Rentokil by Jago


Listener crossword 4066: Rentokil, by Jago (2009-12-26)

The rubric describes five unclued entries that give the theme to the puzzle and which indicate the “main object” to be found. It also mentions, in passing but rather ominously, “the grid’s final construction”, which suggests that a tricky transformation will be required after solving the clues.

So, what about trying to guess the theme of the puzzle from the title? “Rentokil” suggests pest removal, which suggests the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Perhaps rodents and children would have to be removed from the grid in some way? According to Brewer’s, the Pied Piper’s second appearance was on St John’s Day. And St John’s Day is December the … 27th. That’s tomorrow, not today. Is that close enough for the Listener crossword? I’m not sure it is.

(If only I were a regular Listener solver, or had thought to check the Listener Crossword website, I would have seen that this theme had already appeared in July 2009—number 4041, “Motley Collection” by Merlin—and so was vanishingly unlikely to appear again so soon.)

Anyway, let’s solve some clues, which are all in the form of a definition and letter-mixture. Normally I find these very hard to get started on because of the large number of possibilities to consider. But today 40 across leaps out at me: “a holiday: now we can put our feet up” ⇒ FETE. The intersecting words fall quickly: “giving their anger against Christians” ⇒ IRE; “Eventually fed guests with sweet” ⇒ FUDGE; and in what seems like no time at all I have the bottom half of the grid.

My Pied Piper theory seems briefly promising as I solve “Donations go toward animal charities at Xmas” ⇒ WOODRAT. But it’s demolished when it becomes possible to guess that two of the unclued entries form the thematic phrase ON THE FEAST OF STEPHEN. And of course St Stephen’s Day is December the 26th. So is the theme Good King Wenceslas? Let’s not be too hasty, now, and consider other possibilities. I’m away from home and only have the Concise Brewer’s, which doesn’t have much. The name “Stephen” means “wreath” or “crown”. The British Parliament is sometimes known as “St Stephen’s” after the chapel at Westminster where it used to sit. None of this seems to fit. But Wikipedia’s entry on St Stephen’s Day comes to the rescue with a description of “hunting the wren”. In this Gaelic custom, “wrenboys” catch or kill a wren, and parade it around town on a pole, begging for money and singing a song beginning:

The wren, the wren,
The king of all birds,
On Stephen’s Day
Was caught in the furze

Let’s finish the grid and see if this is right. The top half is a bit harder than the bottom half, with a few words that need a visit to the dictionary. “Feast and sup: Yuletide carousal” ⇒ UPSY is new to me, as are SKEG (“I keel over when keg’s empty”) and ETHE (“oh, it hasn’t been easy since the early Christians decided on it”).

The remaining thematic entries are revealed to be TROGLODYTES (the genus of wrens, so named because of their habit of entering small crevices), and HUNTING THE BIRD. It seems to me that the latter ought to say “WREN” instead of “BIRD”. So “WREN” must be the “main object” that we’re hunting for. And the title “Rentokil” should be understood as “wren to kill”!

What about the “instructions given in the set of clues”? I am embarrassed to admit that it is not until this point, with the grid filled in and the theme discovered, that I notice that the initial letters of the clues spell out FOLD GRID TO ORIGAMI BIRD SO ONE IS HEAD. SEE WING. Oops. I had so many clever ideas for doing things with the superfluous words in the clues that I missed the simplest possibility of all.

So it’s out with the scissors and some origami instructions. Taking care that the “1” in the top left of the grid ends up at the head of the bird, I fold a rather dumpy-looking bird—more a plump moorhen than an elegant crane. But sure enough, under the right wing is the hidden WREN, formed from the W of WOODRAT, the R of DESSERT, and most suprisingly and delightfully, the rotated M of SMASHED and the rotated Z of ZION.

Update . This puzzle did not go down well with some well-known Listener setters.

Don Manley [Duck]: “I romped through the clues, and found them rather simple and dull, but fear that I then lost interest, not wishing to do the origami research. For me crosswords are really all about clues, but The Listener is too often about a a non-crossword puzzle that must be solved after a crossword has been done—one reason why I’m now less inclined to bother with it these days and catch up on reading. Sorry, Jago, ’cos you’re a nice guy!”

Paul Henderson [Phi]: “This fell straight into one of my categories of poor puzzle—about a 5–10 minute solve followed by several hours of trying to work out what form the submitted grid should take, a ridiculous division of labour.”

It helped to know that there’s an origami construction called the “bird base” which forms the basis for many models (and not just birds). When you fold the bird base with Jago’s grid, the WR and MZ are already brought together, so more or less any way of completing the model will satisfy the requirements.

With regard to the difficulty of the grid fill, I think it’s right for the Listener to set easy puzzles from time to time, to encourage new solvers. If you’re failing to complete the puzzle week after week then eventually you’ll give up, but even the occasional success can be highly motivating.