Silky-smooth surfaces

When looking through the TV listings for a movie to watch, there are several phrases which signal unwatchability. Apart from the obvious ones like "Adam Sandler", "Steven Seagal" and "video/computer game", there is "heartwarming".

It's not that a heart-warming movie is automatically bad. "The Straight Story", for instance, is a wonderful film and as heart-warming as all get out, but the point is that TV listings summarisers don't usually reach for "heart-warming" to describe it: "poetic", "low-key", and "gentle" are far more likely to occur. The presence of "heart-warming" in the thumbnail description almost always signifies that there is nothing else to say about it, and what you're going to get is cuteness, blandness, and several tons of sugar.

When it comes to crosswords, the blogger's phrase "silky-smooth surfaces" has roughly the same effect on me.

It's not that I think that surfaces should be awkward or approach unintelligibility: the biggest difference between the inexperienced setter and the experienced one is usually that the skilled practitioner's surfaces are less obviously crossword clues than sentences which someone might have said or written.

But if the smoothness of the surfaces is all anyone can drag up as a comment, it probably means that the surfaces are incredibly dull. By my lights, anyway.

I don't care for Coldplay either. They're extremely good at what they do, and lots of people think they resemble insect knees, but to me they produce background music which leaves no impression at all.

When I'm constructing surfaces, I'm happiest when I can make them a bit surprising. I like to imagine them as headlines or sentences from the Alchemiland Gazette, where Alchemiland is a place where Rene Magritte is regarded as an ultra-realist and MC Escher is a classical traditionalist when it comes to architecture. Ideally, for me, the surface makes the solver at least fleetingly wonder what chain of events led to it. Why did a moose appear outside the window, what sort of carpet would need antibiotics to remove, how did the policeman end up in a bottle?

And of course I love jokes - and the worse, the better. I'm a massive fan of the comedian Milton Jones, who specialises in naive idiocy. Announcing "This is Fox News" and then just barking at the microphone, for instance. I'm not actually conscious of having used one of his awful puns while writing a clue, but in the words of the old Python sketch, "You will, Alchemi, you will."

This isn't to say that I spend my time trying to be bizarre for the sake of it. I think that would get annoying. What it really means is that when I need to find a word which begins with a certain letter, I'm more likely to choose one which is slightly incongruous. It will surprise no-one who's read this far that Alchemiland's capital is twinned with Ankh-Morpork and its public utilities are provided by a subsidiary of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.

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