So, you’re feeling somewhat frayed too. Autumn is here with the added frisson this wonderful year of Covid. Reasonable excuse. What does that mean, anyway? It’s raining, we’re all getting claustrophobic, and the memory of last week’s Inquisitor rout looms large.

For a while this looked like being another. Is it just me or were the clues this week particularly fiendish? Consisting of not just extra letters in some, but of entries that needed adjusting before entry in the grid. The latter is wont to result in much soul-searching on my part. A quarter of the solving time resulting in only four entries in the grid I was indeed ready to throw in the towel.

TRUMPET TREE to the rescue, being a nice long entry. We like nice long entries. The belated discovery that we have RATs missing from the adjusted ones. PratING, PIratES, and so on. Rats everywhere, but not being indoors the council won’t dispose of the things in “the current climate”, almost as if that were a convenient money-saving-excuse. At least they’ve cut the grass. Small mercies.

False step alert. Rats being disposed of, and leaders to follow, means the central entry is obviously the PIED one himself. Well, he will be at the close, but the crossing entries don’t work for the moment. Getting ahead of myself again. Our favourite old tax lies to the SW, though the volunteers are at least acknowledged as being “old”, a blow to crossword setters everywhere.

And, oh, if 5ac is BUKSHI I’ve no idea why. But what’s new.

Grid full. See, I managed it this week.

The hints from the extra letters. The first couple, well, I don’t where they fit. S something? The rest though is all about the piper himself AND IN DID COME THE STRANGEST FIGURE. At last we can amend BOYS AND GIRLS for what is not only a strange but sinister FIGURE. Yep, the child snatcher always frightened me too. Still does, truth be told.

Phew. Done, I think. Good stuff, Serpent, good stuff. But my brain. It hurts.

eXternal welcomes us to the start of another week with a puzzle that was three-quarters pretty plain sailing, and one-quarter being that to the SW somewhat chewier. In retrospect as two of the clues that held me up were anagrams I don’t really know why, apart from a careless crossing SCOUTED for 18d. Perhaps I just ran out of steam. 7d I suspect on a better day I would have got in no time at all, and hence the rest. Lots of fun to be had along the way nevertheless, with impeccable wordplay, and nothing that most solvers shouldn’t be able to get with a little patience. A pretty good start to the week, finished about par for the i.

COD? Let’s go with 26ac – “Small hero nervous of big dragons (5,7)”.

To July 2016:

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)

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” exhorts Jesus his disciples, according to Matthew (10:16). Serpents are commonly used as a symbol for cunning, and usually not in a good way; they are presented as devious and even wicked – one has only to think of the serpent in Eden, tempting humans into disobedience. But, while there is little dove-like and gentle to this crossword, I do think Serpent’s wit and cunning is closer to wisdom than it is to slyness.

This was magnificent and a joy throughout. Though challenging, once I got onto Serpent’s wavelength, I was engrossed, and full of admiration for Serpent’s skill. A few days ago there was a little discussion about the tension between a strict application of the letter of the laws of crosswordland, and a more liberal interpretation of their spirit. Well, today one needed one’s wits about one, as the setter steered his way between the two. There was allusiveness and invention in spades: NEUTRON and the crossing TRUANT, being perhaps the best examples. There was clever misdirection, with “ship’s staff” in MASCOT and “doctor” in ANENOMETER – and especially so, I thought, with “dictator” in INTERNING. But throughout, the cluing, once unravelled, was impeccable – and so were the surface readings, every one.

And a pangram and not one but two ninas! I was looking out for a message in the top and bottom lights, and was very entertained when they turned out to be the same word. But, despite being familiar with one of the artist’s more celebrated works, I failed to spot the second nina until I went to the original blog on Fifteensquared from 2016. Quite often a nina or a pangram (nevermind both) force the setter into something awkward, but with the possible exception of 17d, this was not the case today. I have never heard of EXTRA JAM, and I really only got that one with the help of the nina and the hope of a pangram. My only other frown in my margin was caused by the cluing of “dove” by “American lunged”, which didn’t quite work for me.

There are so many surpassing clues that it is hard to pick out just one. In addition to the ones mentioned above, I did like other ESSENCE and QUEST. My nomination for Clue of the Day, however goes to 22ac: “Disheartened would-be sire that’s not covered dam (4)”.

A Saturday reprint today that I found to be a little tough in places, especially in the NW corner. In common with Gaufrid back in the day lobbing in COCKSPUR will not have helped matters, followed by a conviction that 2d ended in NOUS. Ah well. One unknown for me at 23ac, but the rest was pretty common vocabulary. Being Klingsor this is of course top quality, fair, and above all enjoyable. And, oh, it’s a pangram, which I didn’t spot, and didn’t need to finish. Time at the close somewhat above par for the i, though scrappily in spare moments, so your mileage may most definitely vary.

COD? 9ac – “Close to broke and left overdrawn apparently? He wasn’t ready! (8)”.

To July 2016:

Normal service is resumed with an enjoyable, pretty straightforward offering from Dac. There is little to say really, because the clues are all top notch, fair, with surface readings as smooth as you would like. 13d I couldn’t parse on solving, though it could be nothing else, and I thought for too long that 9ac was obviously going to be a bird – because singers always are in crosswords – but the rest went in with little ado. I started for a change at 1ac because the definition fairly leapt out, finished with the “angel”. Finish time considerably under par for the i.

COD? So many to pick from, but I’ll go with 7d because it seems to me to be quintessential Dac – “River in northernmost part of Delaware, America (5)”.

To July 2016:

A further 21ac in my evolving opinion of Hob. I am coming to the conclusion that, of all the current crop of setters, he’s the one who most resembles Araucaria. Not that there’s much similarity of style, mind, but when it comes to a blithe indifference towards “the rules”, he’s your chap. Sometimes this can irritate and occasionally offend, but it certainly spices the crossword week up when he appears.

There’s a good deal of material in this puzzle which could well be considered unfair, and those of a Ximinean cast of mind probably won’t be best pleased today. To take just the one example, 26ac could hardly be said to be a “style”, surely? Disgruntled solvers are encouraged to ventilate their pet peeves in the comments. There’s also a sprinkling of the sort of thing widely held to be unsuitable for the breakfast table. To get on with Hob you just have to put such considerations to one side, and having done so I must say that it’s all fair and above board by its own lights, and a pretty impressive thematic crossword all told, with a couple of cheeky twists at 12d and 25ac to keep us on our toes. As it turned out the solving process wasn’t especially long-winded; no external help was required, and there was only the one (gratuitously) obscure entry at 22d, for which Hob gets a Bronx cheer from me.

The Dynamic Duo, Bertandjoyce, fielded this one the first time around in July 2016, so the parsings, explanations and whatnot at Fifteensquared are everything you could hope for. Not much from the chorus, however … I wonder why?

What’s that? Clue of the Day? Well, take yer pick, really, but 7ac is rather swish:
“Knife from Switzerland, ultimately made in China (7)”

An ill wind indeed. A complete rout has been coming my way for a while – a bodged end-game is pretty much par for the course, together with the odd unforced error, but failure to stagger across the finish line has been notable by its absence in some time.

Yet here we are. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood, feeling somewhat emotionally and physically exhausted after delivering the oldest to university in what are troubled times for such things. Perhaps the preamble left me feeling somewhat daunted. Could be.

Early indications were actually pretty good after realising that it wasn’t in fact a jigsaw sort of thing. Answers fairly flying in, albeit with what appear to be clashes. Did Harpy mention clashes? Well, there are the across answers that need to be modified before entry. Perhaps that’s it.

And letters moved left before solving the downs. Those I can do. An educated guess being that they result in Georgie Porgie, though I never did solve all of them. An equally educated guess based on 1666 says that we’re looking for something to do with the Great Fire of London. Pudding Lane, you see. And that the seven blank cells in a line will contain said date in Roman Numerals. Except my seven blank cells aren’t in a line. With MARY, TOO, WINTERY, etc, we’ve left a gap. I can’t find anywhere else to leave a gap.

My grid’s a mess of rubbed out clashes rewritten and then erased and… You get the picture. In my wisdom having decided that I was going to resolve them pretty early on.

I can see lots of letters that make up London that are perhaps the 28 we’re looking for. The crossword gods alone though know what the 44 cells are supposed to represent. Oh, and Harpy.

Letters to highlight? P, from “puddings and pie”? But why pie?

Towel duly thrown in. Nul points. Well and truly beaten. Oh well, there’s always next week.

A surprisingly tricky offering from Raich to start the week. If like me you couldn’t remember the last names of some certain famous Italians, have no idea how CEK might be pronounced in Prague, and are not au fait with bits of the ear, then you might have found yourself floundering a little at the close. Thankfully the footballer was a famous one, or I might really have been in trouble. 😉 Ah well, there were enough easy ones to get a foothold in the grid and make the rest doable, and I still finished in a time about par for the i. And being Raich, of course, this was top notch quality throughout, and thoroughly enjoyable.

COD? 20d raised a smile, and I did like 4d, but I’ll go with 13ac just because it is so devious – “Pinned out of bounds behind labyrinth (5,3)”.

To a distant Sunday in July 2016:

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)