Me with Rebel in the lounge at New Costessey, 1984 Old college logo taken from my acceptance letter, 1985 Computer Science, College text book from 1985 Norwich City College Admission Card Harris H500 mini-computer RM Nimbus PC-186 emulation in MESS Gary behind the counter at One Step Beyond, Castle Meadow The mothership from Rescue On Fractalus, Atari XL YouTube video of Rescue On Fractalus, by StaxX28 Azimuth Head Alignment Tape for Commodore C2N tape deck YTS placement advert fromt the Eastern Daily Press Goldrunner, on the Atari ST Colonial Conquest on the Atari ST Buggy Boy, Atari ST (gameplay video) R-Type on the Atari ST (ingame) Defender Of The Crown, Atari ST box shot

LIFE IS BUT A GAME - THE NEXT GENERATION

Hi, and welcome to the next episode in my journey of retro gaming adventures.

Everybody can probably remember one moment in their past when the world seemed to collapse around them. Not just waking up and having a bad day but an epic event that just makes everything in their life just fade into dark and utter fear. Well for me this happened when I turned up at New Costessey High School to take my 'O' level computer studies exam only to find that I had misread the schedule and it had been the week before. Suddenly the realisation that the one chance I had got to get into college had just disappeared. I was distraught and my head was spinning. I walked home and the journey felt like a hundred miles. I really wasn't looking forward to explaining to my Dad what had happened.

I contacted the school to explain what had happened and they suggested I sit the exam on a different day and see if they could use that for my final result. So with a bit more positivity in my mind I turned up and took the exam. I came away thinking I had done pretty well so waited in anticipation for the piece of paper to arrive that would seal my place at college and my future in computers. But no, my attempts had been futile as all I got on my results sheet was a big X. Well that was it then, there was nothing left to do but fall back on my plan B which was to take some courses at the Bowthorpe Sixth Form to try to get some more qualifications. I have to add that the Sixth Form was a complete nightmare. It was run at the Bowthorpe High School and most lessons were wasted trying to find a room that wasn't being used. I hated every minute I spent there and desperately needed to find something better.

Money For Nothing by Dire Straits, Video Clip Living On Video by Trans-X, Video Clip Miami Vice Theme by Jan Hammer, Video Clip

But life can be a strange experience and sometimes events happen that turn things around. As a single event had caused me to fail my computer studies exam, so a single event would change everything again - for the better. One day after another frustrating day at Sixth Form, I returned home to find my Dad reading the local newspaper. When I sat down he passed me the paper and pointed out an article stating that a computer course at City College was at risk of being cancelled as there wasn't enough students wanting to attend. He thought it was the course I had wanted to take but I was skeptical as there had been a lot of people at the open day taking the aptitude tests. But my Dad was adamant and forced me to call the college. To my surprise I was asked to attend an informal 'chat' and it was with the tutor that was running the course I had originally wanted to attend. So I turned up and basically explained what had happened and that I really,really wanted to attend the course. He seemed impressed with my enthusiasm and offered me a place. He did mention that there wasn't officially a spare place but he would make an exception and let me join. I was truly humbled and vowed to make the most of my 2nd chance. And of course, I have my Dad to thank for pushing me to make that call.

College was great and so much different than school. I met some interesting people and found the various parts of course engrossing (except for the Maths section, I never was any good at that!). The college used the Harris H500 mini-computer which ran the Vulcan operating system. There were a number of terminals in the main class room which we used to learn programming on. We also used the Research Machines Nimbus which was an Intel based personal computer than ran a modified version of Microsoft Dos and used a mouse. This was the first time I had used a mouse and it was quite a strange experience but I remember having fun messing around with a paint package on them. I seem to remember that they were all networked. The colour displays on this machines were so much better the green-screen of the Harris terminals.

It turned out that a couple of people on my course would visit Brainwave (as it was called back then, before it was renamed to One Step Beyond). Over the following months I would become one of the 'regulars' and got friendly with the manager (Alan), after apologising for my Dad giving him such a hard time over my faulty Atari tape-decks. As well as spending my free periods at Brainwave, there was also the old trip to the Bell Hotel (before it become a Weatherspoons pub). I remember there being a large video juke-box in the main bar area, playing rock videos. They also had a Salamander cabinet and a big Gauntlet cabinet. The college canteen also had a couple of cabinets although I don't remember what they were (I think one was a vertical shoot-em up - maybe Xevious).

Walk This Way by Run DMC with Aerosmith, Video Clip 21st Century Boy by Sigue Sigue Sputnik, video clip Peter Gunn by the Art of Noise, video clip

Not many things remain from my college days although I do still have the admission card (circa September 1985) and the text books that I had to buy for the courses. Several of my friends stayed on for another year and a few ended up working in the Computer Department with me at Anglian. It turns out that I had made it onto the front cover of the college students guide and there was a picture of me walking out of the gates. They did let me have a copy but I seem to have mislaid it which is a shame as I would love to have scanned it in and added it to this article.

Although college was great fun with the arcade machines, cider, oh and course itself, I really struggled with maths (which had an effect on my final exam result and meant I couldn't stay on and do the 2nd year of the course). I found it quite hard to find a job in computers after I finished college. As I had spent so much time in Brainwave and had got to know the manager pretty well, I was offered a job there. When I first got the call I thought it was a wind-up, but I turned up at 9am the next day and there began my time on the other side of the counter. As you can imagine I was absolutely over the moon and working in a computer shop had it perks. I was like a kid in a candy store, surrounded by every type of home computer and games, so many games..

It was during this time that I met somebody who would become a very good friend of mine, Simon Gould. Back then everybody had nicknames, so I knew him as Snip (or Mustang). I was known as XL (because I had an Atari XL). Most people were called after their computers, so we had Oric (and big Oric as there was two people with Oric's), ST, Mr IBM (he had rich parents). Some were also named after their appearance, Cel (because his was tall and thin, like a stick of celery), Slim (he wasn't), and some were strange.. Uncle Alien (Alan).

It was traditional for all the regulars to head over in their lunch hour and check out the latest games. The Atari XL was a popular machine and we were all gob-smacked when we loaded Elektra Glide for the first time and was blown away by the fast and smooth scrolling or watched the loading screen for Rescue On Fractulas, with the beautiful space station and the little ships flying out of it.. oh wow!!

Showing Out (Get Fresh at the Weekend), Mel and Kim. YouTube music video Breakout by Swing Out Sister. YouTube clip from Top Of The Pops Land Of Confusion by Genesis. Official video from YouTube

Things weren't all fun and games though, in a decision which I still believe was a little revenge for my Dad giving him a hard-time a couple of years previously, Alan (the manager), decided that I was the best person to deal with the returned computers. One of the most common problems affected the Commodore 64 and the dreaded C2N tape deck, which would have a habit of being (or becoming) unaligned. This would case most games to fail loading and it was was my job to 'tune' them back in using an Azimuth test cassette and mini screwdriver. I lost count of the amount I did but some days it seemed like they never stopped coming in. Sometimes I would spend ages getting the tape deck just right, only to find that it had become unaligned again after the customer had loaded a couple of games. I remember one time when a customer bought their C64 back and I went to plug it in, not realising that it was switched on. As soon I connected the power lead to the side of the computer, their was a 'pop' and I had blown an internal fuse. I made an excuse and got another one (rather red-faced).

Working in a computer shop meant you had access to all the latest and best games so the Atari was eventually traded in for a Commodore 64 and a 1541 disk driver (no messing around with C2N's for me). For some reason that got traded in and I ended up with a Sinclair QL but the micro drives were a pain and I had all sorts of problems. I did have a Toshiba MSX for a while as well. But I missed my Atari 800XL and ended up with another one. Me and Simon both had one so would spend hours at each others houses playing game after game. I once caused a mild panic when he lent me his tape deck and then I disappeared on holiday for two weeks. It wouldn't have mattered so much but he didn't know where I lived. Whoops.

It turned out I was pretty good at selling computers (and games) but it was never my plan to stay working there for the long-term and I had been looking for other jobs in computers. And eventually I was asked to attend an interview at the Norwich Brewery Company for a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) placement working in their computer department. I was a little sad to be leaving Brainwave although I did continue to work there on Saturdays for several years afterwards. Looking back at it I suppose I had the best of both worlds, working for a brewery during the week and then selling computer games at the weekend.

Fight For Your Right To Party, Beastie Boys Official video to Peter Gabriels 'Big Time Boops (here to go), Sly & Robbie. YouTube video

Working at Norwich Brewery was very interesting and quite challenging. The computer department was small (only four of us) and my tasks covered pretty much everything. There was data input for the pubs that the brewery owned and supplied (drinks orders), printing reports for the directors on the top floor (on a massive laser printer, the size of two normal chest-freezers), a bit of programming, Lotus 1-2-3, and operations tasks like setting off batch jobs and the like. Whilst on the one year placement (there was the chance of a job at the end of it) I had to visit the Norwich Chamber of Commerce once a week (or was it a month?). The only course they could find for me was Office Practice. I didn't like it one bit and I remember the first day we all sat in the room, in front of the electric type-writers, we were told to remove the covers and I just sat there with my arms crossed. I was the only male on the course and I really didn't see the point of being there. Unfortunately I didn't have choice so eventually gave in and just did what they said. The funny this was, we did an exam at the end of the course and I passed.

There were perks of course. Each person working for the brewery received a monthly 'beer token'. This allowed entry into a small room in the main warehouse which housed a selection of basically anything they sold, from soft drinks, to cans of beer and cider, and, wine. I don't remember their there were spirits (I never saw any, but it was an old building so may have been haunted). Unfortunately I wasn't 18 when I started so I had to make do with coke but as soon as I turned 18 I was able to help myself to 12 cans of Budweiser.. nice! The parties were good too, especially at Christmas. I remember going down into the canteen which was on the lower ground floor and they had brought in barrels of various beer and just filled glass after glass with it. It was quite a sight to see a table completely full with glasses of beer and cider. There was also a rather unfortunate incident just before Christmas when I had been invited do to Strikers at the football ground. I turned up with bags of Christmas presents and the staff kindly put them out the back for me. I had downed so much that I stumbled out of the place to catch my bus home and had made it almost to Castle Meadow before I realised I left my shopping back at the bar. So I trekked all the way back in the rain to get them. The bar staff took one look at me and with a bemused look said 'I wondered where you had gone'. At least it helped me to sober up before getting home.

Still working at One Step Beyond (as it was called then) meant I still kept up with gaming. The Amiga was out and we had a demo machine in the store. The first time we loaded up Star Glider we almost had everyone in the shop stand-still. The music and speech in the intro plus the amazing vector graphics marked the dawn of 16-bit gaming although it was Defender of the Crown which really showed what the Amiga could do. I had already got myself an Atari 520ST as I was still into my 'Ataris' so I wasn't able to experience the power of the blitter, stereo sound, or some of the Amiga-only titles that were wowing the crowds but I was still having fun. Test Drive, Plutos (a game that me, and the OSB Manager Alan, used to play a lot when the shop was quiet), Goldrunner, and, Colonial Conquest was keeping me amused. In fact Colonial Conquest turned into a real surprise. Working at One Step Beyond on Saturdays meant we were allowed to 'borrow' a couple of games as long as we dropped them off early on Monday morning. I had played many Atari ST games and was getting down the ones that I wouldn't normally play. I took home Colonial Conquest and Simon came around for a gaming session. I picked up the game and suggested we gave it a go (although I was already saying it would probably be boring). We must have played that game for hours that night and carried on again on Sunday. Strategy games hadn't really been my cup of tea, I was more into the fast paced arcade shooters but as a two-player, Colonial Conquest became very competitive.

Audio only version of Friday On My Mind (Cool Rap Mix) by Gary Moore. YouTube video. Jack Mix II by Mirage. YouTube video. Star Trekkin' by The Firm. YouTube music video

I held onto my trusty Atari ST during my time at the Brewery, enjoying games like Carrier Command, Buggy Boy, Typhoon Thomas, and Better Dead Then Alien, but I was being seduced by the Amiga and I would have probably have had one if I'd had the money.

I'm not going to cover my Saturdays at One Step Beyond further as it warrants an article in it's own right. It was around this time that my time at the Norwich Brewery Company came to an abrupt halt due to the fact that they completely most of the company and decided to run the administrative functions from the larger Manns brewery in Northampton (they hadn't been brewing beer at Norwich for some time so I guess it was only going to be a matter of time before they moved merged with Manns. I had been working on a new forecasting and ordered system which was due to bring the various functions of the departments into one systems and it had been quite exciting visiting the various parts of the company and learn about the business. They had been impressed with my early progress and took me up to Northampton to meet the computer staff there with a view to having me finish off the project working for Manns. As much as I was tempted, with no guarantee of a job at the end of the project, I decided to look for something else in Norwich.

I applied for many positions and attended several interviews but things just weren't working out of me. As luck would have it, the person from Human Resources at the brewery knew the manager of HR in a local company called Anglian Windows. He set me up with an interview in the growing computer department and off I went. In what I thought was another totally disaster, I had failed to find the offices that the interview was being conducted from and so went home thinking I'd lost another opportunity. Turning up as the brewery the next day, my manager asked how the interview had gone so I confessed that I hadn't made it and got lost. He then spoke to our HR chap who went back to Anglian and after apologising on my behalf, managed to get me a second interview. In some ways this was a good thing as I was now absolutely focused on making the second interview the one that would get me a job. And it worked. I was on my way to the next chapter in my life of computing.

Coming soon, Life Is But A Game, Don't Dream It's Over!

 

Thanks to Steinar Thomas for the use of his Azimuth Tape Alignment Kit image.

Visit his blog at http://retro-spill.blogspot.co.uk/

 

Original article by Gary - April 2006 (revised November 2014)