Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟

Here’s an example of an excellent surface reading in a cryptic clue: Damage caused by shelling that gutted Rotterdam. It creates a single, strong image in the mind with the instructions for the parsing – ‘shelling’ and ‘gutted’ carefully chosen to help tell the story. Of course that’s from yesterday’s Serpent, a setter who puts an immense amount of effort into his surface readings. Phi does so too quite a lot of the time, and invariably so with his anagrammed clues, but for my money he’s too often happy to sacrifice a good surface reading and to be be content with just having good, solid cryptic grammar. I suspect that most seasoned solvers – both here and in Fifteensquared – barely notice and certainly don’t worry at all about that because they’re only looking for the cryptic reading in any case. But for me it’s the one thing that prevents Phi being among the group of my favourite setters.

Nevertheless we can all admire him for his immense erudition, his variety of clueing devices, his perfectly sound cryptic grammar as I say, and his prodigious output – including Inquisitor puzzles which must take an age to compile. He also weaves ghost themes into his puzzles for his own amusement and to tell people about after the event. So today we had NEKO (Japanese), NGERU (Maori), FELIS (Latin), KISSA (Finnish), CHAT (French), MACSKA (Hungarian) and KAT (Danish) all hidden in the rows across the grid. As usual nobody spotted it without having it pointed at… Except perhaps you?

I had no problems with any of the clues today – maybe ‘rudely called’ for PLOD in 10a was unnecessary (just ‘policeman’ would have sufficed for me) and perhaps a colloquial indicator for ‘MARROW’ in 13a could have been used – but these are matters of taste, not of right and wrong. I was happy with the use of ‘spurned’ in 18d (although it’s arguably more elegant the other way round) and generally all was tickety-boo. My last corner was the NE with a vaguely remembered composer and a reference to computers that had me floundering.

Favourite clues today were those for SACROSANCT, RESEARCH, GALLERY, NICARAGUA, CO-HOSTS, and ANT HILL, all of which were very good, but my CoD nomination goes to (drum roll…)

14d Get taken off, having boarded ship? We might (9)

And here’s the link to May 2018 for the answers:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/05/12/independent-9853-by-phi-sat-12-may-2018

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟

Another crossword from the prolific Phi, and this one came with a real sense that he was enjoying himself with some very creative clues. Some will have enjoyed the references to SULU in 17d, there was ‘shape of hole’ for O in OLIVE (very nicely done), a bit of astronomy and opera which we know Phi likes, a nifty subtraction in [c]LAM B[ake], a good &Lit for TEA COSTY and a good Straight Cryptic for NOSEBLEED.

However my CoD goes to this bit of rudeness:

9a Increasingly crude exclamation about bit of crude language? (7)

The vocabulary was testing in places: STORM CONE, DUTCH TREAT, BEETLE as a potato masher, but nothing too hard – probably an average sort of Phi in many regards.

There is a ghost theme you can explore if you want to (it seems he does them for his own amusement and to tell the Fifteensquared people about it after the event). If so, please scroll through to Phi’s comments after the puzzle’s original blog via this link:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/05/18/independent-9858-phi

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟

A delightful crossword from Vigo of the ‘Something for Everyone’ variety – by which I mean there were quite a few easy end clues but also some real challenges dotted around the grid which certainly caused me a good deal of head-scratching. So 3* in places.

Great surface readings throughout with some beautifully crafted bits of ingenuity. I could pick out several, and we’ll all have our favourites. Even Mrs C. liked the double definition (one whimsical) for FREE SPIRIT, then IN A WAY was similarly smooth. The use of ‘roots’ in the clue for ZONE was neatly done, and all the anagrams were excellent. I’m normally very disparaging about using anagrams for short words, but ‘Felt sadly abandoned’ for LEFT made me think again; perhaps it shows that if you’re going to do a short ‘un you’d better make it a good ‘un, and that means with a very compelling surface reading as Vigo did here – so providing the required element of deception, because without that there’s no penny-drop moment of course, and without that we probably wouldn’t keep coming back for more.

I love a reverse anagram thingy so here was my pick for CoD:

10d Glibness could be seen as dubious gift (5,8)

Just one bit of obscurity with CENA in the middle of MERCENARY which I certainly didn’t know, and then it was a pangram – not that I noticed until reading Sil’s original Independent blog with all the answers here:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/05/28/independent-9866-vigo

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟🌟🌟

‘Sparkling stuff’, ‘made me laugh’, ‘pleasingly chewy’, ‘very pleasant indeed’, ‘pleasant’, ‘well-constructed’, ‘everything is perfectly clear’. That’s what Fifteensquared thought of this crossword upon its first being published. So it must just be me not being able to finish that has put me in a grumpy mood then.

Never mind. Having seen the answers I only have two quibbles: The COMBINATION LOCK clue makes no sense – why ‘material’? Then I am something of a Shakespearean scholar but have never come across TUCKET before (the 3 major dictionaries only have it as a flourish on a trumpet), so I didn’t like that clue either. [Edit: Mrs C knew tucket, so fair enough if you’re okay with archaicisms!]

Before my unsatisfying non-conclusion (I think it was Brendan/ Virgilius who described a good crossword as ‘one you can finish’) I had been quite enjoying things, and my favourite was this pleasing bit of jiggery-pokery:

5d Former student, advanced student, group of students? Expression of doubt creeps in (7)

I don’t think there’s a theme or Nina; here’s the link to John’s review from 2018:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/04/27/independent-9840-by-phi

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟 🌟

What? A 2** rating for a Serpent puzzle? Well yes, because actually I finished this in 1* time – faster than I would do a Dac or Vigo or yesterday’s Gila indeed. On the other hand I know most solvers struggle with Serpent, so it’s clearly a wavelength thing: to me Serpent seems perfectly straightforward and logical, plus he normally eschews anything obscure that might confound me. Another factor is how absorbed we happen to be, and I always get drawn in by Serpent, possibly my favourite setter in any publication out there.

That having been said, there were 3 tricky bits of vocabulary today. GAM in 21d is the kind of Crosswordese we usually never see in Serpent’s puzzles, USP in 27a went unparsed (although I frankly over-use it in my everyday conversation) and AYAH in 25a went unparsed too (although my grandmother, who ran a small children’s hospital in Simla in the 1920s used to often talk of her ayahs out there).

Serpent tells us how he compiled this in the 36 hours following the announcement of STEPHEN HAWKING’s death. Wow. It’s so polished! I rumbled the theme early, which helped with COSMOLOGY and after getting HOLES had me certain there would be a BLACK somewhere else.

And it was all very good. Probably not Serpent at his best, but still very good. 1a STEPHEN had an excellent surface, and 4d NO CAN DO is neat, but my CoD nomination goes here:

14a Channels transmitting material that’s too much for other outlets (9)

Over to Fifteensquared for all the answers and parsing now. Duncan couldn’t quite see the parsing of HIS/TO(R)Y for some reason, and makes a strange quibble about GRAPH, but otherwise he’s spot on as usual.

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/03/27/independent-9813-serpent

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟

I’m always reluctant to give a puzzle a 1🌟 rating as it looks like I’m saying it’s easy; so let’s be clear, this is an Independent/ i cryptic crossword so it’s not! Indeed even a one star puzzle is still going to be too hard to solve for the majority of the population; ‘Largely because we’ve got better things to do with our time’ says my wife 🙂 Even so, this one was relatively easy and among our regulars it will only have been the geographically challenged who will have struggled perhaps with those two cities hovering around the borders of Europe and Asia.

A very pleasing set of clues from Gila – nothing more controversial than ‘OLDS’ for ‘elderly people’ in 1a, but that was still my FOI. My LOI was ASTRAKHAN but both the city and the prince merely needed jogging out of the recesses, so to speak.

Elsewhere there were lots of nice touches like the mash-up of musical genres in anagram of ‘Let it go or’ for RIGOLETTO; and then ‘Can paper’ as the definition for LOO ROLL. But the real stars of the show today were the surface readings. For me personally I love good surface readings, and every one of these were thoroughly plausible and gently misleading. Bravo/ Brava to the setter.

Hard to pick a CoD, but I’ll go with this one – with its gentle but pleasing penny-drop:

4d Changed what happened at noon? (7)

Here are all the answers from 2018:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/04/23/independent-9836-gila

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟🌟🌟

It’s been a challenging week in the i for most solvers, and this one won’t have provided any let-up I suspect, being as hard as any I can remember from Phi.

It seems as if, rather than going for theme or Nina, Phi has opted to include some of what he calls ‘interesting’ words in the grid. Hence perhaps STEGANOGRAPHY, NATATORIA, possibly ABSIT OMEN (where I entered ‘abset omni’, ho-hum), then there are some lovely words like MURMURATION, MIASMA (despite the meaning), GNOMIC, and possibly EUCALYPTI. Don’t know; perhaps it’s nothing.

There are six longish anagrams; as usual Phi reserved his best surface readings for those clues. Elsewhere the emphasis is rather on solid cryptic grammar with occasional flashes of innovation. I appreciated the device ‘missing out on repeat’ to indicate changing ‘tasty’ to ‘tasy’ in 7d FANTASY, plus a lovely bit of repetition of ‘rope’ in 8d RECORD. However my runner-up for CoD goes to 11a READY and my winner (largely for avoiding any reference to starlings) is this one:

13d Greek character engaged in lifting drink supply leads to sotto voce comments (11)

Here are the answers from John’s blog in 2018:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/03/30/independent-9816-by-phi

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟

A cleverly worked ghost theme (akin to an ‘Easter Egg’ in the world of gaming, which ties in with the original date of publication perhaps?) based on CHOCOLATES and SNACK BARS – sometimes called SCOFFS or MUNCHIES; though that last doubles up as a brand name too of course. Add to that MARS, FLAKE, FUDGE, PENGUIN, YORKIE, MARATHON and TOFFEES; all clued on ways other than their themed meaning, and also achieved without obscurities and with nothing more strained than DISTRUSTERS (which seemed fine when clued the way it was) and we had a top-notch grid fill. Nice one.

I only struggled with the NW corner – I still don’t understand 1a SOCIAL CLASS being defined as ‘A once perhaps’ – are the socio-economic bandings now abolished maybe? if so, fair enough.

There were a sprinkling of very good anagrams, including in one of my favourite clues16a MANAGERESS. I also liked the clue for AGENTS – it’s strange how the passage of time makes a joke at George Michael’s expense more acceptable now somehow than some commenters found it back in 2018 – and my nomination for CoD goes to this one:

11a Hit back at husband performing arduous task (8)

Here’s that link to Simon Harding’s original blog:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/04/01/independent-on-sunday-1466-by-hoskins

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟🌟

How did you get on with this one? I’ve rated it as 3* for difficulty but I’ve really no idea, because this was one of my own puzzles and so obviously I knew all the answers! It seems about average difficulty, but when it was blogged by mc_rapper67 back in the day he did it in 12½ minutes – which is less time than the quick crossword took me yesterday, so who knows.

I would usually take this opportunity to explain something about the puzzle’s genesis, but there’s no real story or theme this time. I think I started with TANTAMOUNT and AT DAGGERS DRAWN from my file called ‘Random clues as I think of them’ and put them in a friendly looking grid from ‘Crossword Compiler’. After that it was simply a matter of picking words that looked conducive and mulling over the clues for my usual inordinate length of time. Hats off to the setters who can create puzzles quickly – I’m not one of them.

Noteworthy clues might include BADGERS which seems to be blaming them for the spread of bovine TB, but on closer inspection it’s really ‘bad germs’ that are responsible – that created some comment on Fifteensquared; then there’s the clue for CHEW which started life in earlier puzzle that I’d had on Big Dave’s website before being tweaked and upcycled, so to speak – I’m not sure how frowned upon that might be as a modus operandum… Finally IMPROMPTU makes its third appearance in the i in recent memory, all of which have used the ‘I’m prompt’ gag, but entirely coincidentally.

Here’s my favourite, so I’m nominating it for CoD:

27a Sleep very lightly, maybe Nero’s beginning his sex? (4-5)

And here’s the link to the original blog with all the answers:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/03/24/independent-9811-by-maize

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟🌟

In his 1564 book ‘The Scholemaster’ Roger Ascham, tutor to both Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I, wrote “The ENGLISHMAN ITALIANATE is the Devil Incarnate” (quite right of course, we’re British Godammit) and hence our ghost theme today of synonyms for Beelzebub, and also the symmetrical positioning of those two 10-letter words – irresistible to Phi it seems. We also had DICKENS, DEUCE, HARRY, and SCRATCH. As usual all of that soared over my head while solving, but I have heard of Ascham, and I imagine it was in the above mentioned book that he wrote one of my favourite aphorisms about education: how there are two kinds of learners – ‘quick wits’ and ‘strong wits’, and that he preferred the latter.

Anyhow, back to the puzzle. A typical offering from Phi I thought. A pretty obvious long entry down the middle – assuming you knew the phrase – opened things up, and I found the lower half easier than the upper – 2* and 3* respectively. Then that theme looked like it was going to be a literary one, didn’t it? but not so in the end. There were a few where I struggled – like knowing neither of the double definitions for 8d SCRATCH or the parsing of 13a CROSSBOW – but overall it was an enjoyable offering, with some very well worked clues along the way, like 18a NOONTIDE, 22a DUCT, 24a LEISURED, 6d PARSI,14d SAVILE ROW, 15d GROUNDING, and 19d DICKENS. My favourite was:

20a Some European he maligns misguidedly? Little new in that (10)

Here are all the answers from 4 years back:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/03/02/independent-9792-by-phi