I said I’d write something about juvenilia – or, at least, the reappearance of puzzles set long ago – this week when I’m unable to put up a puzzle. I’m a few thousand miles away from my hard drive in Kansas City at the moment.

The idea comes from the publication this month of a puzzle I completed in 1983. I put a completion date on every puzzle, so I can be sure of the date. In fact, it has “final version” appended to that date. It might even be from 1982. Since the puzzle is still “live” I will talk about it in general terms, and say nothing that can’t be gleaned from the preamble.

It’s slightly surprising that I retained a copy of the puzzle and brought it all the way to New Zealand, I suppose, but that’s something else I do. I have boxfiles of copies of my puzzles so the earlier ones also made the trip, and the survival of the file with unpublished puzzles is thus less surprising.

Brian Head once said to me that his filing system was more of a scrum, and however tongue-in-cheek that was, the longer a submitted and accepted puzzle stays unpublished, the stronger the scrum hypothesis becomes. But apparently not.

What to make of the appearance of a puzzle after so long a delay? The immediate response is that whatever qualities it may have had – it was accepted for publication, after all – it has clearly been surpassed by other contemporaneous and later submissions, from myself and others. So probably not from the top of the barrel, but, one would hope, not scraping the bottom either.

And, separate from considerations of quality, what of changes in style? I should note here that, given proofs to check, I refrained as far as possible from making changes other than correcting typos.

The first thing I clocked was that the puzzle used DLM clues that did not begin at the beginning or end at the end of words. They didn’t what? I can’t imagine letting myself do that these days. The 1983 version of me clearly didn’t have such scruples, however, so, apart from the scale of the work needed to amend things, let them lie. There’s a hidden quotation, which is mentioned, but solvers are given no hints as to how to get to the heart of it. Wouldn’t do that these days either, though there have been some puzzles…

A few clues have been tweaked, I hope without changing their essential nature. There was certainly one which had something I’d now consider infelicitous – and that’s still there, but I think its presentation is less confusing. I was aware, however, that I was approaching some sort of line beyond which I would be rewriting the clue, rather than simply editing it. It must be similar to remastering historical music recordings where the pianist plays a wrong note that is also affected by poor recording quality. You should improve the sound but leave the wrong note.

There were a couple of significant typos, and when I took Brian to task about them, he scanned my original to show me that one of them was mine.

I hope I have made the puzzle a better example of what I intended at the time rather than a revision.

Meanwhile I have been busy writing clues on my trip overseas, and the combination of that with my usual approach of having several puzzles on the go simultaneously means that a significant number of puzzles have been completed. Editors should take heed and keep an eye on their inboxes. This also means I will have a fair number of new grids to construct on my return, let alone come up with ideas for any themes. So it goes.

There’s a Toughie coming up next Thursday (26 April) after my return but other puzzles additional to the usual Friday routine will await the arrival of May.

Thematic resonance

Getting things up promptly this weekend with a view to clearing the decks before hieing off to Kansas City.  The new puzzle is an Independent prize crossword from March 1998, which I hope got a lot of entries because it struck me as very much at the easy end of my spectrum.  I’ve always found it hard to judge the difficulty of my puzzles as I set them, but perhaps this one is far enough back in the day to be an easier assessment.

There are the usual Independent puzzles forthcoming while the Times is also providing you with a couple of mine: the Jumbo on 14 April, and a puzzle from Pedro in the Quick Cryptic slot on 17 April.

Meanwhile, how are you getting on with Top Twenty in the Crossword Club magazine.  Given that it is a puzzle that lays out its theme pretty overtly, I can offer you some images from a recent trip to Featherston, a small town just north of here, on the far side of the Rimutaka hills.  It grew as a place to stay and recover from or prepare for what was quite a trek in the old days (it’s still quite a bracing drive today).  The loss of the carriage trade (as it were) has led to the town reinventing itself as a sort of Hay-on-Wye, with regular book festivals, and increasing numbers of specialist shops (one of the few places where you can get a decent range of cheese – Wensleydale, Gromit!).  There is also a huge second-hand shop with a wide range of unexpected articles (a weighing machine for cattle, for instance) including:

So we took a closer look:

As far as I can tell (and thank you, Wikipedia) the selection of music on show puts this jukebox as last active in around 1984 (Ghostbusters was released that year, while I can find other discs from 1982 and 1983).  But you can see the sort of thing I have in mind in the puzzle, itself from 1983!

More on revisiting old puzzles in the next blog from Missouri.


Inquisitor 1534: Unsatisfying

Let’s start with a video: 

That’s Marjorie’s video about one of our trips around Wellington with our little old cat Dusty (that’s me in the T-shirt advertising cat litter).  It has been shortlisted for an award for best video on a cat blog at the 2018 Blogpaws awards in Kansas City, Missouri in April, and we’ll be there.  The actual blog it appeared in is here.  She’s also nominated for best overall cat blog, so you may want to have a look around.  And no, I didn’t plan for this puzzle to appear just before we went!  The timescales in creating and publishing puzzles aren’t so flexible.

Dusty became a blog star late in life after we took him, apparently at death’s door, to the emergency vet on Boxing Day.  No sooner had we got him in the car than he switched from inert to interested, and sat up and watched the scenery hurtle by.  We’ve never had a cat enjoy car-rides before so we started taking him around the region, and Marjorie had a series of blogposts ready made.  So when Dusty passed on a few weeks after the video above, he clearly had to be celebrated in a crossword.  Yes, this was another cat puzzle.

It wasn’t long before the concept of the “dusty answer” came to mind, and a little research across the dictionaries confirmed the idea of inadequate or partial or unsatisfying answers. (Chambers: An unsatisfying, unfruitful, or sordid response; ODE: a curt and unhelpful reply; Collins: An unhelpful or bad-tempered reply.)

I wondered whether I had a grid with a sufficient number of entries that could be shortened.  It was clear they couldn’t be shortened too much, so I had the “at least half” rule in mind from early on.  And, lo, one of the grids I’d prepared but never clued for Beelzebub fitted the bill.

36 entries and there was DUSTY ANSWERS with 12 letters.  Something tripartite was called for: 12 shortened entries, 12 unaffected entries but with clues that offered definitions of the full answers, and 12 with misprints giving the key phrase.  And of all the various epithets ascribed to such answers, “unsatisfying” gave the readiest example, with letters both contiguous and separated, so it became the title.  Always a bit of a chance with a downbeat title, of course, but who knows? Maybe the fifteensquared blog will say how misleading it was…

Slipping a week

Sorry about missing last week.  A family bereavement threw things out of joint, though we are more or less back on an even keel now.  Just in time, in fact, to be thrown back on to an odd keel, as we have an overseas trip coming up.  Kansas City this time, for another Blogpaws conference.  This time Marjorie is up for three awards, so it will be a tense dinner on the Friday.  If I can squeeze an update in on the weekend of 21/22 April, it will probably be about that as much as crosswords.

The puzzle this time is an early one from BBC Music Magazine.   My thanks to them for permission to reuse – do keep checking the issues for more recent examples, as well as free CDs.  The re-design of the magazine has treated the crossword rather well, I think.

There are a couple of puzzles coming up before my next update: the Crossword Club has one in its April issue, while the Times crossword on Easter Monday is also mine.  If you solved Unsatisfying in the IQ series a week or so ago, the setter’s blog on that puzzle will appear over the Easter weekend, assuming I get round to writing it…

Easter is also when I will be finalising this year’s APEX contest, with the closing date falling on Easter Saturday.  I have previously been inclined to extend things a few days, but the adjacent public holiday and the imminent trip to America mean I will be tidying things up promptly this year (perhaps I’ll be more lax again in 2019).  So if there’s any of the regulars reading this out there who hasn’t voted, now is your chance.   The puzzle itself, and news of the winning clues, will be appearing on the site in May sometime.

Another hasty post

The weather here continues to be (mostly – the odd ex-cyclone apart) splendid as we move into autumn, with several plants gearing up for a second crop.  Having received an out-of-office email from a BBC Accounts department who had gone home because of the snow, I do realise this is not the case everywhere.

We have in fact done a bit of preparation for cooler weather, while at the same time clearing the stream for a second time this summer (lots of good compost).  Which leaves a pleasant ache as you sit out enjoying the still-warm evening, listening to the birds.  After which you suddenly realise there’s a puzzle to be got up.

Listening to, but not seeing the birds.  So here’s an Invisible Wren from the Enigmatic Variations stable.  Glancing through my list of puzzles, it leapt out as an implausible title, and having scanned it, I’m somewhat at a loss for how I tumbled to the quotation.  It was also quite a concise puzzle – relatively few clues, but a monster preamble to make up for it.  But the length of the preamble is quantity rather than complexity, I hope.  And while I say it as shouldn’t, I was rather pleased with the clues.

March is going to be a quiet month, though in the run-up to my next post you will get a little sequence of a Times Pedro puzzle (15 March), a Church Times puzzle (16 March) and an Inquisitor (17 March).

The calm before the storm

We have an ex-tropical cyclone level 2 coming through on Monday (or perhaps Tuesday or even Wednesday).  In its pre-retirement phase as a real tropical cyclone, it did a fair amount of damage to some of the Pacific Islands, and there’s some concern about what it might do even in its attenuated state.

It would be nice if the preceding calm was actually calm, but today there’s a tremendous breeze and sudden showers that soak you to the skin when you rush to get the washing in (there’s plenty of sun around as well).  So a quick retreat to the computer and get a web post up and some puzzles off to editors.

This time the puzzle is another of the remaining Beelzebub crosswords, completed before the puzzle’s demise (still a few to go!).

I don’t think there are clues in it that will result in this scenario.

Brief thoughts on pseudonyms

Running a little late again.  It’s a holiday weekend in that February 6 is Waitangi Day, and large numbers of people have taken February 5 as a day off to make an extra-long weekend – inexorably, therefore, there is less time to do things.

The puzzle this time is from 1998 (just) with a Nina for you to find.  There’s a Times Quick Cryptic by Pedro this week (8 February) and I should also mention the Times Jumbo on 17 February since I’m clearly not getting round to putting these updates online early in the weekend.

I found myself pondering the roles of pseudonyms this weekend.  The Times has always resisted the use of them, on the grounds that people develop aversions (“Oh, no, not him again”) so the imposition of an editorial overview and the absence of a byline means that solvers will just solve cold.  This has always seemed to me slightly unfair. 

For comparison: Peter Carey has a new novel out now, and, while I’ve dipped my toe into the Carey pool on occasion, I don’t tend to go back that frequently.  There’s a lot of fine writing (and some good jokes) but the novels don’t seem to cohere as novels to me.  But they please plenty of others.

But perhaps if Faber (I think it’s Faber) were to publish the book just under the title (after it had been through the Faber editorial process to make it a proper Faber book) I’d read it and marvel?  It’s not likely to happen, is it?  We accept that there will be differences of opinion, and some publishing houses do end up with what seem (to me, at least) very unlikely stablemates.

That would be the stance of the pseudonym users – any given pseudonym would scare off some solvers, but the overall roster draws them back.  The Guardian used to have Custos and Araucaria more or less each weekly, and it’s fair to say that they were not neighbours on the spectrum.  It’s also fair to say that plenty of us solved both of them.

All this is prompted by observing comments last week on both fifteensquared and Times for the Times.  Both my puzzles of course, and I can’t say that the two were composed in terribly different states of mind (though they were completed a couple of months apart, so we can’t rule that out,of course).  Yet The Times crowd seemed more inclined to snipe while the fifteensquared bunch were more heavily influenced by the fact that this was Friday and it was another Phi puzzle in The Independent.  Different commentators, perhaps, though I suspect an overlap.  But I did wonder whether the absence of a pseudonym made people feel they could be freer in what they said – after all, with The Times there’s the editorial intervention, so it’s all his fault, really… (I was pleased – in that schadenfreude sort of way – to see that one clue which came in for query was an editorial amendment).

This also prompts speculation about the consequences of throwing in an old Custos under Pasquale’s name, or an old Araucaria bylined Enigmatist.  Or perhaps I should trot out an old puzzle of mine (not one from the i or here) under an entirely new pseudonym in The Independent.  Or, to preserve novelty (and regular payments to setters), swap puzzles with one of the team. 

How much does the presence of a name change solvers’ responses?




Blog can expand to backlog

It occurred to me today that I will have to write a setter’s blog for the recent Enigmatic Variations puzzle Uncommon Happiness – and then it also dawned on me that the pre-Christmas Inquisitor The Hard Stuff was also in need of treatment.  I think I rather lost track of the closing date for the December puzzle – the Independent did have a habit of having Christmas closing dates that bore no awareness of the reality of posting things during the holiday period (one year I think the only way to beat the deadline was to visit the office in person and hand it to the security guard).

They’ll both be along later in the week, once the closing date for the EV has passed.

The Hard Stuff was noted as being the IQ puzzle of 2017 that the team thought easiest, while I also supplied Bookshelf, the one considered hardest in its published form.  Nice to keep people on their toes.  Bookshelf came in eighth in the IQ of the Year table, and will appear here in due course, no doubt.  It therefore seems reasonable to have an IQ as this time’s puzzle, but I’m delving further back – to 1999, in fact, when the IQ was called simply ‘crossword’ (using an e e cummings typeface).  It’s called Middle Eights.

My usual Friday Independent slot will be augmented by a parallel appearance in The Times on February 2nd, after which I shall be back with another puzzle here.

Better late than never…

Being on holiday seems to result in less time to do things, so this is a day late.  I have found myself working through a welter of completed puzzles requiring typing up and sending on to various editors, and I always worry about them getting lost in the ‘to-do’ pile.  There’s an IQ just one clue off completion as I speak, so the problem has yet to depart entirely.

This time round the new puzzle is one from the BBC Music Magazine in 1999.  I settled on the BBC Music Magazine for no stronger reason than having just finished the puzzle for the March 2018 edition – or 3/18, of course.  That puzzle will be numbered 318, so it seemed as good a hint as any.  By delaying a day I am typing this on the palindromic 8/1/18 as well – of such little things are decisions made.

A Telegraph Toughie snuck by between updates, but I can alert you to a Church Times puzzle coming up on 12 January, and an Enigmatic Variations puzzle called Uncommon Happiness (quite tough, I think) in the Sunday Telegraph on 14 January.