Back to putting up a puzzle – my thanks to the Independent for permission to reprint this puzzle from 1995.
There’ll be a couple of additional items on the blog before the next formal update. There’ll be two setter’s blogs, one for last week’s Inquisitor puzzle in The Independent (The Man with a Gun) and one for the June 29 Enigmatic Variations puzzle in the Sunday Telegraph (Bang! – I think I can let the title slip a few hours early without giving very much away).
Back to the current IQ, where Nimrod has quoted me, which gives me the excuse to write a little more on the difficulty of barred thematics. The question raised was how to rank The Listener, Enigmatic Variations and The Inquisitor itself. And the general view seemed to be that on any given weekend there was no way of knowing which would be the most difficult, which the least. I would broadly agree with that at present, but I’m not sure it was always so, and I’m not sure it’s a wholly desirable state of affairs.
When I was a lad (and Monty Python fans can stop shouting ‘Luxury!’ with immediate effect) there was only The Listener that provided a regular, more-or-less weekly barred thematic. Azed produced the occasional such puzzle, almost invariably on one or other of a number of regular favourites, but there was only The Listener that you could expect to provide something new or different each time. And it was quite a jump from the daily cryptic – I eventually made it on 23 February 1978 (Jude’s QED), but then faltered on several succeeding weeks before establishing a regular routine.
There are people making that jump all the time, of course, but it might be good to encourage them. One way was the move to The Times, which simply presented the puzzle to a wider readership, among whom were some who had never thought about the jump for the simple reason they’d never seen the puzzle. But another way might be to have a simpler puzzle that reproduced the thematic nature of The Listener, but with mostly simpler vocabulary and some clearer pointing of the themes.
Which was where The Independent Saturday Magazine Crossword came in (yes, Inquisitor is less of a mouthful). It wasn’t meant to be as simple as a daily cryptic, but it was also not meant to be Listener-level. But as different editors have taken the helm, and different setters have come and gone, the level has (necessarily) varied. I still have a mental pecking order (in ascending difficulty) of IQ, EV and Listener, but the range of each has widened. If you can imagine something akin to confidence intervals around an average difficulty score for each puzzle, then the averages might well still be stacked in my pecking order, but the intervals could be more closely matched. (Where would Magpie fit? Highest average, widest range would be my guess.)
What this means is that the jump is back, to some extent – there’s no one puzzle where novices can get a toehold on a regular basis (albeit with the occasional mind-stretcher). The positive side of this state of affairs is that we can recommend new solvers to try all the weekend thematics all the time and increase solvership for all of them – but that does mean solvers laying out additional cash and time, which many new solvers may be reluctant to do. I don’t know that there’s a ready solution – solvers range from people who’ve been doing so for something like 50 years to those who have just thrown the paper across the room with the grid still blank after 50 minutes.
Let’s be clear – it’s not that there are no good, simple puzzles (and they’re among the hardest to set – it is always easier to be difficult), but that it is becoming harder to know when and where to find them. This stems from a broadening of outlets, which is a good thing, but we should always remember to let down a ladder from time to time to let others ascend to the more rarefied enjoyment.