Monday, April 23, 2012

Memories of My Spectrum

The ZX Spectrum, arguably Britain's first famous home computer, is 30 today. I have fond memories of my 48K Spectrum, and its big sister, the 128K which came later on. Using the Spectrum was often a frustrating experience. There was no screen - you plugged it directly into a tv (in my case an ancient black and white thing in the dining room). It had a tendency to overheat and reset itself, and it ran programs from a tape recorder - so you'd have to wait up to 10 minutes to play a game, again with the random tendency for the uploading of data to get to the end and then just reset. The keys were rubbery, a bit unpleasant to touch, and you had to make copious use of combinations of different keys in order to get it to display certain commands like "POKE" (which I never really understood - it was very different from poking in social media).

Quickly, my weekly comics (Jackpot and Buster) were replaced by ZX Spectrum magazines, and I would spend hours typing in programs in order to play a very basic-looking game that probably had a typo in it and wouldn't work anyway. I suppose it helped me with my keyboard skills, and kept me off the streets if nothing else.

On the rare occasions when I got a Spectrum game to actually work, the experience of playing the game itself was often just as frustrating. Games were not meant to be actually won, so programmers tended to make them as difficult as possible to complete. Sometimes they would have weird bugs, like "The Hobbit" which always froze when I got to the cellar of the wood elves. It was usually impossible to save data, so if you died, you had to go all the way back to the start and do it again. But many of those games are indelibly marked in my memory. Here are my favourite ones.

The Hobbit

The aforementioned Hobbit was one of my favourite "adventure" textual games. I loved text adventures more than any other type of game because it was like reading a book with endless possibilities and you had to use your imagination to supplement the lack of fantastic graphics. There was the feeling with these games that you could go anyway and say anything, even though in reality most of what you typed in would be ignored unless it fit a very specific set of instructions relevant to only one point of the game. But I loved how The Hobbit took a great novel and let you play through it. I loved that there were TWO mazes in it (which I spent hours getting lost in and trying to map). I loved that you could talk to Thorin and Gandalf (even though they didn't have much to say), and I loved the graphics - which at the time appeared to be amazingly sophisticated and complex.

Jet Set Willy

A truly amazing platform-based game which had the shocking innovation of allowing the player to wander between different screens, each one a room in a giant mansion. As the tune "If I Were A Rich Man" played on a loop, you had to jump, run and avoid weird moving objects, and collect strange sparkling ones. Occasionally, if you went through the wrong hole, you'd get stuck in a weird infinity loop and lose all your lives in an instant. It wasn't fair and I'm sure it was impossible to compete without resorting to cheats.


This was one of the first games I ever played when I got my computer, and the whole family spent Christmas Day in awed shock. Someone appeared to have used a very weird drug trip as the premise for a computer game. It asked me for my name and then later on referred to me by it - as we were unfamilar with what computers were capable of, we half-believed that this game was somehow watching us and responding to our movements. It was a text adventure, which involved moving by typing in numbers and collecting various strange objects like a hula hoop, valium and a pork pie. The B side of the cassette contained a surreal pop song, and the game was actually a real-life competition - you had to play it to discover clues to where an actual golden sundial was hidden somewhere in the UK.

Sabre Wulf

This was my favourite game from the successful Ultimate stable. You were an explorer in a huge jungle maze, and you had to collect four pieces of an amulet to escape, and also avoid a wolf whose territory extended over several screens and could run very fast. There were different coloured orchids and if you picked them it would result in various effects (blue made you run faster, yellow sent you to sleep etc). It was deliciously garish.

Knight Lore

Another "Ultimate" game which brought the innovation of 3D graphics - this was mind-blowing when it came out, and inspired dozens of copy-cats. Unfortunately the game itself was a bit boring and also difficult. You were the same explorer from Sabre Wulf, but this time you turned into a werewolf occasionally, and you were trapped in a castle, having to collect objects and move blocks around to get past obstacles. I always seemed to get killed by falling metal spikey balls :(


A graphical 2D room-based adventure featuring a knight who had to move around, collecting objects and giving them to various people or casting spells in order to open up new bits of a castle. What made this game interesting was its use of "Windimation" - a system where menus would open up and you selected an option from one of several. This was a somewhat more forgiving game in that it didn't kill you off at a moment's notice but allowed you to think through how to do things.

The Trap Door

A crazy, colourful game based on the children's animation series, this game was fiendishly difficult - you had to make various recipes by gathering weird objects and putting them in a cauldron. Quite often, the objects were alive (like worms) and would run around trying to escape from you, while a spider would also chase after them trying to eat them. Playing this cute looking game often induced feelings of panic in me as time ran out.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Broke Back Gym

Well, I am 40 in slightly over a month. This blog, which I began almost 10 years ago chronicles all of my 30s (at least the stuff I'm prepared to share with the whole world and several people who know me in real life). Prior to that, the private diaries I kept in my teens and 20s give a much more introspective and confessional account of my life.

I don't think I look too bad for 40. I still have all my hair, and most of it is still brown, save a few grey ones. There is only one permanent line on my forehead. The dark circles under my eyes make me perpetually look tired, but I blame them on genetics. I get plenty of sleep - more than anyone else I know. At the gym last month, I had my annual "check-up" which meant I was taken into a cupboard and measured by one of the receptionists. She told me that I'd gained 5 cms around my shoulders and lost 5cm around my waist. It's true that I've gone back to 32 inch trousers, which I last wore around the age of 25. And there are funny bumpy bits in my back and shoulders that didn't used to be there. I've cut out crisps, orange juice and "healthy" smoothies from my diet, so that's probably helped.

But there's been a price to pay for getting back my mid-20s body. For a year, several times a week I went to circuit classes at my gym, organised by a man I refer to as "THe PE teacher". The classes involved lots of high intensity running, jumping, bending, stretching and lifting weights. The PE teacher shouts a lot (it's motivational), and also decides how heavy the weights should be that you lift. It gets results, but has also left me with back problems which started before Christmas and ensured that I spent most of Easter on painkillers. Worryingly, my father is 25 years ahead of me with his own bad back, and had an operation last month as he was barely able to walk at Christmas. He used to work on a farm as a teenager, and lug around 9 stone bags of concrete all day, so no wonder he's broke his back. I only have vanity to blame for my situation. And also poor work habits. Twice a week, I usually work from home. I like to boast that I don't need an "office" like some of my colleagues who claim they can't work unless they have a south-facing room over-looking a brook with no traffic noise, and lavish bookshelves etc. Having being brought up in a little council house where the tv was never turned off, I view such sentiments about people needing workspace as precious and excuses for laziness. So my "office" is my sofa, and there I can sit, for up to six hours a day, laptop on lap, only minimally moving to get a cup of tea. This set-up used to work fine, but now I've damaged myself through exercise, my body doesn't like to sit in that position any more. So I've relocated to the dining room table. Quite a few people I know have bad backs at the moment - so maybe it's the fault of laptops making us all put ourselves in slouchy postures.

My doctor gave me a pamphlet about bad backs based on the latest research. I was expecting it to contain lots of weird exercises to do and descriptions of scans you can have done on the NHS. Instead it simply said - don't take to your bed - keep moving around, do exercise, go walking. Take painkillers to manage the pain. Don't be pessimistic, expect things to get better and they probably will. So fingers crossed.

The other sign of middle/old age that I'm experiencing is weird memory issues. My fella accuses me several times a week of forgetting conversations we've had. He says my memory is ruthless in excising information it doesn't want to keep - and he's right there. But I think it's getting worse. I sent an email to a work colleague yesterday, asking her to help me with a task. But then realised I'd sent her the exact same email before Easter. But when I tried to find that first email, I couldn't find it. It never existed - I just convinced myself I'd sent it, when I hadn't. Not only am I forgetting things, but I'm inserting in new false memories of things that never happened in the first place. At least eventually, I won't even be able to remember that I've lost all my faculties... Happy 40th!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Finding Madame

My new favourite obsession is Madame, a sassy-talking old lady puppet from the 1970s and 1980s. Madame was the brainchild of Wayland Flowers, who was a skilled puppeteer rather than a ventriloquist - something which he had Madame say at the start of their routine "Wayland's no ventriloquist and I'm no fuckin' dummy!" However, once Madame started talking, all eyes quickly fell on her, and Flowers became almost invisible. Bedecked in her "fuzzy" (a boa with a life of its own) and her summer diamonds ("some are diamonds, some are not"), Madame's party piece was to let down her hair from the bun it was tied up in, halfway through the act, in a bizarre display of frenzied shaking and contorting. As I said, Wayland Flowers was a skilled puppeteer.

In the 1970s and 1980s gay men were largely absent from American mainstream culture, although gay humour will always find a way - and one way that this was achieved was to have women standing in for gay men - particularly older women who were no longer attractive (although they still saw themselves as desirable and were insatiably desirous of men). The Golden Girls were a good example of this, and here's Madame with Bea Arthur (another Madame), singing "A good man is hard to find" while exchanging potshots with one another (and fighting over Rock Hudson - naturally).

Madame's larger-than-life personality was based on campy movie stars like Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Gloria Swanson and particularly Rosalind Russell in Aunt Mame. Much later, Karen from Will and Grace also channelled Madame (and in one episode where she catches sight of her aged face in the mirror, Karen retorts that she should have Wayland Flowers' hand up her ass). Madame was a wise-cracking mistress of the double entendre, and while her tv appearances were reasonably "clean", her stage shows cheerfully threw around four-letter words for shock effect. The 1980s were perhaps the last decade of "light entertainment", where audiences would still politely sit through puppet performances - and I recall many variety shows on Saturday afternoons with Keith Harris and Orville (although I'd much have preferred Madame). Even with a puppet as sharp and "adult" as Madame, I'd be surprised if she'd be allowed to entertain today's more demanding audiences on tv.

When Paul Lynde left the panel show Hollywood Squares, Flowers and Madame set up residence in the centre square - the place reserved for the celebrity with the wittiest barbs. Sample question: "Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss lived in the same place. Where was it?" Madame's answer: "At the YMCA!"

Madame also appeared as a regular on 1980s pop show Solid Gold, interviewing, insulting (and at times flirting outrageously) with singers and providing the links between ad breaks: "We'll be right back with more great music so don't you dare move. I'm not moving either because, well... I think I'm having a STROKE!" Here's a typical escalating exchange she had with Marty Harty:

"Hindenberg nose!"
"Chicken lips!"
"Chicken legs!"
"Chicken eyes!"
"Chicken neck!"

In 1982 Madame appeared in her own sitcom "Madame's Place" which starred a young Corey Feldman and was notable for featuring a "talkshow" portion where Madame interviewed the likes of William Shatner. She also featured along with several other of Wayland's puppets in a tv special called Madame in Manhattan. This included Crazy Mary (special skill - getting herself stuck to the floor in a most unusual way), Shirley (Madame's dresser) and Jiffy (a prostitute from Harlem). The show features much of the stage act, but then goes slightly surreal as Madame and Wayland start waltzing around Battery Park together (on a very windy day), and finally there's a sequence where Wayland tucks Madame up in bed and tells her that she's very special to him: "I was teased a lot as a child, I was different, I was sensitive. But I had a grandmother who raised me, protected me, and taught me to believe in dreams. She died when I was young. I cried a lot. By myself. Then one day, there you were, needing me just as much as I needed you." Then he sings "Someone to watch over me" to her. It's a rare moment of Wayland taking centre stage, and it could have come across as schmaltzy and silly, but somehow it doesn't. A camp outlook on life is often developed as part of a coping strategy, because life can be very cruel to those of us who are "different and sensitive". Camp allows you to make a joke out of less than desirable circumstances, being passed over, getting old, being bullied or laughed at. Wayland's coping strategy just became externalised more than most - he laughed first and laughed loudest and longest.

Wayland died of AIDS-related complications in 1988, aged only 48. And I know Madame was with him all the way to the end.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Prisoner Cell Block Lancaster

Lancaster Castle (one of the world's oldest prisons) closed down last year and today, for the first time in 50 years, the prison grounds were open to the public. My house looks on to the castle gates and I've often wondered what's behind the walls. So I grabbed my camera - and here are some views that previously you only could have seen if you'd committed a crime.

The castle dates back to the 11th century and has been used as a prison since 1196. There are marks made by musket fire around the gates when Royalists attempted to take it back from Parliamentarians during the civil war. It held the Pendle Witches who were subsquently hanged, and its court was used for the trial of the Birmingham Six.

The Pendle witches apparently cursed anyone who visited Lancaster to have to keep returning there for the rest of their lives.

Hangings were done in public, ostensibly as a deterrent, although in reality hangings garnered large crowds and there was something of a carnival atmosphere, with people selling food and the local schoolboys getting half a day off. The vicar of the overlooking priory church sold tickets so people could get a better view from the ramparts of the church and avoid pickpockets below.

Some prisoners ended up having to stay on in prison for up to three years as they were unable to pay for the gaoler for their "upkeep" at the end of their sentence.

The Duchy of Lancaster, who owns the castle, is currently consulting on what to do with it. It would make an interesting, if rather claustrophobic hotel. (After only a few minutes of wandering around the enclosed court-yard spaces I was starting to feel a bit nervy.) It could also be a good performance space. But I hope it becomes a museum - not only would it bring a lot of tourist trade to Lancaster, but its rich and varied history is fascinating and deserves to be shared with as many people as possible.