Our correspondent with the permanent thirst, JOHN MINSON, roams the streets of London in search of free lunches. To justify the cost of shoeleather, he’s turned in these few well chosen words...

It started at the 128 launch. It was an event cloaked in secrecy — phone calls to Sinclair only elicited the non-committal ‘Are you phoning about the 13th?’ But everyone knew. Every hack worthy of his or her name would be there to see what Sir Clive would pull out of his hat — and we knew what that was going to be, too. But as Graeme had rejected my offer to fly out and sample the delights of the Spanish Spectrum at his expense, I was making do with a blagged invite to the London launch.

True to form, the promise of a major news story, not to mention a free lunch, had lured that assembled body of well-respected journos, the computer press, from behind their desks. Why, I even saw representatives of magazines dedicated to non-Sinclair machines there, so great is the lure of Sir Clive. And, of course, Graeme, all the way from Ludlow looking extremely dapper in best whistle, made an appearance amongst us mortals.

Happily, with Graeme covering the news aspect I was free to adopt my more usual role as food and wine correspondent. (Actually, I lie — I had to take part in that unholy rugby scrum called the photo call, where some highly trained lens-person gets Sir Sinclair into the most unimaginative pose possible, then we all scramble to capture it like it was the Second Coming — which is probably what Clive hopes it is!)

First the wine. Well, wine it was but not a Bloody Mary to be found, which is a pity as the cocktail’s colour would have complemented the crimson box of the 128 rather nicely. The food was better. Only canapes, mind — always just a taster for the proper sarnie that should follow but never does — but big, healthy ones with exotic contents. And the little cakes that followed were superb. Sadly for some, the positioning of this spread at the far end of the room went unnoticed until too late. Myself and the other sharp eyed vultures had hardly left a quail egg for poor old Graeme, who had been punctiliously plugging away for stories among the assembled software companies. (And what is the collective noun for such a body? A loading error?)

Not that my seclusion from the trestles had put me out of the running for information. Could it really be that Kempston and Sinclair had known in advance that the most used joystick’s interfaces would cause games to crash on the new micro, but had colluded to keep quiet about it until a solution was reached? I don’t believe it. Nor was I taken in by the wag from one very large group of companies who whispered that they wouldn’t be producing further games for the expanded machine until it had firmly proved itself, which they didn’t think it would. Then there were the loading problems that software houses had apparently encountered with their display machines on the day. Poor old Colin-from-Firebird’s face was pink!

But by that stage it was becoming hazy, the ground was circling, and I recognised the symptoms of alcohol starvation. So I made for fresh air. Suddenly, my way was blocked by a uniformed flunky. Could it be that I knew too much? Luckily I always carry a can of insect repellent with me — a brand known as Mace — and let the tool of the capitalist classes have it, right between the eyes. As he sank to the floor I realised that he’d only been trying to give me my coat. Really must do something about this paranoia.

Chaos reigned. I was forced to let go with a few more blasts of the chemical cosh — purely for self-defence — when a bearded figure fought his way to me. ‘I’m a doctor,’ he said, ‘Let me through’. I was about to blast him when I recognised the face behind the whiskers and the unmistakable shape of the cocktail shaker in his hand. This is the sort of man of medicine I heartily approve of.

He dragged me from the throng and pushed me into a car which roared off at high speed towards the environs of his consulting rooms in Covent Garden, for it was none other than Dr Tim Langdell of The Edge. Here was a man with such faith in the new Spectrum that he was not only expanding Fairlight for it by adding better sound, new rooms and secret passages but also a new way of solving the secret of the castle. And that, he confided, would be nothing compared with Fairlight II which would be primarily aimed at the larger memory, needing a multi-part load for the small machine.

Then, he told me, administering another medicinal concoction, there would be the long awaited Writer — a word processor which is so complete it seems you can choose a style from a pull down box and it will plagiarise an article to fit, rather like this one. And Artist II will wash the dishes and make the tea... but by this time I was feeling tired and emotional from my day’s work so I made an excuse and sought a nightcap.

I woke up the following Tuesday in the vicinity of Fleet Street with a hand on my collar and voice saying, ‘You’re nicked.’ I was in the midst of babbling on about being a journalist and lying in this gutter because I’d just been mugged and coming from a broken home, when I recognised the arresting officer as none other than debonaire Michael Baxter, the most eligible bachelor in computer PR.

He was dragging me down into the dungeons not for reasons of incarceration but to witness the launch of Argus Software’s The Force, presided over by himself and partner (in crime?) cuddly, bearded Dave Carlos. There are those who might say that a game about the police being a Mind Game is rather a contradiction. In fact, there were those who said it. And — without wishing to induce anti-police attitudes in you impressionable youngsters — I also wondered if there were any miners in the game and whether you got extra points for killing innocent woman and children. But Dave expertly fielded all of my whimsical enquiries by hitting me repeatedly around the kidneys with a squeaky plastic truncheon. Obviously the game is educational.

Well, I can’t really report on it (did you think I would?) because there was only a Commodore version available and I suffer a terrible allergy to the machines, so I made for the bar and food — an odd mix of cold cuts and lasagne! But I did pick up a bit of info about the Argus Thirty Games package, due out soon. It contains bits’n’pieces from all over the Argus Empire — Quicksilva, Bug Byte and more — and while there are some proggies you wouldn’t give house room there are enough good things to make it a definite bargain at £9.95 for two tapes.

Another missed opportunity though. Why nobody dressed up in PC’s uniform? Dave as the Laughing Policeman? We were well upset. And why no Bloody Marys? Has somebody warned the computing world about me? Never mind, the deadline for this was already gone and Graeme was giving me angry phone calls. I stumbled up the stairs to the snowy Street of Shame when I was hailed from a passing car — a white Corvette. ‘Leap in,’ said the driver, ‘we’re going to cover the shark fishing championships in Hawaii’. For a moment I thought about the deadline — then leapt into the car which roared off into the London traffic, took a right down a one way street against a red light, and narrowly missed a passing barrister on his way to the Old Bailey from El Vino.

So, sorry Graeme — this is all being typed on a sun-bleached beach in a state of total inebriation and most of it’s pure fantasy anyhow. But some of it’s true. And that’s where it gets weird.
Hunter S Minson