CONFESSIONS OF A PUZZLE MASTER

Chris Maslanka reminisces
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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the things I enjoy about hosting Puzzle Panel on Radio 4 is the way it breaks down mental prejudices and opens doors in the attic of my mind long since closed and cobwebbed over.

I've never liked acrostics. And if it hadn't been for Anne Bradford I doubt if I'd ever have got round to solving one. In fact, when the author of Bradford's Crossword Solver's Dictionary proposed to set a Victorian acrostic on Puzzle Panel a groan all but escaped my lips.

Weren't they extinct? The idea of an acrostic - from ancient Greek akron, beginning, and stichos, verse,- is that the first letters of each line taken in sequence spell out a word. :

Breathtaking!

Outstanding!

Spectacular!

Hair-raising!

The hackneyed cartoon of the theatre manager advertising his show with that list of adjectives fairly summarised both the principle of - and my feelings about - the acrostic.

The form was known to the Romans and resurfaced when Elizabethan poetasters and courtiers found it a useful vehicle for literary fawning. I found it hard not to curl my lip a la Blackadder on learning that Sir John Davies had written 26 acrostical poems the first letters of the lines of which spelt "Elisabetha Regina".

The acrostic's full floruit was the 19th century, not just as a puzzle - the Victorians loved wordplay (Queen Victoria was amused by them) - but also as a poem: the quirkily beautiful:

A boat, beneath a summer sky,

Lingering onward dreamily

In an evening of July-

Children three that nestle near

Eager eye and willing ear, etc, from Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking-Glass, being a fine example.

That we breathe life into this fossilised form by an airing on Radio 4 seemed as likely to me as creating Jurassic Park from an ossified remnant of toenail clipping from Baryonyx walkeri. But Harry the producer was in favour of suck it and see, so we sucked it and saw.

Bradford's puzzle turned out to be a double acrostic: one where the last letters also make a word, rather like:

P u m P

U gand A

Z eppeli N

Z air E

L atera L

E a r S

The two down words are known as "pillars" in the trade, and the across ones as "lights". Here are the clues to Bradford's puzzle:

PILLARS

1&2. We shun the light and fly by night

LIGHTS

1. An interjection that may make you start.

2. A feathered foe may pierce you to the heart

3. A tax oft levied on a horse and cart

I tackled the lights first (I wanted to see the pillars emerge naturally as a consequence of solving the lights). while other panellists more rationally homed in on the pillars, which were, after all, words of known length. Acrostic disposed of, Paul Lamford asked:

Q2. Find the largest sum of money you could have in coin and still not have change for pounds 1?

and a listener wrote in with:

Q3: What is the missing letter in the sequence:

A*DFGHJKL?

(There turn out to be two radically different solutions).

But the acrostic in its quiet way had asserted itself. Next day's postbag plumped with enquiries. It struck me that the acrostic's main weakness - that the lights are of unpredetermined length so they flap about, tethered only at both ends - could prove a strength for a number acrostic.

So I designed one that could expand sideways, like a magic trouser waistband, while the legs stayed the same length: LIGHTS

1. A number

2. Dividing this by 9 gives a 7 followed by nothing but 4s

3. Number having the same digits as 1 across but in reverse order, and equal to 9 times it.

PILLARS

1. A perfect square

2. A perfect square and the number formed by writing the digits of 1 in inverse order.

SOLUTIONS

Q1. B o O

A r r o W

T o i L

Q2: pounds 1.43. (If you ignore the 25p piece. But what if you allow the new pounds 2 coin?)

Q3: S (middle row on a typewriter) or C, as the sequence A CD FGH JKL omits a letter after blocks of 1, 2, 3 etc letters.

Q4. 10[9]89

669[9]6

98[9]01

where [9] stands for as many or as few 9s as you like.

`Puzzle Panel', Radio 4 - Thurs 1.30pm, repeat Sun 11pm.

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