More than 50% extra free is what we had this week courtesy not only of an extended title and setter’s name (welcome, btw), but also a hefty preamble. When faced with such a beast my policy is always to look at what we need, in this case clashes and extra letters, and ignore the rest until all becomes clear at the close.

Or not, on the other hand.

After an early start necessitated by the twins’ second Covid jab at what could only be described as an ungodly hour for a Saturday morning, with the added excitement of somebody else’s child fainting and a tsunami halfway through, to the main event.

Slowly, it must be said, this being what could best be described as a fairly rigorous solve, though one that elicited a smile courtesy of the Star Wars reference, even if I must admit that the Jedi in question was the last I thought of.

Extra letters. Having disposed of an unwanted ASS (yeah, your parsing skills were pretty rubbish too): BEST TONY MUSICAL WINNER.

Clashes duly noted… After calling on the services of an anagram solver to help untangle them, a little tweaking revealed that one possible combination, in order, in the shape of a figure 6 in fact, was the lesser spotted ANNA OF CLEVES, from the musical Six.

All good then? Read the preamble more closely, Jon. It’s “a work”, so I think it’s safe to say the figure drawn is correct, but the character isn’t a thematic one, because said musical hasn’t (yet) won a Tony.

The alternative, reading from the other direction, though, is: GUIDI CONTINI, from another musical, Nine, which did win a Tony or two. So those are the choice of clashing letters, I suspect. And, rather neatly, it fits in with all that 50% extra stuff, both in the title and addition of extra letters.

The work it was inspired by? 8 1⁄2, which I must admit to not writing in properly first time, having not read the preamble carefully enough.

But first we were asked to manipulate the grid. I can only think that it needs to be turned upside down, to change that 6 into a 9, and thus the required thematic work.

Probably wrong, and no doubt I’ve missed something else in the mother of all preambles, but there you go.

Done, and dusted. A debut, and what a debut, from the mysterious Nathan Panning. Pseudonym, or just one of the many Google failed to link to any crosswordy types? Perhaps Nathan him (or her) self will reveal all.

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The latest in Serpent’s irregular series of mirror images continues, invariably a good excuse to whip out the drawing and colour materials. Double the fun, double the chance to cock-up the endgame.

Extra words this week in some across clues and most of the downs. Extra words I’m pretty good at spotting, even after having made a good dent in the remaining stock of Christmas alcohol the night before, fortuitously accompanied by the plentiful supplies of Christmas chocolate jamming the kitchen cupboards to soak up the liquid content. And, oh, copious quantities of coffee to sharpen the mind the next morning.

Mind duly sharpened I got up at an ungodly early hour, no doubt disturbed by the torrential rain and sound of the other half coming down with a chronic sinus infection, to fairly sprint through the day’s i cryptic and then Serpent’s grid. Extra words and all, though it would only be when tackling the endgame that a blunder on RAISER (or is it, I still can’t parse it), would become apparent, in that elusive final hunt for SYMMETRIC LETTER PAIRS.

Because yes, gentle reader, that was the message revealed courtesy of the down clues, though it would only be later that evening that I would think to do the obvious with the repeated letters that seemed to be the only thing in common between them.

I had, however, spotted the artist, the name of the painting resulting from the extra words in the across clues, and duly entered them into the grid.

Duly armed with a copy of the painting to hand, behold. Some would argue that my COW’S SKULL looks more like a giraffe, and that I’ve taken some liberties with the requisite RED, WHITE and BLUE colours required, but, well, such are my artistic skills and such was the closest match I could manage with the crayons to hand.

I do like a nice bit of colouring, accompanied by a thoroughly pleasant grid fill… As if the Inquisitor was a crossword puzzle, after all. 😉

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This puzzle appeared on New Year’s Day, but no provision was made for the extent of solvers’ hangovers, the preamble being quite something. Answers that can be potentially treated, but aren’t, only “imagined”, but appropriately placed, although only “arguably” so in one case.

Best to get on with it then, and try to pretend you weren’t up until some ungodly hour more akin to morning than night. Thankfully the clues were more forgiving, single superfluous letters identifiable with little ado, even if somewhat complicated by the unclued entries that as ever made for a dearth of crossing letters.

To be fair all were perfectly guessable, but any significance would require the entirety of the message from the aforementioned extra letters to tease out. Not just anagram, as I’d already tried and failed to do, but remove a letter first, to reveal…

PRESIDENTS

In one form or another, by way of confirmation via another anagram, courtesy of the letters omitted from the unclued entries. We’re anagram-a-go-go this week.

Has anybody ever called Trump “Don”? That’s how we’re addressing him, anyway, presumably as the lowest of the low, “appropriately” placed as he is at the bottom of the grid.

The highlighting would take a while longer yet, but finally, after a hearty New Year’s Chinese the word JAIL split across the treated Trump finally leapt out, presumably revealing where Lato thinks said ex-president should be, and I’m not inclined to disagree. Or argue that ultimately this was a puzzle appropriately scheduled, requiring just the right amount of mental leaps and hops, and one ultimately of faith, so thanks to Lato and all involved.

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Christmas Eve, and thoughts here would be generally occupied with:

  • Preparing a mountain of vegetables;
  • The viewing of a number of appropriately festive movies;
  • Frantically hunting through the attic for old wrapping paper come 11PM on realising that most of the kids’ presents had yet to be wrapped, with only a couple of sheets of paper and scraps of sellotape remaining. Happily, all was well that ended well.

So it would be that I would only have a chance to spend a little time with the minesweeper stage, at first optimistically, and then with a gathering sense of gloom as it became clear that this sort of thing is really rather difficult and probably not my thing. If only one of the many online Minesweeper solvers could help – but no, what we’re playing is a cunning variation on the game designed to stymie such shenanigans.

Never mind, what about the clues? Straight definitions that, once I spotted on Boxing Day the bit in the preamble regarding the jumbled letters in the clues, and realised that the secondary Sudoku element meant that we were dealing with a set of 9 letters only, fell with little ado.

Though the Minesweeper stage would stubbornly refuse to do so.

The unclued entry did though, by the simple matter of applying a little logic to the 81 letters required in the grid, and those we were missing from the set. ASTEROIDS, another retro game to add to our collection.

And so would ensue several days of trying to do something with the above. A betting man would place ASTEROIDS across the NW-SE diagonal, and the 8 letter answers in the right hand column and bottom row, and so I did, but that still left a lot of possibilities, and no starting spots courtesy of the unsolved Minesweeper to help.

In the end, having thrown in the towel several times (I have a picture on my phone of an empty grid ready to “blog”), my MO involved:

  • Calling on the services of an online Wordoku solver;
  • Inserting the longer answers where I could, gradually, into the grid;
  • Looking at the suggestions the solver threw out and acting on them;
  • Continuing with the above until there was only one possible grid left.

Confirmation via the Minesweeper stage? Well, of course I’d jumped the wrong way regarding the placement of the 8 letter answers, with several of my shorter answers in the grid starting in spots marked 0.

Erase. Start again as per the above, swapping the two 8 letter answers, though with the advantage of knowing that several answers entered diagonally could be mirrored the other side of ASTEROIDS.

And check the Minesweeper again against the completed grid, which looks good to me, though I will admit to being that relieved to finish that I haven’t checked everything thoroughly.

When I first spotted this I figured – this is a light bit of fluff suitable for the festive season, but, well, no, this turned out to be as tough as they get, probably, but too it must be said lots and lots of fun to tease out. Even for those of us who ended up cheating, as I was forced to do. There being no such thing as a bad landing, though, I will sit back content with a job well done, and tuck into the remaining beer, whisky, Christmas Cake and mince pies, of which there are plenty.

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Being but a bear of very little brain, setters have more than once spared my blushes by revealing, via their endgames, random mistakes / guesses I’ve lobbed into the grid. And so it would be this week. Having ascertained after some ado it must be said that we were looking to reveal via corrections the names of some pretty famous composers – famous enough that even I had heard of them – completing the set of  Ella Fitzgerald songbooks (rather less well known, I would hazard to venture) – and having found ELLA herself via corrections to misprints (as instructed via extra letters) in the middle of the grid, I realised that this required me to make thirteen corrections and not the requisite twelve.

Cue much soul searching and agonising, until light dawned and it became equally clear that a rash stab at OTTO for our Roman emperor without any support from the parsing was indeed not only rash, but incorrect, OTHO being a much more rational entry that has the advantage too of being supported by wordplay. One too that would require one correction less to make GERSHWIN.

By way of excuse I will offer a truncated solving time thanks to the transport of my son and his belongings back from university for the holidays, what I thought was a pretty tricky grid fill, and a touch of weariness / general spaciness brought on by Moderna’s otherwise highly recommended vaccine.

Skylark could also be said to have been fairly gentle with the poor solver by giving real words at each stage of the correction of the misprints, otherwise, well, I’m guessing I would have fared a lot less well.

On the other hand, thanks to a very nicely constructed puzzle packed full of the requisite thematic material, here we are with a completed grid, rather unexpectedly it must be said.

So onward with some trepidation following last year’s Harribobs rout to the Christmas twist.

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What was missing this week was my resolve to get an early Friday night and be up bright and early Saturday morning. It being a pretty grey and drizzly Saturday morning, though, I suspect not much was missed. And it has, as they say, been “one of those weeks”.

The Weekend i in its guide to surviving Christmas alludes several times to the “stress” everybody is under due to the festive season, which makes me think everybody must be doing it the wrong way, the whole point being, presumably, enjoyment, merriment, family, conviviality, etc. But such is the consumer driven Society of the Spectacle we live in. Here the only inconvenience the festive season has imposed so far is a delayed solving of the Inquisitor due to the ceremonial putting up of the Christmas decorations. And while there were lots of Welsh people in attendance, not one of us mistook the light-switch for a doorbell, but I suppose ineptness from his MP’s on that count is the least of Boris’s problems.

Talking of our less than glorious leader, I wonder how anxiously both Gila and Nimrod were watching the news this week, as it seemed possible until the last minute that 7ac might need rewriting before the i went to press.

Also of interest among the clues would be the toe-curdling 30ac, the term in question being one I didn’t know and wish I didn’t, and which chimed uncomfortably with the Co-op funeral plan adverts that seem to be the stock in trade of the Christmas channel we put up for the previously mentioned decorating, fuelled by large doses of coffee for what I suspect will not be the last time this year.

Which may explain a pretty nippy sprint through the grid this week, letters missed and all, despite the latter occasioning more than a little nervousness. But from 1ac onward Gila was in a fairly forgiving mood, the uncorrupted answers being reasonably easy to work out, with only (d)ARGA perhaps a little difficult to backward engineer.

At first the letters omitted seemed to make little sense, and I for one wondered if there were more pangram shenanigans afoot, until I read the bit about clue order again which seemed to hint that they were supposed to mean something. And lo, after a bit more staring, they did.

SONDH(e)IM RED(g)RAVE T(o)MLIN WINSLE(t)

The former making me wonder if the the scheduling was coincidental.

A little help from Google was required to workout what EGOT means – Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award winners. The letters omitted from the names? The one the individuals were short, which was pretty neat, I thought.

The “thematically complete set” presumably then being winners of all four, a bit of hunting around the grid later, a swift whipping out of the highlighters and job done.

Now, I’ve praised a fair few Inquisitors of late, and this was another one right there in contention for the best of nominations. We’re evidently saving up some of the best until last. So thanks Gila for a fine puzzle, and colour me intrigued as to what the “twist” will be come Christmas Eve.

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This will of necessity be a brief summary, because some time has passed since I began this, and my memory of much has faded. Usually this would be because of lethargy / laziness / general life getting in the way, but this time around it’s because of, well, another one of Ifor’s endgames.

We’ve all struggled with his endgames in the past, I suspect, and this time would be no exception, despite the grid fill itself being a quick one, albeit with a probably haphazard collection of extra words from some clues collated. Collecting such things never being one of my strengths. At this point, however, I was feeling quietly pleased with myself, figuring that getting up early Saturday morning and going for a healthy stroll in the countryside before the rest of the house had woken up had done me the world of good. Only to stare, and stare again at what came next regarding the extra words.

“Each is primarily associated with a single letter from a complete set…” Well, it’s not the first letters at any rate, as they’re pretty random. And so I stared. Sat through another hour and a half of Peter Jackson’s excellent (but extremely long, as is wont for him) Beatles documentary, Strictly, and a movie, and still got nowhere fast.

To be fair, I had spotted loads of potential words that might make up the required highlighting – BANTER, FLUTES, SHALLOW, etc, but any link between them and the extra words, or the required sentence, was one that would elude me for a long time.

The working week started, and continued, and it would be several days later of feeling suitably and customarily harassed / strung out, that I would:

  • Remember that the GLEN at the top which I had spotted days before, and had figured for a name, is another name for a valley.
  • Belatedly realise that the Welsh for valley, CWM (we have lots of places called Cwm something around here), and following words, could be derived from C-horizon, W-particle, M-theory, and so on. The and so on consisting not only of the other letters required, but lots where I would happily admit to not having a clue.
  • Resort to a extended bit of Googling to discover that the “sentence” (it’s not really, is it?), is a perfect pangram, and consists of synonyms of the aforementioned words for highlighting already spotted. This extended bit of Googling I would say made up a pretty big chunk of the solve that I could probably have better used trying to sort out the letters above.

Finished, through sheer bloody mindedness, and without having sorted most of the letters from the sentence “properly”. But there’s no such thing as a bad landing, they say, and finished it is, of sorts. Prize for the most fiendish endgame of the year? It’s Ifor’s so far, and with only a few weeks to go I hope things remain that way.

A gentler offering this week that came as a relief after a series of pretty tough puzzles. With the temperatures having plummeted, Storm Arwen sweeping through parts of the country, and the dreaded Omicron variant making the headlines, a bit of light relief is what was in order, the scheduling therefore being somewhat fortuitous.

Things learnt this week included the fact that RESIT is a little too close to a cycled SITAR, leading to a rather long period of agonising for this solver at least in the SW corner, that there is such a thing as the rather delightfully named DOVEKIE, and that my powers of observation haven’t been improved by a trip earlier in the week to the opticians, my attempts to fit NURTURE not once, but twice into the grid proving to be somewhat futile.

Cycling was our theme this week, for at least the unnumbered entries, a lucky guess on my part from the outset with the thematically cycled AMARANT onward.

Did you try and make things difficult for yourself too, in a hunt for an exotic Eastern sailor only to end up plumping for the rather more prosaic OARSMAN? I suspect I wasn’t alone there.

At the close a knowledge of Doctor Who’s Curse of Fenric came in handy when sorting out the last-but-one to fall, the strictly non-dictionary FENRIR, followed by the slightly tricky NOR’EAST.

Talking of powers of observation, throughout the solve I carefully noted the first letters of the answers from the numbered clues beside each, only to be left with the inauspicious SBRIGPB, etc, a more careful read of the preamble only afterwards leading to initial letters from unnumbered entries, and something to do with cycling:

OMNIUM MADISON KEIRIN

Which meant little to me, but more to Google.

And so done, and enjoyed, while shivering slightly in the kitchen which, while being rather cold, is quiet, at least.

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A book recommendation this week in the form of letters omitted, although even the mighty Amazon search engine would have struggled to do much with:

EL INNOW PE

Which is as good an indicator as any to the regular reader that I struggled too. Granted I started late, this being the weekend when traditionally we bake the Christmas cake, but despite having a full grid by 10PM Sunday, I was lacking the full book title, had letters in the left and right columns, but not even a guess at the highlighting or what to do about the “encoding”.

Any bafflement regarding the two columns we’d been busily moving letters removed into can partly be explained by an unlucky K for KORAN rather than the required Q, but still, my inability to decipher the following doesn’t bode well for a successful reading of ELLA MINNOW PEA, the volume in question, as apparently the letters used (allowed) diminish in number as the book proceeds. According to Wikipedia, that is.

THE QUICK BROWN FX JMPS V LAZY DG

Though we haven’t strictly speaking avoided the use of certain letters, which does make me doubt myself. It was only the other day too that I remarked on my lack of grid awareness, and here’s yet another example, the letters being a pretty random bunch as far as I could tell.

Never doubt my Googling skills though, which led to the Wikipedia page in question, the fact that the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” plays an important part in the book, only to be substituted at the close by “Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs”, the latter a rearrangement in the form I have it of the original letters in the left and right columns.

It’s just left then to highlight the author, and LMNOP (Ella Minnow Pea, you see), the only remaining letters allowed by the end of the book.

All of which leaves me itching to have a look at the volume in question, though I’d love a sneak peak first as I suspect I may not be up to the challenge, and Amazon for once doesn’t have a Look Inside.

Oh well, the puzzle was finished, and enjoyed, albeit with a suspicion until the very last that I was about to run out of time. Perhaps I should start getting up earlier Saturday morning.

Mid-November finds us enjoying the sort of weather we would have hoped for at the end of August – blue skies, temperatures that have led to the removal of hat, scarf, hoodie and coat for the duration of my daily ramble. Like a lot of people in these parts, it’s something that’s hung on from lockdown, and a good thing too you would have to argue, especially with the scenery we have to enjoy in these parts. The unseasonably warm weather does though make me wonder if Greta and co have a point, as we seem to be getting weeks like this interspersed with torrential rain and flooding. Perhaps I should go and glue myself to a motorway somewhere.

All of which is a long way from today’s offering by Hedge-sparrow. First thoughts this week would be – what a lot of clues, what a lot of preamble, and all in the sort of font that leaves me reaching for my reading glasses, for a grid that doesn’t look overly packed.

My advice to anybody as ever slightly daunted by the sort of preamble we occasionally get with the Inquisitor is to ignore most of it, because much you won’t need until the end game. Though this week that still left a bewildering variety of clue types. Perhaps Hedge-sparrow had decided the same too, as pointing out that 1ac in particular contained wordplay only was unusually generous.

Obviously, I didn’t get anywhere with 1ac at first, and indeed not until the centre of the grid, sort of working out from there, if with some slight trepidation given the six clashes, which always make me a little nervous, not being able to trust the checking letters and all that. Though early on was the very generous anagram in the bottom row, giving some equally generous A’s at the ends of the crossing answers.

I even spotted, pretty quickly, the one where we had to black out one square, TENETS being a bit of a gimme for “views” with a couple of letters, and the BRB to the rescue as ever to sort out the wordplay. This being, yet again, one of those puzzles that required lots of the latter, and as that’s one of the bits I enjoy most about this barred grid lark, you won’t hear any complaints from me.

Talking of LARKS, the first unclued was also a bit of a gimme. Minds being attuned this weekend to things 1ac (thanks also perhaps to a Guardian puzzle earlier in the week on the same theme, that is to say the centenary of the poppy appeal as revealed in the superfluous letters), In Flanders Field sprang instantly to mind, and with it loads of checking letters that would be useful for finishing off the grid fill, having spotted enough of the letters already entered to sketch out something approximating a poppy. Thus the blacked out square, see.

The symbols to be entered presumably being crosses, McCrae as the poets name now identified, and the speakers as THE DEAD, it then remained just to sort out the remaining clues, most of which were, of course, around those clashes that I, true to form, had struggled with.

Out with the crayons, and job done. Now, I thought that was all quite delightful, and not only because I enjoy a good bit of colouring at the end of a puzzle. A theme that could have been quite horribly handled done with sensitivity, and the whole falling together very nicely with enough different hints to aid the less astute solver. ie, me.

So, bravo to all involved, and do remind me to add this to my end of year best-of nominations.

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