A Bit Up in the Air

Things are a bit up in the air as I write this.  A 7.8 earthquake earlier in the week, followed by torrential downpours and a flooded street, with a final southerly blast to come later today.  But with my workplace still not ready for reoccupation due to water damage, I at least have a little time to write these notes.

The idea for the puzzle was planted years ago when I stumbled on the HEADS OR TAILS = I HERALD A TOSS anagram for an Independent daily (I can’t find it on fifteensquared, so it must have been more than ten years ago).  I immediately filed that away as a possible theme for a more complex puzzle, and jotted down a list of options where H and T could be interchanged and still leave real words (e.g. HAKE/TAKE).  And then I spent a lot of time fiddling around with some really rather complex ideas involving solvers making heads-or-tails choices wherever there was an option, with heads constraining some aspect of grid entry, and tails another, but ultimately it wouldn’t matter, because any route led to the same final grid.  A bit like Lutoslawski’s use of aleatorics or that Ayckbourn play where there are alternative middle scenes (come to think of it, that does depend on the toss of a coin each time).

And if anyone can get that to work, they’re welcome to try.  At that point, the title was to be ‘I Herald a Toss’.  The idea stayed in my ideas list, and I dragged it out and looked at it from time to time, until it occurred to me that it might be a good thing to have solvers discover the felicitous anagram for themselves.  And – hang on – it’s a 12-letter phrase, and 12×12 remains the commonest size of Listener grid.  So it should be possible to fit the two phrases into a relatively standard grid.  And then my list of H/T words came to mind, and it struck me that having crossing pairs where the ambiguity was not resolved might force further reflection: “That could be H or T; never mind, the crossing letter will resolve it; no, that’s H or T as well…”.

It seemed too simplistic just to hide the phrases as diagonals, but I didn’t want to be too recondite.  Mind you, I decided the ‘obvious’ diagonal would have to feature I HERALD A TOSS – who expects a hidden message to start IH?  In the end the pattern in the grid is also coin-inspired – imagine a coin spinning on a table-top as it flattens.  Persistence of vision gives it a sort of thickened x-shape as it slows.  Inverting one message with respect to the other kept the H/T squares nicely spaced.

And, of course, HEADS OR TAILS is good for words in clues as well, so the phrases went in there too, even if the preamble had to be vaguely recursive in its indication of this.  I did enjoy putting in ‘Irish’ for a blatantly Scotch whisky.  And “Well, he wouldn’t use ‘affidavit’ again…’ – wouldn’t I? 

The one qualm I had was that H and T aren’t given as abbreviations for Heads and Tails anywhere.  To be fair, most people faced with H H T H T T H H T T H T H T H H H would think of coin-tossing, but you weren’t getting that sort of list anywhere.  I just had to hope that the enforced focus on H and T would allow the (ahem) penny to drop.