What a treat that was! Pitched just right for this particular solver, with only a couple of new terms: yes, PHARAOH’S SERPENT and SERPENTINE VERSE; who better than Serpent to introduce us to them both! As if that wasn’t enough, if you look carefully you can see two more serpents hiding in the SW and NE corners. All of that is beautifully neat and symmetrical, although unfortunately I didn’t look for that Nina. Knowing how brilliant this setter is at grid filling, I really should have done.

And what terrific clues – some really elegant surfaces, nothing overly impossible, but no real pushovers either – just a nice range of difficulty from the likes of 1a ADVENT, say – to give us a foothold to the more challenging end of things like those two Serpent clues, DOG PADDLE – which I’d only previously met as ‘doggy paddle’, my LOI 25a EXUBERANT, or this delightful clue, my COD which for far too long I thought must be ‘trepid’ without being able to parse it. Oh no, it’s much cleverer than that:

8d When you’re wobbly and about to snap, it helps to take drugs – lots of drugs! (6)

I shall be looking forward to the good supply of Serpent puzzles that lie in store for us lucky readers of the i!

Click here for the link to Fifteensquared and all the answers, and please do tell me which were your favourite clues in the comments below.

If you track down the columns of your completed grid you will see the 4-letter names of the composers BA/CH, LA/LO, IN/DY, NO/NO, PE/RI, RO/TA, and AR/NE; there’s also Ernst TO/CH in row 2. The pangram was just there to put you off the scent, reveals Phi in the comments to the puzzles blog from way back in May 2016 here.

Now that may or may not be a difficult and brilliant piece of grid filling, but the fact that it forced the setter to give us a few obscure or unlikely-seeming terms to find in our clue solving: Tenuto, Sunnites, Liner notes(?), Uniter(?), Quinella(?), and Rinderpest – shows that there were sacrifices made for a theme which once again almost no-one will have spotted unless they were helped to do so in conversation with the setter, as happened back in 2016. Contrast that with Donk’s wonderful puzzle yesterday – where the theme was clear to all, or Math’s Sherlock Holmes based puzzle on Tuesday – both were pure delight. Unfortunately this puzzle has been weakened in order to enable what turns out to be a joke almost no-one will get. For my money Phi is at his best when either he eschews themes altogether or at least makes them discoverable to the general solver; when he does his puzzles are excellent.

Rant over. Now for the clues. Well there were a mixture of easy, straightforward solves and then a bunch of straightforward constructions with either stretched synonyms to find or with those difficult answers already mentioned. One exception was the complex, Russian doll style clue for 6d KNITWEAR, which might have made it as COD if I’d felt that ‘our team’ could be ‘we’ as well as ‘us’. I also enjoyed the nicely deceptive definition ‘lose heart’ for ‘Fall in Love’ at 18ac, but my COD goes to the following clue which, simple though it was, has a nicely polished feel about it:

14d Plans to accept scripture lessons in cathedral (8)

Gila came to us via the world of the Inquisitor and this is his/ her (the name is a reversal of Ali G, so your guess is as good as mine) fourth offering in the world of ‘normal’ , blocked cryptics. By their own admission (there, that’s easier) they’re still finding their way with regard to difficulty level; the first few Gilas were far from monstrous, but this one is an attempt at racking up the difficulty level a bit, they tell us in the comments over at Fifteensquared (click here).

So how was it for you? I found things pretty easy for the most part, but with three quite surprisingly obscure words at the end which, after I’d frankly guessed them, was mildly surprised to see confirmed by the yellow tick appearing at the bottom of my screen. The likes of Michael Stipe, Thom Yorke, The Edge, Emos, Instagram, and Siri are all surely mainstream enough to be known by most people, but LATITAT seemed unfamiliar and I wasn’t a big fan of clueing both TWOCCER and EPEDAPHIC with anagrams. In my view the more obscure answers are best clued both easily and unambiguously – with hiddens or acrostics for example – but with an anagram the solver is working on a balance of probabilities – ‘edepaphic’ sounds only a little less likely than the actual answer to my ears, and ‘twoccer’ sounded unlikely full stop.

I really liked the clue for G/RE-ENGAGE, was delighted to see a variation on the canonical ‘two trees’ clue for EYEWASH, and enjoyed unpicking APATHETIC, but my COD goes to the following:

1d Networking site where popular snappers primarily tag stuff (9)

If I tell you that this crossword was first published on a 23rd December, and you combine that with the fact that you probably already know Phi is very fond of the most secret shade of ghost theme, you may want a brief pause in reading this blog to go and recheck your grid…

There – did you spot it? Dotted around the grid we had Santa, Sleigh, Snow, Sack, Present, Advent, Card, Ass, Deck (the halls), and Lord, plus one or two tenuous links such as Tat and Street. Obvious once it’s pointed out, isn’t it? What’s that? Did I see it? NO! But fortunately the good people over at Fifteensquared are there to shine a light onto the hidden corners of Phi’s deviousness; click here and all will be revealed.

The actual clue solving was remarkably speedy and straightforward hereabouts – no ‘no-ball’s today and no googlies, fizzers, or boundaries either, really. Everything was delivered to the middle of the bat and duly tapped away for singles or two-runners – a consistent level of difficulty which will have pleased many solvers I’m sure. Here’s my nomination for COD; feel free to add yours in the comments below:

1a Disposing of a circular object, daughter’s brought in a circular object (10)

As this will be my last blog before the big day, festive cheer to all, and many thanks in advance to Saboteur, who will be deputising for me on Boxing Day. And now I’m off to ‘work’ in a grotto in a garden wearing a big white stick-on beard. Ho, ho, ho!

I found today’s Phi considerably tougher than yesterday’s Serpent – which judging by the review of the original puzzle and comments at Fifteensquared (click here) makes me the exception! Heigh-ho.

Also I’m a busy chap today, and being under pressure is no way to tackle a crossword, I’m sure you’ll agree. Indeed I ended up running out of time and hitting the ‘Solve entire puzzle button’ with half a dozen still to go – and that’s a first for me since I started doing most of my i puzzles on line at the beginning of Lockdown.

So why was it hard? Well apart from the several obscurities – like MAECENAS, SAGUARO, FIRE AGATE, LIVIA and CHLOE (I was okay with AMATI & SHAKO), I found several of the leaps hard to make as Phi hinted at word components rather than defining them – in 4d OFF BALANCE, for example, we had two slightly cryptic definitions: ‘Encouraging a tip’ and ‘that’s not on the scale’, neither of which led immediately, obviously and clearly to the answer and which when put together caused me too much bafflement.

But maybe it’s simply not being in the right frame of mind.

My COD goes to 28ac: Comedian, one whose heart is given over to depression (5)

If you’re interested in what inspired Phi’s grid fill – I won’t call it a ghost theme – then you can read about it in the comments through the link above.

A theme from Phi which for once, as BertandJoyce observe in the Fifteensquared blog here, was as plain as day. No early 20th Century music hall routines or middle-brow literature this time; instead we were propelled into the world of subatomic physics with 14a PARTICLE as the gateway clue. I got there a bit backwards with 23d QUARK pointing the way, after which all the themed entries popped into place in a jiffy with the exception of BARYON, which ended up being my LOI and for which I required my first bit of external help of the week.

Here’s the list in full: MESON, BOSON, BARYON, TACHYON, PHOTON, NEUTRINO, LEPTON, QUARK – and all in a normal looking grid. Nice work. I wonder if Phi also tried making PHAETON into Proton during grid filling? That SW corner had a sprinkling of obscurities, and I’ll venture was the last to be constructed.

The clues were fine – well crafted (although ‘rocky’ does appear twice as an anagrind – oops!), and with nearly all the longer entries being clearly flagged anagrams, which made them pretty easy to solve. Then the theme gave a heap more, so that just left a few to mop up. I suspect some will have loved having something science oriented, and others will have appreciated something a bit easier in the i, but for me it was some way short of the very high level we’ve enjoyed over the previous 5 days.

Anyhow, here’s my COD, which is rather neat:

4d Precipitate a move for the Summer Exhibition (8)

Math used to be a key fixture in the early days of the i, but then had a 4 or 5 year holiday before his recent and very welcome re-emergence. This was a very fine crossword indeed – perfectly judged with plenty of accessible clues to give relative beginners some hope (I got half the across clues before even looking at the downs) then a few to make the solver move up a gear, and finally a sprinkling that will have doubtless stretched even seasoned regulars like us lot! But more importantly it was a lot of fun to do.

I did go looking for a theme about half way through, and wondered if it might be something to do with computers, but my knowledge is far from comprehensive in such areas, so I’ll leave it to Myelbow in the first of the comments at Fifteensquared to give the full list. Very impressive that.

No quibbles from me, but I was surprised to see ‘alternatives’ used as an alternate letter indicator in 6d NEON because I always thought that wasn’t allowable – and I was also surprised that Joe for coffee, which I think is American slang, wasn’t indicated as being such. Oh well, them’s evidently the rules.

Hands up if 7d OPOPANAX was your last one in? I’m supposed to know plants, but confess to going to the dictionary to see if there were any words that started ‘opopa…’ – more in desperation than expectation, and there it was. ‘My colleague’ was a less obvious pointer for Anax than ‘Crossword setter’ had been for Phi in 10a PHILOLOGY; I think it’s that plus the obscurity of the answer that held me up, rather than Anax’s relatively fewer appearances in the i.

As for the COD, I was torn between the elegant and the chortlesome, with 11a UNMANNERED (elegant) getting pipped by the following:

13d Admiring our boatload from Newcastle (10)

As far as I can recall, Phi is the only setter for the i to have used ‘Rugby Posts’ in a clue to represent HH, and I’ve been racking my brains this morning trying to decide if I do indeed remember it as a thing from my student days (Phase 1 of my crosswording life before the long pre-i hiatus) or whether that’s a false memory… not sure. Anyhow, if Phi wanted to establish it as a convention on the map of Crosswordland, he couldn’t have done better than today’s creation, which was a lot of fun and sprinkled with pairs of ‘rugby posts’ in fully six of the answers plus 29a itself.

Mostly a fairly quick solve – especially if you got the gateway clue early on – but I was beaten by the parsing of 30a FETE at the end, and in the opposite corner my last ones in were the intersecting 1a and 1d; the clue for DISH being rather weak, I thought, compared to most of the puzzle, and the term DOUGHBOYS being a new thing learned – Saboteur should like that. On the positive side I loved the clues for 11a COURGETTE (for some reason the botanical pedants don’t seem to ever complain that it should be called a fruit – go figure) and for 21a LOWESTOFT.

Here’s my nomination for COD, which is a masterful example of a setter, seemingly having painted themselves into a corner, deftly getting out of it.

6d Wells, say, including one with 29 fish – soles of extended size (4,5)

Click here for all the answers from Head Honcho Gaufrid at Fifteensquared.

Deep joy to be given the hardest puzzle of the week on a weekend when we have the most time. If you’re reading this because you’re stuck, then please keep going; it’s a real treat and is solvable without any aids – provided you can find somewhere quiet that is, and give yourself a chance to tune in to Serpent’s wavelength.

Following on from our discussion on these pages earlier in the week, it felt a bit like cheating when I went looking for a Nina with just V _ A… in the top row and casually wondered if ‘Vladimir’ might fit. Well of course it did, and theatre is my sort of thing, and I know Serpent is extremely good at the jiggery-pokery of grid filling, so I presumed Estragon would be at the bottom and – yes – there was the play title across the middle, with the clue cleverly referencing the top and bottom rows. Brilliant!

After that – which probably should have been the endgame really – it was a matter of filling in the gaps and trying to resist the temptation to look in a dictionary. No worries; despite the constraints of the Nina the most obscure answer for me was LAYETTE which was very clearly clued and vaguely familiar in any case. And weren’t those clues brilliant? Highlights included a great surface reading for 20a BUSY BEE, a double bit of misdirection for 16d WARHORSE, a neat hidden for 8d REVERENT and that super clue for 16a WAITING FOR GODOT. Under normal circumstances that would have been my COD, but we’re all a bit fascinated with that narcissistic demagogue over the pond at the moment, and one clue seems to be a perfect description of Defence Secretary Mark Esper, sacked 5 days ago; so it has to be this one really:

14d …haven’t lost heart after I stopped president celebrating victory (10)

Over to Fifteensquared, where it seems several people were flummoxed by the parsing of UNCLE. That one seemed clear to me, but I realise now that I had the RAT of IRATE wrong – it’s much more likely to be a synonym for singer (to the authorities) of course than a reference to Sammy Davis Jr et al. Interesting to note no-one’s picking up on the sign/ house confusion as seen again in 22d yet – I can assure you that within a few months time that’ll be ‘verboten’ by the editor!

A quick start in the top left corner, just one unparsed (5d) in an otherwise straightforward top right corner, but quite a few bits of difficulty in the bottom half today. In particular the intersecting SHAR[pen]ING and S[l]ASH which held me up at the end. The less said about the latter the better. Some nice clues along the way, mind you – I liked the misdirection of ‘opening of mine’ in 6d, and the reversal of ‘Moor Etna’ in 14d, but the COD has to be the following, which also lies at the heart of the ghost theme:

18a Ravers dancing in sporty gear (10)

To expand upon the ghost theme, Phi points out in the comments over at Fifteensquared with all the answers (yet again it was a theme that nobody got, so solvers don’t get the pleasure of discovering it for themselves, and that seems completely against the whole spirit of a puzzle ) that the finished grid also contained [m]ALICE, MAD[rigal] [s]HATTER, [salva]DOR MOUSE[r], and [s]HARE[r].