Rather enjoyable from Phi this week, with a well-judged puzzle of medium difficulty for the i, I thought, stiffening up in the South West. But judging from some of the comments over at Fifteensquared where you can find the answers, you won’t be alone if you found it tough going. We were required to have a fair bit of general knowledge today – A PANE of stamps was fine but 17a UNICAMERAL was my last one in and I felt compelled to check it really was a word, although now I feel like I’ve always known it (usually a good sign, that). Then there was RED-EYE as a kind of flight which I only learned recently (from a crossword) and the potentially confusing ‘writer of entertainments’ to describe Graham Greene – something else I recently learned from a crossword solve – it’s jolly educational this crosswording malarkey.

I also liked some of the innovative clueing: 4d had an indirect deletion, 3d referenced the following clue, and 18d referenced itself as ‘clue’ – why not – I can’t recall seeing it before. Indeed I had a sprinkling of ticks by the end, so hats off to Phi for entertainment. Runner-up for favourite clue was for the aforementioned 17a, but my pick of the bunch was the following for its excellent surface reading:

14d Confused fellow had carnal thoughts about the Queen (9)

At which I realise I’m probably encouraging the writing of yet more lewd and irreverent clues. If you’re reading this setters, just don’t cross the line or you’ll have Topsy and Willow to answer to!

And what about Phi’s famous (or infamous) ghost themes or Ninas? Once again nobody spotted anything until Phi hinted in the Fifteensquared comments that it’s something to do with the month of March – so apart from WEDDING March and FROG March there are another six you could go hunting for if you feel the urge. For the completists among us this leaves a slight harrumphing feeling at the end of an otherwise pleasant experience. And that’s probably why I’ll grumpily point out a difference between Phi and myself: He calls it a Nina, I would call it a ghost theme. But this is old ground, I just have to accept that it’s what he does.

Hoskins clearly sets out to entertain and definitely delivered today with some delightful humour and penny-drop moments with this fairly breezy offering which originally appeared on a Monday – click here for the answers from Fifteensquared.

Hopefully you were in a chucklesome mood because there was much chortling available in these clues with a few bums – whether greased or not, alcohol aplenty, a drug reference and an image of a duck and a flamingo that’s hard to shift once you’ve got it. Then the surface readings were beautifully done. Consider 28a where we had a crosswording cliche of H inside Peasants to make Pheasants, but the surface was ‘Poor country folk eating hard, gamey birds’ which is as good as Dac for smoothness and conveys a powerful image to boot.

No theme, no Nina, no obscurities in the solutions. One or two bits of recondite knowledge required to fully understand the wordplay mind you – like the fact that the constellation ARGO has moved out of view for British viewers since it was named by the Ancient Greeks (thank you Dormouse @15 in the comments for that one), The hip-hop band N.W.A. (look it up if you want to find out what it stands for) or indeed the Scouse term ‘Boss’ which I felt compelled to check with Mrs C. who comes from those parts. Another superb surface reading there too, btw.

It’s a bit of a score draw when it comes to COD nominations, but I’m going for the cleverly hidden definition and misdirection of 1a:

US police sure love the ultimate in donuts (9)

Finally, does anyone know why Hoskins is referred to by everyone at Fifteensquared – not just today – as Harry? Is there a famous Harry Hoskins from literature, or do they all just simply know each other? I feel left out!

For the most part I very much enjoyed this week’s Phi. There were some great surface readings in clues like 1d HEARSE and 4d SHAH, there was no over-reliance on either long anagrams or deletions and there were some lovely clues like the beautifully worked double deletion for 2d DRY-CLEAN, nifty Russian-doll style clues for both 28a RUMMEST and 21d IDIOMS. I also enjoyed the wordplay in 16a LENGTHS very much, and the clever misdirection in 22a READJUSTS and 29a TANNERY. But I’m a sucker for a smooth surface reading, so my pick of the crop goes to this one:

14d Rock formation, mostly milky in condition (10)

There were a couple of bits of wordplay I’ve not seen before which frankly defeated me. In 16d the answer was plain enough, but we were being asked to make a switch from something meaning ‘supports’ to get there. Evidently ‘making a switch’ means swap the position of two of the letters around, so that’s ‘bolsters’ in the wordplay becoming LOBSTERS. Live and learn, live and learn. Another new thing was the abbreviation Ep. for epistle meaning ‘letter’ in 12a EPHEDRINE. I got the German poet all right in that one (dragged up from somewhere) but had never encountered the drug and so entered ‘Exhedrine’ which was wrong of course, so a (thankfully rare) DNF for me today.

On to things I objected to (oh how I would love to say nothing at all!) – well just two really: not especially the American spelling of COLOR (I’ll leave Batarde to comment on that) but I did find the surface reading in 24d decidedly creepy: ‘Dallies, poking end of finger into female underwear’, not an image I want in my head thank you very much; and then obviously I’m going to object to the Nina, where I still have absolutely no idea what Phi is on about. Here is what he said in the comments at Fifteensquared: “A couple of hints for Nina hunters. All the 14 across entries are an odd number of letters in length. The letters O through to Z are not involved.”

Eh? Please enlighten me anyone!

For responses to that comment and all the answers please click here.

Just fifteen puzzles in and Serpent has already established himself as one of my very favourite setters with the i. Mind you, finding nothing to solve where I started in the NW corner led to a flurry of panic at the thought that I was on blogging duty today. Time to concentrate and enter a Sherlockian mind-palace – or Cornickian noddle-shack in my case.

Everywhere I looked all I saw were compelling surface readings – stopping to admire them is hardly conducive to a quick solve, but I couldn’t help myself. ‘One of the youngest Members of Parliament?’, or ‘Understood article in French documentary’ – they were all so good! And then when the clues did start to fall it was obvious we were dealing with a consumate setter. Consider ‘Felt desire made dogs start to yelp’ where ‘dogs’ is used as a juxtaposition indicator, or ‘Build-up about invention making a leap forward’ where we are being asked to make A leap forward to the front of C-CREATION – these are delightful bits of wordplay.

There was one hidden – if these are short it feels like a cop-out, if they’re long and well concealed, it feels brilliant – ‘smoKE ROSE NEear house’ is clearly one of the latter.

Looking around the grid I’m spoilt for choice for a favourite. It could be almost any but in view of the comments below I’m going to change my mind and go with the aforementioned 10a:

One of the youngest Members of Parliament? (5)

Whilst solving there were two occasions I felt less than gushing with praise, but when I looked on Fifteensquared predictably enough these both turned out to in fact be my own failings. Firstly I didn’t know that silver is the best conductor of electricity so was left puzzled by the definition of 17d, and secondly I misunderstood the parsing of my LOI COUNTERFEITING where ‘Consider’ was supposed to lead to COUNT not ‘Counter’ as I had thought, and ER was part of the homophone for ‘a fitting’. Other than that everything was all fully understood and solved in what turned out, surprisingly enough in the end, to be a pretty average sort of time for the i.

I loved it.

With BEATRICE and BENEDICK as the first and last across answers, clued as ‘Shakespearean heroine’ and ‘Shakespearean character’ respectively, even the most theme-blind among us will surely have spotted today’s ghost theme. Let’s hope this heralds a new era of Phi themes that are gettable – I’d like that. In addition to those two we also had the characters VERGES and HERO plus a possible nod towards the clown Dogberry with HOUND and [blue]BERRY, although you might call that last a ‘near miss’. What definitely was a near miss was the title of the play – I’m sure many of us were expecting ‘Much’ somewhere in the grid to accompany [avoc]ADO, ABOUT and NOTHING, but no. Phi explains in the comments over at Fifteensquared that he fell foul of the Independent’s ban on triple-light entries. A bit strange that, as he’s made the same complaint before, so presumably had either forgotten the rule when he compiled the grid, or perhaps it was originally intended for a different outlet. In addition to that lot we also had BERLIOZ who based an opera on the play, and Ken BRANAGH, who directed and starred in the 1993 film.

I solved this steadily a corner at a time and was left with the four intersecting clues in the centre to finish with. Each proved tricky: BLUEBERRY had ERR defined by ‘mistake’ which I’ve only just realised can be a synonym; BARRICADE had ‘about’ to clue CA where it took me an age to twig which sense of ‘about’ I was looking for; then BRATTISH and INSECURE both needed a good deal of squinting to make them work.

To follow on from recent recurring themes in the i, A BON MARCHE does indeed appear in Chambers dictionary – I didn’t mind that one, although ‘looked dim’ to clue GLIMMERED was another instance of my needing to squint somewhat.

Some good clues dotted around the place – I enjoyed those for NUDGE and ABACI in particular, but my COD nomination goes to this one for its 2021 topicality – especially for fans of Liverpool FC:

3d Country free to invite in present-day soccer team (4,6)

First of all, if you’ve come here after reading John Henderson’s piece on page 56, then welcome. The answers to those two clues were NONPLUS (NN= news around 0 + PLUS) and STONEHENGE (an anagram of GETS around ONE HEN).

Our business is blogging the daily cryptic in the i – in addition to which Jon Summers will be doing the same for the Inquisitor each Tuesday morning, a week and a bit after publication. Each Inquisitor is original, but the daily cryptics are nearly always reprints from the Independent on-line of around 4 years ago, in a rolling cycle of cruciverbial devilment. To provide the answers we give readers a link to the original blog on Fifteensquared. So simply click on those blue letters for an embedded link back to late 2016.

But is that cheating? Ha! The answer to that is entirely up to you. To my mind there is a sliding scale of cheats from hollering out to my wife ‘What’s the name of that French revolutionary again? You know, 5 letters ending in ‘T’?’ through to using a dictionary, a wordfinder, or if I’m completely stuck, coming to idothei and Fifteensquared. And in any case I come here to read my fellow bloggers, to see the parsings of any clues I’m not sure about, and to join in the crossword chat in the comments below. Do join us!

And what a cracker we had from Morph today. I have nothing but good to say about this one. In truth he’s one of my favourite setters anyhow, but he’s also one who seems to raise his game even higher when he has a theme like today’s, based around the centrally placed 15 across. Like so many others that clue was initially perplexing, but upon being solved one is left admiring yet another elegant piece of wordplay. There are so many excellent clues around the grid in fact – 6d, 7d, 2d, 15d, 23d, 26a, even the rather convoluted 19d Shih-tzu which I can never remember how to spell – but my Clue Of the Day (COD) nomination must go to our gateway clue. Here it is again:

15a 0.9 (3)

There may well be a few talking points today – I note that in addition to Morph the esteemed setter Quixote has chipped in in the comments on the other side, not that I agree with him. With regard to the Americanism in 6d (similar to yesterday’s use of ‘punk’) may I simply point out that Morph has deliberately given us the US spelling of arse – ‘ass’ – which I would say makes it a fair bit of wordplay, as ‘fanny’ is an American term for the buttocks, apparently.

Who are crossword setters anyhow? Retired clergymen whiling away the hours in their conservatories? Keen young hobbyists finding scraps of time in the evenings to produce a puzzle or so a month? Or are they actually proper professionals whose work is to create crosswords day-in, day-out to pay the bills and put food on the table?

As far as I am aware Phi belongs to this last category, and for that he rightly commands considerable respect. The downside is that his puzzles, invariably accurate and reasonably diverting though they are, can sometimes be scheduled to follow the likes of the much less prolific Hob who we had yesterday for example, and it is simply unreasonable to expect him to provide the same level of quality.

I found today’s to be quite a quick solve for the most part, but for the first time in a while I had to resort to ‘cheating’ at the end, using a wordfinder at 1d Sevres – which I had no idea was a kind of china, though the town name rings a bell – and I had to refer to a list of Mozart operas for 15d Idomeneo. Never ‘eard of it.

On to the things I liked best: I enjoyed the triple reversal in  23a Paralytic, and in 19a Thoroughbred I thought the wordplay was assembled with pleasing brio. I would also commend Phi for the half dozen or so clues where the surface reading made sense, like 27a for example, but my COD nomination goes to this one:

7d Fellow’s almost excessively wealthy, almost without precedent (8)

If you were looking for the characteristic Phi spectral ghost theme, it is there if you want to have another look at your grid – something to do with antique or classic cars, apparently. Alternatively Phi chips into the comments at Fifteensquared here to explain.

A bright and breezy crossword which took only about a quarter of the time of yesterday’s puzzle – both of which I completed this morning as it happened, but with very different expressions on my face I dare say.

Anglio is one of the newer setters to appear in the i, and whilst I find him(?) to be towards the easier end of the difficulty spectrum. NealH, who gives us all the answers in the original blog on Fifteensquared clearly doesn’t. ‘Gosh I found this hard going’ for the last time he blogged Anglio and ‘a bit of a grind’ this time. Not my experience at all, I found this to be sprinkled with a light touch of humorous wordplay and, although a little intricate here and there, pretty accessible by and large.

1a GOLF COURSE was excellent, as were the amusing 14d COURGETTES and 4d UNHITCH but my COD nomination goes to this fine example of an &Lit clue:

24a Washing one left around, possibly wet? (7)

When this puzzle first came out in October 2016, Bert&Joyce – usually two of Phi’s greatest supporters – found little good to say about it and their review (click here) prompted a slew of comments which were all positive – well, four of them at least. I’m expecting a similar story today, because without any ticks at all by the clues, I’m struggling to even come up with a Clue Of the Day for this one.

Having said that, and now that Fifteensquared have explained it to me, I do think 7d is rather brilliant. Here it is again:

7d Cross lines, failing to engage with dancing dog (9)

My mistake was thinking that ‘cross lines’ meant CHI rather than just ‘cross’. It would have had to have been ‘crossed lines’ of course.

Anyhow the answer was clear enough, and apart from that everything was all solved and parsed successfully. As Virgilius once answered when asked what makes a good crossword: ‘One you can finish!’

No theme from Phi for once, and no comment from him at Fifteensquared, which is even rarer.

For those unfamiliar with Poins’ style, his puzzles are typically drawn from the archive of IoS puzzles. That’s generally the easiest slot of the week in the world of the Independent so would usually mean a Monday appearance in the i. Not this week however, so the hardened veterans among us who were hoping for the sort of challenge that might push us to the edge of our cruciverbial abilities today will have to contain their disappointment and join the rest of the crossword-solving world in enjoying a thoroughly decent puzzle in which Poins was, I thought, at the top of his game.

Indeed the first 4 across entries all garnered ticks in my dead-tree version of the crossword today, so for the second day running I was starting to get pretty excited (it doesn’t take much; we are in Lockdown after all) and thankfully the standard stayed pretty high throughout. I was able to solve every clue as I came to it pretty much, and proceeded in my usual fashion for an easier end puzzle, one quarter at a time starting in the NW and finishing in the SE. I did fail to parse a couple: ALTERNATE and POINTLESS – maybe you did better there? but generally all was very pleasant.

With an appreciative nod to 8a DIGNITY (who saw the magnificent bit of archaeology on BBC2 last night by the way?) my COD nomination goes to what is surely as evocative a little story as you could hope to find in just seven short words on the day before Valentine’s Day:

19d Yes uttered after German boy’s inviting glance (4,3)

For the answer to that one – and all the others come to that – please click here.

And finally, JonofWales has asked me to let you know that tomorrow sees the second appearance of ‘exit’ with an original puzzle for us all to enjoy. So do please return to idothei after you’ve delivered your loved one the requisite cup of tea in bed.