Which could be subtitled the blog which almost wasn’t. As predicted the Bank Holiday weekend opened with unseasonable and arguably unreasonable wind and freezing temperatures, with the result that I spent Saturday hiding in the kitchen with the weekend’s i. As morning turned to afternoon and the grid remained stubbornly blank, much amusement was occasioned hereabouts, and I was urged repeatably to give up on it. Now, these blank jigsaw things aren’t really my thing so I was inclined to agree, but I can be stubborn too. Let’s just get some answers in that grid. Some of the downs having fallen, with associated extra letters, lob them in I did across the top row, only on finally solving the unlikely looking THIOURACIL to realise that none of them were actually in the right place.

Cue recourse to the eraser and a still blank grid come Saturday evening. Cue more amusement from the kids. Any illusion that I was actually any good at this game fading fast in a shower of well-deserved derision. By bedtime in my defence I’d:

  • Worked out that the across answers sort of weave back and forth from left to right and back again, for reasons unbeknown.
  • Filled the top half of the grid. Sort of.

And, oh yeah, come to a grinding halt with a grid on paper that had actually begun to decay from the degree of rubbing out.

Sunday. Azed. Everyman. The Telegraph Cryptic. Harribob’s Enigmatic Variations. One last, desperate push at the IQ. A last throw of the dice. And recourse to a spreadsheet because to be quite frank I couldn’t work out my scribbling anymore.

Things noted:

  • While COLLAGEN might be a valid anagram of some of the letters from “long and clear”, there’s no way it meets the requirements of any sort of definition in that clue. CALENDAR, Jon, CALENDAR.
  • We’re supposed to be highlighting something at the close. Highlighted things are often in a diagonal. There’s a phrase beginning to run down the NW to SE diagonal that I’m going to say is TO MOW A MEADOW.
  • Ergo, the remaining extra letters are going to give a question that probably looks a bit like WHY DID MAN AND DOG GO OUT?

Cue a finally completed grid, with GRANITA falling at the close, and a general feeling of release. Relief. I failed to complete a puzzle by Ifor elsewhere a couple of weeks ago, and I suspect will fail again in the future because that was tough, hopefully as tough as they get because my little brain cannot cope.

Bank Holiday Monday? Oh yes, the sun came out.

Happy Non-Eurovision Day. This being the latest in a series of non-days. No Easter, no holiday, no school, and so on. In Wales we’re still in strict lockdown which seems to me to be to be eminently sensible. In England the London-centric government having taken the view that as the worst is over in the SE, the rest of the country will have to follow. This side of the River Severn our government is thankfully more cautious, even if it has been forced to state that it doesn’t have the power to set up border patrols. I was only joking when I suggested putting the toll barriers back up on the Severn Bridges, you know. (It will never be the Prince of Wales bridge in this house.)

So it feels somewhat fitting that today’s offering is on the subject of omissions. In the letters missing from the answers entered in the grid, and in the quote from Marianne Moore they make up – OMISSIONS ARE NOT ACCIDENTS. This being one of those things you know from somewhere but can’t think where.

Accident seems somewhat pertinent too, the current one being handled in a manner that, were I to manage something similarly in work, would be viewed as gross-misconduct. Is a HAZARD an accident, though, presuming I’ve got that right?

To add insult to injury, the promised heatwave that had threatened to flood various beauty-spots and beaches with unwanted visitors has, in Wales at least, failed to materialise, and after half an hour of shivering in the garden I had to give up and retire to the kitchen where there is at least a modicum of quiet.

Finally that grid fill, that could best be described as being slow after a quick start in the NW corner. I’ve got two I’m unsure of – 34d looks like being VDTT from the wordplay, but I’ve no idea what answer we’re supposed to be constructing. Ditto 33d, which in retrospect I appear to have guessed, and which I also suspect is miserably wrong.

Quite the challenge overall, though thankfully finished before the distraction that is this evening’s Non-Eurovision programming. Dare I suggest that the replacement programming was better than the real thing, being several hours shorter and finishing on time?

To begin at the end then, as it were. It took until Sunday, a whole day following Shark’s inquisition, before I realised that the general flurry of activity regarding Nurse Nightingale in crossword circles was down to her fast approaching bicentennial. In my defence the fact has been somewhat overshadowed by other newsworthy items.

And it was only several hours after completion, feeling generally disgruntled with the outcome of the puzzle down to the various incongruous elements – TETRADRACHM, ATHENA, LADY, LAMP – before Google leapt to Shark’s defence. Ms Nightingale had a rescue-owl you see called… ATHENA, and said coin had an owl on one side too for good measure.

Oh yes… MONA. NESH. TOGLATTI. I take it you spent as much time solving those as the rest of the puzzle too?

Previous to that I’d identified NIGHTINGALE, and duly highlighted it, though it took a while longer to work out what had been pocketed, even with the list of extra letters. That bit in the preamble about crossing bars having been characteristically glossed over until it came to the crunch. Perhaps because I was feeling pretty pleased with myself on getting the correct multiple letters, and spotting CRIMEAN WAR in the misprints. Pride as ever coming before a fall.

Which is a pity, because up until then the solve had been a rapid one in the rapidly dissipating heatwave, and rapidly dissipating lockdown too it must be noted, with the entry for NUZZER winning the prize for unlikely looking word of the week.

Back to the start then, and an uncharacteristically early start down to a surprisingly easy Saturday puzzle, and an early night occasioned by the wish to avoid the general nonsense surrounding VE Day. Though I will admit to raising a glass of vodka to toast our Russian comrades in arms. Na Zdorovie.

A few weeks have passed with a quick Inquisitor solve followed by brief jottings in the suddenly (lockdown enforced) free Saturday morning as to my random, uninformed thoughts on the puzzle. We were therefore more than due something a little tougher, with the result that this week I’m gazing upon the fair form of Cara Delevingne in the frankly quite insane Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets while still, fear not, sharing the same uninformed ramblings. Should things become more incoherent than usual, that would be because I’m making my way through several pints of lockdown sanity-proofing Hobgoblin. Apparently we’ve got another month to endure / enjoy, strike as appropriate, and… If I could but get back my gentle strolls round the beer aisle of the local supermarket then I’d be happy.

Eclogue’s puzzle is about as mind bending as Luc Besson’s film (we’re a long way from Leon, aren’t we?), consisting of lots of answers that we don’t really know how to enter in the grid, because, well, some letters require a gentle nudge towards the border. This is the kind of thing that is always going to challenge solvers of little brain such as myself, with the whole being approached as a kind of faux-jigsaw, HOUDINI and the answers to other gentle clues being jotted beside them awaiting crossing answers that might help. Was I the only person to end up with lots of single, disconnected letters dotted round the grid where it looked like they might fit?

As it turned out the RHS was first to fall, and with it the start of a suspiciously French looking turn of phrase, L’AMOUR being a bit of a giveaway, even if my French is a little rusty these days. The words we were looking for come courtesy of some chap called de Rabutin, apparently. “L’absence est à l’amour ce qu’est au feu le vent; – Il éteint le petit, il allume le grand.” Which I was pleased to still be able to translate unaided except for the one word. That being one key to our puzzle, unfortunately, being the erasing bit. Thankfully I didn’t have to make my way all the way upstairs to pluck my old dictionary from the shelf, but could in this day and age call upon the services of Google Translate. Though some would argue that I could have guessed. Blame the warm sunshine, and next door’s attendant strident garden tools.

I won’t tell you how long it took to get 13d at the close, not only because I spent an age convinced the answer was a definition for a pack of hounds, but also because I misread the enumeration and spent (a long time) convinced it had three C’s. Oh well.

Highlight GRAND, delete PETIT from the grid? If not, blame Mrs Jenkins my French teacher for five years, long unthanked and forever held responsible for debacles such as these.

A good time had nevertheless, so merci Eclogue.

Thrillingly, I’ve just noticed that the closing date for this puzzle falls on my birthday. I suspect celebrations this year will be less than wild, though with enough spirits to make the whole a little raucous.

The sun is shining once more, though we’re still under house arrest so opportunities to enjoy it are restricted. Thankfully a fresh copy of the i is being delivered every day, so there’s the consolation of plenty of solving time. Did we need it? Well, no, the day’s puzzles being wrapped up safely before lunchtime. A copy of the BRB to hand as ever, but I reckon I could have managed without it until the endgame, when all of a sudden there were plenty of exciting words to get our teeth into. I’m looking at you, XEROPHTHALMIA.

There’s one answer at 33ac I can’t find anywhere, so I’m going to trust it is indeed the hidden word I thought it was. And I can only imagine the cries of horror from setter and editor alike on seeing a very similar clue to 14ac in the quick cryptic earlier in the paper. Oh well…

Six clues to amend before entry, being the dropping of letters. Said letters then completing the names of some diseases common and thankfully less common in the unclued entries. As if we haven’t got enough problems with lurgies at the moment. 😉

So done, and dusted, all in a little more time than the day’s Punk took. I take it we’ve got something a little more… testing coming up. But today? Today I get to spend the afternoon rereading Dune, which I can remember surprisingly well since the last time I picked it up was 35 years ago. Now that makes me feel old.

I don’t think it would be a spoiler, given the puzzle title, to note that the members of PINK seem to be self-isolating even in the byline. Phi dropped a hint earlier in the week that a special was in store, and it didn’t take a genius to guess at the likely subject matter. Luckily, because we’re lacking in geniuses in these parts.

What did surprise me was a grid fill lacking in gimmicks, one that wouldn’t have been out of place in terms of difficulty for the average plain Azed. I tend to start ordinary cryptics in the bottom right corner, and glanced that way first today out of habit, to see OLD like a shot. As expected you needed your copy of the BRB to hand for beauties like NGWEE and ECUELLE, and many such in the word play, but such is far from being a chore. Much elsewhere went in with little ado, and with the mornings longer these days due to the lack of dance and the customary supermarket visit, the grid fill was duly finished before lunch. And that after a particularly broken night’s sleep. I’m guessing I’m not alone in broken night’s sleep these days.

To the last bit of the preamble, which I’d studiously ignored to that point. Thankfully our setters have given an example of what we’re supposed to do, otherwise I don’t think I would have been up to it. Reference my earlier comments.

So first, which letter only appears twice in the grid? That would be I. And picking appropriate letters from the clues based on its position gives? CHANGE CONTENTS OF TWO CELLS BAR OFF ALL CELLS CONTAINING… V or I. Thankfully there aren’t any V’s, so we’re to bar off the I’s. And then?

Then, well, if you were to look across the diagonal NW to SE of the original grid you’d spot SELFISH NATION. Change to letters to give? SELF-ISOLATION, which will have come as a surprise to nobody, but has still done more to convince me of the need to do so than all the half-witted state-sponsored messages I’ve been doing my best to self-isolate from the past month.

So good spot, if it was PINK’s spot. Do stay safe everybody, and remember to self-isolate but not self-immolate, as spell check handily suggested a few weeks back.

At this stage of proceedings we’ve been in lockdown for three weeks, and I’ve been on leave for one week. Which is to say that I can barely remember what day it is, my own name, what it feels like to be able to pop to the shop for non-essential items without risking arrest, and have got to feeling decidedly odd. Which it appears can be good for lateral thinking. Because, after struggling badly for an age to get a handful of clues in the grid, though enough to get some of the extraneous letters, the thought occurred – let’s try another approach and see if we can guess the motto from the letters we’ve got. Combined with a punt at ODYSSEY, it proved to be an unexpectedly inspired one. Ex Luna Scientia like a shot, the ill fated Apollo 13 mission for which it was the motto, and hence the astronauts involved who make up the twin letters missing from the answers in the top of the grid but present in the bottom… Though I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember exactly where that morning I’d been reading about said mission, and hence the moment of rare inspiration.

Oh well. Armed with the remainder of the letters from the astronaut names, a likely looking AQUARIUS to the south, and APOLLO 13 across the centre (bang, the two answers we had to enter in a less than conventional manner), progress proved to be more rapid. First to the north, because I could see what we had to do with the twin letters, and then to the south, but only then on parsing HOKUMTH. Yep, needless to say we had little in the way of real words in the finished grid.

All of which proved to be a satisfying test of our parsing skills, what with the lack of recognisable collections of letters all over the shop. With the showers thankfully limiting themselves to a couple of random dots on my copy of the paper, and the sun continuing to shine, a very pleasant solve it was too, albeit while still feeling… decidedly odd. Apparently residents in a town in Derby are mooing out of their windows every night. I’m considering joining them, in spirit if not in body.

The continued lock down has coincided with two week’s holiday which, while not being spent as hoped, at least means I don’t have to try and concentrate on work and staying sane at the same time. There’s always the hope too that I might actually be able to enjoy a little R&R. On the positive and negative front:

  • Arrangements have been made for a crisp, freshly delivered copy of the i to be delivered every morning.
  • The promised tropical spell the police are so worried about has evaporated in a mass of black clouds and icy winds. Perhaps they’ve poisoned that as well.
  • When we most need it the printer is playing up, and it’ll be a week until the new one arrives. Doesn’t it realise that I’ve got a load of weekend puzzles to print out? Thankfully the instructions in a handy YouTube video I stumbled upon, culminating with the hint that turning the thing upside down and shaking it might help, seem to have done the trick.
  • Solving time. Lots of it.

Thus Quixote’s offering is completed in double-quick time following the customary Saturday morning croissants and coffee (we have to have some way of remembering what day it is), and three-quarters of the IQ polished off before lunch. Yes, it was that sort of grid fill. Lots of trips required to the BRB not only to check some of the lovely words on offer – ABOMASA and XYSTI being particular standouts, but also to check the deliciously obscure bits dotted through the wordplay.

The top centre of the grid last to fall following lunch, the poet chap at the very close.

Oh yes, the preamble. Well, I ignored all but the bits about extra letters from wordplay to this point, because it was all that I needed, and to avoid head explosion. But having guessed that the triangles at the top were probably bits of a bridge, it came as no surprise that said letters would tell us to SHADE TWO TOWERS OF BRIDGE.

Duly shaded, followed by a brief panic about the bits we were supposed to find. Thankfully I know that a PILLOCK is a fool, that POLLOCK is a likely looking substitution, and Google was quick with the information that many moons ago said Pollock took it upon himself to take a guided tour of London in a Hawker HUNTER jet, culminating with a fly-through of Tower Bridge.

HUNTER and THAMES duly highlighted, and you’ll have to imagine that the WALKWAYS and BASCULES that form parts of the bridge are shaded, because I got so excited at the thought of more highlighting that I began to highlight those as well.

Oh well. You can still see the picture Ferret’s drawn for us. Neat, isn’t it?

Duly enjoyed – very much enjoyed actually, even if there’s no box of chocolates at the close. Oh well, I’ll just have to make do with a cheeky, early Easter Egg.

The first draft of this week’s post began “I don’t know how much will have changed by the time this is published…” And then went on to have a general moan about the lockdown. Well, thankfully from a personal point of view the emergency might seem distant, something on the television news, in the i, or the BBC News site, but yesterday evening’s news about Boris Johnson is truly shocking, so the rest… Well, I’ve deleted. Best wishes to him for a quick recovery and to his family at this time.

Onto lighter things, somewhat jarringly I know. The Inquisitor which came courtesy of the i‘s online app, my free-delivery vouchers no doubt among the sudden flood of applications.

Perhaps it’s just been the unsettling nature of the past week, the constant nagging worry, but my solving skills have deserted me, so it was some trepidation that I turned to the puzzle. I shouldn’t have worried – after last week’s marathon session we’re definitely back on the beginner’s slopes, and that suits me just fine.

I might not be able to parse the clue, but I do know that ADA Lovelace was Byron’s daughter. Managed a rare smile on GSOH. Hopefully avoided the AGOUTA / AGOUTI trap (what a sneaky unchecked letter). Struggled a little at the close in the top centre, what William I might have referred to being somewhat beyond my linguistic skills, though surely we’re looking for the setter’s favourite revolutionary? And how long it took to spot that we had to insert not only C, but W into GAY.

What to highlight? Thankfully no difficulties on the grid-hunting front this week, as AUNT ADA leapt out along the bottom row. A quick Google leads to Cold Comfort Farm which I’ve heard of but not read, though I did know the phrase we’re looking for, because apparently Aunt Ada Doom saw “something nasty in the woodshed”. A sneaky FLORA to the NE, but we’re to ignore that.

Cells highlighted. Even I can conjure up an anagram of “something”.

Job done.

And that’s the first puzzle I’ve properly enjoyed all week, so thanks all for a much needed bit of light relief.

The normal rules of engagement have been suspended. The order of the day self-isolation and general anxiety about completing the once run-of-the mill. School, college, university applications, driving lessons, used-car purchases. Shopping. New York not to add fuel to the fire is apparently 10 days away from a food crisis. As is the local Sainsbury’s by the look of the shelves. I’ve got two packs of toilet paper in the cupboard to go round the five of us and feel guilty for hoarding. Holiday cancelled, school cancelled, college gone, my sister and her family on an 862 mile round trip by car in 24 hours to rescue belongings from imminently unavailable university accommodation. Working from home. Schooling from home.

Welcome to Spring 2020, and not the post-apocalyptic movie of your choice.

This is not the way it was supposed to be.

Ifor, who is thanking us for a little help but little solace with something designed to fill the long hours of self-isolation. Answers this way and that, clues where they’ll fit, and you all know how much I love that kind of thing. And to be quite frank after drowning my sorrows Friday night in a surfeit of London Pride and cheap whisky left over from the oh-so-distant festive season, I’m really not up to this.

So after breaking isolation to glance at a used car that apart from needing new brakes, discs, bonnet, silencer and it would appear clutch too (yeah, I know), gloves and distance kept throughout, time to hide in the kitchen and cold solve. And cold solve, because while the shorter answers were keen to fall, the longer answers wouldn’t. Blame my parsing skills. Blame a raging head, a niggling cold (but thankfully no reportable symptoms because I need alcohol, chocolate, and copies of the i).

Evening… A long one… DEFENSELESS. Where to chuck it? Fatefully as it transpired in the left hand grid, and work from there. Not very far, admittedly. But… DEAD AS A DODO fell shortly afterwards and that did help. Oh yes it did, with the south of that grid filling pretty quickly until DESPAIR SET IN and the sudden urge to chuck it all in and take up an easier hobby like brain surgery. And there are all those episodes of Star Trek Discovery to catch up with too.

Sunday, Sunday, of a good night’s sleep and warmer days, of jaunts to the local cemetery, a table and chair outside for the first time this year – the floods a distant memory now the plague has descended upon us, and with it more luck with the clues, and finally, two full grids.

Distant celebrations, sighs of relief. What names will fit those two greyed out bits? Curtailed sighs of relief, cue much anguish, and compilation of – what-blooming-letters-will-fit-there-anyway?

The prosaic answers being Austin Stowell (with the ST letter-pairs duly paired), and Mark Rylance. I’ve heard of the latter, but not the former. Who appeared in Bridge of Spies, which I’ve not heard of, though the incident is one I have, being an east-west-east Cold War exchange of (alleged) spy and (yep he sure was a) spy and pilot on the other. So in the centre we can lob CIA as presumably representing a bridge of spies, and the clue at the bottom? An anagram of the character names (or bits of them anyway, Francis being shelved for convenience sake), and thus:

BEFORE

The magic word we need to fill in. Job done. Pen over the pencil entries so painstakingly filled almost literally with blood and tears, leaving the grids below. But that word, “before”, preying somewhat on the mind. That phrase in the preamble – “and establishes which grid orientation is correct”. This is only completely and utterly wrong, isn’t it, because Stowell played Gary Powers who was traded East-West, and Rylance Rudolf Abel who was traded West-East. Before. These grids are supposed to represent the position before the trade.

So this is wrong:

And this, presuming I’ve managed to transcribe properly, sort everything correctly, and that I haven’t gone off on a completely off-piste tangent, should be correct:

Bang goes your weekend. And any remaining sanity. Whoosh, the approaching week, and yet more horrors. Excuse me while I lock myself in a cupboard and scream and never stop.