Here’s the thing: you might as well say goodbye to your life, because suddenly there isn’t any room for anything else anymore. It’s absolute – like love, or jealousy. A friend of mine once told me that if you let envy and paranoia into a relationship then it’ll take over and kill it. Then, in the end, there won’t be anything left. The connection will fall away and the passion will dwindle until there are just two people who really fucking hate each other.
Well, it’s a little bit like that.
I don’t want to think about it all the time. God knows my friends – or, at least, those friends who have not yet abandoned the Good Ship Loyalty – hate me for it, but it’s impossible to deny the urge. University, music, writing – these things don’t suffice in staving off the lust anymore. Take last Tuesday morning. Bizarrely, for a morning lecture, I was alight with inspiration. At the front of the room, standing stalwartly before us, Karl, the lecturer, was talking about the importance of Machiavelli in contemporary politics. I’d been waiting for this moment. Three months of Marx and Socialism, Marx and the Work Ethic, Marx and Globalisation, Marx and the fucking Philosopher’s Stone, and I was longing to move on… And then, half way through the hour, I remembered.
My throat closed up.
The room spiralled in and out of focus.
Suddenly ridden with anxiety, I slipped out of the fire exit and headed straight for the nearest toilet cubicle. I knew nobody would find me there.
And, again, on Friday – just hours before the weekend began. All I had to do was hold out until four o’ clock and I would be free. Two whole days in which to kick the habit, or fall further into addiction. It didn’t matter… But I couldn’t wait. At quarter past two I feigned illness, fled the campus and came home to spend yet another wasteful evening with the curtains drawn against the world.
They say, don’t they, that the first stage in overcoming an addiction is to admit that you have a problem?
Well, I have a problem.
It started softly last November and has been worsening ever since. I should have realised then but the thing is: I’ve never been addicted to anything. I’ve barely taken an illegal drug in my life. Gambling doesn’t appeal. I don’t even put a quid on the Grand National anymore. As for binge shopping, I begrudge buying soap. It’s unlikely I’ll ever max out a credit card. I used to think, Morrissey, that I was the only person in Britain who didn’t have an addictive personality – whatever that actually means.
And then it happened.
The Guardian Cryptic Crossword.
Not an hour passes without my thoughts returning to its slender black and white frame. It is simultaneously beautiful and frustrating. The clues are subtle, intricate, mathematical and poetic. Like a great wine or gourmet meal, they demand time and concentration in order to be enjoyed. But you can’t rush. You can never rush.
Take, for example, yesterday’s Nine Across. ‘Timely old joke, consuming wine with last of cheese.’ Nine letters. The sort of clue that, six months ago, would have baffled and petrified a literal mind such as mine. But now – now - I have an inkling as to how these things work.
First: identify the keyword; the definition. In the case, it is ‘timely.’ Quickly, my brain attempts to summon the synonyms. Appropriate, punctual, apt – none of which are nine letters, and so I move on to the second stage: decrypting the cryptic.
‘Old joke, consuming wine with last of cheese.’
I know now that ‘consuming’ means I have to put one word inside another, and so this is as good a starting point as any. ‘Old joke, consuming wine…’ What’s another way of saying ‘joke?’ A gag? A yarn? A golden olden?
Or, a pun. A ‘joke’ is a ‘pun.’ It seems obvious when finally you stumble across it.
Suddenly I don’t feel quite so helpless. Now what I need is the wine, which – according to the peculiar science of the cryptic crossword – is ‘port.’ ‘Old joke consuming wine…’ I take the ‘O’ from ‘old’; a ‘joke’ is a ‘pun’; wine is ‘port’, which I place inside the word ‘pun’ to get – what? O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N. Opportun.
But that doesn’t make any sense. There’s still one part of the clue to solve. The last part. The part that allows the entire thing to come full circle…
I read it again:
‘Timely old joke, consuming wine with last of cheese.’
It’s so easy once you see it. O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N. I add an ‘E’ – the last letter of the word ‘cheese’ – and at last I can settle. ‘Opportune.’ A nine letter word for ‘timely.’
With baited breath, I take a black pen, put a line through Nine Across and neatly enter the answer. Nothing in the world can rival this feeling. Not sex, not heroin, not even The Smiths. Gratified, I pour a glass of wine, light a cigarette and bask in the afterglow.
And then I see it.
A thirteen character love letter, inked in black. A subtle reminder that this isn’t over yet. Nine Across might have felt like a victory but really it was just a breakthrough. There are still thirty-two clues remaining and time is running out.
It was here you would have found me at seven o’ clock last night. Not just ready but desperately needing to continue.
Sometimes I solve them all. Every last clue. Sometimes I slave and fret and worry and squint until soft sunlight forces me to retire. And sometimes I cannot sleep at all. A spectre is haunting your hometown, Morrissey – the spectre of the cryptic crossword - and I am powerless to resist it.
At least for the time being.