James Dean Bradfield On Compiling Crossword Puzzles

To see himself through lockdown, James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers has been compiling tailor-made crossword puzzles for his family and friends. He tells Patrick Clarke about the therapeutic effects and extreme cultural wormholes they can inspire. Plus, solve an exclusive '80s indie crossword compiled by JDB himself!

"The first ever crossword I ever did was on 29 March, a David Bowie crossword for my wife because David Bowie is her Mastermind specialist subject. He’s a very rich seam is our David. I included his films, his theatre performances, soundtrack collaborations; it’s quite comprehensive. I just really enjoyed it. I enjoyed setting the questions up first, then drawing a grid of 25 by 25 – all by hand by the way, no pre-made grids here.

"I put the answers criss-crossing each other on the grid until I’d used up every answer, then I redrew the grid and colour-coded the box with oaks and sepia tones, a faded tapioca yellow and charcoal greys, and bam, I was there! Then, I suppose it’s like running a marathon or doing a bungee jump, or learning a language, once you’ve done one you want to do another one straight away, especially when someone aces the crossword immediately.

"My second crossword was Scottish chart music and that was for a Scottish mate, simple as that. I did an AOR/MOR one for Dave Eringa our producer because the first time I met him he had a Kiss buckle belt and hair down to his arse like Sebastian Bach from Skid Row. He aced that one. The Scottish music one is my favourite, it’s hard to compete with the length and breadth of what they had at their fingertips. I’m finding out things about songs I never knew before, filling in gaps I’d never have filled otherwise. You’ve got to stay to subjects you feel relatively comfortable in, so they’re mostly musical at the moment."

An incorrect clue can unravel a person’s psyche

"I had to re-do the first clue sheet three times because I kept making mistakes, I became obsessed with making it perfect – which is strange for me because I have no predilection towards any kind of perfection, whether it be in music, cooking or constructing a sentence. I don’t mind ‘warts and all’, and I always think perfection is a dangerous task, that the pursuit of perfection is destructive. But with crosswords I’ve become quite finickity with it because if you fuck up a clue or you haven’t put enough blocks of letters in the crossword you’ve made them utterly face their own lack of knowledge, they doubt the capabilities of the pathways in their brain, they have a frontal lobe malfunction. ‘It must be ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, but it’s not enough words!’ Then you find out that the idiot that compiled it didn’t put enough letters in.

"When I was about ten or 11 years old I used to play battleships with Sean [Moore, Manics drummer and Bradfield’s cousin]. He must have won over 20 games in a row and I actually started thinking ‘I am just thick, I am a twat, I am a cretin,’ full on self-loathing was settling in. Already my mum had gone to the school to talk to the teachers because I was quite mute when I was a child and I looked like a bloodhound who couldn’t look up. I had a patch on under a pair of National Health specs because of a crossed eye, a target on me saying ‘destroy this kid,’ so I was already worried about myself, and then came this run of bad losses in Battleships. Sean beat me 20 times, and in a flash I figured it out: we always played it in the same space, where there was a mirror on the wall just behind me. I didn’t like him for about six months after that. I was already a torn and frayed sweater but it nearly unravelled me. So I wouldn’t want to do something like that to somebody with a crossword."

The rest of the Manics aren’t so interested

"I was always a Guardian Quick Crossword man, I can’t stand the cryptic. Cryptic crosswords are for people that use Latin in the middle of a sentence to prove they’ve been to Oxford. It’s already hard enough. But then that’s a double-edged sword because when you don’t finish the Guardian Quick Crossword it’s not good for your self-esteem again. If you’re on the train and someone can see you struggling with the quick crossword you start filling it in just to pretend you’ve finished it, ‘done that’. You think someone’s gonna tweet ‘I’ve just seen that guy from that Welsh band in the restaurant, can’t even finish a crossword.’

"Richey Edwards had a higher functioning brain than mine. The few times I visited him in Swansea University you’d go to his room on Sundays and he’d have The Times and The Observer spread on the floor and he’d be having a go at the heftier crosswords. And then Sean’s got a really wide knowledge of weird things, the process of the vulcanisation of rubber and all that, he’s my phone a friend. I’ve not sent any crosswords to the rest of the band since I started setting them. Sean would do it in no time at all, it’d be quite dispiriting, and Nick has told me many times he hates crosswords. ‘What would I want to do a crossword for when I can read? Why have a wrap when you can have a sandwich? Why have a Lion bar when you can have a Picnic?’"

Crosswords can open up wormholes

"When I was young, wormholes would lead you to places you didn’t know you were ever going. When I was reading about The The’s Infected in the NME, you could see that Matt Johnson had a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea in his pocket. I went and bought it a week later. One of McCarthy’s albums I Am A Wallet had a song on it about Frans Hals the Dutch painter, so I went and found out about him. Those references are endless for me being a music fan all my life, and I think I’ve rediscovered that in lockdown through the crosswords, as trite as that sounds. With the Scottish music one I went back and listened to a lot of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and it’s just much better than I ever realised. I’ve listened to lots of Sutherland Brothers stuff now and I really like it!

"I’ve just done an album that’s very based in 1970s Chilean history and reading around that has been amazing, I found out about Violetta Parra through looking into Víctor Jara, and then ended up reading a book by Sara Wheeler called Thin Long Country, about Chile, and that’s led me on to reading about the Atacama Desert. And then I had a real suspicion that I had an Aguaturbia album in these boxes of vinyl I have, this Chilean psychedelic rock band from the 70s, and I’d had it in my collection for 25 years. The wormhole that led me to Víctor Jara was The Clash’s Sandinista!, and I think the crosswords have become like that a tiny bit. The Manics have never been ashamed of quoting what our inspirations are. People always though ‘oh god, here you go again, brought your thesaurus with you?’ But it was more like, no, we brought our reference point with us. ‘This is good, do you like it too?’ There was always a lot more humility in doing that than people realise."

Crosswords can help you cope

"I feel like I was reading too much, reading as a reflex and a lot of it wasn’t going in. I realised the books I was reading were getting a bit too unfit for purpose. I was reading Emil Cioran’s A Short History Of Decay and that took me down a wormhole that I just didn’t enjoy. I started reading a lot of Japanese novels and I began to feel like I was lost in this strange 1970s psychedelic flat screen experience. I got back into Yūko Tsushima who wrote a book called Territory Of Light about a single parent mother living in Tokyo. I loved the book before lockdown because it was about a little unit this woman had created for herself, and for better or worse it was what she and her daughter could exist in. I started reading a follow-on book called Child Of Fortune, and reading that in lockdown had a terrible effect on me. It was like reading a book about a prisoner while you’re in jail.

"I think what the crossword did was it had no narrative. It was about finding out about stuff, about concentrating on getting the clues right, getting the spelling right, simple stuff like, when I was doing the Scottish music one I made the fatal mistake of writing the Average White Band single as ‘Let’s Go Around Again, when the real title is ‘Let’s Go Round Again’. My Scottish mate picked up on it: ‘That’s no fuckin’ good man, it’s Round Again!’” I really, really concentrate on every crossword I do now. It became almost a day at the office, I didn’t have to worry about the narrative, I just had to worry about things looking good, the clues being perfectly correct, and choosing the right colours. Just getting the bits and pieces and putting them all in place was nice, then at the end sending them all off in envelopes or for people to print off. The narratives in books were really fucking me up a bit in lockdown."

James Dean Bradfield’s new album Even In Exile is out on August 14. You can have a go at his specially compiled 1980s indie crossword below!

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