EJ's crossword blog
Crossword observations, views and revelations from Cyclops / Brummie

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Mar 11, 2013   Early Days
Having done an interview with Cyclops some time ago it seems a good idea to do one with my other alter ego, Brummie. However, since the main topic of this particular interview is to be my early experiences with solving and setting crosswords, I think it will work better if roles are switched and Brummie, a latecomer on the scene, interviews me. So, here goes.

Brummie: Let’s go right back: what’s your first memory of things crosswordy?
EJ: Well, I’d like to say “In the womb, hearing the ethereal words of my mother and father discussing the finer points of a Times cryptic clue.” However, crosswords simply weren’t a part of our household.

B:So, without parental encouragement how did you discover crosswords?
EJ: I must have seen them many times in newspapers, but was probably put off a little by their alien appearance. My first memory is of doing a prize crossword in the Childrens’ Newspaper. The clues would have been straight and I probably got a lot of help from my mother, but I remember feeling full of pride as I went off to post my weekly entry.

B:Did you win anything?
EJ: Oh no – the first of my disappointments in such matters. Shortly after this I started doing the crossword in the local Sunday paper. It had a prize of £50, or it might even have been £100 - good for today but colossal for that time.

B:Presumably not cryptic?
EJ: No, but it wasn’t exactly straight either. A fair number of the clues consisted of ambivalent definitions to answers that got little help from crossers in the grid. So, you might get a clue like “A poor man would __ very little money (4)” with _A_E in the grid. The answer could be HAVE or MAKE (or maybe even some other verb).

B:What was the point of that?
EJ: Well, the point was to make it seem easy (on the surface) to encourage lots of people to enter. In fact a third to half of the solution letters were pre-printed in the grid.

B:Ah, so the correct solution hung on those answers with ambiguous clues?
EJ: Quite – and now I come to think of it, there was an entry fee which, though small, probably more than covered the prize money given the number of entries.

B:So the crossword was, in effect, a game of chance?
EJ: Exactly, but with my childhood innocence I didn’t see that. I would spend ages on each of those ambiguous clues before entering an answer I felt could be fully justified from the clues’ wording. The solutions were published the following week, together with a so-called explanation of how the "correct" answers were arrived at. The tortuous, illogical reasoning behind the explanations would have me exploding with rage. It took a long time to cotton on to the fact that the whole thing was a cynical commercial exercise by the newspaper. Looking back, I'm sure the "correct" answers to ambiguous clues weren't decided until all the entries were in - then the combination of answers giving the lowest number of (prize-sharing) winners would be chosen.

B:But your interest in crosswords obviously survived. How?
EJ: Well, I was put off crosswords for a while but I see now that my fruitless solving wasn't wasted. In a perverse way, I was given an insight into how definitions could be worded obliquely, to put solvers off the track. This has become one of my favourite clueing devices. However, I always try to apply another lesson learned at the time: be fair to the solver! Such (cryptic) definitions, while misdirecting, should never unfairly mislead.

B: Let's move on: when was your first contact with a proper cryptic crossword?
EJ: I must have been about 13 when I started looking at the daily cryptic in the Birmingham Evening Mail. I'd just started learning German at school, and the cryptic clues might just as well as have been in a foreign language, for all my understanding!

B: But you had a go at them?
EJ: Well, it took a particular set of circumstances to jolt me into action. My mother got a part time job and often would not be home when I returned from school. I didn't have a key (my parents saw no need to fork out on getting one cut for me!). So I'd sit on the doorstep and read a copy of the Mail, retrieved from our letterbox. I'd work my way through until there was only the crossword left to look at. Sheer boredom forced to me have a crack at solving - at first just the easier clues in my head and before long the harder ones, entered in pencil with my school satchel for support.

B:So that must have been when you caught the cryptic bug?
EJ: Yes - in fact it wasn't long before I'd go straight to the crossword and ignore the rest of the paper. My solving skills were improving all the time.

B:But how did you manage with no one to guide you and presumably with no "how to solve cryptics" books available to you?
EJ: I picked up the fundamentals by working backwards from answers I'd guessed (answers I'd failed to get appeared in the next day's paper, of course). Even with their answer available, some clues baffled me, but I was greatly encouraged each time I managed to untangle the cryptic workings of a clue.

B:Ah! The grammar school boy learns the grammar of cryptic clueing!
EJ: And the best thing is I didn't realise I was undergoing an education - it was fun! On wet days I'd retire to the outside lavatory and pore over clues in the gloom, completely immersed - sorry, not the best word to use, given the location! - in my task.

B:Hmm, a rather humble, inauspicious setting for a solver and future setter of cryptics to learn the tricks of the trade in.
EJ: You can say that again! By heck, the budding setters of today don't know they're born!

B:It must have given you a good grounding, though, because you ended up getting your own puzzles published in the Birmingham Mail. How did that come about?
EJ: I'd dipped my toe into setting by composing "improved" versions of clues I'd found unsatisfactory as a solver. Then I'd clue any old word/phrase for the fun of it. But, even though the Birmingham Mail puzzle was entitled 'Readers Crossword', it was ages before I realised any reader could make a submission - even myself. I suppose what held me back was a certain working-class reticence, particularly strong in my family, that such things weren't for the likes of us.

B:How did you get over that reticence?
EJ: Through a growing confidence in myself as my clueing technique improved. To hell with false modesty - my clues were far better than many of the those in published puzzles!

B:Had you constructed and clued a complete puzzle by then?
EJ: No, so the grid-filling aspect came as a bit of surprise. The Mail required submissions on their standard grids, so at least I didn't perpetrate accidental two-letter words or isolated corners, etc. However, it still took me hours to get a fill I was happy with. I always hated the palaver of grid-filling with pencil, squared paper and much-used eraser! Thank heaven for the computer!

B:Some setters still prefer to use a similar old-fashioned approach, though, don't they?
EJ: Yes, and it's unfathomable to me. I might admire the work of such setters but it seems perverse to shun the help of a computer for the menial tasks. After all, pencil/paper/eraser are themselves relatively modern. Why not return to an even more simple era of feather plumes, papyrus or even a primitive carving tool and a handy rock?

B:Presumably that last bit was tongue in cheek?
EJ: Sort of.

B:Can you remember any of the entries or clues in that first puzzle?
EJ: Sadly, no. I don't even recall if it was accepted for publication or not.

B:A fine interviewee you are! A pivotal moment in your crossword career and you have no recollection. Hardly riveting stuff for our readers, is it?
EJ: Sorry about that. If my debut puzzle had been published, I assume I'd have remembered, so success must have come a little later.

B: Did you think you'd 'arrived' as a setter at that point?
EJ: Yes and no. Getting published confirmed I was good enough to make the grade - but the grade in the case of the Mail was not high. So any celebration would have been tempered by the realisation that it wasn't the same as getting a puzzle in one of the nationals.

B:Hmm, perhaps the beginnings of a bigger ambition were growing in you?
EJ: Possibly - but the world of the Guardian, Times and Telegraph - and even the Daily Mail and Express - seemed beyond my reach at the time. In any case, after a flurry of published puzzles, I started getting rejections. There'd been a change of crossword editor who apparently didn't like my stuff (or who - as I convinced myself - was accepting submissions only from a select band of friends and cronies!).

B:Whatever the reason it must have been a big setback.
EJ: Yes, I stopped setting for quite a few years - my time and thoughts were occupied anyway with 'real life', i.e. marriage, house DIY etc and career developments.

B:So what you got you back into setting?
EJ: I bought a copy of Games & Puzzles magazine to read on holiday and that issue happened to announce a prize competition for readers to submit a cryptic crossword. Entries had to include a certain word ('Chambers', the dictionary publisher, in this case). I was tempted, and my first puzzle in years was duly sent off. I didn't win but I achieved modest success. One of my clues that drew admiration was : "End of manned space flight? It doesn't bear consideration! (1,4,2,3,5)"  (Ans = A DROP IN THE OCEAN)

B:Blimey - that clue certainly shows its age!
EJ: Less cheek, you young whippersnappper! It was then that I felt I'd joined the big boys and I highered my sights as a setter.

B:So who were your targets?
EJ: Well, there was only one target, as far as I was concerned - the Guardian. At the time, I and a couple of work colleagues used to solve the Guardian crossword in our morning coffee break ( it usually took the afternoon break as well) and I came to regard it as the best cryptic around. I started to think I stood a chance of getting on the setters' team.

B:And so you submitted a puzzle?
EJ: Two or three, but each was returned, without comment as far as I recall. I later discovered a fatal error in one of them: the grid entry PHILOSOPHER lacked its second 'O'!

B:Oh dear! What then?
EJ: I decided to lie low for a bit. I had the superstitious notion I'd spiked my chances by volunteering my preferred pseudonym right at the outset, instead of waiting until publication was a reality. I hadn't been jinxed, of course, but I sometimes wonder if it was seen as a bit conceited on my part, which wouldn't have done my cause much good.

B:So that was the first time the 'Brummie' pseudonym saw the light?
EJ: Actually, no. I originally wanted to be called 'Ravel' in the Guardian. He's a composer I like a lot (so much more to him than Bolero!)and the idea was that ‘Ravel’ would set the knotty clues and successful solvers would 'unRavel' them.

B: Hmm ... Did you stop crossword production all together after the rejections?
EJ: More or less. My wife and I moved to London with our jobs and mine involved a lot of travelling. I did try the Birmingham Evening Mail again though. The Readers' Crossword had been dropped, I think, but my submissions for a new Saturday slot, closer to Guardian standard, began appearing regularly. I also had the odd cryptic appearing in various puzzle magazines.

B:And then you discovered the computer!
EJ: I bought a BBC 'B' Micro (having cut my teeth on a Sinclair ZX81), taught myself BBC Basic, and wrote a rudimentary crossword-creating program. Filling grids became more fun! And when (at enormous expense by the standards of the day - but paid for by my travelling expenses) I added a dot matrix printer, I could turn out fairly professional reproductions of those grids. This resulted in a higher acceptance rate by editors.

B: This is when you started doing themed crosswords for magazines other than puzzle ones?
EJ: Yes, computerisation made themed puzzles much easier to create and a new market was opened up to me. Surveying the racks of magazine titles in WH Smith's it seemed the world (well, the UK) was my oyster!

B: A new route to publication, but presumably the clues for those magazines would hardly have been Guardian standard. Wasn’t that a bit of a comedown?
EJ: Well, I saw it mainly as a means of keeping in practice while making a bit of cash on the side. As it happened, I soon came to see that composing thematic, not-too-difficult, cryptic clues was almost as rewarding mentally as doing top class clues for the ‘quality’ newspapers.

B:Not sure I see that: how about illustrating that comment with one or two clue examples?
EJ: I’d be happy to, but I’m thinking this whole business of creating puzzles for (non-puzzle) magazines is worthy of a piece in its own right. So, can we save that topic for a future blog and finally move on to my time, as Brummie, with the Guardian,

B:Certainly – I’m quite happy to take centre stage! However, it didn’t happen overnight, so perhaps you would set the scene for us.
EJ: There’s something satisfyingly circular about the circumstances. I’d been getting lots of puzzles published by many magazines and I finally felt like a proper professional. So, I had another crack at the Guardian, sending two puzzles for consideration. They weren’t automatically returned but they weren’t exactly gobbled up by the crossword editor (John Perkin at the time). He said: “while they have some ingenuity I don’t feel they are so good as to displace any produced by the regular team”. He offered to put me on the waiting list but advised me not to hold my breath!

B:So a temporary setback there.
EJ: Yes, but shortly after, when I approached Private Eye magazine, and listed my crossword credentials I was able to say I was on the Guardian’s reserve list (‘reserve’ sounds so much better than ‘waiting’, doesn’t it?!). I think the editor, Ian Hislop, was quite impressed by that.

B:Yes, indeed – and readers who haven’t already read the blog about that episode in your career might want to do so
here
EJ: After I’d been composing the Eye crossword for a couple of years or so, the Guardian’s crossword editor (Hugh Stephenson by that time) emailed his acquaintance/old colleague, Francis Wheen, who plays a big role on the Eye editorial team, about one of my (Cyclops) clues. Francis passed on the email to me and, since Hugh Stephenson had been complimentary about my Cyclops puzzles, I took the opportunity in my response to declare my long-held ambition to be on the Guardian team.

B:And he took you on there and then?
EJ: Not quite: I had to pass an audition with a couple of sample puzzles first. He said he’d publish one but although he liked the other one too, he thought it a bit too difficult even for a prize puzzle. Not long afterwards he came back to say that particular puzzle looked promising for the new online Genius competition just being set up. So, with some tweaking, one of my very first published Guardian submissions went into the Genius spot! An unusual piece of luck in my crossword career.

B:And I see now what you meant by your ‘something satisfyingly circular’ remark earlier: you got the Eye job more or less because of your ‘Guardian reserve list’ status and later your status as the Eye compiler helped land you a job with the Guardian!
EJ: Neat, eh?

B:And that’s when Brummie was born. Was there a special reason, apart from the obvious one [for non-Brits: Brummie = someone from Birmingham], why you chose that pseudonym?
EJ: I almost went with ‘Ravel’ but a slightly perverse part of me wanted to choose a name that was far removed from the ‘highbrow’, classical, learned, academic ones that most setters seem to use.

B:A bit of inverted snobbery there, perhaps?
EJ: Yes, a little, I have to admit. And, though I’m not a particularly proud citizen of Birmingham, I do think the city gets a lot of unfair criticism (less so over recent years), so it seemed a good idea to link the place with the prestigious institution of the Guardian Crossword.
In fact, I'm still waiting for the City Fathers to recognise my role in improving Brum's image - I was rather hoping to have my name in the city's Broad Street Walk of Stars alongside the likes of Ozzy Osbourne!"

B:A good note on which to end, I think. Thanks for the interview, EJ – and thanks for bringing me into the world!
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Feb 28, 2013   What's happened to the blog?
I don't suppose there are are legions of you out there on tenterhooks for my latest blog piece to appear, but some of you may have been dropping in over the past weeks in case there's been an update. Well, the news is that I'm hoping to get back to normal service (i.e. a new blog every two or three weeks) shortly. The blog has come to a temporary halt for several reasons: computer problems; household appliance problems; several new crossword commissions (always welcome, but time-consuming in the initial setting up); and a succession of winter colds that have reduced my (already slow) work rate.
The next blog is already well on the way to completion and I hope to have it online in the next week or so. It consists of an 'interview' with myself about my early days in crosswording up to when I got taken on by the Guardian.
      
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Jan 22, 2013   'Cryptic Definition' Clues
'Cryptic definition' is usually abbreviated to 'cd' in solving blogs, etc., so that's the abbreviation I'll use in this piece. Now that I've actually come to write the piece, I realise there might not be general agreement on what a cd is. For instance, this recent Audreus clue was described as a cd on a solver's blog:
Blunt warning (3-3) (Ans = TIP-OFF)
I can see why it might be thought of a as cd, but to me it's a double definition - in fact, a slightly cryptic def. plus a straight def.
So, I'd better explain what I'm calling a cd for the purpose of this blog. Now, a definition of a cryptic nature is often included as part of a clue, with an anagram, etc. making up the subsidiary element. However, I'm talking about a clue consisting solely of a single, misleading, definition. A celebrated example is Bar of soap (6,6) . I won't bother to hide the answer, as it's so well known: it is of course ROVER'S RETURN, the name of the pub in the long-running British soap opera, Coronation Street. That's just the sort of clue (if a rather superior example) I have in mind. My objections to this type of clue are:
It's immediately obvious what sort of clue it is;
There's usually something not quite right, a little too imprecise, about the definition (presumably to avoid being too easy and/or in order to make the "joke" work);
The answer can't be worked out; it has to guessed from the crossing letters.
I believe the three points above apply to the "Bar of soap" clue. (In this case, the imprecise bit of the definition is "bar" - the Rover's Return is a pub and just wouldn't - certainly not in its northern England location - be called a bar.) Whatever one's feeling about the brilliance of the joke, the clue itself scores zero, surely, from a solving point of view? The 'solver', having been (unfairly) misled, rather than misdirected, has only the comfort of appreciating the joke. I agree it's a very good joke, but the bar=pub stops it from being great. To deserve that accolade, the wording should absolutely nail the description of the Rover's Return, but instead we are invited to overlook a certain vagueness.
There! At last I've been able to put into words what has hitherto been a vague uneasiness about this much-lauded clue. It wasn't just envy, sour grapes, at a fellow setter producing an idea I'd never be able to come up with myself! That sense of being out of step with the majority opinion doesn't feel so bad now that I've set down my reasons. It would be nice to think those reasons have caused some of you to revise your high opinion of the clue. However, I sense even those who agree the clue does not give a satisfying solve will nevertheless continue to be won over by the penny-dropping joke - and dismiss my 'imprecise definition' criticism as nitpicking.
Let me make it clear I'm not having a go at particular setters. I'm not rubbishing the clues under discussion, either - they are clearly superior creations and preferable to many other clues one comes across. However, I am questioning the rather over-the-top praise that's lavished on them, considering they hinder rather than help solvers. Perhaps at this point I ought to give a couple of examples of cds I'm more happy with, the first being by the same setter as the Rover's Return clue, I believe.
Uplift spiritually (8) (Ans = LEVITATE)
This definition is pretty well spot on and thus gives a proper solving opportunity, rather than 'fill-in-the-blanks and guess'.
Another example, quoted on the excellent 
Best for Puzzles site, is
Breathtaking passage beneath a bridge (7) (Ans =  NOSTRIL)
This does not reveal itself too readily as a cryptic definition and, again, its wording is precise enough to give the solver (with a little lateral - or in this case, vertical, thinking) a decent chance.
Come to think of it, that last example is the sort of cd I prefer. True, it's not as concise nor as laugh-out-aloud as the 'bar of soap' clue but I rate 'solvability' over conciseness and wit every time. By praising clues like 'bar of soap' - and the equally famous Amundsen's forwarding address (4) [MUSH] - to the extent we do, aren't we putting the setter's cleverness above that essential quality of a good cryptic clue: a satisfying solving challenge?
This brings me onto the 'Year of the Crossword' celebrations in 2013 and the proposed awards. In his very good blog, Anax sounds a note of caution. He makes a good point about 'best clue' categories and the danger of divorcing a clue from the crossword in which it appears, depriving it of context and its important role in the process of grid completion. I have a further fear that since it's the cd clue of the sort criticized above that tends to be voted 'best', such awards will have us straying even further from the experience of actually solving a crossword puzzle. Inevitably in this celebration year such clues will, more than ever, be cherry-picked, lauded and ranked. It's a game we love to play of course, but it misses the real point of crosswords. Imagine a crossword stuffed with "brilliant" clues: wouldn't it be the worst solve ever? Let's not overlook the ordinary, humble, everyday cryptic clue's vital contribution to the whole wonderful (well, sometimes!) process of completing a puzzle.
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Jan 9, 2013   Loooooooooooooong Anagrams
I often feel that certain types of clues are too highly thought of by the crossword community and get more praise than they deserve. Not just the poor examples, but all such clues. Of course, personal taste plays a big part in shaping my views– and I'm as guilty as anyone in considering my tastes more ‘discerning’ than those of solvers who see things differently. However, that said, it doesn’t dispel my gut feeling of being ‘right’ and the conviction that eventually others will come round to my point of view. So, maybe it’s time to take a good hard look at the reasons behind that gut feeling.
In this blog, I’ll play safe and deal with the two clue types on which my views are likely to be least controversial. So, let’s look at the ‘Long Anagram’ and the ‘Cryptic Definition’ [cryp, defs. now have a separate
blog].
By ‘long’ I mean upwards of 25 letters, especially the ones of truly epic length inflicted on us poor solvers! It’s hard to see how any solver can enjoy this sort of clue – the longer the answer, the less the enjoyment, it seems to me. Invariably, the clue shouts out what type it is, thus removing one of the most satisfying challenges of a cryptic crossword. And there’s little solving enjoyment to follow. If the clue is not to be too easily solvable, then the definition has to be made slightly vague (or the answer obscure or esoteric). So, with little to go on, it means first having to solve other clues (of which there are proportionately fewer because of the large portion of the puzzle hogged by the long anagram answer!) to get some crossing letters. Then comes the rather mechanical slog of going through the permutations of the remaining letters of the anagram. Some solvers might well enjoy this bit, which is fair enough, but it’s not really what cryptics are about, is it? Personally, I’d use an electronic aid to save time – assuming I hadn’t already abandoned the puzzle. When the answer is finally entered in the grid, what then? Well, isn’t there inevitably a feeling of anti-climax?
At this point, you might well be thinking “but wouldn’t these objections of yours be offset by the discovery of a clever, apposite anagram that chimed neatly with the answer and raised a smile”? Well, actually, no. A clever anagram doesn’t contribute to the solving process and if I feel I’ve been short-changed in that respect, I’m in no mood to admire the setter’s skill. (And if one is to be honest, it’s not particularly difficult, given the large number of letters to work with, the availability of a computer or other aid, and a bit of time on your hands, to come up with an apt anagram.) As a solver I want a satisfying challenge – something to get my teeth into, not just the equivalent of an after-dinner party piece from the setter!
Now, here’s where I confess that I’ve not been above setting the odd long anagram clue, myself. Not often (never, as far as I can recall, in a Guardian puzzle) and the answers have been of fairly modest length. Here’s an example (30 letters) that might well have made it into a Brummie  if I hadn’t already used it elsewhere:
What's heresy to Dufy and Le Douanier - rudely questioning Victorian painting (3,4,3,3,4,3,4,6) Answer: AND WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER (highlight)
The answer is the painting by William Frederick Yeames done around 1868, very popular - especially with visitors to the  Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
How pleased I was with this one! I’d managed to include the names of two artists (sort of contemporaries of Yeames) in the anagram fodder, and the use of ‘questioning’ had produced a cleverly misleading definition. But I was guilty of just what I’ve been complaining about in this blog: being too intent on showing off my ‘cleverness’ to consider the solver’s point of view. Looking at the clue again, I see the hallmarks are there. "Anagram" is proclaimed by the parade of numbers in brackets, indicating the solution length, and by the length of the clue itself. The clincher, of course, being the anagram indicator ‘rudely’, sitting pretty in the middle. There might be a slight hesitation as the solver works out which end the definition is at, but I think most solvers would see it pretty quickly. Some might even get the answer straight away, though most would be stumped more than likely. Though the answer couldn’t be regarded as an esoteric bit of information – the painting would be recognisable by many solvers, I think – the title is probably not commonly known (certainly not with that leading ‘And ..’, which I didn’t know about until I did the research). So, for many solvers, it would be a case of juggling letters and guesswork. I might hope that there’d be some satisfaction when the answer was finally found – a painting fondly recalled, or even maybe discovered for the first time. But would that have justified the time spent? And, with the best will in the world, I can’t claim that my ‘clever’ anagram and definition would bring much cheer.
So where’s this leading? Am I suggesting that all long anagram clues should be banned? Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to see ‘big’ entries like the example above, disappear. There are many good phrases, titles of books, films, plays, songs, paintings, etc. which can enrich crosswords. Used in moderation, they add to the variety of intriguing aspects that make cryptic crosswords worth doing.
The trouble is, it’s very difficult indeed to clue these long phrases without resorting to an anagram. A cryptic definition is probably the shortest alternative but even when it’s possible to use one, the setter runs the inevitable risk of either giving the answer away or leaving the solver with virtually no help at all. Anyway, I don’t like cryptic definitions (more on that later)! A double definition has its problems too, not least that the clue will probably run to half a dozen lines. That more or less leaves just the ‘charade’ clue, for which the answer has to be chopped up into segments but almost certainly this produces a gigantic clue with a complex collection of elements that, once again, has the frustrated solver resorting to guesswork.
I see I’m talking myself into accepting the anagram as the least bad option in most cases. It’s more or less the long anagram or nothing, if we’re to allow long, multi-word solutions. Oh dear, is this blog going to be a waste of time? Well, at least I’ve let off a bit of steam and I hope it’s given readers something to think about – especially those who, judging by comments in various solving blogs, seem to be a fan of such clues. Let me finish this section by making a plea to all setters (me too): please don’t use these very long entries just for the novelty value, or to break some record, or because you’ve spotted a clever anagram. As to solvers, I’d ask you think before you heap praise on the setter of one of these monster clues: was there really that much skill involved? And, more importantly, did you honestly enjoy the solving process?
[NB. 'Cryptic Definitions', originally intended to be covered in this blog, now has a blog to itself.]
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Dec 10, 2012   Week and Weaker?

I'm a rather sensitive soul, upset more than I should be by adverse criticism of my clues, etc. I've learnt, however to repress the hurt feelings, put the matter behind me and just get on with the next crossword (as all setters do, no doubt). But sometimes the matter just won't stay 'put behind', especially when there's a strong feeling the criticism wasn't justified. (Well, that's not entirely honest of me: I often feel more miserable when I have to admit to myself the critic has a valid point!) These old episodes have a habit of resurfacing from time to time, and I find myself replaying the arguments in my head. A particularly persistent example (despite its minor importance) goes back to my June 2010 online Genius puzzle (84). I'll relate the story here, in the hope of raising a debating point and – who knows? - laying the ghost.

In this puzzle, a number of clues needed an additional word in order to be solvable (anagrams of the missing words being placed, redundantly, in other clues).
One such clue was: "Time" Dicky (4)
This needed 'said' to be added; thus "Time" Dicky said (4) led to the grid entry WEEK

What seemed to me to be a straightforward clue, given the special context, turned out to be quite controversial, as can be seen from the following, post-closing date, review by the Crossword Editor:
"... June's Genius ... produced a small storm (or large flurry) of protests that the clue for 10 across had two possible correct answers ... The protesters who had managed to work out that the word missing from the clue must be "said" (an anagram of "dais" in the clue for 22 down) argued that, if it was placed in the clue as '"Time" said Dicky', the solution could be either WEEK (time) or WEAK (dicky). As this was what my lawyer friends would call an arguable point (or, at least, an arguably arguable point) we have accepted either solution as correct. Brummie and I, though, tentatively offer a defence that there is in fact only one correct solution, namely WEEK. Our position is based on the assertion that there should only be one unambiguously correct solution to a properly constructed crossword clue and that, therefore, the missing word ("said") must be placed at the end of the clue to give: "Time", Dicky said: because the alternative ("Time" said Dicky) holds out two possible answers, which cannot have been intended. "But I am more [than] willing to accept that arguments of this sort are exactly what give my learned friends a bad name with the public, so I shan't use it again."

I admit that prior to the complaints, I hadn't spotted that WEAK also fitted in the grid (the clueing process rarely involves looking at the solution as it actually appears in the grid, of course). As far as I was concerned, there was one answer (WEEK) and only one place 'said' could go - right at the end. Rule number one for setters when it comes to homophone clues is to leave the solver in no doubt which is the sound-alike word and which is the grid entry. So, 'said' was put at the end of the clue in the explanations I sent to the editor with the submitted puzzle. In retrospect, I might kick myself as a professional for overlooking the WEAK possibility, but I’ve come to think it would have made little difference if I had. Indeed, I wish now that the defence the Ed. and I put forward had been more forceful (assuming I could have persuaded him to take that course) and that WEEK had been the only acceptable answer allowed.

Here's why I feel that way:
Solvers who submitted entries for this puzzle would have fallen into three categories:
(a) those who entered WEAK (or indeed, WEEK) without realising there might be an alternative.
(b) those who spotted the possible ambiguity, took the view “who knows what the setter wants us do with this one?”, and tossed a coin, as it were.
(c) those who spotted the possible ambiguity but reasoned that putting 'said' in the middle, rather than at the end would have resulted in an unsound clue. That made WEEK the only entry that could be defended (and woe betide the setter and Crossword Ed. if they tried to argue otherwise!).
Now, Genius puzzles are of course aimed at experienced, accomplished solvers. Bearing that in mind, I would argue only category 'c' solvers truly rose to the challenge on this occasion. Those solvers who took a less thorough approach, ought, if they think about it, have no justification for feeling disgruntled.
Incidentally, for all I know, the prize winner was a (lucky) member of either 'a' or 'b' category. I do hope, however, he (for a 'he' it was) was a category 'c'!


Yes, I realise it's a pretty trivial matter (whose importance I've played up in order to get material for this blog) but I believe it does raise an interesting issue. So, if there are readers still with me, I ask, in that way so beloved of the BBC website:
Were you or any of your loved ones/friends affected by this WEEK/WEAK quandary? If so, please share your story.
Do you think my core argument is flawed? Then please email your counter-argument.
ONE RESPONSE SO FAR to the blog above 
"I agree with most of what you said about the WEAK/WEEK debate. However, I think it was wise to allow both answers and here's my explanation.
Regular solvers of your puzzles would know that you wouldn't write the clue so that the solver had two options when entering the answer in the grid; hence, your "untreated" clue must have "said" at the end which removes the ambiguity. However, this relies on the solver knowing your style: if I'd never done one of your puzzles before, I might think you were a bit sloppy with your clueing and so just write the answer WEAK into the grid without thinking of the alternative.
"
[Neil W 17 Dec]
" "
""

   
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Nov 26, 2012  Interview with Cyclops (Part 1)
EJ: Welcome, Cyclops. It's great to have this opportunity of —

Cyclops: Oh get on with it.

EJ: Going back to the beginning, how did you manage to persuade the editor of Private Eye to take you on as the magazine’s crossword setter?

C: Ah! The tale about claiming to be a stalwart setter with the Guardian etc., though quite unpublished by any of the national papers at the time? I’m not repeating that old myth.

EJ: Well, we did rather talk up our role as a reserve setter on the Guardian’s list.

C: Not the same thing at all, old boy. And you surely don’t think he fell for that? As an editor, he’d know that being on a publication’s “reserve list” amounts to **** all [edited by EJ]. Anyhow, less of the “we” – I hadn’t come into being at that point, it was just you, mate. So I think you should be the one to tell readers about that so-called sales pitch.

EJ: Hmm, that takes me back. Getting that phone call from the Eye office: “Ian Hislop wants to talk to you about your crossword suggestion ... putting you through”. This is it: he’s obviously keen. Now, the thing is to forget his celebrity status. Treat him like any other editor and negotiate the best possible fee, and a full page spread, of course ...
C: But you didn’t get a chance to deploy your ‘negotiating skills’, did you, because after keeping you hanging on for ages, the office person came back with: ”Ian says sorry, something urgent has come up and he can’t talk to you after all”. Which put you in your rightful place!

EJ: Well, I assumed he’d just been served with another writ, or something. Anyhow, they went on to say he’d asked for a pilot puzzle ...

C: ... on a ‘no like, no fee’ basis.

EJ: Well I wouldn’t put it quite like that. Suffice to say, I was greatly encouraged, as I could now get on with what I knew I was good at: making crosswords. And I was going to make sure this vital first one for the Eye would be a cracker!

C: Oh dearie me! How grand we sound! You’ve clearly forgotten that ten seconds after putting the phone down, sheer terror set in. Pacing up and down, mind racing with the enormity of what you’d let yourself in for. Their seven-day deadline (you’d been oh so confident of meeting) suddenly a sword of Damocles. Not one even half-good idea for the bloody crossword. Let’s face it, you were a gibbering wreck.

EJ: Well, yes, I experienced some self-doubt – but so do many other creative people. Isn’t it almost a precondition for producing worthwhile work?

C: Do me a favour.

EJ: Look, I started on the puzzle almost immediately. It wasn’t long before I had some promising grid entry ideas ...

C: Yes, ideas only - and then a complete halt, as you stared at the acres of white squares like a scared rabbit. That’s when yours truly emerged from the womb, so to speak, to take charge of the situation.

EJ: Ah, the birth of Cyclops!

C: Except that’s not the pseudonym you chose at the time, is it?

EJ: Don’t start on that again. What was so bad, anyway, with calling you ‘Cr—

C: Returning quickly to the subject, if I hadn’t stepped in to get you off the hook, you’d never have got that pilot off to Ian Hislop. And I had to perform a similar rescue act shortly after, when he came back with his verdict.

EJ: Oh yes, that return phone call – this time to my place of work, actually (I still worked for BT then). He said he liked the puzzle, especially the main entry ...

C: Thanks to me, of course. A killer entry and a clincher of a clue, if I say so myself. It was based on a topic featured in almost every issue of Private Eye around that time: [solution hidden by EJ - to see, move mouse over space to the right] MATRIX CHURCHILL . The clue was:
'Mother Teresa's first meeting with trouser-dropper, Winnie – they rolled out the barrel (6,9)
[EJ: explanation (hidden) is below:
MA/T/(Brian)RIX (Winnie)CHURCHILL [Matrix Churchill is a UK company who supplied 'Supergun' parts (hence "rolled out the barrel") to Saddam Hussein – see the 'Arms-to-Iraq' Wiki article, etc. Also, solvers were meant to think of Winnie Mandela.]
EJ: My very first Private Eye clue ever!

C: My clue – and if it hadn’t been for that, I'm sure you’d never have heard from the magazine again. As it was, you’d almost blown it by cleaning up some of my clues before submitting the pilot. You’d managed to higher the whole tone of the puzzle, which was hardly an inspired strategy with the Eye! How did Ian Hislop describe your cleaned up clues? Oh yes, "too Daily Telegraphish" – I could have died.

EJ: I have to agree with you there: most embarrassing. He asked me to re-do several clues and ring back with them before the mag. went to press – in thirty minutes time!

C: And, of course, on putting the phone down you immediately went into your scared rabbit act again. Fortunately, by this time, I was getting better at imposing my personality and was able to save the situation.

EJ: I can still remember the last of those revised clues: During sex, pelicans kick out (5) [EXPEL]. I've quite forgotten how I'd clued it originally.

C: Don't worry, I'm sure it was best forgotten.

EJ: So, I rang back and that was it – accepted. Publication would go ahead just as soon as a suitable pseudonym was chosen. I'd given some thought to this already, of course, and was keen on 'Cross Eyes'.

C: Bloody 'Cross Eyes' – a right plonker that would have made me look! When he raised the question of a pseudonym, I had to get you to bite your tongue. Good job, too, because he was able to get in with his own suggestion first. Thus was 'Cyclops' christened, and your pathetic effort well and truly buried.

EJ: So, there you have it: I was to be published in a prestigious magazine and I'd finished the phone call by exchanging pleasantries with its prestigious editor, star of Have I Got News For You. The rest is history, as they say.

C: But you'd forgotten something, hadn't you? Just the small matter of the fee – you know, that key aspect you were going to apply your great negotiating skills to.

EJ: Oh yes – silly me! Too overwhelmed to think about the practicalities. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a decent cheque just over a week later.
But enough of reminiscences: let's move on, shall we?

C: What? You're proposing to extend this pathetic interview? No chance! Piece of advice for you, EJ, first rule of interviewer: BE IN CONTROL! Sorry, mate, I'm doing a John Nott.

EJ: But we've hardly made a start. Look, there's so much more readers of this blog will want to know, like – oh dear, he's gone.

Ah well, maybe I can persuade Cyclops back in the future. Sorry it's a short blog this time. I'll try and add a short piece later, so do have a look back if you want to. In fact the first 'addendum' is below.


Wordplay in song lyrics
Stephen Sondheim’s playfulness with words is a hallmark of his lyrics and it’s no surprise he’s a cryptic crossword fan – indeed has produced cryptic crosswords for the New Yorker. His musicals are strongly laced with humorous wordplay, even in that very dark work, Sweeney Todd. The following extracts are from ‘A Little Priest’, in which Mrs Lovett first floats the idea of personalizing, you might say, the contents of her pies. As she and Sweeney warm to the idea, they imagine what sort of pie fillings people from different walks of life would make.
...
MRS LOVETT: Here we are, now! Hot out of the oven!
SWEENEY TODD: What is that?

MRS L: It's priest. Have a little priest.
S T : Is it really good
MRS L: Sir, it's too good, at least!
Then again, they don’t commit sins of the flesh. So, it’s pretty fresh.
S T : Awful lot of fat.
MRS L : Only where it’s sat.

And later:
S T : What is that?
MRS L :
It’s fop. Finest in the shop.
And we have some shepherd's pie peppered
With actual shepherd on top!
And I’ve just begun ...
Here's the politician, so oily
It's served with a doily,
Have one!
"

Of course, you have to hear these lyrics and see the performance to get the best from them – there are plenty of clips on youtube. I intend to add examples from other lyricists later. Maybe one or two suggested by you: let me know if you have an example (fairly short, though, please, and relevant to the theme of wordplay that echoes the pleasure of a good cryptic clue).


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Sept 28, 2012 Introductory blog
Too many crossword blogs already? Maybe, but I think I have something different to bring - I certainly don't mean to duplicate material (of a good standard, in the main) already out there. For one thing, readers will get to discover some aspects of my personal side. I've tended to keep a low profile in the crossword world, rarely attending gatherings and refraining from posting on e.g. the Guardian and Fifteensquared sites, even when tempted to respond to solvers' comments about my puzzles.

This blog will enable me to reveal e.g. my approach as a setter and my thoughts on criticism (good and bad) of my work. It's an opportunity to set down views (often going against those held by the majority, I believe) on various aspects of cryptic clues. The pieces will tend to be longer than average, as the aim is to go into topics fairly deeply.

Now, will it get lots of readers? ... er, probably not. So, why am I bothering?

It must be because I'm a frustrated writer. I once had great hopes of writing for TV: with all the arrogance of a modestly-talented novice, I was going to inject new life into television comedy and drama. After my sixth script was returned with the now-familiar rejection slip, I decided crossword setting offered better prospects. I was spurred to go out and really sell myself as a crossword compiler. When I plucked up the courage to offer my services to Private Eye, and was taken on by Ian Hislop, my 'career' took off, leading eventually to that long-cherished dream - a place on the Guardian's setters' team.

The blood sweat and tears put into producing those reiected TV scripts weren't wasted, though. I'd discovered how exhilarating the actual process of writing can be: making a blank page come alive with ideas and images out of one's own head. The pleasure, too, in the craft of honing a sentence or piece of dialogue; of trying to express one's thoughts succinctly and precisely. This lesson can of course, be put to use in my clue writing - but the urge to do 'proper' writing persists. Since the commissioned TV sitcom or the published novel aren't going to happen, here's the blog!

Yes, just a blog, but the same commitment and enthusiasm that went into my scripts will be put into this crossword-related miscellany. I've often found that I don't know what my views on a particular subject really are until I come to write them down. So I hope to surprise myself as well as my readers. I aim to write about things that should genuinely interest my intended audience. There'll be personal stuff but mostly crossword-related - no ego trips or whimsical anecdotes. So, what will I be writing about? Here are some of my intended topics:

My approach to clueing.
My reaction to criticism (good and bad) of my own and other setters' clues.

That old 'Ximenean' / 'Libertarian' clues thing.
Why I dislike certain types of clues that are generally highly praised.
'Insensitive' or 'offensive' clues/answers

Random observations on solvers' forums such as on the Guardian Crossword site and Fifteensquared.

How straight definition clues can require the same level of skill to set as Guardian-level cryptic ones..

The debate about solvers resorting to Google and other web resources.

Crossword theme and clue ideas while ballroom dancing.
That's enough to be going on with. I've certainly got myself interested - hope your appetite has been whetted too.


      
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