Here we are on 20 March, the last day of publication for the paper edition of The Independent on Sunday, and the first edition, I think, in which there has not been a Beelzebub crossword. There is, I’m told, a blocked grid puzzle from Don Manley, who did No. 1 back in the first issue. But no Beelzebub, which seems a trifle unfair for a feature of equal permanence. (Others can try to work out how the numbering drifted apart over the years.) I think it’s something to do with the different printing arrangements for the Review, but, still…
There’s still no word on the future of the various puzzles. Whatever the case it seems not a bad moment for reminiscence. No puzzle this time round then.
1358, which appeared on 13 March, was my 692nd Beelzebub puzzle, and 9 April coming would have been the 21st anniversary of setting my first Beelzebub puzzle. Somehow the 21 years seems the greater surprise. Over the years, the format of the puzzle has changed somewhat. To be honest, I can’t summon up a decent image of the current puzzle on the page misled as I am by receiving proofs that still show the older appearance. This has links to the decision to go online, of course – when we first moved to NZ, you could readily find copies of UK newspapers airfreighted over. These days only magazines receive that treatment – see here, for instance.
Even after all this time, I find difficulty in getting the grid pattern right, with the correct number of unchecked letters in each entry. Far too often I box myself into a corner with a double-unch, or a completely checked four-letter word, the undoing of which produces another adjacent blight. The 13×11 grids which came in a few years ago (I saw Azed starting to use them, and thought why not?) seem slightly friendlier in that regard, but not always.
Filling the grid? Well, there’s the old horror vacui which leads me to maintain a list of ‘interesting words stumbled across’, so that I have something with which to seed the grid. My source was frequently the Forgotten English calendar, or World Wide Words, if I wasn’t just spotting things in Chambers. From a few seed words, I would then use computer technology to provide a few grids from which to choose (there were always a couple a year done manually to keep my hand in). I’ve never seen any problem in doing that – I generate a range of grids and then pick and choose my way through them – not that one (too many plurals) or that (too many proper names) or that (computers don’t recognise vulgarity so well). In addition, I have become quite adept at teasing out additional fills when the program has said there are no more. Still, quite frequently I have scanned a grid noting an interesting-looking word (in Chambers, surely…) that has turned out to be a city in Malawi or a Hungarian poet.
The clues: I usually start with the long words, tagging them as anagrams or not. Those out the way, I will start from the top, and work through in order, skipping odd words where nothing strikes at first glance. If I skip two or three that way, I jump to the end and start working up…or to the end of the Across clues…or to the start of the Down clues…or to anything that yields, in fact. A second session will see me resume at the first unclued word, which itself often yields promptly after a break. Recently the endgame has seen me trying to end up with isolated unclued words, with clued entries either side, that I can pick off one at a time.
Very, very occasionally all 30-odd clues have tumbled at a single sitting (in bed, with coffee, before Sunday breakfast, was very fruitful); two is much more common, and three almost as often. Then put it aside, and do a quick once-over at the end of the week when typing it up (making sure to leave something in it for editors to find, of course).
The ‘week off’ would see me apply some of the same approach to barred thematics in other outlets, though chopping and changing between these means they all move more sedately forward. Interspersed with all this would be clues for dailies or the BBC Music Magzine and so on. (If you get on the evening train at Wellington, I’m the chap in the corner jabbing continually at the iPad.)
So, that is how the Beelzebub puzzle got done. There are 12 or so unpublished at the moment (I’ve always worked well ahead), and I dare say if the puzzle doesn’t go ahead online they may appear here over the next few months.
More normal service next time round.