Today’s theme is words Americans can’t pronounce. No, sorry, that was gratuitous – it’s this, and full marks to Phi for geographical accuracy and symmetry. Sons and daughters of Albion won’t have had much trouble with those thematic entries, but poor Pierre did when the Fifteensquared blog fell to him back in December 2015.

The Big Red Book came out towards the end to check the alternative spelling of 7d, and to trawl for 4d. Really, that word has no business appearing in a British daily blocked puzzle, and it doesn’t help that when it appears as a headword, it’s a pineapple. That deserves a raspberry. However, everything else was pretty straightforward and enjoyable enough, by and large. I didn’t much care for the split entry at 8/24 (11/22 was rather natty, however); to my way of thinking 10 is closer to “a bit rubbish” than “dreadful”, but what the hey. Two clues caught my eye in particular, 14 and 23ac: the temptation is to award the COD trophy to the four letter one just to surprise everybody, but no, it’s 14:

“Nothing found in location of a dip or severe descent (6)”

First days back in work being what they are, I was pleased to find not only an IoS reprint today, but one from Quixote who’s usually pretty easy going. Today was no exception, being the usual mix of beginner’s level wordplay with a few recondite words thrown in to keep us on our toes. I thought the NE corner might be a little tricky at the close, having completed 5d and then assuming that the answer to 9ac would be equally obscure, but well, it wasn’t. Elsewhere 4d was a phrase I’d not heard before, and for reasons unbeknownst to me now I failed to parse 22ac on solving.

All in all a nice start to the week solved in a time half that par for the i, with a nicely nostalgic feel for those of us who fondly remember Quixote on a Monday, Virgilius on a Tuesday, and so on.

COD? I’ll go with the aforementioned 5d, just because it’s so nicely put together – “Head’s back in charge of company setting up place (7)”.

To March 2016:

Bags of entertainment from Donk today – you certainly get bang for your buck from this setter. A crossword packed full of invention and misdirection and with just a sprinkling of his by-now-familiar risqué clues.

We had a couple of excellent hidden answers, 14d HYPERSONIC in particular was a corker; some nicely engrossing anagrams, amongst which 1a held me up until I had all the crossers; some abbreviations which had to be rescued from the very edges of my brain – EW for an each-way bet, LAX for the airport in Los Angeles, and D for drag in 18d. But mostly it was just a lot of fun. No complaints, all finished in something a bit over par for the i, but it was all do-able without recourse to aids. And was I the only one who sensed a shifting of tectonic plates upon seeing, in an otherwise devious puzzle, ISOLDE defined as ‘girl with Tristan’?

For COD I’m going for a nice bit of spelling-out-punctuation, because I haven’t seen one of those for what seems like ages:

1d Appropriate, what finishes off John Does? (10)

Here are all the answers from Bert & Joyce back in the day, who were apparently a little disappointed not to have a bit more rudery. I remain impartial!

A nicely judged crossword, this one, from one of our less frequent setters; combining sufficient accessibility to get the less-experienced solver going with enough interest to keep the older hands engaged. I solved this without recourse to aids, and without the need to check any definitions, etc, online or in the dictionaries. Most of it went in fairly readily, although I was a bit slower in the NW corner.

The only clue that provoked an electronic question mark in my virtual margin was ANTIPASTI. It’s an impressive and very nicely hidden reverse inclusion, and I was disappointed that it didn’t seem to quite work. I was not surprised to discover that most of the commentary on Fifteensquared back in January 2016 focussed on the plausibility of cluing an Italian plural with an English singular. You can read all about it here, and make up your own mind, should you feel so inclined.

Elsewhere, TUNNEL OF LOVE, although easily got from the crossing letters and enumeration, seemed a somewhat opaque cryptic definition, and I did wonder, on solving ORIGAMI, when anyone last used the giro to make a payment. (How old-fashioned does something have to be before it merits a qualifier like “once”?). WHITNEY HOUSTON was a neat clue with a less-than-obvious anagram, and LEVIATHAN was a clever inclusion, but with a rather unlikely surface reading.

Clue of the Day? “What’s left with scrambled eggs missing yolk?” (6) is a splendid example of a so-called “&lit”, where the surface reading of the clue describes the answer and at the same time encompasses the word-play. Neat.

The question today was whether we were going to get an IoS reprint or something a little tougher. And if the latter, exactly who? I suppose we all have setters we look forward to solving, and some that elicit a distinct groan, so today I was more than a little pleased to see Morph’s name at the top of the puzzle. I sometimes rip through his offerings in next to no time, and sometimes struggle badly, today being a weird mixture of the two. The bottom half went in with little ado, with the generous 23ac helping no end (as did those almost forgotten carpentry lessons in the dim and distant past, when I would have preferred to be doing cooking, tbh, but boys weren’t allowed at the time).

The top half took longer, probably because it took an age to get 12ac. At the close both 1ac and 2d were educated guesses, having forgotten William’s rather lesser-known nickname, and both parts of the wordplay in 2d being somewhat obscure, at least in this neck of the woods.

I can’t complain though, as every clue was a good one, and I’ve still got plenty of solving time on my hands. Apart from the two clues mentioned everything went in fully parsed, and fully appreciated, with a finish time par + one half for the i.

COD? Lots to choose from, with my pick going to 6d – “Tottenham Hotspur forwards reckless in defeat (6)”.

To January 2016:

In a world that is going steadily more insane by the day – yesterday thoughtcrime, today that tinpot despot over the water removing funding from the WHO in the middle of the worst public health crisis to arise in just over a century – it is comforting to know that, for the moment, there are still some oases of calm, of certainty. One being a thoroughly enjoyable, reliable, and rock solid puzzle from Dac on a Wednesday. The crossword editor please take note.

Today’s was polished off in a time several minutes under that recorded yesterday, which had itself been the fastest in a while, with only a little pause for thought at the close on 24ac, and over the parsing of 21d (who knew that to poach means to simmer gently?) and the princess referenced at 14d, though I’ve enough of a grounding in theology to lob in the answer with little ado.

In these times of dire need, more like this one please.

COD? You could pick any of them, really, with my pick going to 5d – “Arrogant cur guarding tunnel leading to Ireland? (11)”.

To the gentler days of December 2015, where most of the debate seems to centre round an item of clothing and an obscure baseball position:

The continued lock down has coincided with two week’s holiday which, while not being spent as hoped, at least means I don’t have to try and concentrate on work and staying sane at the same time. There’s always the hope too that I might actually be able to enjoy a little R&R. On the positive and negative front:

  • Arrangements have been made for a crisp, freshly delivered copy of the i to be delivered every morning.
  • The promised tropical spell the police are so worried about has evaporated in a mass of black clouds and icy winds. Perhaps they’ve poisoned that as well.
  • When we most need it the printer is playing up, and it’ll be a week until the new one arrives. Doesn’t it realise that I’ve got a load of weekend puzzles to print out? Thankfully the instructions in a handy YouTube video I stumbled upon, culminating with the hint that turning the thing upside down and shaking it might help, seem to have done the trick.
  • Solving time. Lots of it.

Thus Quixote’s offering is completed in double-quick time following the customary Saturday morning croissants and coffee (we have to have some way of remembering what day it is), and three-quarters of the IQ polished off before lunch. Yes, it was that sort of grid fill. Lots of trips required to the BRB not only to check some of the lovely words on offer – ABOMASA and XYSTI being particular standouts, but also to check the deliciously obscure bits dotted through the wordplay.

The top centre of the grid last to fall following lunch, the poet chap at the very close.

Oh yes, the preamble. Well, I ignored all but the bits about extra letters from wordplay to this point, because it was all that I needed, and to avoid head explosion. But having guessed that the triangles at the top were probably bits of a bridge, it came as no surprise that said letters would tell us to SHADE TWO TOWERS OF BRIDGE.

Duly shaded, followed by a brief panic about the bits we were supposed to find. Thankfully I know that a PILLOCK is a fool, that POLLOCK is a likely looking substitution, and Google was quick with the information that many moons ago said Pollock took it upon himself to take a guided tour of London in a Hawker HUNTER jet, culminating with a fly-through of Tower Bridge.

HUNTER and THAMES duly highlighted, and you’ll have to imagine that the WALKWAYS and BASCULES that form parts of the bridge are shaded, because I got so excited at the thought of more highlighting that I began to highlight those as well.

Oh well. You can still see the picture Ferret’s drawn for us. Neat, isn’t it?

Duly enjoyed – very much enjoyed actually, even if there’s no box of chocolates at the close. Oh well, I’ll just have to make do with a cheeky, early Easter Egg.

Again? Sigh. In all fairness this struck me as one of the best Phis in yonks, and the nearest thing to a good, plain crossword I can remember from this setter. It’s not that, of course (click here for an explanation), but the theme didn’t get in the way at all and the feel was pleasantly light and breezy.

Initial reaction: “oh gawd – look at all those four letter words”. No need to worry though because none of them were Phi specials – in fact they were all pretty good. Solving was a matter of straight through in order with minimal backtracking, and my feeling was that this puzzle would have sat well on a Monday, the theme being so unobtrusive. As we have come to expect there were quite a few subtractions – a cluing tactic which can bog proceedings down when used to excess – but I suppose by now we’re used to that and nothing seemed too strained, although 1d did get a Paddington stare. Ordinarily use of American variants is a major bugbear of mine, but I’m not too bothered by 4d which pretty much spells the answer out. The three long anagrams are all quite nice, and provide a generous toehold for solvers wanting to get plenty of checkers in early on. Plaudits for 12 and 16ac; the clue of the day rosette goes to 14d:

“Trainer finally ready with the fluid – to do this? (9)”

Here’s the Fifteensquared write-up from February 2016 – congrats to Cookie for tumbling to the theme.

Perhaps exhaustion has got the better of me (whose bright idea was it to get on with some jobs round the garden while I’m on leave?), but I really found this puzzle to be somewhat of a challenge, finishing considerably over par for the i. A glance at the comments over on the other side would seem to concur, so perhaps I should just rest up for a few days. 😉 It’s also possible the current situation is proving somewhat distracting – I found myself getting increasingly frustrated with E4 last night when, while trying to forget about it all with a little (extremely) light entertainment, every single advert was reminding me to #StayAtHome or urging me to sign up for an NHS job. Silently screams. Thankfully we have a number of streaming services I suspect I’ll be making more use of to get away from it all, if not physically then mentally.

Anyway, at the close today I had question marks beside 17ac and 17d, both of which in retrospect required none, and a number of ticks as well, so I would say that while it was a slow solve, it was an enjoyable one, as befits a puzzle from eXternal.

Particular favourites were 2d and 7d, with my COD going to 26ac – “Prince admitting one groupie heartlessly hit kisser (7,6)”.

Over to February 2016 for all the answers and parsing of the clues:

BTW – While it’s nice that the cryptic is near the puzzles section, wouldn’t it be even nicer if it was actually in it on days other than a Saturday.

The Fifteensquared site has mercifully cottoned on to weekend puzzles in the i being temporarily prize-free, so you needn’t wait till next week but may happily visit the original blog for this puzzle with all the answers by clicking here. Which will also save me having to write them all out. Phew. If you’re reading this Gaufrid, thank you!

If you do go there then you’ll see that the scrupulously conscientious blogger Duncan initially didn’t spot Phi has given us a ghost theme: the dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt of the solar system beyond Neptune. I have a suspicion we all missed it too. 🙂  What then ensued back in November 2015 (no, it wasn’t an Easter theme) was the by-now familiar routine of Phi giving teasing little clues in the 225 comments section until Duncan and the commenters tumbled all the hidden entries and Ninas associated with it, like Haumea (row 2), Makemake (rows 7 & 9) and all the others.  Cliquey or what!

Anyhow. Let’s leave my moaning to one side for the moment, because I actually enjoyed the puzzle very much. Medium difficulty on the whole, there were a smattering of obscurities: we had an unfamiliar Saharan wind RHAMSIN at 18d (there seem to be quite a lot of those) which was very clearly clued, and also a bit of wordplay ‘Tattings’ in 16d, which was one of those seemingly fetched from the depths of the dictionary with a bathyscape. That formed part of a challenging SE corner where we also had 29a RESERVIST  with a plain enough answer but some very convoluted wordplay, and then a nifty bit of trickery for what was my LOI 24d reversing the final bit of the clue for 29a to get REMIT. Nice.

I also very much liked the clues for 17a MAKESHIFT, 2d DOUBLE-U, and 4d GALLIPOLI but my nomination for COD goes to the simple yet elegant:

14d.  Help out with stamp booklets (9)

Happy Easter to all bloggers, commenters and readers. May the stone be rolled away from our various caves before too long.