It’s very rare that I think about what turned me from nobody into full-time setter. If it’s a question of “How did I get here?” then I already know the answer; it was a combination of enthusiasm and a lucky break to get me started.
Now, it’s not as if I have some deeply egotistical need to understand who I am – to be honest life is too short – but, recently, something got me thinking, and it was an unlikely spur. Gaming, of all things. Yes, I’m a gamer, but not of your dungeons and dragons and spells and zombies variety. For me it’s always been driving games, the more smashy crashy the better. That said, if an adventure game catches my eye I will, at the very least, check out walkthroughs on YouTube. In 2013 Naughty Dog released The Last Of Us, a game which went on to win pretty much every gaming Oscar that was up for grabs, so I was intrigued. For physical reasons I don’t need to explain, driving games suit me because all you need to do is press the loud button, steering and brakes – nice and simple. Most adventure games turn the controller into a 14-button toolkit which needs the sort of coordination that’s beyond me. Even so, if an adventure/combat/survival game attracts as many plaudits as The Last Of Us I want to watch it even if I’ll never get to play.
TLOU fully deserves the accolades. Its brilliant story and script are brought to life courtesy of magnificent performances by Troy Baker (as Joel) and Ashley Johnson (as Ellie). And it’s believable. If you can overcome the unlikely scenario of the real-world cordyceps virus mutating to infect humans (it only affects ants and some other insects) you become involved in a memorable journey which focuses on the surrogate father/daughter relationship which builds between the two central characters. At times the emotional impact is huge. A few years after release, Naughty Dog hosted a one-off live show in which several of the game’s original actors played out selected scenes. In one – known to gamers simply as ‘the ranch scene’ – Ellie confronts Joel after he plans to hand over her transport to his brother. Towards the end of the scene Joel says “You’re not my daughter. And I sure as hell ain’t your dad”. In the live show Troy can barely deliver the second part of that line; he is almost in tears.
What has this got to do with anything? Well, throughout the game we are tacitly invited to question Joel’s actions and morals based on his experiences, in particular the loss of his daughter Sarah in a prelude sequence twenty years before the game proper. And I’ve had to make ostensibly harsh decisions, not because of bad experiences but because crosswords have always come first.
Like many, I’ve had a number of what could be called important relationships, mostly (but not always) determined by their longevity, and when the end has been in sight I have always done something cowardly and selfish – I’ve made sure it is she who calls it a day. There has been only one occasion when I have ended it.
You see, it’s abdication of responsibility. I don’t need to answer the question “Why?” and I’m not obliged to ask either. It gives me the freedom to walk away and do what I want, and above everything else is the survival of crosswords. Although I concede it is ultimately selfish, in mitigation crosswords were there first, from my mid-teens in terms of cryptics. By the time I left grammar school I knew that, one day, I would create some sort of name for myself and that even the closest relationship was expendable if, to keep it going, cryptic crosswords had to continue with some degree of compromise – because there is no compromise. If I was, for example, a professional athlete, that can be compartmentalised into time-specific bouts at the gym, or jogging or whatever. Cryptic crosswords are mentally intense and demand full concentration whenever the muse decides the brain is ready, and the muse knows no timetable, so I have to be ready for it. Anything else must take a back seat at that moment and stay there for as long as… well, as long as it takes.
So who am I? Some of those close to me think I’m something of a loner. It isn’t true. In fact through crosswords I’m blessed with many great friends, but on an emotional level cryptic clue-writing gives me as many highs and lows as any partner. My relationship with crosswords is actually close to perfect; we do go through some bad stuff but we’re always together at the end of it.