I first met Kairos on Big Dave’s crossword site where he sets puzzles as Prolixic, gives detailed reviews of new setters’ puzzles on ‘Rookie Corner’, and has written an extremely good guide on how to compile a crossword (click here and find the pdf at the bottom of the page). So it’s no surprise that his crosswords invariably present a scrupulously fair challenge.

And so it was today; the word ‘straightforward’ seems to be a bit like damning with faint praise, but probably fits about half of the clues here – at least they were straightforward to solve for any experienced solver I suspect. Which is not to say they weren’t amusing; here’s my COD:

18d Print Starbuck’s warning? (7)

But then there were a good few where the difficulty bar was raised a few notches: ‘up’ as an anagram indicator in 1a, counterintuitive word order in 7a, a tricky clue for 8d LEAP DAY and some challenging vocabulary like PING in 2d, TRUMPET STOP, DUSTY MILLER, HYPOTONIC and AFRIT. That last, as well as being an Arabian sort of genie, was also the name of Ximines’ predecessor at the Observer, responsible for the famous setter’s injunction mentioned by Raich over at Fifteensquared where you’ll find all the answers: “You need not mean what you say, but you must say what you mean”.

My acquaintance with Kurt Weill, the subject of today’s ghost theme, is only through his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, and I think I’m right in saying that only one of those collaborations ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ appeared in the grid – so little chance of me spotting the theme then. Belated congratulations to Dormouse, a regular contributor to the comments over at Fifteensquared (where you’ll find the answers, click here), who did, and who I’ve noted before is very strong on Radio 3 type stuff. How did you get on?

Probably towards the more straightforward end of things for both Phi and the i, answers went in pretty swiftly by my ponderous standards. Some excellent anagrams, which Phi always does well, and some fairly gentle misdirection, with just a couple of instances of eyebrow asymmetry – ‘wax’ for ANGER in 7d and ‘on’ as an anagram indicator in 25a, which whilst it might be technically allowable, is surely as hard to love as a crumpled Christmas sweater buried on the holiday clearance table.

COD? Let me see… Well, the surface grammar is a bit clunky, but I did enjoy solving this one:

4d Hypothetical proposition picked up blemishes lots made less of (5,3)

My latest theory on solving crosswords is that a good deal is down to chance: Strike upon a couple of easier clues at the get-go and you’re boosted with a feeling of confidence, of being on the setter’s wavelength, and you have some useful crossing letters to boot. But then again, if you start with two or three of the most difficult clues in the grid (I tend to jump all over the place) you can easily lose heart, come to the conclusion that you’re just not on form today or determine that the setter has upped their difficulty level.

So it was today, with almost no progress for the first dozen or so I looked at, but then I chanced upon some easier anagrams and the whole puzzle tumbled domino-style out of obscurity and into the clear light of understanding – well, it’s Dac after all.

Really hard to pick a stand-out clue, because Dac is all about consistently high quality surface readings and solid constructions, rather than bells and whistles. Hence I shall go for one which – coincidentally enough – is as topical today as it was back in 2016 when it first appeared:

8d Lack of certainty, say, in the Conservative leader, wavering (9)

As usual I started in the top left corner – all jolly nice and pretty quickly filled in; Top right – a similar story, possible pangram on the way? Bottom right was tricky to get started with, in part because of the relatively isolated nature of each quarter but it fell in average sort of Phi-time. But oh how I struggled to get a foothold in the South west! 15d and 16a were my last ones in, and they were the only joining lights from the other corners, so it was simply a matter of scratching the old bonce until eventually the likes of DMITRI, TITULAR, and NECKTIE yielded, each presenting difficulties for different reasons. in the end I only got 16a after I’d had a look at the IMDb page for the pretty clearly flagged theme of The GRAND BUDAPEST Hotel, where I learned it had been directed by Wes ANDERSON, and then 15d with its questionable definition (is a BISHOPRIC a religious centre?) became apparent. Phew.

Notable features in the clues this week were a couple of instances of pushing the boundaries on anagram indicators: ‘freedom to’ in 16a and ‘Activity displayed by’ in 5d. Taken in toto I’d say this was one of Phi’s better puzzles, if not quite out of his very top drawer.

COD? Let’s go with 23a Studies book, engaged in stories and pictures? (10)

Here’s the link to the answer for that one, and for all the others in fact.

Well done if you spotted any of the characters (ZERO, AGATHA, DMITRI, GUSTAVE) from the film; I’ve not seen it, so didn’t.

Another monumental achievement from Math, reminiscent of his recent Big Bang Theory puzzle. But this time, as well as all the clues being heavily themed around pop & rock, we also had a slew of themed entries appearing ghost-like in the grid. Give yourself a bonus point for each one of the following you spotted:

The bands Muse, Chase, Asia, Cast, Fight, (The) Killers, (The) Script, (The) Fray, (The) Kooks, and Status (Quo); the rapper Drake; plus ‘Beat It’ by Michael Jackson, ‘Rock Bottom’ by Lynsey de Paul; plus themed words Disc, Troupes, Deals, Untuned, Teds, and Organs. Even ‘Snowball’ is slang for a cocaine-fuelled party apparently. Oh, and (The) Jam is there too by way of a possibly-accidental-possibly-not Nina in column 1.

Which might have all been a bit Marmite-y I suppose. Put me in the ‘Love it’ camp, even if some of the references like Doctor Dre, t.A.T.u., or RiRi (that’s Rihanna, apparently) were lost on me at the time. Some of the clues were quite long, but as I have said before I see nothing wrong with that per se; short clues can be brilliant, but so can long ones. And just to make my point I’m going to nominate one of them as my COD, which provided a fine pdm (penny-drop moment) and a good chuckle to boot:

21d Musical instruments of interest to Fine Young Cannibals or Doctor & the Medics? (6)

Solving time maybe slightly over par for the i, but only because I spent so much time relishing those clues.

Click here for all the answers from Fifteensquared,

No prizes still for Saturdays – which is a shame if you were angling for one of those radios (I’ve forgotten the name of the manufacturer) but good news for your blogger: Being in a hurry to get this blog done and take the youngest back to London for the first bit of university since March, I was happy to have Duncan’s 2016 blog here to point out the Nina, which is what this puzzle is all about. So in rows 3, 5, 11 and 13 there’s a hidden message: ‘A MESSAGE AVOIDING THE PERIMETER’. Wow. Those 28 letters must have had to be entered first by Phi, and then all the other words fitted into the grid around them. Hence we had PIROGI, YEAR-ENDS, and AXLE-TREE, which all things considered didn’t seem too onerous to me. I wonder if you spotted what was going on? I didn’t because I was in a rush, as I say, but I do admire it.

As for the clues, my favourite is this one:

6d Beginning to accept America after Democrat’s Hollywoodised vision? (8)

I’ve come to really like doing Crosophile puzzles. They tend to be free of obscurities and generally use only the more usual abbreviations and conventions, but there are always plenty of slightly idiosyncratic twists and cryptic definitions to get you thinking.

No theme today, and a time slightly under par for the i. I had a quick start but was held up for a while at the end on the intersecting UNDUE/ RED-HANDED in the NE and GRAPEVINE/ LYING-IN in the SW. None of those four were remotely as difficult as anything in yesterday’s battle however, so all well and good.

The multi-part clue for 17d AXIOMATIC received a lot of praise when this puzzle first appeared in May 2016, but I’m going to plump for the neat bit of chemistry in the following clue as my pick for COD, even if it was pretty much a read-and-write:

19a Blade made of three metals (5)

Back to St George’s Day 2016, which means we’re celebrating the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. And there he is, sort of, in the answers to 5d and 24d, SHAKE and SPEAR. Then there was a quartet of additional clues referencing each those two: TRILL, ROCK, TREMBLE and UNNERVE for the former, JAVELIN, ASSEGAI, DART and PIERCES for the latter – one of each for each century presumably. Very nice.

My favourite clue was probably 23d. Here it is again: Spruce up M’s place? (5)

And my favourite Fifteensquared blogger is probably Mc_rapper67, who was on his usual good form with the original blog here: http://www.fifteensquared.net/2016/04/23/independent-9212-by-phi-saturday-non-prize-puzzle-23-april-2016/

Having just looked at Fifteensquared where this puzzle was first blogged in 2016, I was more than a little surprised to see the negative comments and to learn that so many people have no idea at all about ‘The Big Bang Theory’ which, largely thanks to having two sons of the right age (one a mathematician and the other an engineer), has been a massive part of the Cornick family viewing over the last several years.

Every single clue had a surface reading relating to the series, and even 4d which some commenters thought didn’t, seemed to me like a neat summation of the series. The only reference I didn’t pick up on was ‘Bill’ in the clue for 9ac, but I’ll wager that’s a reference too.

So I was a very happy solver, and the convoluted nature of several of the clues was more than forgivable given the constraints of the theme. For my money I’d say ‘Nice one Math’. FWIW, my favourite episode is the one where Leonard’s mother comes to stay, but I accept I might be speaking to a small audience of i crossword solvers with that.

My COD relates to a repeated gag in the show, where Sheldon always has to knock on Penny’s door and call out her name 3 times so she knows it’s him. Yeah, you had to be there, I know.

20d Co-worker knocked his heart out for “Penny, Penny, Penny!” for example (6)

Thoroughly enjoyable from Phi today, there were plenty of easier clues balanced with a good smattering of very satisfying bits of inventiveness. Outstanding examples included: the Harry Potter clue for OPTOMETRIST where Harry meant ‘make an anagram of’ – which might have been done before, but surely never better; 1a GRAPHITE, which was very neat; 19a SHOWER PROOF; and then ITERATE at 23a with all those timeses and 15d with multiple ‘wrongs’. I can see now that 7d ACTON was also very neat, although I had no idea that MIA stood for ‘missing in action’ whilst solving, so the cleverness was lost on me at the time.

However, I’m in the Highlands of Scotland still, so my COD goes to this bit of reverse wordplay:

8d Former copper heads for Scotland – Edinburgh mon! – making comment on language (6,2,6)

Phi has iterated the answers to the first and last across clues – Graphite and Tangents – as hidden Ninas in rows 5 and 11. Well done if you spotted that; I sort of did, but didn’t really think of it as a deliberate thing, which thanks to Bert & Joyce’s excellent blog (link below) with all the answers now seems obvious.