One of the hardest disciplines to master as a cryptic crossword setter isn’t the technicality of clue-writing rules. It’s the intense concentration – ideally unbroken – needed to see a puzzle through from concept to conclusion. This is especially true if you’re trying to do it full-time and it’s your sole source of income. Absolute application is extremely difficult when your mind is on other things, and it’s far worse when you don’t have the luxury of putting a puzzle aside for a few days. So what happens when the ‘other stuff’ gets oppressive, when the damage it does to your ability to concentrate becomes more than just a bit inconvenient?
OK, I’m afraid I have to trouble you with some background. Please bear with me – hopefully, at the end, you’ll understand.
From a very early age crosswords were my thing, and by the time I reached 14/15 I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life setting crosswords professionally. Long before that it was clear I had an unusual ability but, I’m sad to say, it wasn’t encouraged. Indeed, it became my retreat from a painful home life; a mother and intensely cruel stepfather whose combined professional ambitions left my brother and I pretty much neglected (apart from the violence). When I say my crossword setting wasn’t encouraged I don’t mean they wanted me to not do them – there was simply no interest whatsoever from my parents. I could have been designing bombs and they wouldn’t have given a monkeys.
Their utter detachment from the hopes and ambitions of my brother and I continued – continues, actually. Over the past couple of years there has been the occasional ‘well done’ but the superficiality is comically obvious. They have become staggeringly wealthy but my brother and I are just not a part of it, and we have learned the hard way that when we face financial struggles it’s best to keep schtum. In the 80s and 90s the response was a typically 80s and 90s “You’re on your own”, while in more recent years it’s resulted in stern censure.
Something changed about five years ago, which revolved around a serious family incident which I cannot describe here (it didn’t involve me and is, therefore, confidential), although it coincided with a situation in which I found myself forced to rely on crosswords as an income after being made redundant. The details are far too complex and far too personal to fully discuss here, but at the end of some rather fraught and occasionally tearful discussions about how my brother and I were ‘raised’ we were told that for the next five years we would be ‘gifted’ an annual sum of money to help us out while we tried to build up and solidify our professional projects (my brother and I both work for ourselves).
For me it helped. When it started, I didn’t have as many crossword slots as I do now. Mind you, I don’t have as many slots now as I did late last year, thanks to the collapse of a magazine for which I had set four puzzles a month. As a result I struggled to meet some bills; electricity was a bad one, thankfully pretty close to clearing now, but the other was Council Tax – I just couldn’t cope with it, and earlier this week the arrears situation got as bad as it possibly can get. I’ll be honest – I almost ended up without the computer I’m using to type this.
Needless to say, this resulted in parental involvement and the expected censure, but it also became apparent that these annual ‘gifts’ have had nothing to do with making some amends for the abandonment which marked the formative years of my brother and I. It all has a distasteful ‘just business’ feel to it, as if it’s somehow performance-related. And you know something? The annual payments should have left me feeling grateful, but it’s a feeling I find it oddly difficult to evoke. Somehow there’s something superficial about it. How can I express it? OK – sometimes you buy a birthday card for someone not because you genuinely want to but because you’d feel a bit rude if you didn’t. The apparent generosity just doesn’t come from the heart. From guilt? Maybe a little, but a) even that doesn’t come across as genuine, and b) the very wealthy never allow themselves the honesty of guilt about any adverse consequences left behind in their quest for wealth. I think most of us accept that the wealthiest people tend to be the least generous.
And the very wealthy don’t have thoughts about ‘just surviving’, so they don’t have the means to empathise with those whose daily thoughts are often forced to revolve around exactly that. I was going to suggest they are detached from reality, but actually they’re not – it’s just that they are limited to their own reality.
You may be thinking “Hold on – this isn’t about rich and poor. It’s about family”, and that is exactly my point. The word ‘family’ just doesn’t seem to have any meaningful role here and, in all honesty, it never has.
Anyway, the current situation is this. My parents have decided that, with two years left to run, the money stops right now, unless I supply them with ridiculous amounts of personal financial information going back years (most of it I don’t have, and that which can be retrieved could take several months) and effectively handing over the conduct of my life to them. After 40 years of utter detachment and disinterest they now want the polar opposite at the point of a gun.
Ah, but doesn’t that mean… if they take care of all my financial affairs I’m free to concentrate on crosswords? No. When it comes to all of the daily stuff – bills, blah blah – it’s all my responsibility; all they’re interested in is the ‘performance’.
So, where from here? Well it looks like one of two courses; either the crossword contracts double, pronto, or I give it up entirely. If it’s the latter, then I really don’t know what happens after that. Stacking shelves at Tesco when you’ve spent all of your life trying to achieve what you always said you would? That would be the move of a thoroughly defeated man, and it would be time to go.
I really must apologise if all of this sounds depressing but, given the events of this week, it felt better to get thoughts expressed openly than to bottle it up. That’s all for now – must sign off, as I’m not quite holding it together at the moment.