A week on from a particularly taxing inquisition… another jigsaw. You know how much I love jigsaws. This week at least we have clue lengths, and only the one set of clues.

  • Extra letters generated from wordplay, and subsequent message. Tick.
  • Unclued entries, similarly.
  • Highlighting. This bit is a favourite with the youngest two who wonder why and delight in the fact that I colour in the crossword every week. I must admit to enjoying it too.
  • And clues that are a level less fiendish than last week. A Jenny’s an ASS, a WRASSE being a fish that must be popular in crosswords as it’s stuck in my mind where things often don’t. ANALOG is a typical American misspelling. A tax is a LEVY.

And so on, which is all well and good but where to put the things? If I’d been thinking logically I might have looked for the 8 length clues first, and positioned my answers correspondingly considering crossing clues.

And I did get there, but only after a bit of a debacle with the washing machine. One having had the poor grace to break down a month after the extended warranty expired, the replacement ordered rather hurriedly without provision for removal of the old, or installation of the new. Installation required because have you ever tried removing a washing machine from its packaging?

An extended discussion with Argos later…

Sunday, where I have a limited time before a four, yes four hour dance presentation and subsequent competition to get to the bottom of this.

Those unclued entries proving to be a problem. They’re supposed to provide geographical assistance. The one along the bottom is evidently something VILLE. WAIATAS I was initially convinced was something else – some kind of Australian plant – leading me right down a blind alley until I realised I was a clue short on the solving front.

ROSEVILLE? KANSAS? A quick Google later, add FORT and BAXTER to that list to give the setting for The Phil Silvers Show. Now, I vaguely remember this from BBC 2 reruns back in the day I never really got into, so we’re relying on Wikipedia again.

The letters in the grey cells? Well, they can evidently be rearranged to give COLONEL JT HALL, Bilko’s superior.

And indeed along one diagonal is ERNEST BILKO himself, and in another PHIL SILVERS.

But are we supposed to highlight both, or just one, or something else? Fear of red herrings having reached fever pitch…

The extra letters generated from wordplay are supposed to help, but look pretty random.

Ah, we’re supposed to view in “conventional clue order”. Mine looked like this, the solving process having been as error-prone as ever: ?OTORPOOL MA?TER SHEGEANT ?ND AE??RS NAMES

As Bilko was apparently Master Sergeant of the motor pool, and the latter is presumably ACTOR’S NAMES (with a little shiver of doubt over the latter – is there more than one actor?)

My grid therefore looked like this, and hopefully that’s right, having taken an age already, and my mind not being in a particularly good place for reasons detailed above. Though it may be said that Kruger supplied a welcome, and enjoyable diversion.

This was published on the weekend of the latest gathering of solvers and setters up York way. I also understand that it coincided with another celebration that meant it was no surprise our editor had given himself this week’s slot. Happy belated birthday, John!

An offering too that appeared on first, second and third glances to be as fiendish as they come. A jigsaw with no hints as to clue length, up or down, some stuff about clue order based on first or last letters, and also where they might start or end in the grid. It took me a day too long to appreciate that we were being thrown a much needed life-line… They say that with age comes wisdom, but evidently not in these parts.

I made do with floundering, badly. My copy consisting for a long time of answers jotted beside a pathetically short selection of clues. You know you’re in trouble when you start counting how many you’ve got and how many there are to go, the grand total of 14 by late Saturday evening.

In retrospect loads weren’t as fiendish as they seemed at that point. MED wouldn’t have taken half as long if I’d thought to Google the Latin looking bit. BURN should have been a given. The only one that was a little naughty was clearly flagged as being so – WIDED. It’s a cricket thing, apparently.

You know the thing with jigsaws is to look at what you’ve got and hope it’s enough to chuck in a couple of answers and get started. In my case a handy 6 cells in the NW corner, the same to the SE, and some nice long crossing answers – CUNJEVOI being particularly useful, having finally untangled that anagram.

From that point the grid was basically filled clockwise SW to SE, realising belatedly that the Terminal clues had a limited number of entry points, as did the Conventional, based on the position of the grey (yes, grey!) cells.

But I thought you started in the SE corner? Yep, but that’s where I also made the biggest hash of things. Oh well.

CONCERTO. I almost forgot, unclued entries. The birthday boy’s something of a classical music buff, though it took me too long to work out that the entry in question wasn’t in fact one of the clued ones.

So, CELL(O) CONCERTO. No prizes for guessing that we were looking for ELGAR elsewhere in the grid, another of Mr Henderson’s pen-names.

Job done, eventually, with an eyebrow raised on realising that ZEISS and ZEIN were fated never to meet.

Satisfying, too, so thanks. Though you do realise that GMT meant we only had the one extra hour to work with?

Point of order 1: Those squares are grey and not silver.

Second, it might have helped if I hadn’t done this arse backwards. ie. If I’d actually managed to solve some of those greyed entries, adjusted them “retrospectively”, which in retrospect is a good hint but at the time only confused me, and got the theme.

Because I failed miserably to solve any when filling the grid, and only got them… Well, at the close, having done everything else, sense having finally prevailed.

After filling the grid, which was on the taxing side anyway after a brief, unexpectedly quick solve of the SE corner before lunch, the oldest having got up slightly later than anticipated wished, being still in the shower. Tell me that you guessed LEPRA too with help from the BRB, and didn’t feel particularly confident about being IN THE CAN.

The ones without definitions being a problem, of course, until I spotted ISTANBUL. And BONN. Bingo, cities, chuck some in. No idea why, of course.

That final adjustment, and highlighting. Well, there’s LONDON across one diagonal, and a suspicious looking WI….ER surrounding it. So, WINCHESTER? And why? Well, I didn’t know that the latter used to be capital before the former. And why would I, having spent several years living just down the road but never actually bothering to visit… Let’s not go there. Literally.

So presumably the greyish entries are also former capitals? With one correction to give SCONE and not somewhere in some obscure country I’d not heard of. Oh, and after correcting an errant ERRAND to give ERRANT, CASTLETOWN along the bottom row I’d not heard of either.

With a little help from Wikipedia’s handy page of former world capitals, but sshh, don’t tell Nimrod.

Twenty four hours later…

You know. Those greyed entries. The original answers, they’re probably the contemporary capitals, aren’t they? So given the probable answers, and my decidedly amateurish parsing skills, it turns out they are, my grid entries being indeed (famous last words), correct.

As I say, solved arse backwards.

But correct, I’m going to say, and a pretty decent challenge.

Why the capital ONCE? once capitals, presumably?

Phew.

The MCMLXIX saga continues. A pretty rubbish film title admittedly, but a pretty good description of a pretty decent series of puzzles.

But first, the Saturday drill of dance (you’ll be relieved to hear that I was spectating rather than performing) and the Maths homework I’ve the kids have been set. 

A surprising amount of time later… 

To the main event, highlighters at the ready and time being short. Well, luckily we have a fairly straightforward grid fill. A nice anagram to start us off at 1ac, a boat and not boast at 14, and in fact lots of missing S’s throughout, though I’m still not sure why 11 of them. Fifty years ago I was exactly five months old, so there’s probably some bit of arcane knowledge I’m missing that will have helped on this count.

Kudos must go, BTW, to whichever of our two setters came up with the Krautrock reference, though I’m not sure I would have heard of the group in question if they hadn’t been a major influence on one of my all time favourite bands. I suspect there may have been furrowed brows elsewhere.

The obligatory LOI-you-can’t-just-get-for-love-or-money? That would be SPUN, guts missing the final K, that, well, I got from the unclued entry as I’d hoped I might.

Though first up was the date. Lots of roman numerals down the bottom of the grid. A bank to highlight across the top, a TEN SHILLING NOTE in the middle, thus the S’s presumably.

In 1969 it was replaced by the 50p piece. And likewise in the grid.

Does my effort look like the aforementioned piece of smallish change? I suppose so, though I nearly forgot. Saturday being a day when I’m never particularly on top form, and preambles being something I tend to neglect at my cost.

Huzzah. Job done, and in a pretty nifty time thankfully. And, oh yes, enjoyed too.

Not one but two songs for you to enjoy this week. First up is The Sisters of Mercy with their cover of 1969, swiftly followed by The Fall with I Am Damo Suzuki. Bonus points if you can work out the link with eXtent’s puzzle.

1969 was evidently a vintage year. Spoilers? Well, as MONTY PYTHON is the first of our wordplay only clues, and surprise surprise FIFTIETH and ANNIVERSARY the other two, with thematic material elsewhere, no, not really. Though presumably the endgame is going to involve something a little… extra.

And a lot of extra too, first and last letters from superfluous words. A very long phrase that we’re to “try” (an ominous sounding word) to decipher using GOOGLE TRANSLATE.

This week I was solving in the midst of the unmitigated, unrelenting, whole-two-hours worth of bedlam that is a trampoline park, it being the youngest two’s twelfth birthday and this being the venue of choice. Luckily I have a handy mobile on which to summon up the mighty Google.

WENN, all good, IST and DAS too, but from that point on… Well, I’m struggling. Luckily the big G knows all, pointing to this sketch and associated phrase, which isn’t actually, surprise surprise, real German.

What does Google Translate make of it? Well, that would be another of Google’s little Easter Eggs. FATAL ERROR.

And oh yes, I almost forgot to mention the grid fill. Pretty straightforward, wasn’t it?

The puzzle as a whole? When we come to vote next year, this one’s going to be pretty near the top of my list. So thanks, Encota, I enjoyed that.

Here’s a bit of Killing Joke for you, and a grid fill live from Buzz Trampoline Park, Cardiff.

Another Inquisitor debut, and another that is very welcome indeed.

Unclued top and bottom rows, extra letters in the wordplay of some clues – and not ones generated from the wordplay as I first thought – but what would Saturdays be without a gross misreading of an eminently clear preamble?

To the grid, hiding from the rain because Winter, sorry Autumn it is evident is here. 1ac? Nope, nothing leaping out there (though if only I’d read that preamble properly)… 6ac? Well, a guard would be a WARDER, conflict is WAR, and bish bash bosh. Extra letter noted, onward mostly clockwise from the NE, though with some very generous long clues lengthwise to open the grid nicely.

As it turns out the NW corner was indeed the last to fall, and of a different level of difficulty altogether. Though perhaps if I’d thought harder about 1ac at the start and realised that (b)eating gives AT TABLE then I wouldn’t have struggled so much. Who else was the singer going to be other than CHER, and OLOGY, well we get lots of ologies in these parts.

What do those letters spell out? After disposing of the obligatory question marks, and amending SIN to AIN… Well, it starts well with BAND’S NAMES PLUS… But then we seem to have a lot of random letters.

Let’s looks what words will fit in the top and bottom rows. Several to choose from, and it was only when I reached the third – GEORGE – that spotting JOHN and PAUL elsewhere finally clicked, and I guessed we’d be seeing RINGO to the SE, together with, yes, all those random looking letters.

Now just that title to highlight. The Beatles would be too long, unless it crosses with an already highlighted letter, which it doesn’t.

An album title perhaps? At which point I remembered seeing the following this morning…

Has it really been 50 years?

That title? Presumably Something is one of Skylark’s favourites. Mine would be another Harrison composition which opens the B side.

Wasn’t that good? Not overly difficulty – which means that it’s within the decidedly low bar of my solving ability – and thoroughly enjoyed. More Skylark please.

Let’s cut to the chase, being an error in the the finished grid. Let’s clarify that. My error, and not Stuball’s. Because the upshot of the preamble is that we use the letters omitted from the down clues to replace unchecked letters in the across ones to give… bird names. A lot of bird names I was blissfully unaware of. The omitted letters from the acrosses? They appear to have no further part to play.

Oh yes, the finished grid. Completed, yes, but that was a grid fill and a half, it must be said. An easy start at 1ac – DRAFTER, omitting the R, DURESS to DRESS crossing it – but from that point on it’s safe to say that this was the proverbial three-pipe problem, not completed until the end of the night’s Strictly. That harbinger of the end of summer and the coming season.

Omitted letters satisfactorily listed. Check. The realisation on a couple of sweeps through replacing letters that we’re not looking to spell anything in the columns, but do end up with a lot of names of the feathered variety. All good. This being a day later, mind you, because it’s taken that long.

And then at the close an impasse. At 43ac I have STERE (from STERNE). The only bird that fits is STARE, the problem being that the remaining omitted letter is an I. The obvious culprit is 28d where I’ve got IRON with RON as the grid entry – my dubious logic being that The Frog Prince is also known as Iron Henry, and there’s an Fe in the middle of “Different”, but don’t ask how that was all supposed to fit together.

A continuing impasse, the outcome being that I just went for it and lobbed the A in.

Someone less obsessed with such minor details would have left it there, shrugged, and put it down to experience. Colour me obsessive to the nth degree… 28d looks like being the problem, so perhaps the problem it is. The R and N have got to be correct, so let’s run a couple of word searches. Ah, RANA “a Rajput prince”, or “the typical genus of frogs, giving name to the family Ranidae.” Who knew? Well, Stuball presumably. Anyway, there’s that A.

Job done.

All that agonising over one letter. O or A. Such is the lot of the Inquisitor solver.

The only question left being – is Stuball a new setter, or one or more existing ones in disguise? New or unknown, that was quite a demanding solve, and one I came very close to failing miserably, all for the sake of one letter.

We’re used to getting a mix of highbrow and lowbrow stuff in the IQ, but is this the first time we’ve had a mix of the two in the same puzzle? High-ups of the TV kind, and of the musical kind too. About which on both counts I know very little.

Tony Soprano. Tick. Callas and Te Kanawa, too. But the rest called for a hefty bit of Googling and resort to Wikipedia. For which we thank the gods of the internet.

A complicated preamble that boiled down to misprints in alternate clues, and a nifty bit of maths to get letters from the clues in between. I bet you thought you’d make a mess of that too, but I only managed to miscount one letter, quickly resolved. Oh yes, other thematic entries in the perimeter, with a handy list of unchecked letters. I like handy lists of unchecked letters, they mean I don’t have to guess.

No 1ac to speak of, so let’s start with SCRAWLS on the next row down, which I generally do in pencil. A slow but mostly steady grid fill, out in the sunshine which is rather surprisingly hot, interrupted only by somebody who’s training their dog out on the back lane, displaying more patience than I’m capable of.

This week’s incorrect entry? MEANT at 6d, which only on failing to find a suitably named soprano is corrected to LEANT.

And of course the one doubt. ESCAPEE or ESCAPER at 7d? Oh, and don’t you love that last unchecked letter. Let’s go with the former. I think it’s something to do with PE ACES repeated – I can’t parse it any further than that, but there’s no R in there.

But that was before I got stuck in the NE corner, and with a couple dotted round the grid. That’s alright, we’ll complete the perimeter and get some more checking letters. Except, no, nothing’s leaping out.

OK, the 11 cells we’re supposed to highlight. Aha, SW to NE I’ve got THE SOPRAN??. No guessing what the last two letters will be.

Grid full, with a little help from…

Let’s look up the series, which I’ve not watched. Reference the handy list of characters to aid the above. Letters found. Characters discovered. Tony, Meadow, Carmela, TJ. Which mean little and less to me, but…

Got to be sopranos of the singing variety in the border? Yep, and there’s a handy list of famous sopranos on Classic FM’s site that I’m betting Gila referred to too, though my LOI, PONSELLE, wasn’t listed. For that one I had to resort to actually trying to juggle the letters given, which is what we were supposed to do.

Job done. And all in one session.

Huzzah, and huzzah again. And thanks, Gila, I enjoyed that.

So a new Inquisitor setter, but a familiar name – Hob, aka Puck, a regular in the Guardian.

What do we have in store? Normal clues, but lots of alterations at the close and some highlighting. I’ve got lots of highlighters, especially for the purposes of solving the IQ.

Onto the grid fill, a lot of which feels difficulty wise on a par with a daily cryptic. Which isn’t a criticism – it’s about my comfort level being a bear of very little brain, and an enjoyable grid fill too. A familiar sea to start, an equally familiar punishment area even for someone as ignorant of all things sporting as I am, with a couple of unknowns dotted here and there – in particular that hat at 37ac.

Though at the close I seem to be continuing the unenviable run of stumbling on one last clue I can’t get. In this case the girl in the NE corner. NETTY fits, doesn’t it? Wordplay? Search me.

After that inglorious finish, to the end-game. “[I]nitial help” in the preamble screams out initial letters, so look at the first letters of at least the first bits of the across and down clues. MUSWELL HILLBILLIES. PORRIDGE HM PRISON SLADE.

The first doesn’t mean anything, but the second can only mean that the first alterations have got to give NORMAN STANLEY FLETCHER of, yes, Muswell Hill.

Back to the first. Ah, it’s an album by The Kinks, cue more alterations.

The other related group? After much grid hunting, that would be Fairport Convention, also apparently of said hill.

Except I’ve now got too many alterations in total. Because 10d was actually NETTA (scorer, netter, geddit?)…

Done. Seven letters altered, all adding up to REMAINS.

Four cells to highlight. Well, the latter group practised in a house on Fortis Green, Muswell Hill. There’s FORT in the centre of the grid. So – highlight it green?

Huzzah! All done. There was a lot to sort in that end-game, wasn’t there? But an easyish grid fill to compensate. And I liked it, oh yes I did.

Oh yes – the phantom flushing toilet? It still hasn’t been fixed, you’ll be keen to know, but we do know that apparently a flapper valve is to blame. Cold comfort.

So, did you have to cancel your weekend plans? On past form you might have been expected to. But this time? Well, no. Or sort of no.

The preamble might have taken you some time to get through, granted, but it all boils down to extra letters in the wordplay, doesn’t it? Oh, and a lot of other stuff that doesn’t make sense at the moment. So far so par for the course in this neck of the woods.

Saturday then. Well, that would consist of the grid fill. An afternoon that started well with CURFEW at 1ac, and ended badly with no idea why Peter should mean ECHO, and a complete blank at 40ac. WASH UP, it would appear, but why the Perth connection? That’s not in my copy of the BRB, and who’s the spiteful person?

Blank it will stay then.

The message in the extra letters? A guess at the first U, and an E AWOL, but it must be UNTWINE WAYMARKS. Those waymarks that mark the escape route. Remember that preamble I never quite got to grips with?

Perhaps sorting out the shading will help? We’re looking for a prison and refuge. But despite a pretty intensive search through the grid, well, neither are making themselves apparent, even the obvious ones like, wait for it, Colditz. And I’ve got other things to be doing Saturday night.

Sunday evening. Ok, Colditz is also known as Oflag IV-C. There it is to the NE. Take the centre square, follow the waymarks (with a continuous line, mind you), note them down.

That untangling bit to get the escapees. There’s a handy Wikipedia page with a list of them. A pitifully short list. But Luteyn and Neave made it, all the way to Switzerland or – yes, you guessed it – LA SUISSE, down there in the SW corner.

Highlight. Jot down the escapees. WASH UP. Feet up with a cup of tea ready to face the travails of the coming week, consisting of the first week of term and a toilet that is flushing itself consistently every five minutes. So suitably sleep deprived, and plumber deprived…