In memoriam

This week saw the passing of Michael Macdonald-Cooper, who was crossword editor of The Independent for a while, and with whom I shared the Beelzebub puzzle after the death of Richard Whitelegg.  I met him several times and he was a lovely, gentle man.  We stayed at his house once, in 1997 on our way to Orkney, and he and his wife Celia made us very welcome.  Michael had recently had some serious surgery, and, although he was hale and hearty (and took a daily early morning swim), Celia was very worried in case any word reached the Independent, and swore us to secrecy.  

I can’t reproduce one of his puzzles, of course – though I can point you here (Michael was ostensibly editor, but in fact set nearly all of them), and the Beelzebub homepage on this site has a couple of sources for some puzzles.  Instead I’m putting up Beelzebub 1358, the last to be published, which contains some references to the puzzle’s history.  Two Beelzebubs in consecutive posts, but I think the circumstances dictate.

There’s a Toughie from Kcit on Wednesday 20 September, and a Church Times puzzle under my own name, probably on 29 September.  The information re the Church Times puzzle came with two dates, and a puzzle number that alluded to a third, but the balance of evidence is 29 September, rather than the preceding week.

A repetitive weekend

When your ISP suddenly decides to stop their email service because they’re being inundated with spam, and recommends transferring to Google or Microsoft, then there’s a bit of fallout around telling everyone.  And it’s also a bit repetitive.  ‘Update your Preferences’ here and ‘Edit your Profile’ there and, surprisingly often, just ‘Unsubscribe’, with no apparent option to continue.  While my ISP has promised to continue forwarding emails (presumably if spam permits – they’ve made themselves even more of a target now), it’s not a very reliable way of ensuring continued dissemination of promotional material.  Still it’s allowed me to jettison a few of the more tedious ones (so tedious it was easier to press ‘delete’ than ‘unsubscribe’).

There have been one or two (Naxos CDs and kikki-k stationery stand out) who have had staff on their Customer Service lines over the weekend to help out, replying within an hour.  Whitcoulls, on the other hand, might get round to things in five days or so, National Geographic in ten.  And I’ve had a nice reminder that, in an email, no-one knows your tongue is in your cheek (won’t say who that was).

For what it’s worth, then, my new email is phixwd at gmail dot com.  Which is shorter than the surname-based one.  Please update any lists you may have.  Back next weekend with a puzzle.

A quiet weekend

Monday saw me hurl myself against a wall, gashing my forehead, blacking my eye and wrecking my spectacles.  I’m having a little trouble with the old emergency pair (not a dramatically different prescription, but a different lens shape for the varifocals which is proving hard to adjust back to (and naturally I don’t actually want to)).  So not much update this week.

The new puzzle is the sixth unpublished Beelzebub in my stock, and I’ve also taken the opportunity to actually activate the link to its predecessor.

There are Times puzzles from me on the next two Wednesdays (a daily on the 6th and a quick cryptic on the 13th), but September is otherwise quiet.  Earlier this week I put up a setter’s blog on my recent IQ Small Amounts.  Another recent setter’s blog covers my Listener puzzle, Squares.

A few weeks ago I had an idea for what I think may be a new Listener puzzle, and I put it aside to mull.  Shortly afterwards I had a one-day head-cold.  When I didn’t set to regarding the puzzle on that day, I was rewarded with six days off with ‘flu.  When I still prevaricated, Fate threw me at a wall.  Enough already – I’ve gridded the thing.

Twenty Years On

It seems to be a time of finding things to look back on, as the September edition of the BBC Music Magazine is now out (it’s even reached New Zealand).  Since my first puzzle there was in September 1997, this is an anniversary puzzle, and there are five Op. 20s mentioned in the puzzle.  I had at least five more reasonably familiar named pieces I could have chosen (by ‘named’ I mean something other than ‘Piano Concerto No. 2’ or similar) – by Op. 20 composers are hitting their stride, obviously.  There seems not to have been space for the preamble I added to the puzzle, so anyone who’s perplexed now has an explanation.  To mark the occasion, here’s a link to the first puzzle I set for them, and you can check out a few others here.

A twentieth anniversary is always going to give pause for thought, if only the thought: “Twenty years? Really?”.  The regular deadlines have the effect of making it harder to recollect specific highlights – if a puzzle does feel good, the fact that its successor is already demanding attention leaves you little time to rest on whatever laurels you may wish to award yourself.  Not a bad regimen, at that.  I do recall the annual struggle to find something new for Christmas (not least because it’s already almost upon me again…), and there is the permanent problem of working out how to start a blank grid.  I’m currently using anniversaries as seed-corn for this, though as I’m happy to wander off into sesquicentenaries and the like, they may not always be obvious.  It does give me the chance to indulge some favourites, and to feel guilty about overlooking areas of music in which I feel less well-versed.  

There is a new setter’s blog going up immediately after I’ve published this (uploading photographs permitting) – it’s for Squares in The Listener at the start of the month.  (Blog currently retracted until solution appears next week.). There’s also a Phi puzzle in The Inquisitor series in The i today (with its own setter’s blog to follow in due course), but there’s nothing else to draw your attention to before the next update.  (The latest Toughie caught me unawares and slipped into The Telegraph last Thursday.)

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Looking back again

Hard on the heels of thinking back to the first days of the Inquisitor in 1988, I find myself with the appearance of a puzzle completed in 1993.  Animotion, appearing in CROSSWORD magazine, is a collaboration with Dafydd Price Jones (hence Hellebore and Phi combining as Hellphire) and dates from 9 February, 1993.  There may be a setter’s blog, if not a setters’ blog, next month.  I did find some of the original submission had come with me to New Zealand, so I can reconstruct enough to provide a ‘Making Of…’ feature!

So I thought I’d dig out a puzzle from that era for this week’s addition to the site.  It’s an Independent daily, no. 2080 from 19 June, 1993.  Even then I was recording completion dates, so I see that this puzzle rolled off the production line (well, it feels like that sometimes) on 22 February that year.  I was only doing the Independent daily on a fortnightly basis at the time: however, while I can find another puzzle dating from the end of January, the puzzle that should have appeared more or less contemporaneously with Animotion still eludes me.

Also looking back, I have managed to miss a local crossword date of significance, even though I had it noted down. As I’ve mentioned before, the New Zealand Herald has a stiffer-than-average puzzle every Saturday, and that reached its 1000th puzzle a few days ago.  Sadly it’s not on the newspaper’s webpages, although this interview with its creator is.  (Note the obligatory lame attempt at a crossword clue for the headline.)  I can also point you to Rex’s Facebook page.

By the time this goes up, you will have a Listener puzzle to do (and it will not save you to turn aside to the Times Jumbo that day…) with a Times cryptic on 12 August and a Times Quick Cryptic on 18 August also appearing before the next update.  And while 1300 is not a usual number to commemorate, this Friday’s Independent daily hits that number for me.

The Times upgraded its Crossword Club site this week (a message arrived overnight), and I am thus doubly blessed in having two puzzles on the first day of operation (if operation is the word I want, after spending twenty minutes trying to log in to see my own puzzles).  It doesn’t look too bad, and people will adjust, but it does seem to be an example of designer’s curse (‘This will look wonderful, so I’ll update it immediately, and everyone will be tremendously pleased.  Oh, they aren’t…’)

If you’re feeling adventurous, give Nicola Barker’s new novel H(A)PPY a whirl, though you will have to read it in colour, and if you’re nervous around experiments in typography, then you will be nervous.  (And I didn’t pay anything in product placement.)

Inquisitor 1500

This time I’m going to point you at a puzzle already on the site, rather than a new one.  It’s my first Independent magazine puzzle from 8 October 1988, no. 5 in the series that reached 1500 this weekend.  That is close on 30 years ago (you can probably hypothesise what we’ll be doing come September next year), and I have racked up 140 of them since then.  They came quite frequently in the early days, but we’ve now settled down to about four a year.  You will have to solve the clues in the article with the puzzle to determine whether or not I have a hand in today’s extravaganza – after all, there’s a bottle of champagne at stake.  Though, really, who do you think they might ask…

There are now three barred puzzles in the UK weekend papers, and I certainly still think of them as different.  This harks back to the early days of the IQ puzzle when it was made clear that it was to be less of a challenge than The Listener.  That may not be the case these days – I’ve had one or two IQs that felt quite tricky, and the one currently being completed elsewhere in this iPad should join them, I think.  Nonetheless there remains some value in having a graduated approach to the form, and somewhere in the back of my mind the feeling remains that the IQ should be at the easier end of things.  You’ll be able to test that in August, when I have a Listener puzzle and another IQ a fortnight apart.

I contribute to all three weekend puzzle series and I used to have a sense of whether a puzzle idea was Listener, IQ or EV.  This is a different concept from difficulty, though they’re related; however, if an idea cleaves to one or other outlet I will tweak things to change how hard the puzzle is.  In the last couple of years this has become much more fluid, particularly around themes: I seem these days to have to consider that the IQ really shouldn’t have two consecutive puzzles based on 18th century Hungarian sculptors, so one should be directed to EV, or perhaps The Magpie.  The question then becomes how to make that theme feel more EV-ish or Magpovian.  Perhaps all this tinkering is merely a personal thing and we should end up somewhere near Bernstein on music: there are good puzzles and bad puzzles, and difficulty (and some of the other things we argue about) may not be so heavily-weighted a factor.

One thing you are missing from the article below the puzzle is the set of setter vignettes: single sentence descriptions of the participants. Marjorie and I produced separate versions of mine, with somewhat unsettlingly little overlap.  And then I lost the email, along with several years’ worth of its associates, so I can’t tell you what I was.

Ah.  Perhaps that’s too big a hint.

Well, you still have four other clues to solve to get your hands on the champers.  But if you do win, do have a toast to the next 1500.

For the next few weeks, you should see a Toughie on Tuesday 25 July, a Hellphire puzzle in the Crossword Club come August (which may prompt some more backward-looking musings in a fortnight), a Phi Listener on 5 August (you could also cast a glance at that day’s Jumbo), and once you’ve sampled The Times on 12 and 18 August as well, we’re back to the Inquisitor come 19 August.  

Winter strikes

This is another interstitial blog mainly to mention that a setter’s blog for my recent Enigmatic Variations puzzle Outrageous Simile is now on the site.

But also to comment, as all good Englishmen must, on the weather – this week has seen the worst storm of the winter so far.  On Thursday I rode in on a train that stopped frequently on the shoreline part of the journey; there’d be a slow move forward, and you’d here a small rock become dislodged and roll away from the tracks (it helped being in the front carriage), and then someone would fling 23 buckets of water at the carriage, and it would all repeat.  All in the pitch dark, of course, first thing in the morning.

As soon as I decently could, I made for home again, and worked remotely.  The trains did sort of run all day though with substantial delays at times, but I wasn’t taking any chances in terms of getting stuck in town for the night.  Mid-morning trains (including mine, of course) were held up by a fallen tree, which conveniently fell at a station where a large bit of machinery was in place to repair the overbridge damaged in last year’s earthquake, so the tree didn’t stay a problem for long.  I took some video on my phone and Marjorie has edited it into a Vimeo presentation.

Stormy Wellington Train Ride from Marjorie Dawson on Vimeo.

Today the storm has blown through, we have washing out in the sun, and we’re also about to get some gardening done.  That’s rather the way with these winter storms.

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Keeping the Numbers Up

I find myself between the appearance of an Enigmatic Variations puzzle and its setter’s blog, so this week’s puzzle is an earlier example from the series.

Back in 1998, you had somewhat longer to submit your entries, so the solution grid is for No. 308, which was clearly some sort of exotic Playfair puzzle.  (In fact – thank you, Mr Hennings – it was Nvvdsitssm by Radix, which simply screams Playfair, doesn’t it?  Artaxerxes, if you think that will help you decode it.)  What intrigued me was the names of the winners.  

First of all, they were in reverse alphabetical order, so I presume that reflects an order of drawing out of the hat.  The names were also all quite familiar: H J Bradbury (not sure I ever met him other than in winners’ listings), J E Green (who also gets everywhere) and P Henderson.

Which is curiously embarrassing for some reason.  I have, on the Beelzebub page, mentioned a curious coincidence around entering series one is a part of – I managed to win (albeit under a nom de guerre) the last Beelzebub my predecessor produced.  That felt ever so slightly wrong.  (I have subsequently seen a list of winners to a particular puzzle which included the setter’s real name – that did look fishy, but turned out to be a typo where the wrong week’s winners were printed.)

But it shouldn’t have – the crossword solving world is not so large, and newspapers count the entries to determine popularity.  (This is misguided, as a newspaper that omits its crossword will find there are plenty of non-submitters out there.)  So entering is a good thing to do.  But I have rather let it fall away since moving to New Zealand, though I note that the Enigmatic Variations series now has an email entry address (perhaps I should stop filling them in so scruffily…), and I do enter Magpie and Crossword Club puzzles ‘remotely’.  It involves a lot of scanning (especially of unusually shaped puzzles) so there still feels as if there’s a step or two to go to make the process as smooth as possible.

The EV blog will be along on or around Thursday, which is the day before there’s a Pedro in the Times Quick Cryptic slot.  

The world turns on its dark side

It’s the winter solstice we’ve just had, however warm the weather in the UK has been.  There was still a strawberry ripening undeterred this week, though, and we managed an alfresco lunch last weekend, once it had warmed up.  So the weather is still a little odd – even the current storm seems to be hurling its fury North and South, whereas usually it makes a beeline for Wellington in the middle.

Last time was probably too close to the UK election to risk a puzzle from that earlier representative of things pan-continental, The European.  So here it is this time round.  I’ve also updated the European page as I’d noticed I’d missed linking to one I put up earlier this year.

The Independent has for some time now allowed setters to design their own grids – I’ve racked up over 300 of such designs so the opportunity must have been around a while (2005 seems a likely bet, judging by date-stamps on grids I haven’t subsequently revisited).  Today I found myself with a ‘Nina’ that would happily sit in a pre-existing grid – indeed, I think it was easier to use such – so I riffled through some of the original grids (settling on no. 22).  It was rather nostalgic, so I may start resurrecting some separately from any that suit a passing Nina.  Grid 15 is first on the list – the rather savage one with multiply interlocking 15- and 9-letter entries.  Partway through filling it I did wonder whether nostalgia was quite as benign as all that…

There’ll be an update next weekend to accommodate the setter’s blog for this month’s Magpie puzzle.  Before that there will be a Toughie on 29 June while beyond it is an Enigmatic Variations on July 2, and a Times on 6 July.  There’s also an unexpected appearance by Hellphire in the July edition of the Crossword Club magazine CROSSWORD.  Independent Friday service is set to continue as normal…except when it doesn’t – keep your eyes peeled!