On the Spectrum
On the Spectrum.
It is 1986. Margaret Thatcher is sat firmly on her throne. The Chernobyl Nuclear disaster is just on the horizon. People are celebrating the arrival of Halley’s Comet. And I am 15. I am in my bedroom.
With my Sinclair Spectrum. 48k.
For those of you that don’t know the Sinclair Spectrum was an 8-bit home computer first released in 1982, the sequel to Sinclair Research’s highly successful ZX81 (which I also had. Back in the day.)
Rubber keyed. Black cased. And with a jaunty little rainbow stripe adorning its left hand side the Sinclair Spectrum was quite a beast.
It had pizazz.
Something that I doubt I myself had back then.
This was a time of soap-on-a-rope, weekly baths, Vesta Curries.
In my room back then, on this day, I am probably playing Jet Set Willy, Monty Mole or a personal favourite of mine, Gargoyle Games’ Dun Darach.
There, that’s me on the screen, Celtic hero, Cuchulainn, confidently striding narrow pathways, black hair flowing.
Or rather, it is not.
“I was a lonely boy, no strength, no joy,” as the Pet Shop Boys might have said.
Home was above Hoofers Public House. My family had a flat on the roof. My parents managed it.
Every morning my mum would leave my dinner money on the counter in the kitchen, a neat stack of coins, a fifty p at the bottom, then some tens, twenties, coppers at the top or between them.
Not that this money was ever spent on food. There was something far more important in my life.
Saving up this money, by the end of the week, I usually had enough money to buy a new game.
They must have known me by sight in those Colchester town centre shops.
Williams and Griffins (I would work there later in life one Christmas in the toy department – the best job I ever had), WH Smith’s (I was groped there once by a boy with a extending mechanical hand. Having long hair he thought I was a girl and, when he realised I wasn’t, was most apologetic, because if I had been a girl it would’ve been ok, obviously(!)), anywhere they sold these amazing little cassettes.
For if I had seen in Crash! Magazine that a game I wanted was due out I would go into town sometimes every day after school, check all the shops, see if it was in stock, sorting through every single cassette on the shelves.
Sometimes I would even pluck up the courage, blushing furiously, to enquire with the staff.
I was shy back then.
Apart from games I also loved books. I’d always loved books, had been a member of The Puffin Club, had orderedThe Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the first of the Fighting Fantasy books where famously You were The Hero, weeks before its release, read it to death, made handwritten maps.
If you want to turn East – go to page 25.
If you want to turn West – go to page 63.
So, this is the backstory.
In 1986 Incentive Software released The Graphic Adventure Creator.
With a bit of pizazz (which I was lacking. See above) any willing person could create their own (Choose Your Own) Adventure Game.
That was it.
It was going to be me.
And so Escape from Alcatraz (I know, corny) was born.
Now, I’d like to tell you more about this.
I wrote it.
I must’ve sent it off to a software company. They must’ve laughed at it. Put it in a cupboard.
But I was fifteen.
It’s 34 years ago.
I can’t remember.
I mean, I remember, Chernobyl. But, you know, that was nuclear.
So, fast forward, 34 years. It’s this week. Round about now.
I get a message on Facebook. From an unknown person. One that I’ve never heard of. Always the most unnerving kind of unknown person….
“Are you the Andrew Gumnerson [well, it’s close to my name] who wrote Escape from Alcatraz?”
“Yes! How would you know that?”
“I’m more concerned with why there is a key hidden in a tube and a locked bathroom cabinet in a cell.”
‘Hang on,’ I thought, ‘you’ve obviously never read one of my stories.’
A recent one was about a boy who bites a chunk out of another boy’s ass, keeps the piece, only to discover it has psychic properties.
This is in a society where asses are banned.
Where the boy has to let down a mermaid who has fallen in love with him gently.
And so on.
And so forth.
In those intervening years I wouldn’t say I have become a writer. But I write. I have had novels published, short stories, been on Radio 4, been one of Boyz Magazine’s Great Gay Things (above Robbie Williams (I know. Fucking pizazz now, right?), even had my stories appear in coffee shops across America.
“I am going to write a review of your game. Say how crap it is. But in a funny kind of way. You know? Haha.”
Then he sent me a photo of the cassette.
It had ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ in those transfer letters.
Kind of sad looking.
“This and your letter are one of the best things I got from eBay.”
Dreams for sale.
The first time I used the internet I thought I’m never going to use this to make someone feel bad about themselves / get in a row / argue the point.
I was #bekind before #bekind even existed.
Or before it became a #.
And he wasn’t not being kind.
But you know?
The past is a foreign country.
Nostalgia is a dangerous weapon. (See Brexit. Blue passports. Brexit again. Have I mentioned Brexit? Etc. Etc.)
Hoofers is pulled down now. Replaced by flats so I’m told. The school that I used to go to, in fields, is now surrounded by a housing estate. Williams and Griffins ceased to exist in 2016.
There's even a castle in Colchester. That was never there when I was a boy.
My treasured Sinclair Spectrum I thought I still had.
I looked for it after I got that message on Facebook. Searched the tops of cupboards. Could almost feel those rubber keys beneath my fingers.
Remember the lonely boy I once was.
Sitting in my bedroom.
Dreaming of being something.
But it was gone.
Lost in a house move. Or left at my mum’s house. But she’s moved too now.
Barely able to walk she’s just got herself a council bungalow.
I went to see her the other week, admired the shelving unit she’d got to fit in a narrow alcove.
“Oh, it’s from Facebook Marketplace,” she said, picking up her phone. “You can find any old crap… Or on eBay. It’s all there. You just have to know how to look.”
(I tweeted about my ‘computer game’. It’s had 140,000 views, over 1000 likes, 100 retweets and I’ve got dozens of new followers. This is for them. The first and last time I’ll talk about this. I don’t even know if I’ll put up the link. Inside I’m still that child. Scared of everything. Especially the truth and its close friend reality.)
Image from pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/spectrum-sinclair-computer-1982-3830059/
Dun Darach walkthrough https://youtu.be/K2znQXP08qI