Mersenne prime CXXVII.

One solver remarked on how few clues there are and how useless they seemed. The minimalism is a Teaser habit, a legacy of the postage-stamp space we had in the Magazine, much of it taken up by Harold Evans’s TYPOGRAPHY. In a Teaser, a toy universe unfolds from four axioms and some noise, like Euclid, or a lyric poem (the axioms of a lyric poem are sex and death). I suspect a Listener should look more epic than Latin Primer. The uselessness of the clues I found alarming when I started to do the puzzle from scratch during proofing. I was amazed that Shirley Curran arrived momentarily at a second solution if equation 2 is ignored; eek! I didn’t imagine the clueing was that skinny. And she targeted equation 6 like a beagle; I put it at the end with its hands in its pockets, hoping nobody would notice that it was a bit less useless than the rest. Now I know Shirley likes an alcohol reference, I’ll put (Vat) 69 next time; it will look less rude in Babylonian sexagesimal.

A number of solvers have told me that they liked Latin Primer because their solution path wasn’t a hypothetical house of cards: they could ink in some entries quite soon. This is a consequence of the Luddite method of composition: no spreadsheets were harmed during the making of this puzzle. Even so, I’m astonished by how quickly some readers solved it; this suggests that the logic and concentration honed on 92% of your puzzles is the same logic and concentration deployed on the 8%, though vice versa doesn’t work for me. Mind you, I’m not very good at the mathematicals either: my wife says the puzzle took me August to lay, and when I had to solve it for proofing it took nearly four hours, even though I remembered roughly where I’d buried the bodies two years back. I genuinely believe that Listener solvers should be conscripted for work of national importance in asbestos huts at a secret location in the Oxford-Cambridge arc.

I won’t be the first setter to appreciate the work of editors Roger and Shane; they bring an extraordinary combination of insight and care; they will be sentenced to Hut 6. You might think it was obvious to use Roman numbers in the clues; it wasn’t obvious to me, but Shane put that right. The elegance and rigour of the published solution path, which opens like an academic paper in number theory, is Roger’s.

Poems don’t exist without readers, nor puzzles without solvers. Thank you for letting me stand for a moment on the very pinnacle of puzzledom, your Listener crossword.

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Listener No 4632, Heads and Tails: A Setter‘s Blog by JFD

Posted by Listen With Others on 13 December 2020

With only two Listeners under my belt so far, I can hardly claim a pattern but – as in other areas – I find that the initial inspiration comes a great deal harder than the subsequent execution (not that the latter is easy either!). The puzzles that I most enjoy solving tend to have some concealed literary theme, so I am always on the lookout for quotations that could provide the basis of a puzzle. This one came, as ever, serendipitously but, once I spotted it, the die was cast. Clearly an N for C substitution was going to be required and I took the early precaution of checking Chambers to confirm that ‘change’ could encompass both giving and receiving.

Once I had started on this path, the degrees of freedom were always going to be limited. I had the idea quite early on of having the handkerchief drop to the bottom of the grid and, by the time I had managed to conceal both Desdemona and Cassio (each requiring a crossing word that could support either a C and an N form) there weren’t too many more choices to make. The biggest struggle, f course, was to find words to fit in the grid which contained neither a C nor an N – these seem to be in very short supply when you need them.

Encota asks whether it was Iago’s villainy that enabled him to remain untouched by the literary changes. Nothing so clever, I fear: I was pleased to fit him in at all, and grateful for the lack of a C or an N to complicate things further. As for Emilia, I had originally planned to include her thematically by clueing an E as ‘Emilia’s entrance’. However, this had to go. Not only was space at a premium, but Roger quite rightly pointed out that ‘entrance’ for ‘beginning’ is archaic.

There were some complex negotiations with Roger over UMAYYAD: I was pleased that my treatment of MAYDAY survived the cut but my attempts to include more thematic material by way of ‘Moorish wine’ did not, on the basis that – as Roger correctly pointed out – ‘though the Umayyad dynasty ruled Moorish Spain, they weren’t themselves Moors’. But at least Paul Robeson’s classic portrayal of Othello survived. And, although it wasn’t thematic, I was pleased with goolies/goalies and delighted that this clue went down so well. The other admired clue, based on tricky/treaty, was entirely Roger’s!

Many thanks to the editors for their patience and help and especially to Shackleton (John Guiver) for test solving the puzzle and making some really helpful comments and witty clue amendments. He wasn’t very keen on my use of the wrong letters rather than the corrected ones, as he felt this makes life too easy for the setter. I have to say that, having subsequently (spoiler alert) tried the alternative, I now agree with him!

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