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Listener No 4529, St Hubert’s College: A Setter’s Blog by Oyler

Posted by Listen With Others on 11 December 2018

One greedy cat and a snail on drugs by Oyler

How many narrative style mathematicals have there been in The Listener Crossword since it moved to The Times? To save you the trouble of going to the website and trawling through the years I’ll tell you. It’s two and both were set by Polymath. A Harrowing Time L3477 in 1998 had 1078 correct entries and Pyramid L3632 in 2001 got 889 correct entries.

The crossnumber genre has a couple of techniques for clueing entries namely letter/number assignment and number definition. In order to make the latter type more interesting setters would introduce a theme and use a narrative in that this would hopefully appeal to crossword solvers as there was more reading to do and elements of humour could be brought in. The narrative also helps to eliminate various possibilities from lists of numbers or sets of solutions. The classic is Little Pigley Farm that first appeared in The Strand magazine in the 1930s and subsequently in many other publications usually without attribution or acknowledgement that it had appeared elsewhere – even The Listener fell for it and published it in 1949 as L988. In that puzzle solvers have to discover the closely guarded secret which was the age of the farmer’s mother-in-law! That puzzle also goes under the title of Dog’s Mead in some publications. Another puzzle that appeared was in Mathematical Pie and entitled The Egg and solvers had to work out the age of the egg. That puzzle used a grid that looked like a face and had bars as well as blocks. In 2001 issue 27 of Tough Crosswords published Aunt Auguta’s Will by Tangent which also appears in his book Cryptic Cross Numbers by John Enock. A further book Fun With Figures by L H Clarke contains 5 narrative style crossnumber puzzles. The narrative type of puzzle isn’t as common as you’d think although there are some examples on the internet.

After I retired in 2013 I wrote an article for the Mathematical Gazette about setting crossnumber puzzles. It was whilst writing that article that I realised I’d never set a narrative type puzzle before and set about rectifying that situation. The result was t20 which appeared as EV1118. Of course I got totally carried away and continued with many others of this style mostly with a sporting theme. The results can be found on Derek Harrison’s Crossword Centre for a snooker themed puzzle and The Magpie for a golf one. All of the others have appeared in CQ under the pseudonym of Moog – got to get a prog rock reference in somehow! The book Challenging Crossnumber Puzzles by Oyler and Zag also contains Who Stole The Ascot Gold Cup? which was set for The Listener Dinner in Harrogate in 2015. Copies of the book are still available and details can be found at

I must have been watching lots of repeats of Morse or Lewis with all the colleges when I had the idea of using a fictitious college as the theme for a narrative type puzzle and it was set shortly after the appearance of t20. As I mentioned above a number of the others of this style that I’d set involved sport and this proved to be a stumbling block for some solvers who were not au fait with cricket, golf, chess and snooker! Tangent’s puzzle also mentioned above involved a clue that was someone’s PIN so I decided to use that for the dénouement.

Strangely I started with the title by looking for the patron saint of mathematicians and found St Hubert. I went with convention and used a blocked rather than a barred grid. David Scott Marley set a puzzle for CQ entitled The Book Signing which was a narrative type puzzle but he used a barred grid instead as this provided a much better fit for what he required.

In previous puzzles I gave solvers the choice of two dates as the way in and they had to find the correct one. Regardless of which date it was though solvers would always be able to put in 2 or 3 digits into the entry. This time I decided to use the date the college was founded and have it in the 17th century so that 16 could go in immediately.

Of course colleges have quadrangles and I decided to use this, having not just one but two quadrangles, one a square and the other a rectangle that was linked to the other in some way. The nice thing about Imperial units is that the conversion factors aren’t just powers of 10 and as I was at school when Imperial measurements were still used I went for lengths in feet and yards. (One of my physics teachers at school was a young chap called Mr Tomlinson and he delighted in setting problems involving obscure units, his favourite being furlongs per fortnight!)

So the quadrangles have an area and a perimeter and having a clue that asks for the perimeter of the Great Quad in feet and another which asks for the area in square yards means that the perimeter must be a multiple of 12. Using the 6 from the date as the middle digit for the perimeter clue means that only nine cases need to be calculated as the entry is a multiple of 4 it has to end 0, 4 or 8 and it has to divide by 3 so the digit sum must be a multiple of 3. So we have 360, 660, 960, 264,564,864, 168, 468 and 768. By making the area of the Great Quad a 4-digit entry rules out 360, 264 and 168. I wanted it to be 864 with 5184 as the area. One of our cats Tango, sadly no more, appeared in t20 and I felt that the balance should be redressed and that our other cat Flo should appear. Now Tango’s prey of choice was of the feathered variety whilst Flo (Fibonacci) prefers fur and as the puzzle was set in a college it would no doubt have a cat. Having the cat catch a 2-digit Fibonacci number of mice would fit well as it would remove 960 and 768 from the list. That still left four possibilities and I realised I could give information in the preamble as well that solvers would use and by having it divisible by its number of factors forced the entries 864 and 5184 with the cat catching 55 mice.

How solvers go about solving a puzzle is entirely up to them and some may have looked at 2-digit numbers greater than 31 that were divisible by their number of factors. Those numbers are 36, 40, 56, 60, 72, 80, 84, 88 and 96 then multiplying each by 12 gives only 72 and 80 as possibilities.

Puzzles of this style have a lot of reading involved and it is easy to overlook some deductions that can be made. I decided to use two PINs in the puzzle, one for The Master and one for his wife with the second one having to be written below the grid. Having both as the product of 3 distinct 2-digit primes limits the choice somewhat and using three that were grid entries and clueing them as factors of the entry that was the Master’s PIN would see if solvers would twig that those three entries had to be prime numbers! With so few possibilities solvers could deduce the wife’s PIN from the preamble alone in that two of the 2-digit primes had to differ by 24. The 17/41 pair fail in that multiplying by 11 or 13 yield an impossible final digit for 16ac and the 34/47 pair is too large. In retrospect maybe I should have chosen the 17/41 pair with different clues as solvers assumed that you had to be over 18 to get married which is not the case in Scotland where it is 16.

In puzzles like these you can inject a bit of humour and so with it being set in a college I thought of various shenanigans that could occur. Having a bursar imprisoned for tax evasion, both the Master and his wife being unfaithful to one other and a snail race in Imperial units I hope did the trick. Obviously there had to be a clue linked to alcohol to appease one blogger and what better than to have it at the College anniversary dinner. Cheers!

I did a cold solve and sent it away without any test solvers being involved. If I had then they would have picked up on a few omissions in the preamble like forgetting to mention that the measurements were in yards. I now use test solvers.

My original puzzle was written in the 3rd person however the editors changed it to the 1st person presumably due to space constraints and added the Time Travel department, a name for the snail as well as giving more information for 13dn. That information was required in order to eliminate the possibility of 16ac being 43507 and testing if it was a prime in that its factorisation is 139×313 which takes a long time to get with a basic scientific calculator. Now I know that solvers will just have gone ‘ Alexa – is 43507 a prime number? ‘ or used Google but the rules are the rules and a standard scientific calculator is all you need and is all that is used for the pathway that’s published on the Listener site. If you choose to use a computer or use the internet then that’s entirely up to you. I personally use my Casio calculator that has a factorisation function and cost less than £10.

Reading the various comments that appeared on some sites it seems that the introduction of the Time Travel department muddied the waters somewhat which was not the intention. It may have been better to say that the puzzle was found in the college’s archives instead. However I only thought of that once I’d read the comments.

My thanks go to the editors for having the guts to publish this bit of whimsy and finally the star of the puzzle, the college cat examining the fan mail that was much appreciated by both of us!



Posted in Setting Blogs | 3 Comments »

Offender by Chalicea, Setter’s Blog

Posted by shirleycurran on 25 November 2018

Setter’s blog Last One by Chalicea ‘Offender’

When I ask setters for a Listen With Others setter’s blog, they regularly respond that they set the puzzle so long ago that the process has been obscured by the mists of time so, exceptionally, I decided to keep a written record of the entire setting, vetting, editing process. Who knows, it might be useful for a new, hopeful Listener setter to read about the years of work before the adrenalin moment when the final product appears in the Times.

May 29th 2016, I unexpectedly received a proof from Roger for Ad Nauseam. It was my birthday – what a fine present! (I hadn’t expected it to appear for a while). I had just sent off to the Magpie one that, with a bit of tweaking, might have replaced it in the queue (Massive) and feel that it is important to get them into the queue so needed to create one. This is the first time I have deliberately set with the Listener in mind and not simply sent one because my vetters suggested it was appropriate.

Busy for a week compiling a month of cryptic Farmers Guardian crosswords – got those out of the way, then on June 7th started hunting for a theme. I had just created ‘Absent Letter’, ‘Massive’ and had in the Listener queue ‘Predicament’, all using the idea of a letter or letters significantly placed within the grid. I worked right through ODQ looking for one more appropriate letter and, of course, found the ‘Thou whoreson zed, unnecessary letter’ the Kent quotation from King Lear. I test-solved a friend’s version of this some time ago but could see a different way of handling the theme.

My idea was a Z in the centre of the grid, composed of words containing Z all of which must be adapted to remove the ‘unnecessary letter’ from the grid. I hoped to use misprints to identify the 36-letter quotation and possibly to hide the replacing words in the clues.

Checking on Dave Henning’s Crossword data base revealed four previous crosswords on what is an obvious setter’s theme. Only one of these was in the Listener (Radix) and all handled the theme differently. One was by Ifor – one that I test solved – so I needed to clear that with him. (His went to Magpie and he had no objection to my re-using the theme). Of course, when this crossword was accepted, the editors pointed out that the theme had already appeared a number of times.

I spent the rest of the day working on a grid. 13X13 seemed the obvious size. I got up to 4.8 mean word length with seriously flawed unching and almost abandoned the idea.

June 8th – before attempting in a new format (I was considering 11X11) I fiddled for a few hours and was delighted when a possible grid with 5.51 mean word length and ‘acceptable’ unching appeared. It had Z-DNA in it, that I thought would have to be converted to C-DNA or B-DNA, neither of which is in Chambers, and C-in-C would have to replace ZINC in the submission grid. The DNA clue seemed to be a serious flaw but when I discussed the grid with husband Charles, he said “Why not EDNA? That’s in Chambers.”

Having spent a total of about 10 hours creating the grid I began work on the clues. After a couple of hours attempting to work out misprints, I realized I simply couldn’t do it and reluctantly decided to opt for extra letters produced by the wordplay. A count revealed that 19 replacement words had to be hidden in the grid, some of them very difficult to conceal (DITE, C-in-C, JEEP, LUTE, AISLE, DRIBBLED, SICEL, SATI, AGATE, EYRA) I had considered simply giving definitions of those in the clues but decided that would be messy and impossible for the solver. Then I spotted the fact that there were 51 clues and if those 19 words took 19 clues, I was left with 32 which could contain the quotation less the initial THOU (rendering it slightly less easy to spot for the solver).

I spent the rest of the day cluing in clue order (working down from the top and up from the bottom of the downs – I had to do it that way as the device required it). After about 8 hours of cluing I had 16 clues. Unusually fast for me.

June 9th. I worked all day on clues and almost finished all the acrosses, then remembered a message from Editor Shane, years ago, that required Rasputin (the Artix, Ilver, Chalicea compiling team) to rewrite about a third of our clues as we had link words in them – not permitted in the Listener when there is no equivalence between definition and wordplay (as in this case, where the extra letter device is being used). I had to back-track and rewrite, and also adjust clues that Charles, on a quick read through, rejected as ‘poor surface reading’, ‘way too easy’ etc. 

Half of the extra words were still to place so I now focused on down clues where they could be concealed and I managed to hide all but two (AGATE and LUTE) The clues were now more than 2/3 completed in two days of non-stop setting (another 8 hours or so).

June 10th. With some switching of extra words from across to down etc. I placed the last two extra words and was left with just twelve words to clue – several fairly difficult because of the z or zz in them as obviously I had already used all the Z abbreviations. I spent about six hours on these and tweaking to see that no device word was used twice. A total of four full days’ work and the first draft was ready for vetting.

June 12th I asked Artix for a test-solve. His initial reaction was ‘Like it’ but then he found serious flaws and suggested

1 That I anagram or jumble as many of the extra words as possible as they are glaringly obvious.  I responded that this wouldn’t work as only twelve will anagram, leaving a mixed bag.

2 That all the zs in the clues give the game away at once and that I remove them from the wordplay.

I spent about five hours rewriting the clues where Z appeared in the wordplay and moving the extra words around since the Z of the quotation still has to appear and clearly cannot appear where there are Zs removed. 

17 June I rewrote the preamble, changed the name from ‘The Last One’ to ‘Offender’ (since the ‘end’ letter of the alphabet has to go ‘off’ somewhere) and asked Ifor to look at it.

20th June Shark, having a free weekend since he had been the test-solver for Artix’s  ‘No Offence’ which appeared on that Saturday, test solved and gave fabulous detailed input. I spent three hours adapting clues accordingly.

21st June Ifor sent valuable input correcting flawed clues with some superb suggestions (SACRED BEETLE and JULEP – which has earned great solver approval) I spent about two hours adjusting.

22nd June. I sent ‘final document’ to Artix who found a few flaws and unfair clues. It took me one hour to incorporate all but one of his suggestions. I think it is ready to go. About 50 hours so far.

Tim King (our newest LWO blogger Encota, said he would do a test-solve. I sent him the ‘final’ version. He solved it carefully, gave it the thumbs up and suggested that I could use the letters in the two bottom corners of the grid for an extra hint to Kent. This added a final touch but caused worry for some solvers as the actual character in the play is the EARLOF KENT. Mr Green suggested, when entries were arriving with both KENT and EARL OF KENT that there should be a slight adjustment to the solution notes, admitting both as (EARL OF) KENT.

As my ‘Overseas Outing’ (St Patrick expelling the snakes from Ireland) appeared on the weekend of this year’s Listener dinner, I didn’t expect to see ‘Offender’ in print until mid 2019 (yes – about three years from compilation) so I was delighted to receive a proof from Editor Roger Phillips in late September (could it be that he was deliberately placing a relatively easy one after a rather tough one?) No rewriting was required, though Shane and Roger had vetted a number of clues and adjusted 12 of them as well as polishing the preamble. They had found the puzzle of ‘about average difficulty’ and ‘slightly easier than average’ – their comments ran to five A4 pages.

Clearly I owe thanks to those editors and vetters and to JEG for his meticulous marking and forwarding of the lovely bag of solvers’ comments and to those generous people who commented on-line or sent their encouraging words directly to me. I really was astonished that the puzzle proved to be so popular.

Posted in Setting Blogs | 1 Comment »

Listener No 4526, Quads III: A Setter’s Blog by Shark

Posted by Listen With Others on 18 November 2018

It is interesting how ideas come about. Quads was never called Quads until my test solver suggested it. Quads II was not called Quads II until after I submitted the puzzle to the Listener editors. I only changed that when I stumbled upon the Greek cross puzzle some time later and it was by sheer coincidence that Quads II had a “four” based theme at its core. I then requested that the editors change the title, so that a series could be formed. A quick check on Dave Hennings’ site and this Dudeney style transformation hadn’t been done.

Where does one start with this type of puzzle? One thing I did want was to include as much “four” based material to Quads III as possible to ensure the Quad theme was relevant. Clearly the grid already had this by cutting into four not once but twice, both forming new square grids. So I scoured Chambers for a final highlighting word. There aren’t many in fact, especially not starting with quad-, so TETRAMERAL seemed the obvious choice as it was 10 letters and I could split that up into separate 3/2/3/2 cells with each part in a separate aspect of the grid. It also seemed obvious that I had to do something with the reconstructed corners and highlighting GREEK CROSS in diagonals made sense. Once again these would be divided into the separate sections.

Reverse engineering is often a requirement when setting these types of puzzles. TETRAMERAL is fixed in the initial grid and so GREEK CROSS would be also. It would not be a Shark if I didn’t put the effort into making real words. I therefore concentrated on the corners ensuring I had made real words when reformed, whilst keeping a symmetrical grid. I stress to all those that might wonder: I never use any type of computer software in constructing these types of grids. This is how I first set about making the grid, with the corners highlighted to ensure that I can keep an eye on joining them up together to make real words.

A possible approach to start is separate the outer perimeter into blocks of 6 with 90-degree symmetry (i.e. splitting the E and M with a horizontal bar). I also kept in mind that I was probably going to need a 9-letter word in order to keep the average word length up, which could span two of the corners.

Once the corners were formed, the centre had to be filled. Thankfully with a little bit of fiddling, I could make it work by using the prefix entero-, which is not ideal, but saved me having to rewrite the four corners. I did not know at this point how I was going to ensure that the solver knew where to make the cuts. I think every setter needs a bit of cruciverbal luck. I noticed that the letters that straddled the edges of the cross where the cuts finished were completely different. My original grid had PERDUE instead of PERSUE and ABELIA/COURBET instead of AMELIA/GOURMET. BDEINRTU only anagrammed to TURBINED and UNDERBIT, not very relevant, but with minor tweaking revealed TERMINUS, which had every letter different and pertinent to the intersection of the cuts at the perimeter. I couldn’t be happier.

Now to the clues. I recall the late Roddy Forman (Radix), stating that if you can make a clue gimmick relate to the theme of the puzzle, it will make the puzzle so much more relevant and enjoyable. I try to do that, and have succeeded in constructing a few novel gimmicks over the years. Lines 3, which won me the POTY for the Magpie, had double letters in certain clues that spelt out an instruction that linked to double letters in the grid. I recall Mash pulling me to one side at the January Magpie do, congratulating me on how I often have thematically relevant gimmicks in my puzzles. However, in reality gimmicks can only rarely be linked to the theme of the puzzle. This one had to relevant.

This is where I have to thank (and berate in equal measure) my good friend, test solver and co-setter on occasions, Artix, for the fourth letter idea. We were in a hotel in London (those of you who read these blogs might notice a theme in that!) and I mentioned that I had created a puzzle which required a 4 gimmick. You can imagine my response at his suggestion of every fourth letter in every word. Fab… but insane! Hey, I like a challenge. Some may recollect the Mr Magoo puzzle where every clue’s words’ first letters spelt out the entry – and the clues made sense. Well, that is insane, so surely by using certain clues, I could do it. I don’t know how Mr Magoo did that puzzle, but I can tell you, it is a tricky task (and mine only had 11). By the way, I deliberately ensured it was only 11, as this was a quarter of the total number of clues (44), making another Quads reference.

But how did I lead the solver to the 4th letters? Although it is not thematic, misprints in the definition followed by splitting and incorporating letters into the wordplay, I have never seen before. I therefore thought it was worth a shot. The feedback from solvers contains several comments on this novel idea, so I would be interested to know if it has ever been done, or if I am the first to come up with this idea. BTW, I apologise to John Green for the tricky task of marking the puzzle.

Unfortunately for me it was not easy and took me a long time to perfect. Even though my ultimate goal was to achieve a puzzle that will be liked and remembered, Shark-infested waters are not for the faint-hearted, and I realise that this puzzle might not be a calm ride. However, with all the extra effort culminating in a bit of classic Dudeney, I hoped solvers would appreciate this as a Listener to remember.

Talking of Dudeney, when I spotted the grid dissection idea, I had no idea of the connection with Henry Dudeney, I just liked the idea and how it could be portrayed as a crossword. His classic Haberdasher puzzle was recreated as a POTM by Ploy in the Magpie in 2014, which I solved and is elegantly animated on Dudeney’s Wikipedia webpage. The more I read about Dudeney and his tête-à-tête with Sam Loyd, the less sure I am who invented the concept as they both have published it in respective books early in the 20th century. Here are the illustrations with Dudeney on the left and Loyd on the right.

It just so happened that in 2017 it was 100 years since Dudeney illustrated this puzzle in his book entitled “Amusements in mathematics”. I was hoping this puzzle would be published in 2017. However, one logistical difficulty after another meant that it had to be postponed. Immaterial really, as I was just glad the editors felt it worthy of publication in the Listener series.

For all those wondering about Quads IV, I am not sure I can top this puzzle and so I might have to stop at Quads III. Who knows?

Posted in Setting Blogs | 2 Comments »

Listener No 4525, Market Square Fable: A Setter’s Blog by Charon

Posted by Listen With Others on 12 November 2018

History. Never my favourite subject at school. In fact, I tried to avoid it whenever I could. But I did learn a couple of historical facts: that our town, Melton Mowbray, was where the phrase “To Paint the Town Red” originated, and that Richard III was a bad man. All these years later, we live in a world of alternative facts, where it seems Richard III wasn’t all that bad, although I think he hogged that disabled parking space rather longer than necessary. And, as it turns out, claims for the origin of the famous phrase are numerous. This is why I’m glad I chose a mathematical route for my career, where facts are more reliable and enduring.

Mathematics was also my entry point for The Listener Crossword, tackling the numerical puzzles whenever I came across them, rarely spending much time on the seemingly impenetrable wordy versions. That was, until I found myself with a bit more time on my hands, a couple of years ago. I gave a few of them a real effort, eventually solving one or two, and then I was hooked. So much so that I decided to try my hand at setting a Listener puzzle of my own. I can’t remember the exact thought process that started this puzzle, but doodling with various ideas, I eventually discovered that “Melton Mowbray Pork Pie” could form a rather pleasing large square at the heart of a grid. The old familiar phrase came to mind as a possible addition, and remarkably it would fit, if I used the “paints” tense, and linked it in the bottom right. So I felt I needed something at the top left for balance. Looking on-line for inspiration, I came across the connection with Spring-Heeled Jack, which I don’t think I had heard before. And, well I never! It’s the right length and fits in the top left of my grid. Serendipity. (When I was researching for references later, I discovered that Henry Beresford’s link to Spring-Heeled Jack is mentioned in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.) At this stage I came up with the title “Fable” to link the pork pie and the old story, and started work on filling in a 13×13 grid.

After much effort, I was able to fill the grid, but the cross-checking wasn’t satisfactory, so I decided to start again, from nearly-scratch. I was reasonably happy with the left side, but completely scrapped the right side. One of the entries I had on the left was PELE, and musing about whether I could fit his full name into the grid led to the final form of the puzzle, because once I discovered that EDSON ARANTES DO NASCIMENTO could be linked with the pie, I had to have it in my grid. As a result, I had to switch to a 14×13 grid if I wanted to keep some of my earlier work, and I modified the title, to emphasise the relevance of the squares.

I managed to get this new grid filled in, with what I thought was a reasonable amount of cross-checking, and sufficient average entry length (even discounting the longest entry), so moved on to the clues. The fact that Pele ended up as clues 4 and 5 was coincidence, not design, but I spotted the possibility of linking them together with the inclusion of “foreshortened”, which, together with the anagram for 4, are my favourite clues. The final polish for 4 was when I changed “supreme” to “par excellence” in order to have 24 letters on either side of “curiously”. Is it just me, or does anyone else read this clue and see an image in their mind of “Christ the Redeemer”?

I had tried to get some local references into the puzzle, first as grid entries, then as clues. The historic buildings “CORN EXCHANGE” and “ANNE OF CLEVES” wouldn’t find a place for themselves, though. I did succeed in crowbarring Anne of Cleves into one of the clues, but that didn’t make it past the editors, so I was left with just the mention of Waterford in the clues. On my recent trips back to the town, I have noticed that there is a yellow sign for a new housing estate: “Waterford Heights”. The legend lives on.

Having submitted my puzzle at the start of the year, and hearing that there was quite a queue, I sat back to await the editors’ fearsome judgement. As a first offender I think they have treated me with leniency, and it is a great feeling to see the puzzle make it into print. So, thanks to the editors for their efforts in getting my puzzle published, as well as all the other Listener puzzles that I have enjoyed tackling. And thanks to the good people of the town, I hope that at least one of you has managed to connect the dots.


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Listener No 4524, A Little Night Music?: A Setter’s Blog by Hedge-sparrow

Posted by Listen With Others on 4 November 2018

I love owls. Perhaps, given my pseudonym, that’s surprising – after all, owls are not averse to scoffing the odd hedge-sparrow or two when they can get them – but it’s true, nevertheless. Although we live in a city, I and my family get great delight from hearing tawny owls calling at eventide from the local park, and just occasionally catching a glimpse of one when walking our dogs there.

So, as I sat at home a few years ago, recovering from an operation, the idea of setting an owl-based Listener crossword came to me. My initial thought was to base the puzzle on British owl species, of which there are seven – five “native” (tawny, barn, little, long-eared and short-eared) and two which either breed in Britain (European eagle owl) or which have been known so to do (a pair of snowy owls lived and bred on Fetlar in the Shetland Isles between 1967 and 1975 until, in the winter of 1976, the male sadly disappeared). There are other occasional owl visitors, but these are not regarded as British species.

I can’t remember exactly what made me think of linking the puzzle’s theme to Shakespeare’s poem Winter in Love’s Labour’s Lost, but however that happened, the lines “Then nightly sings the staring owl, tu-whoo: tu-whit tu-whoo.” seemed quite apposite. The phrase tu-whit tu-whoo, having twelve letters (at least as it appears in Chambers – in the ODQ’s rendition of the poem it occurs as tu-whit tu-who, hence the reference to “Chambers spelling” in the published preamble), seemed like a good bet for use in a 12 x 12 grid, and the remainder of the phrase from the poem, together with the name Shakespeare, gives forty-six letters, a suitable sort of number to use in a one-letter-per-clue gimmick of some sort.

I still like using main diagonals in my puzzles, so I started off with a 12 x 12 grid and the phrase tu-whit tu-whoo inserted in the SW-NE diagonal. As I considered what to do with the owls, I had the idea of disguising the owl names in the grid by crossing them with the tu-whit tu-whoo phrase (the letters of tu-whit tu-whoo made this possible for at least five of the owl names), and then changing the letters at the crossing points to make new words. Solvers would then need to re-create tu-whit tu-whoo in the diagonal (with help from the lines of Shakespeare derived from the clues) to reveal the names. This concept was arrived at within about half-an-hour of drawing the blank grid: the next two weeks of my recovery period were then spent trying to get the idea to work.

There were several constraints which made this quite tricky. All seven owl names (some of which are quite long), needed to appear in the final grid, along with tu-whit tu-whoo in the diagonal; I wanted to ensure that all words were real, both before and after changing letters in the completed grid; I needed to have exactly forty-six entries to give one letter per clue for the derived phrase; and there were the usual Listener Crossword grid construction rules concerning average word lengths, numbers of unchecked letters in entries, etc. I particularly remember swapping the positions of “tawny” and “snowy” (crossing the diagonal at the two w’s) many times to try different grid constructions. At last, something very close to the final grid was achieved. There was a subsequent small adjustment when I noticed that the five letters discarded when forming the phrase tu-whit tu-whoo along the diagonal could almost be arranged to spell the term “madge”, a dialectal name for the barn owl: a bit of rejigging made this possible so that these discarded letters could also be used thematically.

The final result was not perfect: there were too many “fully checked” entries (ideally there shouldn’t be any of these), and the average entry length was a little low. I spent a long time trying to improve on these aspects, but with little success. I think a 13 x 13 grid would have an enabled a more elegant grid construction, though the twelve-letter tu-whit tu-whoo phrase would not then have fitted so neatly. Despite the grid’s deficiencies, the Listener editors kindly let it pass.

Cluing always takes me a long time. Typically, I achieve something close to a full set of clues within a couple of months of compiling a grid. I then read through them, realise there are several I’m not happy with, and begin a long process of amendment or rewriting until I’m finally (reasonably) satisfied. In the case of A Little Night Music, this process continued over a two-and-a-half year period between the original grid compilation and submission of the puzzle in the summer of 2017. I suspect I’ll never get a job compiling daily crossword puzzles! And despite all that effort on the cluing, it turned out that I’d made a right pig’s ear of it. For some reason, I decided to use the “extra letter in word-play” gimmick to generate the lines of the poem from the clues. This is a device I’ve rarely, if ever, used before (actually it’s a device I’m not really very keen on, so I don’t know why I decided to use it in this puzzle), and I erroneously constructed several of the clues so that their “wordplay with extra letter” bits were directly “equated” (via link-words such as “is”) to the definition without the extra letter. However, with much assistance from the editors, the offending clues were rewritten, and the thing was done at last. I hope that the final puzzle was one people enjoyed solving.

I perhaps should add that I am, of course, aware that only one of the so-called “protagonists” could really be the one calling tu-whit tu-whoo outside greasy Joan’s window (and that the “madge” is not that one). However, I rather liked using Shakespeare’s poem as an aspect of the puzzle, and limiting the owls to the tawny alone would have meant that the thematic content was rather thin!

As ever, many thanks to the Listener Crossword editors Roger and Shane for their tireless efforts in getting these puzzles ready for publication every week.

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