I have had a bookshelf puzzle on the ideas list for several years.  In fact, I’ve had two, and this puzzle has shifted one of them.  (The basic idea for the other one is sound enough, and I know it will have 13 columns, but translating that into a working idea still eludes me.)

I think this actually goes back to the era of The Listener.  Not The Listener Crossword (not an era one can go back to, of course), but the actual magazine.  The link is Alan Coren, who edited Punch before The Listener.  One of his Punch pieces was entitled ‘Once I Put It Down I Could Not Pick It Up Again’, and took the form of a ‘review’ of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.  As he pointed out, most reviewers just glance briefly at the cover and make up the rest, so he imagined what the contents of each volume might have been given the words on their spines.

Thus Garrison Halibut was taken to be the biography of a minor American politician, while P-Plastering was a history of stuttering.

I read it once, lost the issue, and I’ve never seen it in any of the collected editions of his pieces (so perhaps I’m slighting another Punch contributor).  But it sowed the seed for this puzzle – which then took a long time to germinate.  Even coming across a Denis Norden joke about the available sex education when he was a boy, and how disappointed he was to find that a book called Learn to Love was merely a volume of an encyclopaedia, didn’t spark it back into life.

But the concept is simple enough – there are plenty of X TO Y phrases: surely it would be simple enough to find three such phrases, suitably spaced across the alphabet, and then interpolate the missing ‘volumes’.  (Another Listener hark-back: the two Interpolation puzzles by Egma, where one Chambers headword was the entry and you got the definition for one of its flankers and wordplay for the other.  Random observation: there is a plaque to Egma’s memory in the library in Newport, Gwent.)

And it was simple to find the phrases – my first stab was, honestly, BACK TO FRONT, HOLD TO RANSOM and TAKE TO WIFE, and it seemed that that minimised the asymmetry.  A and ZYTHUM didn’t matter (I only needed the A to be an unchecked 1 across), and FRONTIER and TAKAMAKA matched in length.  But HOLARCTIC and RANT looked unavoidable as did BACITRACIN and WI-FI.

At which point I thought to check the new paper edition, and there was WIFFLEBALL.  Not something that would normally set my pulse racing – but it was, wonderfully the same length as BACITRACIN.  How neat was that?  And I could add an unexpected preambular requirement for the paper edition of Chambers to be consulted.  Admirable as Anthony Lewis’s software is, it doesn’t list headwords in quite the same way.

I wanted the TOs in the grid, but that seemed to be impossible without jumbles.  I carefully ensured that the two 7-letter jumbles had repeated letters in their unches, and of course there was only one unch in each of the 5-letter jumbles.  Until I noticed that if I did add a second unch to the 5-letter jumbles, then the TOs occupied exactly those unched cells.  So Hannah ARENDT missed her chance to sit opposite OURARI.  It did make for a lot of uncertainty around the middle of the grid, which I suspect upped the difficulty of the puzzle quite a way.

The endpoint was a puzzle with two things I try to avoid – asymmetry, and 5-letter entries with 2 unches – and, all in all, I was tremendously pleased with it!