Because it was a prize puzzle, live until today, I spent last week in a fever of impatience, desperate to start writing about one of the nicest and strangest of clue-writing experiences.
The immediate problem, of course, is that any discussion of one of my own clues can easily come across as self-congratulation, so please let me start by saying this; what I’m about to describe came about absolutely by chance. It had nothing to do with ability or effort. And it’s something that’s never happened before.
Editing of the Sunday Times puzzle is unique in that we do it by phone. If any tweaks need further work they tend to be very minor, and at that stage the email process is sufficient. Anyway, PB called about ST 4641 and at some point I said “Ah, the SPINNAKER puzzle”. I mentioned it because, while assembling the grid, I had this spot with a few checking letters in place and SPINNAKER was the best – well, least bad – of a pretty uninspiring bunch of candidates. I could see SPINNER but no immediate potential for the remaining AK, so it looked like I’d be struggling. After a lot of faff an alternative hove into view, based on S(PIN)NAKE + R. Some thesaurus rummaging eventually allowed me to build a clue with an entirely nautical feel, and I was so hugely grateful about those happy quirks of the English language that it stuck in my mind as the puzzle’s highlight.
A Club Forum member queried a clue on the Sunday of its appearance and I opened the puzzle just to re-assure myself that I hadn’t slipped up. I often take that as an opportunity to read through the clues again and try to find other potential problems. And then I noticed 9d; specifically, I noticed what I hadn’t seen before.
When writing a clue my list of requirements is very short, just two things really:
1) It has to work technically.
2) Good surface reading.
With those in place there’s not really anything else to ask for. Other requirements tend to concern the puzzle as a whole. Is the difficulty level about right? Have I not exceeded the maximum number of anagrams, hidden answers, and have I not repeated eg wordplay indicators? Have I been able to approximately form a linear solving path so that areas of the grid will gradually open up?
9d had already ticked a couple of bonus boxes in that it was reasonably concise (always a challenge with long answers) and avoided anagrams altogether but, most importantly, boxes 1 and 2 were also ticked. Oh, the clue?
Not to be justified on earth? How appropriate (3,3,4,2,2)
It’s a straight charade, quite pleasing for me in that the split points are all different to the splits in the answer and, even better, the charade converts the 5 words in the answer to 4. So we have:
FORTH (‘on’) + E (‘earth’, as you’d see on a plug) + HELLO (‘how’, in Native American style) + FIT (‘appropriate’), all leading conveniently to FOR THE HELL OF IT (‘not to be justified’). Nice! Oh, but hang on…
Yes, so what struck me a week or so after writing it was ‘earth’ in the clue and HELL in the answer. Suddenly the whole thing was blessed with an extra depth and a real &Lit feel (although that’s not what it is). It’s odd to think that, had I not had reason to re-open the file, I would probably never have seen this extra little thing going on.
As I’ve said many times, I see clue-writing as discovery, not invention. There’s something a bit spooky about the idea that I could have discovered something and ended up being permanently unaware of it.
The strangest thing of all, though, is the final result of all this good fortune. Of all the Club and blog comments, SPINNAKER and FOR THE HELL OF IT pass by pretty much unnoticed. In fact a number of solvers reserved their highest praise for a clue which, to me, was pretty ordinary – asked to select my personal top ten I’d have put this one a long way out of the running, probably not even in the top twenty.