EJ's crossword blog
Crossword blogs Oct - Dec 2012 from Cyclops / Brummie

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Nov 11, 2012   Offensive, inexcusable clues?
[NB. When "clue" appears below in red, 'mouse over' it to remind yourself of the wording]

Some time ago, a Private Eye reader cancelled his subscription because of one of my Cyclops clues. It seems he'd been tiring of the magazine's style, anyway, and my clue was the last straw. The guilty clue was:
 Hawking produced this: Depth of earth + Time + Length + earth (7)
  [to see answer, highlight the following blank space: SPITTLE ]
(You might want to consider your reaction to the clue before reading on.)

For some considerable time I have been getting more and more annoyed with your puerile attempts at humour. In particular the repetitive twisting of firms' and individual's names. That is just stupid and boring.
I find crossword clue 1 across in number 409 is very personal to a very gifted,but grievously handicapped man,and too abusive and cruel to ignore.
Please cancel my subscription immediately and refund any amount,no matter how small, that is due to me.

Although Ian Hislop saw that the correspondent (whom I'll call Mr X) had missed the point of the clue, he took the matter seriously and asked me to respond "politely and carefully" to Mr X. Here's what I wrote:
Dear Mr X
I'm the crossword setter 'Cyclops' and Ian Hislop has asked me to respond to your email of 27 Jan. I presume the clue to which you refer is actually 9 ac. ("Hawking produced this: Depth of earth + Time + Length + earth"). The answer, of course, is SPITTLE, arrived at by SPIT(a spade's depth of earth) + T(ime) + L(ength) + E(arth).
The clue was in no way intended to disparage Stephen Hawking (whom I presume you had in mind), a man I much admire and greatly sympathise with. In fact, 'hawking' means 'forcing up phlegm, etc. from the throat', so the definition part of the clue 'Hawking produced this' leads to the answer SPITTLE'. Of course, I wanted to mislead solvers into thinking of the man, rather than the action, and that's why I gave the cryptic part of the clue a mathematical flavour. So, in my clue (Stephen) Hawking is, quite appropriately, associated with mathematics. It is 'hawking', the verb, which is associated with spittle.
I hope that this explanation will enable you see that the clue is not abusive or cruel and that you will reconsider your subscription cancellation request.

   and Mr X's response:
I fully understood your "very clever" clue in all its dimensions but while hawking is "bringing up phlegm from the throat" spittle is (C.O.D.) "saliva,especially as ejected from the mouth". "Drooling" or "slavering" are most unattractive and offensive.
If Mr Hislop cares to publish my original E mail and your response he may get some feedback revealing whether or not others agree with me or not. As I will not be a reader I won't know.
I look forward to receiving my refund.

   [The three messages above are reproduced in full and have not been edited]

It strikes me that Mr X most certainly did not properly understand my clue (or if he did, then he wilfully chose to bend the interpretation to support his accusation). He has a point that 'hawking' is, strictly, to produce phlegm rather than spittle (though the two words are often used interchangeably). However, extending that to "drooling" and "slavering" is a gross misrepresentation of the clue. In fact, doesn't it suggest that it's Mr X, rather than Cyclops, who's fixated on the physical manifestations of Stephen Hawking's condition? Indeed, the 'spittle' personal connection never occurred to me when I produced this clue. Hawking's ideas are what interest me, and the only 'physical' aspect of the man I really notice is that computerised voice, of course, in which those ideas are delivered.

One of the clues in my Brummie puzzle published in the Guardian in October 2012 came under a similar attack. (By an odd coincidence, this, too, was the first of the across clues and also numbered 9). The clue was:
Area of the Underground bounded by the Circle Line that could be blown up? (5,4)
(once again, highlight blank space to the right for the ans. INNER TUBE)
Now, given the context of the blog, you may well have guessed the nature of the criticism, but I wonder if you'd have made the connection otherwise? Here's what the puzzle's blogger at fifteensquared had to say about the clue:
"A rather elaborate cryptic definition and literal interpretation, with a flippant reference to the Tube bombings which I find inexcusable"

I was quite shocked on reading this, as the connection with the terrible event had not occurred to me in the clueing process – or indeed at the review stage later. The analysis of the clue is oddly-worded and I wonder if, as in the case of Mr X, it's trying somehow to reinforce a perceived callousness in the clue? For the record, this is a double definition clue: the first def. suggests 'Inner Tube' as a term that might conceivably be used to describe the central area of the Underground. (It's "elaborate" because I didn't want to make the clue easy by simply using e.g. 'Central area of the Underground', the 'central' suggesting INNER too readily.) The second, main, definition is of course 'that could be blown up', referring to inflating an inner tube. The clue makes no reference to the Tube bombing. Its solvability in no way depends on a knowledge of the incident. So how does the blogger justify calling it an inexcusably flippant reference?

At this point, supporters of my critic might well be thinking; "Come off it, you know very well what you were trying to make us think – just look at the clue's surface reading!" Well, if that had been my intent, isn't the clue rather feebly worded? Surely I would have made it more suggestive, e.g. by being more specific about the Underground location; by using a stronger verb than 'could be' and adding an exclamation mark? Given the wording actually used, a "literal interpretation" would have to be:
'the whole of the central Underground area, that could (theoretically) be blown up'.

In fact, there is another possible interpretation: 'the central area of the Underground that could be blown up, ie magnified (on a Tube map, for the benefit of tourists, etc'). Frankly, I think this interprepretation is more justifiable than the one made by my critics!

Of course, I do see that it's possible to make the mental connection with the actual Tube bombing (though I believe the majority of posters, like me, did not make that connection). But that doesn't entitle critics to jump to the worst conclusion. And that prompts the thought that, as in the Mr X case, the 15squared blogger automatically presumes guilt on my part. What evidence is there that I'm that sort of person? Surely the comment should have been worded something like (my additions in italics):
"... with an apparent flippant reference to the Tube bombings which if intended by the setter I would find inexcusable."?

Am I making too much of this? As someone putting his work out for public consumption (and getting paid for it) should I not learn to take the flak? Agreed, but I also think critics expressing their views in a public arena like 15squared have a responsibility to substantiate accusations of this nature.

However, let's leave aside the matter of whether or not the "flippant reference" was intentional. It might be contended that what is inexcusable is my failure to see the connection or, if I did notice it, not to change the clue. Well, I'd deny that the connection should be obvious to any right-thinking person (as I think is implicit in my critic's comment). I was focused on the mechanics of the clue rather than interpretations of the surface reading, but even if the Tube incident had entered my mind, I'd have regarded it as a rather tenuous connection. Just because a link can be made doesn't mean it must be made.

Had I known at the clueing stage what I know now, would I have rewritten the clue? The answer is "no". All right, some solvers have been reminded of the Tube incident, but why should any of them feel offended? There's nothing disrespectful in the clue's wording. I would never make a gratuitous, jokey reference to a terrible event for the sake of a 'good clue', but it's just not on to abandon a perfectly sound, innocuous clue idea to avoid possibly offending the (misplaced, wrong-headed I'd say) sensitivities of certain solvers. I set about constructing this cryptic clue as I would any other. It consists of one offbeat and one slightly misleading definition. These two elements have to be knitted together to give a plausible surface reading, as is the convention. I'm afraid my critic pounced on a certain narrow interpretation of that surface, and then went on to attribute, with no supporting evidence, the worst motive to the setter. My only aim was to get a clue that worked and which I hoped would give solvers a satisfying challenge. I resent being taken to task if someone chooses to go beyond the normal solving process to suit their own agenda.

I don't want to give the impression the purpose of this blog is just to get back at my critics. Indeed, I would accept this could be an instance of the blogger 'rushing into print' without giving too much thought to the effect of the comment. However, I believe this case, and the Mr X case, have implications that go beyond the rights and wrongs of a couple of my clues. That's why I've gone to some length to explain the thinking/intentions behind the clues and to try to show why critics have jumped to the wrong conclusion. That's enough for now, though - I'll no doubt return to the subject in a future blog, taking a more general look at 'insensitive/tasteless' clues.

I would nevertheless like to hear your views, particularly from those who still disagree with me. What I'd really like to know is how, exactly, the INNER TUBE clue's surface can be said to allude to a specific incident (rather than being a generalised observation), and in what sense is it "flippant" anyway?

I'm conscious that this has been a rather 'serious' article, so to lighten the mood, I'll leave you with an extract from another poster's comments on the INNER TUBE clue:
"... since something referring to inflated or inflation (in an economic sense – doesn’t the area described include the financial district?) could have been used, we’d have been spared this kerfuffle over offense and intent."

Well, that ingenious suggestion made me smile. I hope it was made tongue-in-cheek.
YOUR RESPONSES to the blog above   (** indicates awaiting permission to show responder's name/pseudonym)
"As solvers are we expected to guess the inner thoughts of the compiler; thoughts not in any way stated in the clue.
And then be seriously offended by such thoughts which s/he might or might not have had?
[ **16 Nov ]
"... every sympathy and support for your position with the people who read weird things into your clues, they probably are the same people who wind records backwards to find satanic messages. On the other hand you should, like sensible actors, never read your reviews, even though that is difficult these days."
[from Otherstuff 17 Nov ]
"I remember your Inner Tube clue from when it first appeared. For your records please be advised that I am among those who:
a) are living in U.K.; b) recall vividly the shock and outrage of the London '7/7' bombings;
but c) hit upon and appreciated the bicycle wheel/magnification semantics of the clue and didn't even think of the alternative interpretation until reading this hubbub today.
[from jvector 20 Nov]

Oct 29, 2012   Quick steps to being a crossword setter
I invite you to picture the following scene:
A gloomy Autumn afternoon in Dudley, West Midlands. In the main public room of the Town Hall a tea dance is in progress. A 'Saunter Together' sequence dance is announced and elderly couples take to the floor. Introductory bars of the music start up; the dance organiser, mindful of the frail physical state of many of the attendees, adjusts the speed on her special CD player to an even more sedate level. Suddenly, the edgy sound of a chair being pushed back pierces the air as Cyclops rises to survey the ballroom. The dancers look across nervously. The notorious setter of Private Eye crosswords advances resolutely towards the assembled pairs, an intense glare in his eyes ...
... and pours scorn on the pathetic scene in ripe language redolent of his Private Eye  clues?
Well, that couldn't be further from the truth, I admit, rather bashfully. For this is the real me, my Cyclops persona, deprived of its Eye crossword context, an impotent shadow of itself. My resolute air a mask, a doomed attempt at confidence-boosting ("this time I won't mess up"). The intense stare a betrayal of the desperate battle in my head to remember the order of dance steps. And therein lies the true cause of the other dancers' nervousness. With sinking hearts, they know my inept footwork will wreck their choreographic patterns and smooth progress. Their fears are realised when I lead my unfortunate partner to a too-tight gap between couples, arriving at my start position one fatal beat after the sequence has got under way.

But stop! This has become the sort of whimsical personal anecdote I said I was not going to inflict on readers, when my intent was (a) to show that in real life I'm nothing like the (nasty, foul-mouthed, some would say) Cyclops the setter and (b) to establish a background to this article. OK, time to reveal the crossword connection ...

A couple of years ago, my wife and I took up ballroom dancing, to our amused amazement. Even more to our amazement, we caught the bug utterly and completely. So much so that the hours spent on lessons, practice, and more practice, travelling to dances, etc. were eating into the time we should be putting into producing crosswords. Something had to be done. It's obvious, I thought – make more use of the time on the actual dance floor. While I'm quickstepping round the room, on autopilot as it were, my conscious mind can be working on clues! Many years ago, an esteemed Times crossword setter was featured on TV using a similar approach. Well, OK, it happened to be gardening in his case, but if it worked for him then it could for me. And maybe an exciting, never-seen-before, clueing style would emerge from this radical modus operandi.

Of course, even as these notions were going through my head, they were tempered by considerations of a more practical nature. My wife's eye-rolling when the idea was announced to her brought me further down to earth. Nevertheless, there was certainly potential there, so I set about jotting down a short list of unclued words from a crossword I was working on, ready for the upcoming dance. The following day, I stood at the edge of the dance floor going over the words to be clued. Escorting my wife onto the floor, I was glad I'd had the good sense not to choose a Cyclops puzzle – perish the thought of my mouthing (as I'm prone to do when sounding out a grid entry for clueing inspiration) choice expressions like "Balls" and "All piss and wind", as we wove our way round fellow dancers. Ah, a waltz! A nice gentle introduction for the cruciverbal experiment.

My very first steps revealed the flaw in the scheme. With a "D'oh!" feeling, I realised that, far from dancing on autopilot, I had to keep my wits about me at all times: avoiding other couples; trying to anticipate their next moves; assessing if there was space enough to attempt a whisk, wing and chassis before the dreaded corner was reached; and a whole host of other situation appraisals and decisions. Oh, and making frantic adjustments to recover from my footwork gaffes, too. A few dances later, with not a single clue idea, and my exasperated wife threatening to walk out on me, I was forced to abandon the idea.

Now, there is a happy ending as it happens. I did discover it's possible to work on clues and still strut my stuff, if I allow ideas to simmer away at an unconscious level. I just have to remember (something I'm bad at) to have pen and paper on hand to jot down the results on re-taking my seat. It's been pretty successful and I usually return home with a crop of useful clueing ideas, if not actual finished clues. Another benefit is the theme ideas I've come up with (of a terpsichorean nature, mainly) . Indeed, one of my crosswords had TERPSICHOREAN itself as a grid entry, for which the clue's anagrammatical element was 'I echo partner's movement' with an allusion to Fred and Ginger, on whom the puzzle was based. Then there was the prize crossword featuring types of dance, each one of which had a more common meaning (e.g. 'hop', 'fling'].

My latest published Brummie puzzle, in fact, included THREE-FOUR TIME, for which my clue was: Therefore Tim dances outside university in which waltzes are played (5-4,4). However I'm not anxious to talk about this, as many solvers (well, the regular posters on the Guardian and 15squared sites, anyway) complained the puzzle was too easy. They seemed to have waltzed through it [boom boom!]. One poster derided my 'three-four time' clue for having a ridiculously easy definition. Not a great clue I admit, but indications I'd had at the time of clueing suggested the 3/4 time - waltz connection was not all that well known.
(What I need now is one of those polling facilties for readers to say if they knew it or not).

The dancing angle has even made it into a Private Eye puzzle. Well, STRICTLY COME DANCING with its first two suggestive words was obvious fodder for Cyclops, wasn't it?
[Allow me to say at this point that my wife and I are most emphatically not fans of 'Strictly'. We belong to that very small minority of people who are at an utter loss to understand its appeal. We took up dancing despite, not because of, the TV programme!]
I think the clue I came up with is pretty mild by Eye standards, so I reproduce it here (you'll have to highlight the blank space below to read it, though - that way, those who think they might be offended can just go on to the next bit).
Coupling on TV: after dominatrix-fashion orgasm, political party enters sound as a bell

But now, if you'll excuse me, I must get on the dance floor. A foxtrot has just started. Oh, I love this number .. what's it called? Of course: I'm Beginning to See the Light. Hmm, 'light' ... crossword light! I feel another theme coming on. And then there's 'Trip the light fantastic' ...

I can't finish, though, without an apology to certain readers who I know will be disappointed by this piece. Firstly, a "sorry" to would-be crossword setters, lured by the title and expecting a tutorial – but, hey, a blogger's got to grab readers from the very outset, right? Commiserations, also, to would-be dancers who stuck with my piece in the hope of picking up tips on floorcraft, etc. By way of compensation, I offer you, for a quite reasonable fee, my yet-to-be-published, invaluable guide: Ballroom Techniques to Avoid At All Costs.

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Oct 17, 2012 A cryptic clue from start to bitter end
A question often put to setters is "what makes a good/successful clue?".
Orlando's succinct response in a recent Alan Connor 'Meet the Setter'
blog was "Wit. Concision. Precision." - and who would argue with that? Certainly not I. So, obviously, it's those qualities I keep at the forefront of my mind when I come to craft a clue, isn't it? Er, well, I do try, really I do, but the reality, as in most of life's endeavours, is very different from the theory. The following sorry tale should give an idea of the (more often than not, I find) shambolic process leading to a finished clue.

Here's a sort of stream-of-consciousness version of my attempt to clue the word 'AHEAD' for a Guardian Brummie puzzle:
Short word, must have been clued scores of times before. OK, let's come up with something fresh, succinct, precisely-worded but deftly misdirecting. A dash of wit, maybe even an ah-ah! moment so beloved of solvers - but let's not run before we can walk ...

Here goes: 'AHEAD' ... Synonyms? [consult Chambers] further on; in advance; forward; headlong; onward(s), leading, at the head, in front
Not much there - oh, there are more ... in the lead, in the vanguard; winning, at an advantage, advanced, superior, to the fore, in the forefront. Nothing specially inspiring; maybe something can be done with 'winning', 'leading' or ' in the lead'?
How about the wordplay?
Well, an anagram's out.
Container clue? HE/A in AD? 'Male advanced in publicity'? Surface not too good; 'advanced' echoes the definition; solvers will get 'publicity' = AD straight away - and where would the def. go?
Charade? Well, there's A/HEAD (ace/answer/acting + chief/boss/'nut'? Ah! 'Advance, acting boss (5)' - no, don't like A = acting, even if it is in Chambers. Perhaps 'Top grade boss winning (5)' - oh, that's no good. I know: a cryptic definition, something like 'Succeed in getting this (5)'. No, it should really be 'Succeed on ..., which would make it a straight def., anyway. Ah! ''Satisfy one's ambition to get this (5)'. Well, needs some working on. On second thoughts, Rufus has probably cornered all the cryptic defs on this one. Need a break.
[exit to make cup of coffee, return with drink, play a few games of Freecell “to allow subconscious mind to work on the clue”]
Right, where was I? AHEAD - oh dear. Hmm, don't like clueing these short words - maybe it can be combined with another answer.
[ a few minutes - and a couple of abandoned attempts to change words in the grid - later]
That was a waste of time, think I'll leave AHEAD for now and have a bash at some other entries.
[next day]
All finished! At last!
[ a week passes - my usual time delay before reviewing / polishing a puzzle's clues]
OK let's get a printout ... what's this? "You have unwritten clue(s)". Can't be - it's a program bug obviously ... oh, it's that bloody AHEAD. It's a jinxed word, it'll have to be changed. What alternatives do we have:
AMEND - aah, not that chestnut!
AREAD What? Got to be Spenserian ... yes, sure enough (and, wouldn't you know, Milton seems to have dabbled with it, too). Hmm, think I'll leave that one to Araucaria.
AREDD - the past participle of 'aread' - you've got to be joking, Chambers!

Maybe I can change the starting 'A'? But that means losing the crosser, LEEWAY and I really like my clue for that one.
[ a couple of minutes of agonizing]
No, LEEWAY has to stay and so must AHEAD. Now come on, you call yourself a professional setter so act like one! Time for some free association ... winning ... charming ... in the vanguard .. in the van! (no, can't use that idea again - never liked it, anyway) ... to the fore - a (head) comes to the fore ... AH /ED(itor?) around one is to the fore - rubbish! ... headlong headlong headlong - too misleading, that ... forward ... 'Being forward, one gets blow j__' - slipping into Cyclops mode again! ... something based on 'forward a head' (this is going from bad to worse) ... ah, postman at the door ...
[ go to investigate, return with pizza leaflets and other junk items]
not worth getting out of my chair; train of thought completely derailed. When I'm rich I'll hire a butler to bring me the morning post on a silver platter and ... wait, that's it! Platter. Head on platter. Yes! John the Baptist/Salome! ... 'What Salome wanted: winning'? Not quite ... 'What Salome sported in front' ... or 'Flaunted by Salome out in front' - getting there, but maybe save that idea for a Cyclops clue some time ... let's clean it up, make it more succinct ... I have it! 'Forward Salome's prize (5)'. Oh yes, the master strikes again! Maybe it'll get quoted in Alan Connor's blog, or even make it as a Sandy Balfour book title!
[sickening feeling strikes]
Wait a minute, hasn't it been done before by Bunthorne or Paul or someone?
[ almost convince myself it's my original idea, but doubts start creeping in]
Don't want to be accused of plagiarism, better play safe - maybe it's not such a great clue, anyway. OK let's go for something else ... leading leading ... leading A (head) - ah! leading actor's debut/premiere/ entrance + (HEAD). Promising, but need another word for head ...

The account above covers but a few of the tortuous processes that had to be gone through. And the story has been jazzed up here and there (believe it or not, I've spared you the boring bits). So, to cut to the chase, I settled on Leading actor's first on the block (5)'. Succinct? Fairly. Witty? Not really. Ah-ah! moment? Hardly. Still, it's a competent clue and I have better ones elsewhere in the puzzle, I think (e.g. the one for LEEWAY).

And that is what went off to the Crossword Ed.

Some months later, I hear from the Crossword Ed. The puzzle's scheduled for 17th March; no editorial change is proposed (hurray, I must be improving!) ... except, and there follows an apologetic request: would I mind changing one of the grid words (already used in someone else's puzzle set to appear shortly before mine)? The word to be changed is 'Leeway', my precious Leeway, which of course forces a change of 'Ahead'.

To avoid putting you through another description of the agonizing process, I'll just say the published puzzle had LIE LOW for 'Leeway', and 'Ahead' became ON END - this was clued One and minus one, continuously (5), which I was pretty satisfied with.

Hoping to add an ironic postscript to this piece, I've looked at the comments made about this particular crossword on the Guardian and Fifteensquared sites at the time. There’s bound to be a casual, unconsidered put-down of the ON END clue, I thought - or, at the opposite end, a touch of over-the-top, undeserved praise (possibly both extremes in the same set of comments). But no. No damning comment (one poster disliked my definition 'continuously') and no extravagant praise (“quite liked that one” seems to have been the top accolade). It seems, one way or another, I’m doomed to be disappointed and frustrated by those blog comments.

I’ll round off, anyway, with an appeal to online posters who comment on Guardian and other ‘broadsheet’ crosswords: no matter who the setter is, please bear in mind this sorry story next time you’re ready to fire off a casual dismissal of a clue (or get carried away with disproportionately fulsome praise, for that matter). Poor clues should be attacked, and good ones celebrated, but not with subjective, throwaway remarks. The setter will have tried his/her best and and the resulting clues, good or bad, deserve a thoughtful analysis from critics.

Not all clues follow such a convoluted route as I've described, of course. However, most clueing involves a patient, drawn-out process of teasing out the possibilities and constructing a decent surface. Often, clueing ideals have to be sacrificed to practicalities such as how amenable the answer-word is to cryptic clueing and keeping an eye on the overall balance of clueing devices used in the puzzle. It's the old story of the creative process being more perspiration than inspiration. Ironically, when inspiration does strike, there's usually very little clue-writing effort needed. And when it happens to me, I accept it as mere good luck: "brilliance" "genius" "magic" and the like don't come into it. Of course, without all the patient grafting away and concentrated thought setters put into a puzzle as a whole, perhaps inspiration would never condescend to make an appearance at all.

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