Difficulty rating (out of five): ⏳⏳

A thoroughly enjoyable second outing for Italicus – although I don’t remember his first, which doubtless appeared this summer when I was in hospital.
Starting at the top of the grid as is my wont, I hit the ground running this morning, but things got a bit trickier with some names like Shona in FASHIONABLE or Dorothy Lamour in CLAMOUR; then the homophone of ‘said use’ for SEDUCE was obviously a bit of a stretch, even for a champion of allowing latitude with such things like me! Still, there was plenty to like as I say; SACRIFICE was nicely put together, ABSOLVE brought a smile, the Spooner in 1a was a corker, but the CoD has to be:

19d Some Scouse git’s evidently up for a scrap (7)

And here’s the link to the original blog:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/09/24/independent-9968-by-italicus

Difficulty rating (out of five): ⏳⏳⏳ (but I bet some will have found it harder)

This was superb; the puzzle of the month so far in my book, and a shame that it didn’t make it into print when much lesser crosswords have done.

Brilliant definitions abounded in both wordplay and ‘main definition’ elements of the clues. As soon as I came across ‘Fat controller’ for the BASTER element of 8a I thought ‘hello, this is looking good’ and the puzzle continued to delight: the cryptic definition of ZEBRA, ‘spotted creature in the house’ for DALMATIAN, ‘The ultimate in baldness’ for COOT, ‘One with two black eyes’ for PANDA and many more. Then the surface readings were universally brilliant, and the level of knowledge required to fill the grid seemed pleasingly in the comfort zone of this solver at least – a bit of culture but nothing too obscure, and a quite wonderfully realised theme. If you thought it was just about animals then I urge you to stop reading now and go back and have another look.

There, did you spot it? On the theme of Black and/or White we had Alabaster, Rhino, Zebra, Mezzotint, Rev, Dalmatian, Penguin, Casablanca, Oreo, Divisive (as in black & white issue), Coot, Chess, Satin (as in ‘Nights in white S’, Russians, Panda, and Dice. That’s 16 themed entries, with barely a reference to either black or white between them appearing in the clues. It seems from the comments on the other side that ‘Sundays’ and ‘Jazz’ could maybe be linked to B&W, and I suppose Charlie Chaplin was a B&W movie star, and I dare say there might be links to the theme even more tenuous than that.

Here’s my CoD from among many I loved:

22d Two characters boxed in spar, one with two black eyes (5)

And here’s the link to 2018 where the majority failed to appreciate how great this crossword was (‘Quite satisfying’ says the blogger – Pah!). Filbert, I hope you’re reading this; I loved it.

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/08/21/independent-9939-filbert

Difficulty rating (out of five): ⏳⏳⏳(or probably 2)

I think today’s puzzle must have the most solver-friendly of grids possible – all 5, 7 or 9-letter lights with all first and final letters checked. This is a good thing because it allows the clue difficulty and inventiveness to be racked up without necessarily upping the difficulty of the crossword as a whole.

Of course that presupposes the solver can get a decent foothold in the puzzle to start with, which proved elusive for me at least in the top two quarters. But then the whole bottom half yielded quite quickly, after which it was just a matter of chipping away at things till only 12a S_E_S remained. 5 minutes head-scratching later and I gave up. Oh well. Nearly.

There were some delightful clues along the way – 23a INVENTIVE was exactly that, as were 25a PIRATICAL, 14d DIALECTIC, and 1a PAPYRUS among others, but my pick for CoD goes to one with a similarly multi-part structure but the most plausible of surface readings:

6d Father going round church to avoid dog (9)

I missed the Nina in row 8 combined somehow or other with column 8; see comments in the original blog if you’re interested. That will explain some of the more obscure entries like the Russian scenic artist at 26a.

Here’s the link back to 2018:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/09/07/independent-9954-by-phi

Difficulty rating (out of five): ⏳⏳

After watching that bit of history on the telly (it’s Mrs C who’s the royalist in the family, but I take a detached interest) it’s time to go back in time just four years to a puzzle by one of the most consistently clever and entertaining of setters – this was Eccles on top form again. We had an ER in there that wasn’t Queen related (apparently The Telegraph at least have suspended all references to the late monarch) but we shall have to wait and see how the i crossword editor reacts.

Anyhow, loads of great clues today. I really like the way that Eccles gets phrases into clues that the solver has to deconstruct and reassemble into the answer. Witness ‘foul language’, ‘Standard and Poor’, ‘taking answer to grave’, ‘Muscle deterioration’, ‘hip disease’, ‘Ben Stokes’, or ‘dark brown’. Every one of those consisted of quite separate elements which the setter crafted together to create a cannily deceptive surface reading. Great stuff. There was some petty carping about ‘Ben Stokes’ (MOUNT S) on Fifteensquared which I thought pretty ridiculous. Sure, ‘Stokes’ = S might be a new abbreviation even for a seasoned solver, but all the newer solvers have to deal with unknown abbreviations on an everyday basis, so I extend very little sympathy – it was a lovely idea, and surely irresistible to a cricketer and cricket fan like Eccles.

In common with the moaners I did raise an eyebrow at Albert Camus being described as a philosopher, but a quick check with Google proves the setter right yet again. I think commenters sometimes forget how much work and test-solving has gone into puzzles before they get published!

Here’s my CoD, from among many delightful offerings:

2d Learners go skiing here (5)

And here’s the original blog with the answers:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/09/05/independent-9952-eccles

Difficulty rating (out of five): ⏳⏳⏳⏳⏳

First of all, happy birthday to Valerie, I hope Hob still loves you now you’re 64. What? That wasn’t what the puzzle was about? ….perhaps we will never know.

You may have done this quicker than me if you remembered to look for a Nina at the right time; I had meant to but forgot. I’ve given it five egg-timers because I failed to parse a few and indeed went to a wordfinder to look for 8a at the end – although once I saw the first page of possibilities VIKINGS popped into my head without seeing the actual word. Still a Level 3 cheat though. The parsing of that one (sex = VI) was a bit unfair perhaps, but not as hard as the L[a]X bit of 14d or the FEMINIST definition of [Judy] Chicago at 17d, which was bunged in from the crossers and wordplay; even then it seemed a little odd to call Tracey Emin a ‘young’ artist – she was 55 when the puzzle was first published.

So a few gripes, but also loads to relish. I could pick out an awful lot of good ones – basically all of them apart from the ones I thought unfairly hard – because Hob is a very good setter indeed, but I suppose the star of the show has to be all the shenanigans around the numbers and the TREBLE TWENTY Nina top & bottom.

However I am statutorily charged to pick out one favourite, so I’ll go with the racy 22a, if only for SimonH’s funny commentary on the clue over at Fifteensquared.

Here’s the clue:

22a Number of old centre forwards missing 12D 16As from scoring position? (4)

And here’s the blog:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/07/28/independent-9919-by-hob

Difficulty rating (out of five): ⏳⏳

Gila first came to our attention at the i within the Inquisitor series, so clearly he makes things a bit simpler when doing a regular blocked cryptic like today’s. Indeed I proceeded at an enjoyable lick down the LHS until some theoretical physics held me up at 14d, then over on the RHS a few bits of trickery nudged this into 2 egg-timer sort of time. The pleasure of solving very much remained however, even if I did have to get up and check the dictionary at the end only to discover that IDEAL MAN was wrong for 14d – clearly too ridiculous a notion by far.

There were a couple of other bits of general knowledge required – for example, did your pop knowledge extend all the way from Bill WITHERS to Harry STYLES? Then the expression IN SPIRITS seemed unfamiliar, DRESS TIE didn’t ring a bell, and ‘funk’ was used in its less usual verbal sense in 27a – so not entirely straightforward today.

My favourite clues included the assembly of multiple parts in 16d ALLIANCE, the smooth anagram in 29a SENEGALESE, the amusing surface reading of 13a OSTRICH. and the neatness of 9a BANANAS, but my CoD nomination goes to this one:

19d Resolve to arrest leader of infidels for a religious crime (7)

Here are the answers, courtesy of NealH at Fifteensquared:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/07/23/independent-9914-by-gila

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟🌟

There are some setters who are prolific, there are some setters who produce brilliant puzzles, but in my opinion there’s only Punk (Paul in the Graun, Mudd in the FT, anonymous in the Times) who does both.

This was a terrific crossword full of inventive, fun and brilliant clues. I loved it. The difficulty rating is 3* because, although I personally completed more quickly than I usually manage to do the i, a) when it was first published everyone thought it was hard, and b) I did enter quite a few of the longer ones without fully parsing them – like PORK SCRATCHINGS for example, which just had to be from the &Littish description given by the whole clue, or HANSEATIC LEAGUE which had a very clear definition.

This one gets my vote as CoD; despite being no fan of the answer, it is brilliant:

6d Kiss chap in embrace of Diogenes? I’m monstrous! (4,7)

But I found so many other clues to be brilliant too – the anagram for FATHER CHRISTMAS, the subtraction in GLIDER, the punning of LEAD SINGER, so many more… then there were bits of fun like OIK, OLDIE, DELISH, WHOOPSIE defined as ‘mess of a setter’, or the use of ‘Moola’ in 1a which show a real delight in playing with the English language. There were a couple of obscurities – TAMARACK and ARGENTIC – but they were clued so straightforwardly by the wordplay that they didn’t need checking. Some might not have liked ‘Pop’ as an anagram indicator in 13d OLDIE, but I think it can be excused by the excellent surface. Then INDIE was another one that was easier to solve than to parse.

Fortunately we have my favourite blogger at Fifteensquared, mc_rapper67, to clarify everything:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/08/11/independent-9931-by-punk

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟🌟 or 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Very enjoyable for the most part, but sprinkled with a few real head-scratchers that pushed the difficulty up and left me slightly puzzled afterwards. SURCEASE was arguably the hardest clue; I bunged the word in because it fitted and I know it well from one of Macbeth’s most famous speeches, but it was only afterwards that I realised it was clued with the Yoda-speak ‘Stop old’ to indicate an old-fashioned word for assassinate (well, that’s what I thought it meant); the Guardianesque ‘insure’ didn’t help either. Then I thought ‘Accountant’ to clue CONTROLLER was also very hard. As often happens with Tees we had a good dose of The Classics. Maybe he gained his love from his academic background, maybe it’s a sort of hobby, but we see it a lot. I have no idea as to the correct grammar of ‘interruptus’ in 23d, so I can’t be sure that it’s worthy of CoD status, instead I’ll give my vote to this one:

25 One’s Medea, Alcestis or Ceres, switching parts (9)

And here’s the 2018 blog with all the answers:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/06/18/independent-9884-by-tees

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟 or 🌟🌟🌟

I enjoyed today’s crossword from Phi, which had both originality in the clueing and a ghost theme based on the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. The new ideas were in 2d where we had CREAM inside SER (best in series) defined both by the ‘!’ at the end and arguably by the whole clue too, Then at 25d CAKE ‘regularly lost’ means drop every third letter – I’ve never seen that before. Finally 22a asked us to notice that two given words both had an EM END – original again!

I wonder if Sondheim ever got to see this crossword – I do hope so, because he was a great lover of British style cryptics (do read this article by him on his enthusiasm if you’ve never met it before) and I’m sure he’d have been delighted to see his musicals in the finished grid. Several solvers spotted them back in 2018, but I didn’t this morning. Well, I did wonder if there might perhaps be some hidden overtures like ‘The Pacific Overture’ or whatever, but didn’t get round to Googling that; if I had I suppose all would then have been revealed.

Nor did I actually finish without a bit of Wordfinder help. I was flummoxed by definitions for APERITIF, ACETONE and the FLIES bit of 28a. In addition to that I failed to parse the already mentioned SCREAMER and missed the ghost theme. So my 2*/3* rating for difficulty is based not on my experience but is rather a guess as to how others might have found it. Indeed this also took me 8 minutes longer than yesterday’s 4* Serpent where I didn’t need help. Go figure.

Favourite clue? Among many possibles I loved the surface reading for FETISHISM, appreciated the original ideas mentioned above, delighted in an unusual bit of basic level German in DESIST but my CoD nomination goes to:

14a Capable? Sadly ineffective, having dropped last two (9)

Here’s the original blog, with all those musicals listed in the comments at the bottom:

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/07/06/independent-9900-phi

Difficulty rating (out of five): 🌟🌟

A very enjoyable puzzle from Peter today completed in something around my average time I suppose. However I did struggle to get a foothold in the top half – it was the SE corner that yielded first. Once I had some crossing letters the clues then tumbled without too much trouble, finishing with 24d OS for bone inside BS for doctor; pretty tricky that. Other things that held me up included the little known CHINE in 14d, a complicated sequence of parsing in 13d MAGNA CARTA, the seldom seen C for Celtic in 15a, ‘sweeping’ in 17a which has a function I still can’t see for the life of me, ‘clouding’ as a containment indicator in 14a, and ‘under the duvet’ as an indirect instruction for the insertion ‘in BED’. So a sprinkling of difficulty to push this up from 1* to 2.

My favourite clues were many. I especially liked BAND SAW, ENGROSSED, YPRES, DEMONIC, BORODIN, and NIGER, but my CoD nomination goes to this one:

28a Actors tucked into kebab in Yorkshire town (9)

Here are the answers from 4 years ago with Pierre (presumably British?) blogging Peter (definitely female):

www.fifteensquared.net/2018/06/17/independent-on-sunday-1477-peter