My first job after leaving school was with a graphic design company in Manchester. The pay was too low for me to afford public transport, so I cycled there and back. No great hardship, of course, but it meant I didn’t have the luxury of tackling a crossword during the commute. To be honest, buying the paper would have been an extravagance on my wage. Occasionally, though, I called in at the newsagent across the road and picked up The Guardian so I could at least have a crack during lunch. My time at the company was short, but it saw me go from ‘crossword clueless’ to ‘a bit flash’; it also told me I would be a cryptic setter and that The Guardian’s inventiveness was my model and my place to start.
Of course it didn’t happen that way. All of the major dailies were broadsheet when I submitted my first puzzle, and classical references were still common, so I thought I was being impossibly clever with my clue for CERBERUS:
Despite being utterly blanked by the editor, I didn’t get disheartened. Instead I went back to the puzzle in an effort to work out why it hadn’t wowed as I’d imagined it would. Once I’d identified that it was basically a bit crap, I spent several more years honing my technique, knowing that one day I’d create something ideally suited to The Guardian’s audience.
Music arrived and it diverted me from crosswords for a while. I’d moved to Birmingham to set up a band and we had a lovely keyboardist/singer called Kath. I’ll keep this bit short – we got together and it was pretty disastrous. The best part of that relationship, actually, was the few weeks leading up to its start, especially that final moment when she reached across and turned my face towards hers (I’d been distracted by the TV!) so we could kiss. That kiss is irrelevant. It was her eyes. You had to be there, although I’m kind of glad you weren’t.
It sort of bubbled along uneventfully but I was happy to give it time to develop. Music (and signing on) was my only income at the time and it seemed wholly fair when Kath asked me what plans I had by way of a career. I told her I would be setting cryptic crosswords for most if not all of the major newspapers. Her response was “You’ll never do it”. We split up a few days later.
Many years on, the Internet arrived. It offered the perfect opportunity to return to active setting and a platform where I could tout my wares ahead of pestering editors with them. It just so happened that the most influential people who saw those puzzles pointed me towards The Times, so that’s where I went and got taken on at the first attempt. The Independent and FT followed soon after, then The Telegraph Toughie, and more recently the Sunday Times. So what about The Guardian? Promise you won’t laugh? OK, the reason I can’t join The Guardian is that I’m ‘too well-known’.
It’s strange. In every professional sphere I’ve encountered there has been this concept of merit, where you advance by being good at what you do. In this instance it seems to be a barrier.
I can’t imagine that any setter has turned pro for the purposes of proving something to someone else, and the driving force behind everything I’ve done is the knowledge that, at 17 or 18, I told myself I’d do it. And yet there’s a little devil on my shoulder, one that imagines some future social gathering where I happen to bump into Kath and she asks:
“So. The crosswords. What did you achieve?”
And I say “All of it”.
Except I wouldn’t be able to give her that answer. Because it’s an entirely imaginary scenario it’s impossible to be disappointed by it, but in real life it’s a different matter. The last piece of the puzzle, the one that would prove I was right to be as determined, confident, bloody-minded and stubborn as I have been since my pre-teens, remains elusive. I’ve yet to truly prove myself to myself.