Crossword blog: Meet the setter – Vulcan

img ]

Our next setter met is Richard Browne, who is close to crosswording royalty, having served as Times crossword editor until the incumbent, Richard Rogan, took over. He has set here as Vulcan since 2018 and Imogen since 2014; if two pseudonyms seems a lot, bear in mind that he has also set for the Financial Times as Antares, the Independent as Victor, the Times Quick Cryptic as Teazel, the Spectator as Fieldfare and for the Telegraph and Times main puzzles.

Guardian solvers got used to starting the week with Rufus (whom we met here and who retired in 2017) to start the week. How do you think Mondays are different now as compared with the Rufus era?

Rufus is inimitable. Mondays are now shared round more. Although in my fortnightly puzzles as Vulcan I try for a similar level of difficulty as Rufus, I have come to appreciate how difficult it is to write short, simple clues that aren’t a giveaway. Still learning!

How does having been an editor affect your setting?

It was a wonderful education closely checking other compilers’ work every day, observing what works and what doesn’t, and learning at the Times how to corral otherwise perfectly good clues into our somewhat prescriptive style. It has given me a wider range of techniques and a greater emphasis on technical accuracy.

Am I right in thinking that you’re partial to neologisms and contemporary references?

One has to be careful; older solvers may not know these. But I enjoy putting in phrases like “virtue signalling” and “cancel culture”.

What makes a successful clue? Do you have a favourite of your own?

For me a good clue has an elegant surface meaning which directs you away from the answer, with wordplay which is scrupulously fair. One must be honest and hide the answer in plain sight. Here’s a simple one from my first Telegraph puzzle:

Such a tree would barely survive the winter (9)

And one from early in my Times career:

Wear a rather revealing top, emerging from the waves (6)

A favourite clue came as a gift from the crossword gods. In an awkward grid I had saddled myself with OAHU, part of Hawaii. I pondered it unsuccessfully and was contemplating changing the grid when my unconscious presented me with “Island at the centre of storm bears the brunt”.

Very pleasing. I’ll give the other answers below. Which other setters do you admire?

My role model has always been Brian Greer (Brendan), my editor at the Times for five years. Every clue is accurate, witty and cliche-free, and the improvements he made to my clues taught me a lot. I was forever wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

I admire Richard Rogan (Aragon and Bannsider) for his tightly packed cluing, never a word wasted, every clue telling a deceptive story, where it is often hard to find the definition. And I greatly admired and enjoyed Araucaria, although (or perhaps because) his style is very different from mine.

And what makes an unsuccessful clue?

When a solver thinks: “How am I supposed to know that?” or “How was I supposed to work that out?”

I dislike cryptic definitions from which you can see the area aimed at but not the actual target; clues with lots of bits and pieces to be laboriously assembled in some unclear order; cliches such as “the French” for LE, hopelessly wide indications (“boy”, “note”, “flower”) and worst of all, clues with nonsense surfaces.

That’s pretty comprehensive. How did you choose your pseudonyms?

Imogen was a name [my wife] Marilyn and I liked and we would have probably bestowed it on a daughter, but our children were both boys. It was nice to use it at last. I also thought it might be fun to see if anyone imagined my puzzles showed a feminine hand, and several people did! Vulcan, however, was plucked out of the air.

How do you create your puzzles?

I have my own room where I can sit peacefully and look out over our garden and the trees beyond, very conducive to the reverie in which clues tend to come. I also carry a notebook everywhere with words I am trying to clue, since I need to write it an idea down before I forget it.

I work mainly in Crossword Compiler on my laptop, which is good for suggesting grid fills (though I try to avoid words I don’t know myself), with the Chambers app for checking spellings and meanings.

If there’s anything I am not sure about, I find it safer to check in an actual reference book. For the cluing I just use my brain; computers can offer lots of anagram suggestions, but I find I can discover better ones playing around with Scrabble tiles or pencil and paper.

You willingly solved some of our American-style crosswords. Do you think they could work as another strand of puzzle over here?

Well, I enjoyed them, because they are quite cryptic. I think it a drawback that each answer can be found from cross-checkers without having to solve every clue and I do dislike there being no indication of multiple words in answers. They were an extra challenge for me because of the amount of pop culture, which I am not very good with.

What’s the future for cryptic crosswords?

They survived sudoku, and seem still very popular. Indeed, we now have a worldwide online audience, although this does mean that our clues have to depend more on wordplay than on general knowledge. The future looks good!

Many thanks to Richard. The answers to the clues above are DECIDUOUS and ARARAT

The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop and is partially but not predominantly cryptic

Ryuichi Sakamoto – 1900 (Playing the Piano for the Isolated).

End of a Lunch Hour

img ]

44A. Hand up if you think we should petition dictionaries to change this word to REUNI, instead of REUNE. If alumni get together on important occasions having to do with their alma mater, aren’t they going back to university?

6D. If I had someone to tell to “get to work,” I would be more likely to say “hop TO IT,” rather than “hop ON IT,” but I suppose you could do that, too. The most common use that I’m aware of these days for “hopping on” something is when someone asks me to “hop on” a Zoom meeting.

13D. Now that I am working from home for the foreseeable future, my lunch hour no longer ends at ONE P.M. It starts with breakfast and kind of lasts all day, connected by a long line of snacks. What even is time anymore, anyway? Or calories?

18D. Newer solvers: Please do not lose heart when you see a clue like “Emperor just before the Year of the Four Emperors.” Even if you are not an expert on the line of Roman emperors, this one is gettable. Take a deep breath and think: There aren’t many Roman emperors whose names are four letters long. Also, if you had _ _ RO like I did, and you remembered that it was Monday (so it has to be a relatively well-known person), you would eventually come up with NERO.

Today’s Theme

Mr. Bywaters offers us five examples of words that start with EX- and the rest of the base entry is a different, whole word itself. For example, at 17A, the answer to the clue “Stress between you and your former lover?” is EXTENSION, which needs to be read as EX TENSION. Similarly, at 26A, the standards-friendly answer to “Thing your former lover said about you?” is EXCLAIM, or EX CLAIM.

Mutiny of musical cliches

img ]

The hills and bansuri, the pathan and the rabab, Hindi film music abounds with stereotypes. It is time they broke free

Successful background music in films comes to the aid of visuals without us acknowledging its presence as such. It accentuates the beauty of locations, sensualises on-screen romance, demonises villainy. Stereotypes of any kind are also often formed in the background, subliminally, often without us realising it.

What’s the background sound that comes to mind in the following scenes? Two flowers symbolically meeting to show the union of lovers. A leading lady’s exaggerated blush. The camera panning across lush green mountains. I can immediately hear a sitar flurry in the first two scenes while the third would be the flute in any major pentatonic (a pentatonic is a five note scale) raag.

No flute in Garhwal

Too many film cameras have panned across mountains with flute music in the background in Hindi cinema. What prompted this coupling in the first place? Is the pentatonic bansuri an inherent quality of a mountain? A random draw from Garhwali/ Uttarakhandi pop song videos from the 90s and noughties is likely to throw up the combination of flute and hill. It is probably true then that the longstanding musical soul of a mountain is the transverse bamboo flute.

But before we freeze this essentialism, it would help to look into some myths from Garhwal. Musicologist Andrew Alter writes in Mountainous Sound Spaces (2014) that despite the abundant use of flute in Garhwali pop songs, he has rarely seen it being played in the hills. Other researchers in the area cite a similar experience.

What’s more, the few folktales in which the flute makes an appearance link it to acharis—fairies and sprites. The flute playing of one Jitu Bagadwal from a Garhwali folk story attracts mountain sprites that by and by devour him. Some scholars have observed that the cautionary nature of such tales resulted in parents discouraging their children from playing the flute in the hills.

These days, mountains don’t get the mandatory major pentatonic flute salute in films. That is because film stereotypes have evolved and become more nuanced.

In the film days of old, a mountain was a mountain—mostly a mere backdrop for song and dance. There was something trans-Himalayan about this simplification; you could be in Kashmir, Himachal or Sikkim. All would serve as generic backdrops for Bollywood formulas and often have their valleys filled with flute music. Now, when films situate songs in Kashmir, you can hear the rabab play in the background. The composition Tum from Laila Majnu (2018) for a fine example. The instrument feels closer to home with its plucks resonating in the Valley since it is traditionally played in the region. Like other instruments employed in the service of cinema, the rabab too has had a peculiar journey.

My first memory of it is when it lent weight to the diasporic henna-haired pathan in Yaari Hai Iman… from Zanjeer (1973). We would hear more from the rabab later, when Khuda Gawah (1993), the Bollywood saga set in Afghanistan released. The irresistible popularity of the film has since prompted many local rabab players to include its songs in their repertoire. Post 9/11, one could find the rabab supplementing the minor scale (stereotypically associated with a certain darkness) background scores of various war films, with visuals of what were purportedly the hardy mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s all film music’s doing — the chronology of fatal friendships to larger-than-life Afghans to the rabab’s staccato coupled with Kalashnikovs in action. I go over some of these scenes to research this article and end up giving up what I’m hearing to what I’m seeing. Even when I want to listen, I end up internalising the sound, again unacknowledged. Such is the power of the visual.

Did this happen every time Mehmood came on screen accompanied by the mridangam, nagaswaram and veena in Padosan (1968)? The music was used as an auditory cue to highlight his theatrical ‘South Indianness’. Such attempts may not have been outrightly punitive like the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth in A Clockwork Orange (1971), but they did colour impressionable palettes; interpreting the Carnatic sound, for instance, as comical for me for many years to come.

Now is a good time to bring background sounds up front and confront the spells cast by lingering musical clichés. One remedy could be pulling off an exorcism—a pahadi jaagar (musical all-nighter) where a jugalbandi of the flute, rabab, nagaswaram, dotara et al improvise and break out of the visual boxes they have been stuffed into, unleashing their infinite potential.

The writer is a journalist, music learner and teacher.