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Playing a blinder - RTC3
Random Thoughts on Crosswords Cryptic and Concise + Recherché Times Crossword Clues Considered
Playing a blinder
(In what follows, select between the curly brackets for checked letters, and between the square brackets for the answer.)

I've been re-reading Roy Dean's account of the 1979 Times Crossword Championship final when he beat John Sykes, which he includes in his delightful Mainly in Fun (see earlier). He describes how his confidence was boosted by playing a blinder in the first puzzle, finishing in 7½ minutes to John Sykes's 13. I remember the second puzzle particularly, because Roy had to guess two crossing answers to clues that would almost certainly (though rather sadly, as far as I'm concerned) be outlawed nowadays. The first was:
Haggard but bright-eyed hero (4)    {‑R‑?}    [ERIC]
whose answer crossed (at the point I've indicated with a ?) with the answer to:
Grantchester latecomers who left no impression (7)    {?‑R‑T‑S}    [CURATES]
I'm pretty sure I didn't know the answer to the first clue, but the answer to the second became apparent once I had a couple of its checked letters in place to jog my memory, and the letter it provided for the first answer put that beyond reasonable doubt. Roy confessed to us afterwards that he'd made his best guess at the Haggard clue and that he was reasonably happy with the clerical answer to the Grantchester clue because he thought the poem referred to was Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard (which just goes to show that even the best of us can have the occasional brainstorm :-).

If this had been the first puzzle, Roy might perhaps have been unnerved, but in fact he'd been buoyed up by his success in the first puzzle, so that, if anything, it was John who was unnerved, as he lost a further ½-minute on the second puzzle. Roy generously acknowledges in "The Greatest Solver: John Sykes (1929-1993)" (another article included in Mainly in Fun) that John was clearly unwell in 1979, so one can only guess how close the result would have been if he'd been in good health. You can perhaps get some idea of the trickiness of the puzzles from way the field was strung out. The four highest time bonus point scores from the regional finals were 89 for Roy Dean, 88 for John Sykes, and 87 for James Atkins and me. We managed to retain that order to claim the top four places in the final, but this time the bonus points were: 86 for Roy, 80 for John, 72 for James, and 55 for me, with only two other finalists completing the four puzzles correctly.

Two years later, Roy Dean made a mistake in his regional final, John Sykes was generously taking a year off, and James Atkins ... I'm not sure what happened to James that year. The only results list I have is for London A, which shows Roy in 8th place but omits James altogether. Perhaps he tried and failed at London B. Anyway, three of the main contenders were out of the way, but that still left formidable opposition in the shape of Terry Girdlestone. This time, however, it was my turn to play a blinder, taking around 10 minutes for the first puzzle, while Terry (who'd admittedly had a bad night) took around 30 minutes. At such an early stage in the contest, the result was by no means in the bag, but I felt it was mine to lose rather than his to win. I expect most solvers nowadays would hate to return to the era of clues like those that could so easily have wrecked Roy Dean's chances in 1979, but they were certainly very good at opening up the field. And maybe they would even give the rest of us a better chance of toppling Mark Goodliffe :-).

I was reminded of all this a few weeks ago by TLS crossword No. 1060, which had just enough of the sort of literary knowledge needed to solve Times crosswords of old that I was able to play a blinder and knock a couple of minutes or so off my TLS PB. But that's another story.

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: nostalgic nostalgic

15 comments or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 3rd, 2015 01:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
Glad you're on the mend Tony, I had been about to note your absence on the Times site. Lot of flu/colds about inside the M25.

Tom Stubbs
tony_sever From: tony_sever Date: March 5th, 2015 12:02 am (UTC) (Link)
Thanks, Tom. In fact I've managed to avoid flu/colds through the winter (so far, touch wood) - unlike Janet, who had a nasty cold earlier in the year - but my lurgy, whatever it was, presented enough unpleasant symptoms to make up for it! I didn't feel it was really bad enough to bother my GP with though, so I just spent a lot of time in bed sleeping it off.
oliviarhinebeck From: oliviarhinebeck Date: March 7th, 2015 12:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
glad to hear you're feeling better. we seem to have endless winter in the NE US. that was an excellent time you had on tls 1060 - mine was 20 minutes longer, although i do tend to set a leisurely pace with those puzzles. i knew the CURATES but not ERIC, only ever having read SHE - once. there's a peter sykes who's a current solver, do you know if that's any relation to john[query]. p.s. i keep forgetting to ask - is that SEVER as in cut or as in SAVE [query].

Edited at 2015-03-07 12:59 pm (UTC)
tony_sever From: tony_sever Date: March 8th, 2015 04:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks, Olivia. My elder stepson (Simon) and his partner (Marie) live in NYC (Lower East Side), and they've been travelling out to Cape Cod at weekends to see Marie's sister who has health problems, so I'm aware that the weather over there has been pretty nasty.

I only occasionally have a bash at the TLS puzzle these days, but I'd tried the previous week's and knocked that off in 7:24, which I think could well have been a TLS PB for me at the time - and would have been faster if I hadn't had a ghastly senior moment with 10ac ("Old whig as father of conservatism (5)"). I knew exactly who was being referred to, but just couldn't think of his name, and spent a stupidly long time trying desperately, and unsuccessfully, to recall it. No. 1060 went very smoothly for the most part. I didn't know 10ac ("Denis Wheatley's was ill-omened (4)"), the Flaubert quotation at 19ac, and 26ac ("One of four to Doris Lessing's city, perhaps (4)"), but the rest of the acrosses went straight in. I then had a brief ponder at 1dn before deciding that the answer really had to be MAGI rather than MAGE, before mopping up the rest of the downs apart from 13dn ("Loo object as Amis subject (5,5)"), 22dn ("Controversial contact once seen in Lewes (4)"), and 23dn ("Violent ones may succeed violent delights, said Friar Laurence (4)". This last looked as if it had to be ENDS, so I decided to take a chance with that, and bunged in STAR for 10ac and FRYING PAN for 19ac similarly. If the second word of 13dn was THING (= "object"), that would give GATE for 26ac, which sounded pretty likely, so I bunged that in too.

At this point I suppose I must have taken a little over four minutes, with just the Amis clue and the Lewes clue to go. The first word of the former looked like WATER (with an obvious link to "loo"), but WATER THING didn't sound plausible. However, I couldn't recall any other THING from either of the two obvious Amises, so there was nothing for it but to work through the alphabet - when, slightly annoyingly, JAKE'S THING sprang immediately to mind as soon as I reached J. (Why on earth hadn't I thought of that straight away?) At this point I checked how much time I'd taken so far: about 4:40.

I could think of heaps of literary Lewises, but "Lewes" rang no obvious bells. Working through the alphabet perhaps took me longer than it should have done, as I really ought to have settled on KISS earlier given the obvious connection to "contact"; however, I still had no idea what the connection to Lewes might be. Anyway I decided to plump for KISS, checked for typos (as always), and clicked on Submit for my 6:06 - a definite TLS PB for me this time. Googling "Lewes" and "kiss" afterwards produced an immediate result, and (again rather annoyingly) I've a vague recollection of the exhibition of Rodin's works in Lewes in 1999 that included "The Kiss". (Janet and I know Lewes quite well as we've often had walking holidays on the South Downs, and we've usually visited Lewes if we're down that way.)

Looking back over the puzzle, I note that there was nothing from America and Australia - just British and (easy) European stuff, the sort of things I'm familiar with, i.e. exactly what the Times crossword used to throw at us in the good old days.
oliviarhinebeck From: oliviarhinebeck Date: March 9th, 2015 08:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
nice response tony, thank you. it gave me quite lot to consider and as i'm a one-arm bandit at the moment it's taking me a long time to do even the most ordinary things. so i've printed it and will reflect. at last in the last couple of days we've had a breath of spring. your family members are very good to undertake that long drive to the cape from nyc which can be arduous even in the best weather. we hear regularly from good friends in boston who have a summer place on nantucket and the winter has been brutal all over the region, so i can easily imagine how it's been at the cape.
verlaine From: verlaine Date: April 10th, 2015 01:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
I knew where to look to find the answers to those two clues, but they're not anything I could have mustered off the top of my head! I personally would feel delighted by being asked to hunt out obscure literary quotes as part of the Times Cryptic, but I'm sure it would cause many people to blow their top... Should the puzzle be self-contained? (Of course, back in the 70s it may have been reasonable to expect cultured individuals to know thier minor Haggard and verbatim Brooke, but I don't remember, I was quite young!)
tony_sever From: tony_sever Date: April 10th, 2015 10:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
I used to love the more literary Times cryptics of yore, but the more arcane references have been edged out over the years, with Brian Greer being one of their main opponents. (I expect I've written about Brian's disastrous showing in the 1975 Championship final somewhere, but I've mislaid the blog entry.)
tony_sever From: tony_sever Date: April 10th, 2015 10:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've just realised that I never answered your query about how my surname is pronounced: it's as in "cut". (The most common mistake is to rhyme it with "lever".)

One derivation, which would tie in with the general area my earliest known paternal ancestors came from, is Thixendale = Sixteen Dales -> "Sedecim Valles" -> "Sezevaux" -> "Sever".
oliviarhinebeck From: oliviarhinebeck Date: April 13th, 2015 07:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
Aha - so I was wrong. I had it as "saver". There was an excellent pitcher for the Mets called Tom Seaver but I never thought of pronouncing you that way. Why do we cringe so much when people mispronounce our names I wonder. Mine is also from North Yorkshire (Oswaldkirk) - Hugill, as in Hewghill (although I bet you don't need the prompt). For some reason Americans generally seem to get it straight off unlike the British, and I'm primed for just about anything to come over the tannoy when sitting about at an airport.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 8th, 2015 03:11 pm (UTC) (Link)

Solving achievements

At the Listener dinner last weekend in Harrogate, Tony, if memory serves your name was mentioned as being the first ever all-correct Listener solver and for that reason invited to attend the dinner - 70s, 80s perhaps.

tony_sever From: tony_sever Date: March 8th, 2015 05:29 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Solving achievements

If I remember rightly, The Listener announced towards the end of 1975 that the Listener setters planned to invite any solvers who completed all the Listener puzzles correctly between January and September 1976 to attend their annual dinner. According to a letter I have that Mike Rich sent me, there were four of us "all corrects", though I can't remember off-hand who the other three were (our names would have been published in The Listener some time in October, which I've now managed to dig out - see below).

The reason I'm the one who's remembered is almost certainly because Mike knew me from the Times Crossword Championship and so dragooned me into replying to the toast to the solvers.

Postscript from The Listener, 14 October 1976
The following solvers submitted correct solutions to every puzzle from No. 2,368 to No. 2,395, and are being invited to meet the Setters at their annual Dinner on 6 November:

J. Dawes, Wokingham, Surrey
H. W. Evans, Llangefni, Wales
M. D. Laws, Wood Green, N22
J. A. Sever, Ealing, W5

Edited at 2015-03-08 10:20 pm (UTC)
oliviarhinebeck From: oliviarhinebeck Date: May 3rd, 2015 07:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
Good to see you're back in circulation Tony. I'd noted your absence. Hope all is well. We're back to the weekend-in-the-country routine and it takes me a while to settle in, and then catch up on the puzzles during the following week.
tony_sever From: tony_sever Date: November 8th, 2015 11:13 pm (UTC) (Link)

Not really a reply!

From your comment on the latest ST puzzle, I'm guessing that you're not familiar with this.

All the best,
oliviarhinebeck From: oliviarhinebeck Date: November 9th, 2015 11:16 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Not really a reply!

Thank you for this Tony! I realized I'd seen that commercial once upon a time but I didn't catch on to the laughing gear. Well we're now back in NYC full time although we've yet to have any really cold weather. Hope all is ok with you. I saw you had a reasonable outing at the championships last month. I'll be interested to see how the rest of the puzzles stack up - the first one from the first prelim was pretty straightforward.
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