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so this is what went wrong ..
the APEX Listener code is installed in /u01/app/oracle/product/apex_lsnr
In that directory is apex-config.xml. I changed the existing entry in that file to <entry key="apex.excel2collection">true</entry> having made the assumption that this was the right file.
I then removed all files under /tmp/apex and /home/oracle/.apex ... which seems to be where temp files are located.
I restarted the APEX Listener with
java -Dapex.port=8081 -Dapex.images=/u01/app/oracle/product/apex_lsnr/images -Dapex.erase=true -jar apex.war
The problem is that the new apex-config.xml file created under /tmp/apex doesn't have any entry like <entry key="apex.excel2collection">true</entry> ... that is, the config file created does not cary over any if the settings made in the original (persistent) version of apex-config,xml
I added <entry key="apex.excel2collection">true</entry> to the /tmp/apex/apex-config.xml and restarted the listener and it all work!