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It’s the time of the year when people take on resolutions about changing behaviour, so it’s not inappropriate to consider other behavioural tics.  How about superstitions?

I have just completed two puzzles on Christmas Day.  For the last several years, I have always finished clueing at least one puzzle on Christmas Day, so now I set about engineering the situation, leaving a puzzle with one clue, usually to a friendly-looking word, that can be polished off quickly.

I do the same for New Year’s Eve – just at the moment (December 27) I have a Telegraph Toughie ripe for completion, which will now be held in a sort of stasis so that I can finish it on the day.  I’ll direct my attention to other puzzles which may mean I will have two (or more) finished on that day as well.

I will then grid a puzzle on New Year’s Day, though I won’t start writing its clues (see below).  Completing something like a Toughie on New Year’s Eve tends to present the option of its successor for this purpose, though at the moment I already have three puzzle grids straining at the slips.

What else? I don’t like leaving a puzzle with thirteen clues written.  Over time that has extended to not leaving a puzzle with thirteen clues to be written.  It hasn’t yet extended to Jumbos and multiples of thirteen, but that may be because I’ve only just thought of the possibility.  (I have just noticed that I was left with thirteen unpublished Beelzebub crosswords when the series ceased in The Independent on Sunday.)

Once a grid is complete I won’t start on the clues for a few days.  Instead I will from time to time take out the freshly-completed grid and look over it, getting a feel for how the entries interact.  At least I tell myself that that is what I am doing, but I’m not really sure what I do get out of this practice; it just seems the right thing to do.

The reason I discovered there were thirteen unpublished Beelzebub puzzles is that I have selected the antepenultimate for the puzzle this time round.  This provides another unseen puzzle of mine for the Christmas and New Year holiday period.  However, before 2018 is out you will have another puzzle of mine: 31 December in The Times.  And, no, I didn’t consciously plan it.  (Solve the puzzle to find out what ‘it’ is.)  The Times also has a Quick Cryptic of mine (that’s using the Pedro pseudonym) on 10 January. 

Merry Christmas

Looking for something different for the BBC Music Magazine Christmas issue, I found myself doodling a Christmas tree shaped grid.  I decided it wouldn’t really do (quite difficult to fill with thematic entries) but I kept it around and filled it with some seasonal words.  With only fourteen entries, it didn’t take long to clue, and I noted the curious fact that, if you clued them in order, you started out with short words like 2 across, which grew longer then shorter again when you reached 10 down.  You don’t get that with your usual grids.

Anyway, here it is.  Merry Christmas!

Back next week with some thoughts on superstitions.

The approach of Christmas

Some Christmas puzzles are already appearing, so this week I am putting up one of my own – an Independent daily from 2010.  By chance, it’s another Independent puzzle with a preamble, but I’m not making a habit of it, honestly.

I have a couple of seasonal puzzles in the offing, though next Friday’s Independent may not have an immediately apparent seasonality, even though it is very precise.  The same day (21 December) sees Church Times puzzle No. 1,500, which is also seasonal (I know, I did the grid), and commemorates puzzle no. 1 in the paper in 1989 (also a Christmas puzzle) by uniting the first four setters in a collaborative effort (after 30 years, we’re all still around!).  I debuted with No. 2.  Don Manley, the editor, has an article in the current issue about the genesis of the puzzle.

There are two new setter’s blogs, for Magpie’s Perversity and The Listener’s Gallery.

And that must be that for now: this weekend sees the emailing of the APEX 2018 puzzle, and I need to get on with that.  Regular recipients, keep an eye on your inboxes.  But there will be an additional post next week with a (seasonal, of course) puzzle set specifically for the site.

The start of summer

In the Southern Hemisphere at least.  Radio NZ Concert obligingly played Vivaldi’s seasonal concerto yesterday, as they do every December 1st, because that’s when summer starts, whatever the weather says (and a thunderstorm today certainly says something, particularly as it took out the power for an hour).

But our garden is flourishing, and in particular our flax plants.  After a couple of barren years, there is a distinct burgeoning, and our largest has outdone itself (photo taken on a day that was very bright but cloudy to boot):

I look up at those and think it’s about 8 feet, but 10 may be nearer the mark.  If I hear it walking toward the house rattling I’ll know the spirit of John Wyndham still lives.

With Christmas on the horizon, I thought I’d put up a Christmassy puzzle this time: it’s from the Christmas issue of the BBC Music Magazine for 2010.  I’m also sending out the postal copies of the APEX puzzle this weekend (fractionally after the last posting date for the UK, which creeps ever earlier), with the electronic circulation to follow in a couple of weeks.  There will be a special Christmas puzzle here on the weekend before the event itself. 

I have also contributed to the special Church Times Christmas puzzle that weekend before Christmas, which happens to be number 1500 in the series as well.  Don Manley will be reviving puzzle No. 1 with, I believe, an article about the puzzle’s 30 years, in the issue a week earlier.

Before that there’s a Times Quick Cryptic on 7 December, though there may also be a Toughie sometime before the next update.  And this year’s BBC Music Magazine Christmas puzzle should be out any day soon.

A busy week

It’s not often I have to rearrange things to fit in the crosswording, but this has been a busy week, with the result that this is going up earlier than usual.

So, meet Munro.

Munro appears every day in The Dominion Post, Wellington’s newspaper.  He’s drawn by Sharon Murdoch, who takes one clue from the adjacent definition-only crossword, and turns out a mini-cartoon.  As with so many definition clues, you can’t always be sure of the answer from just the clue, so the book does give the solutions at the end.  The book is marked Vol. 1 and Munro is certainly appearing on a daily basis.  I can’t find him on the DomPost website, so you may just have to order him from the local craft bookshop Minerva.

Also in books this week is

This arrived in the post (along with volume 22 of its larger cousin) – The Times is very generous about sending its setters copies.  There are definitely Pedro puzzles in this – haven’t perused its big brother enough yet.  And it’s not just puzzle books – these two came with a free copy of The White Darkness by David Grann.  Grann is one of the best New Yorker writers, and this tale of an Englishman who set out to cross Antarctica solo is excellent, and I still recall it from its appearance earlier in the year.  I may end up buying Killers of the Flower Moon yet.

There’s more – there’s a new setter’s blog up on the site, covering The Magic of Opera from the Inquisitor series a few weeks ago.  And the immediate cause of the rearrangement of things to accommodate crosswording is a fast turn-round of proofs.  Things are not 100% confirmed, but there should be Kcit puzzle in the Enigmatic Variations series on Sunday 18 November.

The new puzzle on the site this time round is one from the Independent in December 2012.  It may have some thematic links to some of the material mentioned above – I couldn’t possibly comment…


The 10,000th Independent puzzle appeared this week, on 31 October, and I was very pleased to have been asked to produce it.  Mike Hutchinson first raised the possibility a little over a year ago, and I immediately sat down and calculated the date (and came up with 24 October…), and put the idea to one side for the subconscious to work on.

One concept was for the clueing to be shared between myself as (probably) the longest-serving Independent setter and whoever was the most recent addition to the roster.  That fell through – no particular reason – it just didn’t come to pass.  And it still left the question of what was to be done with the grid.

A special puzzle such as this has a few constraints.  I recently put up an Independent puzzle from 2011 which had a preamble, an option not available now, as the webpage template won’t accept it.  So there was no opportunity to give instructions.  Any Nina had to be for discovery and could not be pointed to – which is fair enough: the puzzle has to be solved by people for whom puzzle 10,000 is no different from puzzle 7,839, in much the same way that you wouldn’t expect the A500 to be that different a road from the A397.

I toyed for some time with an observation that both M and K had five vertices, so you could have an M sketched out by five Ks and vice versa.  But who would ever see that?  And how many thousands would that represent, anyway?  I also rejected the idea of an acrostic as there was again the question of drawing people’s attention to it (first two answers: READ ACROSTIC, perhaps?).  

I settled on the top and bottom rows of Ks, and side columns of Ms as they would be spotted by those on the look-out for something, while not distracting those not on the look-out for anything but a crossword puzzle.  There are no Ms or Ks elsewhere in the solution grid.  The grid design that emerged gave me the opportunity to sneak in TENTH (O U) SANDS and I was pleased to see that someone at fifteensquared spotted it.

The appearance of the puzzle was overshadowed by the passing of Dac (Dave Crossland) last weekend after a tussle with cancer.  Dac was the regular Wednesday Independent setter, so the 10,000th actually fell into his allotted place.  I remember when I was starting to solve regularly that he contributed to a series of crossword books published by Hamlyn under his pseudonym Smokey.  I also encountered his puzzles in a couple of desk diaries (which may have been produced by Collins) with a week-to-a-page layout recto facing a puzzle verso.  Once a month there would be a themed puzzle (e.g. Christmas) but mostly they were just solid daily newspaper style puzzles, ideal for solving and studying.

However, I only met him once, after a Times competition day, I think.  He did subsequently e-mail me out of the blue to say how much he had enjoyed an Inquisitor puzzle (with such a testimonial I could hardly refrain from putting it up when I was adding to this site).  A great loss to the cruciverbal world.

It has been a busy week of proofs with the abrupt appearance of an Inquisitor puzzle on 3 November, and a Toughie on 8 November.  And the set that arrived just as I was about to type this blog adumbrates a Phi Listener on 24 November.

And the puzzle this time round is another of my unpublished Beelzebubs.  Anyone who is wondering just how many of them I have is merely echoing my own thoughts!

The perils of the post

Having spent some time typing up a BBC Music Magazine puzzle, I discover it’s one I already have up on the site, which tells me I’m getting some part of the editorial process wrong.  I seem not to have fully connected it to its BBC page, so that’s rectified, at least.  It was the May 2011 puzzle.

It was the BBC I was going to start with, anyway.  As I note on the BBC puzzles page, the magazine offers good value for subscribing to the paper edition, as you get a CD of pieces every month.  If you get the postal delivery at all, that is – the October issue failed to appear after several weeks.  The staff at the magazine are very helpful, and sent out a replacement – which also took several weeks, before arriving on the wettest day for months.  Fortunately the BBC had put the replacement copy in a nice padded envelope, so all was well.  I have had things arrive in paper envelopes on wet days, resulting in a glossy magazine that is reduced to front cover, a single very thick glutinous mess, and back cover.

And now I’m beginning to look askance at the arrival time for the November issue (not yet unprecedented, not quite, at least).  The delay seems to go hand-in-hand with the non-appearance of the air-freighted versions at the local magazine shop, so on occasion I can’t even get a back-up there.

It also makes you wonder how my entries going the other way fare.  I make a point of having the Listener entry sealed for posting on the Monday after publication to give it the best chance to get across the miles (as it happens this coming Monday is a public holiday, so that’s one day fewer).  How many take several weeks?

Meanwhile, the reduction in the postal service in New Zealand is ongoing.  There used to be two post-boxes en route to the station – both have gone.  The post-box near work that I adopted as my next option was unavailable for several weeks after the 2016 earthquake (not, I guess, a problem for many).  And postal charges have more than doubled over the last couple of years or so.

It seems inevitable that newspaper crossword competitions will have to move to accepting online entries, yet few are doing so.  Enigmatic Variations has an email option, but that’s the only one I can bring to mind.  If the powers-that-be judge cruciverbal viability by the numbers of entries received, then we need to keep entry numbers up by all possible means (or augment these by assessing in other ways: hits on web pages, perhaps).

All of which is also a precursor to noting that I haven’t received my Listener prize from a couple of months ago…

A few changes in the pattern of publication coming up: I will be in The Independent this coming Friday as usual, but the following week sees me move to Wednesday (aka Halloween) – more of that next time.  There’s a Times Jumbo on Saturday 27 October, and I believe I am in The Magpie in November 


Let’s herald Spring with a puzzle that couldn’t now appear (though it’s only from 2011).  The new one is an Independent daily with a brief preamble.  This currently isn’t achievable with the software, which is an interesting state of affairs to be mentioned when your local IT bore gets up to drone on about how much added flexibility recent developments in technology have given the printing industry.  Or any other industry – any other stories of what you can’t do now they’ve ‘improved’ the app or the package?  A little more to come on this at the end of the month.

Wednesday 10 October gives those of you who liked the ‘compare and contrast’ questions in exams an opportunity.  I have a Times daily and a Kcit Toughie in the Daily Telegraph.  See if you can work out the interactions of constant personal and varying house styles.

Now to continue recovering from gardening…

Puzzles you can’t remember

I was musing in an email about not remembering how your own clues work after about – oh – two weeks, shall we say.  On a larger scale is entirely forgetting puzzle themes.  I’m not sure, if I hadn’t found it in my own files, I would have claimed the new one this time as my own.  It doesn’t quite feel like an idea I would have had, though I do like the way I did it.  From my own standpoint I was intrigued to see that I had kept an erroneous copy.  At some point I had made a change – minor, but necessitating two new words at 1 across and down, and I had retained the old grid.  That has been rectified.

It’s an Enigmatic Variations from 2011 this time, and I must admit I have a new EV grid hankering to be composed, as well as an IQ, so this will be a brief update. 

I regularly recommend the Wall Street Journal puzzle site usually for the monthly Cox and Rathvon cryptic.  But it’s worth looking at some of the other offerings.  This week saw the Saturday US-style puzzle themed around cartoons (safe to say that, as the thematic clues gave it away), with the byline Gary Larson.  Hmm – I knew he’d given up The Far Side, so is this a new departure.  Or perhaps an over-confident pseudonym user?

What have we coming up?  There’s a Church Times on Friday 28 September, as well as the usual Independent daily, and Pedro appears in the Times Quick Cryptic slot on 2 October.  There’ll also be a setter’s blog on Phase Shift appearing in the course of this week.


The perils of the dictionary

I missed an update due to a busy weekend followed by a bad attack of some viral thing or other (I can recommend not fainting from a standing position, btw).  You end up spending time writing clues, which opens you up to the odd things that are the dictionaries we use.

It’s fair to say that they are characters in themselves – while much is made of Chambers’ fondness for archaic Scottish words and eccentric definitions, you shouldn’t overlook the styles of ODE and Collins (however much my iPad apps for these tend to iron out differences).  It is often useful  to cross-refer, particularly if you suspect Chambers may be ploughing its own furrow.  Editors suggest this but it doesn’t always resolve matters.  Here’s what I stumbled on this week, trying to clue PIPPIN:


  1. Something or someone especially nice, attractive, good, etc (old slang)

Now what one person considers old slang another may still use – no one dictionary, ultimately, can be the arbiter.  What does ODE say?


  1. Informal, chiefly N. Amer. an excellent person or thing.

I was under the impression it was quite specifically English, though it seems to have graduated to current, at least, so this sent me scurrying to Collins:


Nothing in this line at all.  I went with the original clue in the end.  It does make it hard to resort to the dictionary on occasions, but I suppose we must.  There was the tale that C once misprinted the definition for ‘tutelary’ as ‘projecting’ but in only in some copies of the edition – at which point it turned up in a Misprints puzzle.  And was it ‘identify’ where the whole head-word was mislaid a few editions ago? This was before the furore the other year when highlighted words were erased through an unfortunate application of cut-and-not-paste.

We seemed to be happy to agree Chambers nods in those cases.  Other idiosyncrasies are more pernicious: I remember an editor who declined to accept S=small (Chambers had only M=medium at the time) though it was in both Collins and ODE (as was L=large) – in this instance, Chambers however perverse, was the rule.  Yet here was an everyday usage that the dictionary wasn’t capturing.  The Americans aren’t quite so precise and are readier to extract E and F from their dashboards, as well as a whole range of baseball abbreviations.  The Brits seem happier to argue that “Well, yes, it is used that way, but it’s not in my dictionary”.    

Anyway, missing an update meant I missed telling you of a Times puzzle earlier this week, but there’s a Times Quick Cryptic on 19 September (I don’t believe it is particularly dominated by the letter ar), and there’s also an Inquisitor coming up next weekend (15 September). The new puzzle this time round is from the Church Times and if you enjoy that one there’s a new one due on 28 September.