Fear and Loathing

John Minson


All’s quiet on the games front at the moment, so I thought that I might as well temporarily defect to the ‘serious’ side of computer journalism. Aaaargh! ... it’s not worth it, no matter how good the aperitifs are.

You probably think that journalism is a never ending round of food and booze. Well, normally it is but there comes a time when the freebies run dry!

This terrifying situation happened to me in February. A quick rifling through the pages of my diary revealed that nobody wanted to whisper sweet nothings to me about some new game, while treating me to a three course lunch of course — this was serious!

After all, I am a starving hack with a leaky roof to support... there was only one thing for it. I would have to search for scraps in new gutters, go down new avenues, get into practices of the most perverted, disgusting and depraved kind — worse, even, than using a Commodore — all to keep body and soul together. I mean business computing! PCs! Databases!! Spreadsheets!!! Programs you CAN’T play with a joystick. Oh the shame that I should be reduced to this.

Actually, I quite enjoyed seeing how the other half lives (by the other half I mean those brainy types who think that micros are meant for serious pursuits). But how was I to infiltrate this secretive brotherhood?

Minson’s first law of ligging states, once you get your foot in the door, your mouth will soon follow. Got to a launch, chat with your fellow journos, and they’re sure to let slip where the next free bunfight is taking place.

So it was off to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for the launch of something called WordStar 4, yet another version of the word processor that’s had more sequels than Rocky. Up I rolled, looking very chic, albeit a trifle sweaty, in my brand new black latex rubber bomber jacket, intending only to scoff, pick up the product and scarper.

Those were my first mistakes. Everyone was wearing suits and ties and the programme of events, indicated a full schedule, lasting till 4.00! Getting out of there alive was going to be like escaping from Colditz, I thought!

Still, the food was excellent — especially the profiteroles — and the presentation wasn’t without its little joys, like the moment when a feature of the all-talking, all-singing and all-dancing package refused to work. Mucho red faces on stage and merriment from the audience. But the real fun came with the questions and answers session. It was then that I learned why these are the elite of computer journalism.

WordStar once had a competitor called NewWord. I say ‘once’ because MICROPRO, who own WordStar, liked the competition so much that they bought the company... bye bye NewWord!

But it transpires that this was not the case. The people who produced NewWord were also busy working on a new version of their program, and according to their supporters in the audience, large chunks of it had ended up in the product that we’d just seen. “So why didn’t you call it NewWord?”, they shouted.

The mood began to get ugly. Scarves bearing the words “NewWord never dies” appeared, and a low chant of, “Control, K, Q! Control, K, Q!” apparently an obscure death threat, started, I sensed that it was time to leave. Like the bard said, “What’s in a name?” This looked like an excellent package, whether Star or New.

As I tried to sneak out a woman stopped me. Had I been caught playing hookey from the main event? No worry. MICROPRO have learned a lesson from my friends at HEWSON and gave every hack a parting present — only because this is grown up computing we didn’t get plastic spacemen... we got bottles of red wine. Cheers!

My next venture into this shady underworld was to BORLAND’s press do, also for a new word processor — I never learn, do I? The invite said 4.30 to 7.00. which I took to mean an informal gathering. I’d neglected the capabilities of these hacks to haggle for two and a half hours and more. When I rolled in at 6.00 they were already into the tenth round and going strong.

I grabbed hold of a glass of champagne and slid as unobtrusively as I could into a ring-side seat. Actually, it was right under the BORLAND management’s noses, but the action was all in the audience. And don’t ask me what it was about, other than journalists trying to show off to each other. BORLAND never needed to stand up for themselves, because every time one person slagged them off, somebody from a rival publication leapt to their defence.

An hour of this was all very educational, but it seemed determined to continue all night, so I made the proverbial excuse and left, picking up a very tasty BORLAND T-shirt on the way out. I can’t comment on the quality of their software, but their clothing is great! Apparently those who stayed to the bitter end were rewarded with two of these exclusive garments!

I needed my beauty sleep though, because I was Birmingham bound. The Which Computer Show is one of the great gatherings of the business clans, and going from experience of PCW Shows, I reckoned the aisles would be running red — though whether with wine or journalistic blood I wasn’t sure, especially after the BORLAND brawl!

Three days later I was still wandering round the National Exhibition Centre in search of a friendly face. I’d briefly seen Sir Clive’s new portable, but got thrown off the stand because, in the delirium brought on by lack of food and/or (more probably) alcohol, I’d mistaken this slim little thing for a sandwich box and tried to eat it.

All I can tell you is that the keys tasted a little rubbery — though certainly not the old-style Spectrum types that some people have been claiming — and that its display winked both clearly and angrily at me. It looked just the thing for writing this sort of nonsense as I sit on a Northern Line train, if Sir Clive would like me to ‘rail’ test one (hint, hint!).

No food though, and I wasn’t even allowed to refer to the name Sinclair unless I had written permission from the boys on the AMSTRAD stand. Then, as I wandered along a distant, forgotten side of the hall, I heard a cheerful voice. “Hello, John” and found myself gazing into the eyes of Mike Baxter’s delicious new assistant, Sarah Donovan.

“But what are you doing here”, I babbled. “Get away! They’re after our brains!” I was convinced that I was in some 50’s ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ scenario, where the glens all wore little name badges and wanted you to buy their PC clone. “It’s all right”. said another voice. “You’re among friends now.” And lo and behold, if it wasn’t the grinning Baxter himself.

As my fear subsided I began to recognise other faces. There was Richard Bielby, the man whose distribution skills put MASTERTRONIC into newsagents, garages and vending machines in loos next to the Durex. Having done so much for the £1.99 game, he now intends to do the same for the £99.95 business package. And I mean ‘package’, because NERIC’s Integrated 7 includes everything a working person could ever need, except of course a coffee maker.

But I needed more than coffee, and thankfully so did Mike and Sarah, who dragged me off to a neighbouring bar to extol the joys of the NERIC spreadsheet. We continued until I was more ready for bed sheets, then they poured me onto a London bound train — though I’m pretty sure I heard somebody suggesting I should be thrown under it.

And that’s it. I’m back in the smoke, nursing a NERIC hangover, sipping away at my MICROPRO medicinal wine and wearing my BORLAND shirt. Maybe the business scene isn’t as bad as I’d feared, but I think I’ll stick to blasting aliens and knee-capping kung fu fighters! Getting into bloody conflict over which way a text window should scroll is just too weird and psychotic.

Yours in F&L and G&Ts!

Hunter S Minson