Nuts and bolts typography

Three weeks ago, I started my new job as a production assistant for Jessica Kingsley Publishing. It’s the first time in a long time (perhaps ever) that I’ve had a job related to what I’ve always thought of as my “real” work – i.e. writing stories and making books.

The transition has been interesting. I’ve learned so much about InDesign in this first stint than I have in six or so years of independent work. Nested styles! GREP! Keyboard shortcuts a-gogo! It’s unbelievable how thorough that program is. You can do everything with it.

Which is why I’m not using it in my own work at the moment.

During the day, I spend a lot of my time typesetting and adding corrections to manuscripts. Now and then I get a brief for a cover, but for the most part what I do is the meat and potatoes of graphic design – balancing margins, making sure that things flow well and don’t look weird. It’s often fiddly and frustrating and I love it.

All this has perhaps made me think about the fundamentals of typography and wondering how exactly the things I take for granted actually work. Take flush justification, for example. It’s been a feature of almost every word processor I’ve ever used (apart from Easi-Amsword that came bundled with my Amstrad CPC 464, that didn’t even have word wrap and made you press return at the end of every line). It’s one of those things that you just take for granted. (Although it should be noted that there’s a trend at the moment for no-frills text editors and I’m not immune. I use iA Writer to write blog posts, but that’s only because Squarespace’s app is borked on iOS. They do all have word wrapping, though…).

It’s only when you take something apart and try and put it back together that you realise just how complex something can be. That being said, the solution is usually quite simple and elegant. I’m still very early in my programming adventures, though, so it usually takes a lot of wrong turns for me to find it. When I get frustrated, I find that I just throw variables together, hoping that they’ll do what I want. They never do, but sometimes the results are quite interesting. Usually, just stepping away from the problem allows the solution to present itself.

Anyway, I was trying to find a way to space a word so that it would fit inside a specifically defined space, with the characters placed in an equidistant and aesthetically pleasing way. This began mainly as a way to make my triangle wave text more regular, but it turns out that it works as a regular flush justification routine as well. It only works one line at a time, though, so you still have to separate the lines of your paragraph manually. It’s like being back on Easi-Amsword… At least until I can work out how to program a word-wrap function.

I still haven’t worked out how to integrate processing into Squarespace, so the example below is embedded from openprocessing.org. Also, I’ve added an animation loop to demonstrate that the characters are evenly spaced, no matter how long the line. Also, I can’t get fonts to embed, so I’ve got to use Courier.

http://www.openprocessing.org/sketch/215471/embed/?width=250&height=100&border=false

Erratic triangle wave text

Another text experiment in Processing using a monospace typeface that makes modulated typography a bit simpler to get your head around.

Processing (and programming generally) hasn’t really stuck before now because I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was learning all this stuff for. Without having a concept or project in mind, there was no reason to learn.

Lately, though, I’ve been learning a bit about music and, in particular, analogue synthesis. I’m interested in the idea of modulating type in the same way that oscillators, filters and LFOs affect sound.

Experimenting with these building blocks is allowing me to get my head around variables, loops and conditionals which perhaps are the functional equivalents of the things I just mentioned. 

This was an attempt to create the equivalent of a triangle wave, much in the same manner as my earlier experiments with sine wave text.

Example of a triangle wave, image taken from Wikipedia
Example of a triangle wave, image taken from Wikipedia

Of course, experimentation being what it is, I didn’t produce the nice regular triangles I had envisaged. Instead, the lines of text veered away from the central path. The technique I used was to switch between the up and down stroke whenever there was a space. In using this technique, I hadn’t taken into account the fact that each word was a different length.

It led to something a bit different, but not intrinsically bad. The example here varies the angle at which the text angles up and down. It’s still hand-coded rather than programmatical, but it feels like the start of a direction I want to go in, which is doing systematic processing of text by code, rather than by hand.

Source code:

// erratic triangle wave text, tomalexander, 16/8/15
PFont lettGothic;
boolean direction = false;
int incre = 3;


void setup(){
lettGothic = createFont("LetterGothicStd-Bold.otf", 12);
textFont(lettGothic);
size(800, 800);
background(255);
fill(0);
smooth();

// The function is done on a line by line basis
// with parameters tacked on the end

triwavetext("The words came out of his mouth in ways he did not fully understand,", 5, 300, 15.0, 345.0, true);
triwavetext("flying this way and that to form collisions of ideas that made", 5, 350, 45.0, 315.0, true);
triwavetext("no sense to anyone but him (and even he couldn't follow most of them.)", 5, 400, 35.0, 325.0, true);
triwavetext("Still, people would sit and listen because there was something about it...", 5, 450, 25.0, 310.0, true);
triwavetext("...something they hadn't heard before. Sometimes that was enough.", 5, 500, 37.0, 323.0, false);
save("triwavetext.png");
}


// The function itself
void triwavetext(String s, int xpos, int ypos, float upangle, float downangle, boolean direction) {

// setting length of string and resetting position to zero
int len = (s.length());
int spos = 0;
float angle = 0.0;

// transformation
pushMatrix();
translate(xpos, ypos);

// main loop
for (int x = 0; x < (len * incre) ; x += incre) {
if ((s.charAt(spos % len)) == ' ') {// check if space
direction = !direction;
if (direction) {
angle = upangle ;
} else {
angle = downangle;
}
translate ((xpos+incre), 0); // move along one character
rotate (radians(angle));
 text((s.charAt(spos % len)), 0, 0 );
} else {
translate ((xpos+incre), 0);
text((s.charAt(spos % len)), 0, 0);
}
spos++;

}
popMatrix();

}

Saturday The 14th

Saturday The 14th is a collection of very short stories, written and published for my mailing list. These four short-short stories take familiar tales and skew them slightly off-centre to show what could have been or what might have happened next.

It was the first item on the list to bear my name, thereby ending the bafflement of some of my unwitting subscribers.

The first story is here. The others may follow, but I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing with all this stuff yet.

The Woodsman At The Door

The woodsman knocked at the door and when the young woman answered, he told her that they must marry.

Having never met him before, the woman was reluctant to say the least.

By way of explanation, the woodsman proudly announced that he had killed the wolf.

“What wolf?” she asked.

He was unspecific, bandying around vague terms like “big” and “bad”.

It was then that the woman noticed the axe in the woodsman’s hand. She was just about to close the door when – eager to prove that he wasn’t just some random stranger – the woodsman asked about her grandmother.

The young woman said that her grandmother was fine. A little under the weather, perhaps, which is why she was going to visit her. She had meant to go yesterday, but had got a little sidetracked with this and that…

“Aha!” the woodsman said. “Your grandmother is not fine! She’s dead!”

The young woman was aghast and, lost in her grief, slammed the door. If she heard the woodsman’s muffled rantings about beds and nighties, she paid no attention to them. So heavy was the weight of her loss that she fell to the floor and, seeking comfort in whatever was close to hand, wrapped herself in her soft scarlet cloak. 

Tom Francis on writing vs programming

I wish I loved anything half as much as Tom Francis loves impenetrable PC games. I bought Gunpoint in a Steam sale and realised that it’s mainly about lightswitches. Still, he’s bang on the money with this observation:

Writing is like having a conversation with someone who can’t reply until you’ve finished.

Programming is like having a conversation with a robot who screams at you if you pause in the wrong place, electrocutes you if you change your mind, and explodes if you ever use the future tense.

And that’s why I don’t experiment with Processing any more.

I Am The Resurrection – Overextended

I re-edited The Stone Roses’ 1989 indie-dance classic to approximately 5 times its original length. CD copies were sent to mailing list subscribers on 24/5/15.

I used Tracktion 4, a DAW that manages to be both free and good. If anyone’s looking for an alternative to Garageband or Audacity, I strongly recommend giving it a whirl.

If you would like to sign up for the mailing list in order to recieve things like this, you can do so for free here.

Launching a mailing list

For the past few months, I’ve been making small things and sending them by post to people I know. It’s been one of the most rewarding creative projects I’ve done in a long time and I’d like to open up the process to others.

If you would like to receive these things, please sign up on the mailing list page and I should be putting something in the post fairly shortly.

There’s no schedule. Sometimes things will go in quick succession, whereas other times there may be gaps of months at a time. Not knowing when things will arrive is part of the fun.

Also, tone will vary wildly but it’s best to think of it as Not Safe For Work (the first mailing was all about swear words).

Albert J Petron

Albert J. Petron worked in a top secret bunker, monitoring the private communications of his fellow citizens and reporting them to his superiors in an un-named intelligence agency. He had no idea if anything actually happened as a result of his reports, but figured he should probably continue filing them if he wanted to keep his job.

He was only allowed out of the bunker one day a year. Ordinarily, he chose to take this on his birthday, but as this fell in December, he usually spent it being cold and miserable. This year, however, Albert didn’t take his one special day in the bleak midwinter and waited until early April.

As he stepped out through the blast doors, Albert he felt a light breeze run through his hair and caught the faint scent of apple blossom. Taking a deep breath of fresh air, he turned to face the sun, the light of which – magnified through his coke-bottle glasses – concentrated into two white-hot beams and burned his fucking eyes out.

Let Rip!™

Sent to mailing list subscribers on 23rd March 2015.

The first mailing consisted of a letter and three pieces of coloured, perforated paper. The conceit was that these were samples of an abandoned product created by the 3M Corporation, which allowed people to swear without actually having to say obscenities out loud.

Text of the letter:

Enclosed are three samples of a rare, discontinued produced made by the 3M Company in the early 1980s. Let Rip(TM) allows people to vent their frustrations in situations when swearing out loud would be impossible or inappropriate.

3M had achieved massive success with their Post-It range, but management felt that the company was in danger of becoming stagnant and sought to shake up their image with something more in keeping with the “funky-junky 80s”. After an accelerated period of research and development, they settled on Let Rip(TM) as a crossover product between consumer and business sectors that would transform them into a stationery powerhouse.

In truth, Let Rip(TM) was nothing more than a perforated sheet of paper with swearwords printed on it, but focus groups responded favourably to the sensation of “tearing one off” and the product was soft-launched in test markets such as New Mexico, Oregon and Tasmania.

The product was sold in several different varieties, with different colours used to indicate the saltiness of the language. Green contained very mild exclamations, suitable for children and church- goers, yellow was the middle tier and displayed the sort of mild profanities one might find in a PG movie or late-night network television, while the blue edition used strong swearing suitable only for adults. (Rumours persist of an ultra-profane purple edition, but there is no reliable evidence that it ever really existed. Many suspect it may have been an office joke within 3M which has since transformed into urban legend.)

Ultimately, it was this attempt to appeal to all bases that proved to be Let Rip(TM)’s downfall. Although it was never intended for sale to children, the blue edition provoked the ire of parents’ groups and rather than create controversy, 3M dropped the entire product line overnight. To this day there is no mention of Let Rip(TM) in any of 3M’s corporate history.

Packs of Let Rip(TM) still exist here and there, however, and it remains a cult favourite amongst stationery buffs. The included samples are believed to be some of the rare first-run originals, before the manufacturing process was perfected. Hopefully, the occasional rough edge or incomplete perforation will not prevent you from putting them to good use.

I sent these out to people I knew. They were my first (unwitting) subscribers and reaction was mixed. I hadn’t told many people about what I was doing and had I done so, it might have eased their confusion.

But I stayed silent.

A Little Off The Top

My story A Little Off The Top was published in issue 32/33 of the Science Fiction anthology series Postscripts. Lush hardback copies are available to order from PS Publishing.

This is the little introduction bit I had to write for the beginning of the story:

“I’ve always liked the idea that medieval barbers used to perform surgery,” writes Tom Alexander, “and I suppose ‘A Little Off The Top’ speculates as to how that might have evolved, had the practice continued. Drinking heavily in my twenties probably inspired aspects of the story as well, so maybe it wasn’t a complete waste of time.”

Tom Alexander has several writing credits that he doesn’t like to mention in polite company. His latest work is an as-yet untitled memoir about the Amstrad PCW. 

What a tit.

The Underground Biography

.map {
width:100%;
height:100%;
}

https://tom-alexander.squarespace.com/s/ol.js

var pixelProjection = new ol.proj.Projection({
code: ‘pixel’,
units: ‘pixels’,
extent: [0, 0, 2012, 1423]
});
var map = new ol.Map({
controls: ol.control.defaults().extend([
new ol.control.FullScreen()
]),

interactions: ol.interaction.defaults().extend([
new ol.interaction.DragRotateAndZoom()
]),
layers: [
new ol.layer.Image({
source: new ol.source.ImageStatic({
url: ‘https://tom-alexander.squarespace.com/s/mytubemap49.svg&#8217;,
imageSize: [2012, 1423],
projection: pixelProjection,
imageExtent: pixelProjection.getExtent()
})
})
],
target: ‘map’,
view: new ol.View({
projection: pixelProjection,
center: ol.extent.getCenter(pixelProjection.getExtent()),
zoom: 1
})
});

Click+drag to move, mouse wheel to zoom, Alt+Shift+click/drag to rotate. Full screen recommended. 

Notes

The Underground Biography is a series of interconnected personal anecdotes based on and around the London Underground. It is a development and expansion of an earlier typographical piece called Northern Line, which had a more straightforward timeline (although the branching structure is perhaps used more effectively).

I have been a life-long resident of London and have many memories connected to the tube. It was only when I started putting what I thought was going to be placeholder text into the design that I realised just how much of my life has been spent underground. Each line inspired a different memory and seemed to flow very easily onto the page.

Although it wasn’t intentional, the themes of love and sex come up time and again. Perhaps it’s because of trains and tunnels, either way it struck me as sort of funny. For a while, I was toying with the idea of calling it “Lay-Lines”, but I didn’t have enough related anecdotes for every branch of the network. Call it a work in progress.

The initial mapping happened very quickly, but there’s been a lot of tweaking since then. The process of writing to fill a particular amount of space (combined with a desire to make station names match up with their approximate location on the real London tube map) meant there was a lot of editing, tweaking of curves and minutes adjustments to kerning. There are still lots of rough edges but it’s at least in a state where I could leave it alone for a while.

The other delay was finding the right presentation method. The up-down-all-around nature of the text makes it difficult to read when it’s locked to one orientation (as it would be as a regular image on a computer screen). I considered turning it into a spoken word / moving image piece, but it (or I) felt too self-conscious.

What I really wanted was for the reader to be able to explore the map in their own way and thought that being able to drag, rotate and zoom around the text would be the best method to accomplish this. I’m not really a programmer, but figured there would be a simple method to accomplish this in a web page. After all, Google does it all the time in their maps, so how hard could it be?

I soon found out. One of the problems with not being a programmer is that when you want something programmed you don’t necessarily know where to start. I tried Processing for a while, thinking that I could use the processing.js library to put it on the web. I could see that this was a roundabout method, but Processing seemed geared to interactive visuals and I knew at least a little bit about how it works. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and while I was able to pan, rotate and zoom the image, I couldn’t get all three things working at the same time.

I also tried timeline based systems like Hype and Adobe Edge Animate because I’m more comfortable with a GUI and a timeline than I am with a blank code window. Again, I could get some of the elements working, but not all of them at once and not in a manner that was satisfactory.

Eventually, I found OpenLayers 3, which is a Javascript library for open-source mapping on the internet. After a lot of Googling and consulting a Javascript reference book I bought, I had a version that worked well enough. This tends to be how my relationship with the technical side of creativity works – I learn just enough to do the task at hand and no more. It leads to a lot of frustration.

More pertinently, the Underground Biography was the start of a distinct phase in which I explored more personal themes through a combination of typography, design and non-fiction writing.

Other things worth noting while we’re on the subject: it was all laid out in Illustrator, using text on paths and exported as an SVG. It uses the P22 Underground typeface, which was purchased from Typekit. Obviously, there’s a massive debt to Harry Beck and his successors, who designed the tube map, as well as Edward Johnston and subsequent typographers.

The tube map is always changing and the version this work is based on doesn’t exist any more. The Circle Line now has a terminus at Hammersmith, but didn’t when the events detailed here took place.

Thanks to Tim & Tom at Codecircus for their technical help.

Hands on creation

I’m enjoying messing around with sound at the moment. I have a Korg Monotribe and a Kaoss Pad 3, neither of which is quite enough to make a full track on its own, but together form something which is just enough to create something half-way interesting. They’re both limited in different ways, but I’m finding that’s making me think about ways to get around those limits and sometimes make assets out of them.

The thing that perhaps I like about it is that both of them have a tactile element – knobs to tweak, sliders to fiddle with and the hypnotic swirl of lights on the KP3’s main touch pad. There’s something about the hands-on experience that doesn’t seem to come through in software, or just sitting at the computer.

I’d like to be able to replicate this experience in other areas, particularly graphics and text, but can’t seem to find the tools to do it. I have a horrible feeling that I’ll have to build them myself, which is offputting because all I really want to do is have a muck around.

FOUR FOUR

This is a thing what I wrote in TWINE. Consider it a prototype rather than anything you would want to sit down and play. The point is to try and tell a story within very limited constraints. Each section uses four four-letter words to tell the story or present options to the reader. 

This version is really just an exercise in writing, in order to see whether the short word count is possible and/or effective. While it’s by no means a masterpiece, there were some interesting discoveries along the way, with THUG becoming a surprisingly endearing character. 

Eventually I’d like to make the interface more dynamic and time-based, so the reader has to choose their options in time to a 4/4 kick drum, which will increase and decrease to create space and urgency. 

This version has 16 “squares”, which is 4×4. I think the next generation (if there is one) would be 4x4x4 and have 64 pages.

Life In Music

Life In Music is the audiobiography of Tommy Touiou – producer, performer and music industry personality for the past fifty years. In this episode, he recalls the perils of fame and the precocity of talent.

Between The Frames

This is a test book knocked up in a couple of hours to try out some ideas for an experimental comic. All the artwork used is from the Steve Ditko Comics Weblog (apart from the pencil scrawls on pages 7-8, which are all mine). 

There isn’t any story here, but the idea of cutout panels is interesting. I liked the notion of giving things new contexts on the other side of the page, or using holes to reframe stories.

There’s also an explicit use of frames like those in a gallery. The idea of connectivity between them has a kind of sinister power all of its own. They are disparate characters, thrown together by circumstances beyond their control, particularly when talking about portraits by different artists from different places and regions. A collection making connections by being placed together has potential. I’m not sure what the communication between a Warhol, a Vermeer and a Kandinsky would consist of, but it’s interesting to speculate on. 

The other thing I like is the page just of text from word balloons. Blambot.com  really can’t compare to that lettering done by hand. Unfortunately it seems to be a dead art form.

Authorland

Buy from Amazon UK, Amazon US or your 'local' Amazon by searching the Kindle Store.
Buy from Amazon UK, Amazon US or your ‘local’ Amazon by searching the Kindle Store.

Fiction

128 pages, approx.

£1.99 / €2.60 / $2.99 from Amazon Kindle stores

Tilda Fitzgerald and Robert Madison are strangers with a common goal. Each of them wants a quiet, uneventful journey to Haiti aboard the steamer Chantilly Lace. Standing in their way are dipsomaniacs, OCD clean freaks and violent white supremacists – and that’s just the members of the ship’s crew.

Things go from bad to worse when the ship is thrown off course, forcing the disparate group of stragglers to band together in order to stay alive. Little do they know that a powerful figure is lurking in the shadows, toying with their fates in ways they can barely comprehend. As their adventure continues, they face incredible danger, meet unbelievable peril and spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about pineapples.

A pacey mixture of action and comedy, “Authorland” is a metaphysical ripping yarn about the nature of stories and those who tell them.

Background

“Authorland” was written for the International 3 Day Novel competition, the masochistic writing marathon. That draft was shortlisted, but didn’t win. This draft has been re-worked and polished a bit. I originally published it under the name “Dave Frek”, for some reason.

A couple of years on, I still think it’s a good read. It knows its own flaws and by the end, makes virtues of them.

Swiss Army Joke

Have been working on the #swissarmyjoke for two months now. It features includes nine (9) setups for a single punchline.

Just like a real Swiss Army Knife, the #swissarmyjoke is flexible for all situations, but I will concede that some of the setups have more obvious uses than others.

But you never know when you might need the comedy equivalent of that thing you use to get stones out of horses’ hooves! #swissarmyjoke

 

What did one magician say to the other? #swissarmyjoke

What did one prostitute say to the other? #swissarmyjoke

What did one skateboarder say to the other? #swissarmyjoke

What did one bridge player say to the other? #swissarmyjoke

What did one maker of sugared breakfast cereals say to the other? #swissarmyjoke

What did one New Zealand tank say to the other? #swissarmyjoke

What did one close friend of the Bristol musician born Adrian Thaws say to the other regarding their mutual acquaintance? #swissarmyjoke

What did one politician say to the other when asked what the best part of the 1987 Tory party conference magic show was? #swissarmyjoke

What did one out-of-touch South African who had only ever known the band’s name written down say to the other when asking about the state of Marc Bolan’s music career? #swissarmyjoke

 

You can win a free #swissarmyjoke licence by creating a new setup (Non-exclusive, nontransferable. No cash alternative). 

The Knife Salesman

I wasn’t in the market for a knife, but he convinced me.

First, he showed me how sharp it was. He sliced off one of his fingers just as swiftly as he might chop a carrot in two. I was surprised by his actions, startled by the spurting blood, but intrigued by his patter. He then proved the blade’s sturdiness and… pointiness? (I’m not expert in these things) by stabbing himself in the stomach.

“As you can see,” he said, “the construction is so strong you can make multiple intrusions.” This he demonstrated by stabbing himself five or six more times in rapid succession. He was just about to illustrate the keenness of the blade by slitting his own throat that I told him there was no need and that I would take one. He smiled and we went to do the deal.

Now I’ve got this knife sitting on the desk in front of me.

I wonder what I’ll use it for.

SHIFT-EXTRA-EXIT

p.strad {
font-family: “Courier New”, Courier, monospace;
color: Lime;
}

My mum’s name was Mum, my dad’s name was Malcolm and his new wife’s name was Jessica. Every other weekend, I would leave our council flat in Hackney and go to Malcolm and Jessica’s place in Kent. It was a converted farmhouse called The Gables. They didn’t own all of it, just a large flat that made up 1/8th, but it had a driveway you could roll a skateboard down and about an acre’s worth of garden in the back. In addition, they had all the luxuries we couldn’t afford at home: a colour tv, a video, a sodastream, one of those hanging paper lampshades from Habitat.

And an Amstrad PCW.

You’ll hear all sorts of eulogies for the Spectrum and the BBC Micro, but very few for the Amstrad PCW. It occupied a particular space in the history of computers in the UK – ubiquitous and perhaps underloved. If you were middle class in the late 80s and you couldn’t afford an Apple Mac, you probably had an Amstrad PCW. It was cheap and self-contained. £399 got you a computer, a screen and a printer – everything you needed to word process, which was what most people (adults, anyway) thought computing was.

The PCW had a green-screen monitor, because Alan Sugar was savvy enough to know that shades of green were more high-tech than simple black and white. It used 3″ discs and as far as I know was the only computer that did so. The fact that the drives were mounted sideways seemed very cool to me. The non-standard media meant that to this day there are still boutique companies that specialise on transferring files from this format to something more useful – once 3.5″ floppies, now probably a USB stick.

The PCW was sold entirely as an office machine, but that wasn’t to say that fun couldn’t be had on one. That depended, of course, on what your definition of fun was. Malcolm once told me that he really enjoyed putting a load of numbers into a spreadsheet and then just playing around with them. I thought he was insane and would harass him to get some games. You know, real games.

Eventually, he relented and came home with a large grey box with colourful graphics on the front.

SOME ADVENTURE, ver 1.245.6

© Infocom, 1985

You are standing in the sitting room of Malcolm and Jessica’s house in The Gables. The room is comfortably furnished, with a large sofa in the middle, facing a TV and VCR. At the other end of the room is an antique desk with a computer on it.

>EXAMINE DESK

The desk is incredibly untidy. Every square inch of its surface is covered in miscellany – notepads, scraps of paper, at least three old mugs (more may be lurking under the mess) and an overflowing ashtray. The main focal point of the desk is an Amstrad PCW word processor that sits in the middle of this bonsai scrapyard.

>EXAMINE PCW

The word processor consists of three components. The screen, the keyboard and the printer. The screen also houses the main cpu and other gubbins. The screen usually displays 8 shades of green, but is currently dark as the computer is switched off. Two cables run from the back of the screen. One goes to the 9-pin dot matrix printer that sits at the back of the desk, a corrugated spool of paper running out of the back. The other lead goes to the keyboard on the desk in front of you. As well as the coffee and ash stains dotted over it, the ink on the keycaps is starting to wear off, most notably the ‘e’. This indicat s that it’s cl arly s n a lot of us .

The desk is incredibly untidy.

>TIDY DESK

You sort of resent doing this, as it’s not really your place to clear up someone else’s mess. Still, it’s got to be done if you’re ever going to work your way through this. In truth, “tidying” is nothing more than gathering the scattered papers and putting them into one slightly more coherent pile, which you then dump on the floor.

You discover another cup, half full of cold coffee, a packet of cigarettes, a ballpoint pen and a grey box.

>TAKE CIGARETTES

You’re not old enough to smoke. Besides, the packet is empty.

>EXAMINE PEN

It’s a blue Bic biro. You try writing with it and while no ink is transferred onto the paper, a good amount spills onto your fingertips. On closer examination, you see that there’s a leak in the barrel. Logic tells you to throw it away. Instead, you put it back where you found it.

>EXAMINE BOX

The box is slightly smaller than a sheet of A4 paper and roughly one-and-a-half inches thick. Constructed from shiny grey card, it gives the impression of being crafted to a high standard. The front reads LEATHER GODDESSES OF PHOBOS and has pictures of planets and stars, but doesn’t really tell you much about it. You do notice, however, some text in the bottom left corner that boasts “3 exciting playing modes: Tame, Suggestive, Lewd”. Clearly this is some sort of game, but you have no idea what a Lewd playing mode is. As you pick up the box, you can feel things shifting around inside and there’s a definite clunk as you turn it over to look at the back. There’s text here.

>READ TEXT

The text reads:

“And now…the next exciting episode of humanoids in space!

“How did you, a regular at Joe’s Bar in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, end up on a Martian moon? Can you prevent the hideous space creatures from abducting the naked heiress? Why does scratch ‘n’ sniff #2 smell so familiar? How many uses can you find for a rubber hose? Is it easy to remove a brass bikini? Is it hard to outsmart a robotoid sumo wrestler? Can you stop the Leather Goddesses’ fiendish plan to turn all Earthlings into sex slaves?

“Learn the answers to these burning questions in LEATHER GODDESSES OF PHOBOS, Infocom’s racy spoof of 1930’s pulp fiction. But first, a word from our sponsor:

“Why put up with only one playing mode, when you can have three! That’s right, three! So whether your tastes run to Tame, Suggestive, or Lewd, LEATHER GODDESSES OF PHOBOS can satisfy you!”

>OPEN BOX

The front of the box opens like the cover of a book, revealing the contents inside. Inside the box is a black disc, a comic, a pair of 3D glasses and a scratch-n-sniff card.

>EXAMINE DISC

It’s a black, 3-inch floppy disc, labelled “Leather Goddesses of Phobos – Game Disc”.

>TAKE DISC

Taken.

>CLOSE BOX

Closed.

>PUT DISC INTO PCW

You push the disc into the drive and it sits in with a satisfying “clunk”. Nothing happens.

>SWITCH ON PCW

You press the power switch at the bottom-left of the screen. There’s a whirring noise and the little red light by the disc drive starts blinking on and off as data is accessed. The screen comes to life, slowly blooming into brilliant shades of green and letters start appearing on the VDU. Eventually, the boot sequence completes and the game is loaded.

>PLAY GAME

I don’t know how to do that. There isn’t a joystick connected to the computer.

>USE KEYS TO PLAY GAME

Your fingers settle into the natural playing position you’ve learned since your first ZX Spectrum: Q and A for up and down, O and P for left and right, with the thumb hovering over the space bar that will inevitably be used to fire bullets, throw coconuts or swing your sword. You await the first level and the stream of enemies that will surely come with it.

Nothing happens.

>WAIT

Nothing happens.

>WAIT

Even nothinger happens.

>PRESS SPACE

Space, by its very definition, is nothingness. How am I meant to press it?

>PRESS SPACE BAR

Success! By pressing the button, there’s a definite sense of action on-screen (information on the VDU is preceded by “++”)

This:

++Leather Goddesses of Phobos, by Infocom.
++_

Changes to this:

++Leather Goddesses of Phobos, by Infocom
++ _

Heady stuff.

>MASH KEYS

++qap p aspaopopoa aaaopaqaaqpoqa aoq

You press enter at the end of the line, more by accident than design. The following pops up on screen:

++I didn’t understand that. Could you phrase
++it a different way?

This doesn’t seem to be a game in any way that you appreciate. No graphics, no sound effects, not even a high score table.

>TYPE HELP

++If you’re in a bind, maps and hint booklets
++are available from your “dealer,” or via
++mail order with the form that came in your
++LEATHER GODDESSES OF PHOBOS package.

Not very helpful. You hit the keys a few more times, then decide that this probably isn’t your cup of tea.

MALCOLM enters the room.

>SAY HELLO

Who do you want to say hello to?

>SAY HELLO TO MALCOLM

[You used the word “hello” in a way that I don’t understand]

>HELLO MALCOLM

[The proper way to talk to characters in the story is PERSON, HELLO]

>MALCOLM, HELLO

“Hello, Sausage.”

>MALCOLM, HOW DO YOU PLAY THE GAME?

[You used the word “game” in a way that I don’t

understand]

>YOU AND ME BOTH

[I didn’t understand that. Perhaps you could rephrase it?]

>MALCOLM, PLAY GAME

Malcolm looks at the computer. “I was about to go and get the paper,” he says, “but I suppose I could play for a while.”

Sitting down at the desk, Malcolm lights up a cigarette and starts reading off the screen. He begins typing commands and is soon lost in the game.

>MALCOLM, I WANTED TO PLAY

Malcolm’s eyebrows furrow, but it’s difficult to tell whether it’s because he didn’t understand you or because he’s stuck in the game.

>WAIT

A few tapped keys. One cigarette is stubbed out and another lit. Essentially, nothing changes.

>LOOK

You are standing in the sitting room of Malcolm and Jessica’s house in The Gables. The room is comfortably furnished, with a large sofa in the middle, facing a TV and VCR. At the other end of the room is an antique desk with a computer and the LEATHER GODDESSES OF PHOBOS box on it. Malcolm is sitting at the desk, using the computer. There is a pile of paper on the floor.

>TAKE BOX

Taken.

>SIT ON SOFA

You sit on the sofa. It’s not as comfy as it looks.

>OPEN BOX

The front of the box opens like the cover of a book, revealing the contents inside. Inside the box is a comic, a pair of 3D glasses and a scratch-n-sniff card.

>SNIFF CARD

It smells like card.

>SCRATCH AND SNIFF CARD

Yes. That’s what it is.

>SCRATCH AND SNIFF SCRATCH AND SNIFF CARD

You need to be more specific.

>EXAMINE SCRATCH AND SNIFF CARD

The card has seven differently coloured circled patches, each with a number written in a stylised manner that is supposed to indicate futurism.

>SCRATCH AND SNIFF PANEL 1 OF SCRATCH AND SNIFF CARD

After using your fingernail to tickle the first panel, you press your nostrils to the card. There’s definitely a scent there – sort of sweet, kind of familiar, but impossible to place.

>SCRATCH AND SNIFF PANEL 3 OF SCRATCH AND SNIFF CARD

Another scent, different from the first in that it has synthetically spicy undertones. Like the other scent, however, it’s just as impossible to tell what the smell scientists had in mind when they concocted it.

>SCRATCH AND SNIFF PANEL 2

You need to be more specific.

>DROP CARD.

Dropped.

>READ COMIC

The bright cover of the comic book reads:”THE ADVENTURES OF LANE MASTODON” and from the pulpy quality of the art you can tell that this is an affectionate homage to Flash Gordon and other space opera types.

When you open the comic, however, you’re confronted by a mess of red and green blurred lines. While you can make out shapes and words, trying to read the comic is impossible.

You close the comic and feel a slight headache coming on.

>WEAR 3D GLASSES

[First taking them]

You are now wearing 3D glasses. Everything is tinted with red and green.

>READ COMIC

Now that you have the glasses on, the text and pictures form a coherent image, with elements seeming to pop in and out of the page. The images may be deep, but the story is not. As suspected, it’s a campy pulp story with a few bawdy elements dropped in here and there. No great shakes, but a lot more entertaining that typing random words into an uncooperative computer.

The whole thing takes about five minutes to read. It has space ships and aliens and laser guns in it (as well as ladies in bras) and you wonder why they didn’t make a proper game for it. It could be pretty good. Better than what they did, anyway. You wonder why anyone would bother “playing” a game like that. It seems to have none of the fun bits of computer games – action, explosions, speed – and none of the stuff you enjoy about writing stories – choosing what happens, freedom of imagination. If anything, it’s like doing someone else’s homework for them. No fun at all. What does someone get from that?

>LOOK AT MALCOLM

He’s still sitting there, utterly enthralled by the screen.

>MALCOLM, WHY ARE YOU PLAYING THAT

He’s still sitting there, utterly enthralled by the screen.

>MALCOLM, CAN I TURN ON THE TELLY?

He’s still sitting there, utterly enthralled by the screen.

>TURN ON TV

You get up from the sofa and switch on the TV. An image fades in on screen. It’s Jim Bowen, standing by a dartboard. He doesn’t look well.

>LOOK AT JIM BOWEN

His skin is mottled in a shifting palette of reds and greens. Just looking at him makes you feel a little ill, too.

>TAKE OFF 3D GLASSES

Bowen looks a little more human. It’s disappointing that you’ve missed the intro sequence to “Bullseye”, because the cartoon at the beginning is the only good bit, especially Bully flying on the dart. If only they made the whole programme like that, it would be loads better. Your eyes flick back to the LEATHER GODDESSES OF PHOBOS box and it occurs to you that adults really don’t know how to make good stuff. It’s frustrating, but you don’t know what to do about it.

Resigned to your fate, you sit down on the sofa and decide to stick it out until Dempsey & Makepeace comes on. You watch a man from Preston try to win a caravan, disturbed only occasionally by the tapping of keys and the spark of a lighter.

================GAME OVER======================

You scored 8 of a possible 72 points.

Would you like to Restart, Restore or Abandon the game?

>ABANDON

If gaming wasn’t going to happen on the PCW, then I had to look at other activities in order to get my computer fix at the weekend. I had a computer of my own, but my Amstrad was a CPC and ran on tapes. This had a disc drive that seemed impossibly quick. Given that you didn’t have to wait ten minutes to load up a program, I was itching to make the most of it.

I had a look at Locoscript, the word processor that came free with every machine, but something about it seemed off putting. For a start, it booted into a complex file tree system that seemed more like a database than writing a story. It seemed to complicate something that was supposed to be simple. So, I carried on looking.

Malcolm told me about Desktop Publishing, where you could make your own magazines and newspapers. This was definitely of interest to me. I was an avid user of stencils and Letraset, creating my own comics and magazines with short print-runs (often of one copy). The idea that I could do this on the computer, without having to rely on my dodgy pencil hand or inability to get all the words on the right line could be exactly what I was looking for.

As was usually the case with any activity with Malcolm, there was a distinct lag between suggestion and execution. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that I only saw him every other weekend, but a large percentage of it probably comes from the fact that there were always other interests, other hobbies and other purchases to be made. One weekend would be all about archery, the next fortnight model trains and then over the Easter holidays we would scour the sports shops of Kent and Sussex looking for a junior pitcher’s glove so that I could join Malcolm in his newfound enthusiasm for baseball. 

One of them was a game – a real game – that not only had proper graphics and sound to sate my shallow tendencies, but also starred one of my personal idols (albeit in low-res, slightly tubby form).

The 1986 Batman game was an isometric puzzle-platform game created by Jon Ritman and Bernie Drummond and published by Ocean Software. It had graphics, which meant is was a proper game, but enough logical dexterity was required to mean that Malcolm enjoyed it, too. The conceit of the game was that the Batcave had been over-run with monsters and you had to retrieve the six parts of the Batmobile to make yours escape. In addition, you had to collect your bat-belt, bat-boots, bat-pack and bat-bag, which bestowed various abilities, such as being able to jump or pick up objects.

I never managed to escape from the Bat-cave. That game was hard, requiring pixel-perfect timing in order to traverse each room. A single touch from an enemy meant death. Walking on the wrong part of the floor meant death. Brushing against an electrified piece of the scenery with no marks to distinguish it from any normal piece of the scenery meant death. The obstacles were numerous, but the greatest obstacle was my own lack of confidence.

The game was played using the cursor keys marked ←↑↓→ to move in the diagonal directions ⬊⬈⬉⬋. This required a mental disconnection between the brain and the fingertips so that the conscious mind couldn’t interfere with what the digits were doing. The fingers knew instinctively which direction was which and as long as the little Batman kept moving, where wasn’t a problem. As soon as he stopped for a moment, however, my brain would purge all knowledge of which way was which and I would become unsure as to which key would guide my chubby caped crusader in a north-easterly direction. Both up and right seemed equally plausible and I would find myself gripped by indecision. It didn’t matter that I had pressed the right key seconds ago. I now had no memory of which way was which and in a game as punishing as Batman, the slightest mistake would almost certainly mean doom. So I would sit there, hunched over the keyboard, betting my life on a 50/50 chance, red or black at the casino.

To make matters worse, Batman had no patience. If you stopped moving for anything more than a few seconds, the little figure on screen would fold his arms, tap his foot and look directly out of the screen at you, indicating that you should shake a leg and get on with it.

Logic dictates that I should have chosen the right key at least half the time. As I recall it, though, I went the wrong way and plunged to my death nearly every time. Whether this innate lack of proper direction was a learned or genetic trait, I’ll never know for sure, but amidst all these distractions – the bike, the computer, the search for the batmobile – I hadn’t picked up on the fact that Malcolm didn’t go to work any more.

Although ours was an every other weekend and a portion of the school holidays type of arrangement, the difference was clear to see. While the most of the things remained the same – the house, the TV, the soda-stream – all the things that mattered changed. Or maybe they didn’t. When you’re a kid, it’s difficult to see what’s happening in the lives of adults – strange, inexplicable creatures that they are – and on reflection it’s possible that what seems like a bolt from the blue was probably a long time coming.

That’s what happened with Jessica. I was surprised when a letter arrived from her, telling me that she’d left Malcolm, but when I thought about it, it made sense. Things had been bad there for a long time and even though I probably wasn’t very nice to her most of the time, she had done what she could to shield me from most of the unpleasantness. Maybe Malcolm did, too, but he was less aware of what was wrong than everyone else. When the issue of Jessica leaving came up, all he said was “I suppose you know about…” and that was that.

The weekend visits continued, but they became less regular and less fun. I stopped bringing friends along with me. Even if they had wanted to come, I wouldn’t have wanted to expose them to what was happening down at the Gables, or what was happening to Malcolm. Besides, there was something I liked about the fact it was just me and him. Even though a lot of times it wasn’t fun, it still felt special that it was the two of us together. We were a duo, although not that dynamic. The house was still the same in many ways, with the VCR and the PCW, but aside from those three-lettered things there were definite signs that all was not well. The hazards didn’t compare to those in the Batcave. There were no bionic dogs or electrified floors, but instead rotting food and smouldering cigarettes. Not as exciting, but more real, more scary.

As time went on, Jessica – quite reasonably – stopped paying for a house she didn’t live in and Malcolm had to leave.

Because faith in one’s parents is the last vestige of childhood and it’s terribly difficult to let go of, whether you’re 8, 18 or 80. Of course we all learn at some point that our parents are just people, with all the fallibility, fallacies and failures as us. Perhaps, though, this insight doesn’t come all at once. There’s a threshold that needs to be broken in order for the truth to out and maybe we have some sort of limited choice as to when this is reached. There are some truths that we know and understand before we are ready to deal with.

I knew that Malcolm was unreliable and had a flexible relationship with reality. On some level I knew this to be a fact, but on another I wasn’t yet ready to deal with it in any real way. I told myself that it was because it was the right thing to think the best of people, but that obscured a more horrible and tender truth.

He was my dad and I loved him.

It felt horrible to confess that. I knew that he had hurt my mum, my sister and now Jessica, but I didn’t really know why and how. Loving him felt like a betrayal, so I buried it deep and feigned indifference. But in my heart, I thought that he would get it together and that somehow things would be good again.

Me being me, I constructed elaborate fantasies out of this faith. I would calculate the missed weeks of pocket money owed by him and, sure that he would pay them one day and I would be able to afford some of that glorious, unattainable equipment advertised in my computer mags.

(He had also promised to buy me a car when I was 17, but I think I knew even as the promise was made that it was never going to happen.)

Of course it didn’t happen and as time went on I became less and less interested in him paying back my pocket money and more and more concerned with whether he was alive or dead and whether anyone would tell me.

In the end, we spent more than a decade out of touch.

And then a friend of the family told me that Malcolm had been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing treatment. He said he wasn’t expecting anything from me or my sister, but that he felt that we should know. After a lot of umming and ahhing, I got the phone number from the friend and called him.

Hearing his voice was weird. There he was, on the other end of the phone, just like a real person. I asked how he was doing. He said fine. The doctors had given him the all clear on the cancer. I said that was good. He was sorry for all the things he had done wrong over the years. He said he was trying again and just wanted to have some contact. I said I understood, but that I wasn’t sure how much of a relationship I was ready for. Ten years was a long time. We would have to take it slowly. But we thought that was OK. We had plenty of time.

Except we didn’t.

He called me some weeks later. That pissed me off. I had been very clear that I wanted to be in control of this process. Perhaps it was unreasonable, but I felt I was owed it after a couple of decades wondering whether he was alive or dead. It was petty and maybe even spiteful, but I felt it was earned. Besides, it was a saturday morning and I was spending it with my new girlfriend and the last thing I wanted to was to have to deal with him.

We made stilted conversation for a while. I did would I could to make it as stilted as possible. Rather than say, “this isn’t a good time – can I call you back”, I acted haughty and passive-aggressive. We talked the film review website I was working for. He said it was interesting, because it used PHP and he preferred using Microsoft’s ASP.NET protocol. I really didn’t know anything about it, but thought that he could perhaps have mentioned my writing. By the end of the conversation, I was pretty pissed off.

“Unbelievable,” I said as I hung up the phone and got back into bed. Ten years and all he wants to talk about is programming languages.

I didn’t call him back. I didn’t get back in touch. I didn’t explain why I was upset. I just withdrew from him. Not because I was hurt, but just because I could.

It was the last time I ever spoke to him.

He died in a nursing home in Cheshire. At first I assumed he was there because of the cancer, but after going up there in order to sort out his things I discovered that the story, inevitably, wasn’t that simple. It wasn’t the cancer that killed him. In fact, he’d never had cancer in the first place. While he did have serious health problems – his diabetes had developed into coeliac disease and there were all sorts of intestinal issues that affected his day to day life – cancer was never even on his radar. Maybe he thought it was easier to relate than what he really had. Mum told me later that it wasn’t the first time he’d said he had cancer, with the motives for why he’d done it then being just as opaque as the more recent fantasy. There was plenty really wrong with him, though, as evidenced by the amount of medication my aunt and I found in his small, poky flat. Box after box of tablets, unopened and unused, dating back weeks and weeks. I don’t know why he didn’t take them, but it seemed to me like a very deliberate, very slow way of punishing himself.

We had his estate to deal with, as well as the results of the post-mortem. Cause of death was attributed to asphyxiation by blood and vomit, caused by the chronic stomach issues he was dealing with and that had been left untreated.

We sifted through his things. There were a number of cameras. I checked the digital ones for exposures and all I could see were single shots of the very same room I was standing in. There were also two laptops. One had a trackpad that worked, but the keyboard was broken. The other had a working keyboard, but no pointing device. Two halves that didn’t quite make a whole.

I found his passport and although I know passport pictures never look like the person, it was still a shock to see. He looked like an old man. I suppose by that point he was. Even if he was still comparatively young, he had perhaps seen too much and done too little.

When the business of the funeral and cremation was done with, I thought that there wouldn’t be much difference. After all, I had been living without him for most of my life, so what difference did it make? At least I knew where he was now.

But the difference was marked. Whereas before there was always the possibility of reconnection, now there was none. I wasn’t going to be able to let him have it, nor would we be able to work out a differences and come to an understanding. What was unresolved was going to remain so, with an utter sense of finality.

Without the possibility of him ever coming back into my life, it was up to me to come up with some sort of conclusion, to find some sort of peace with it al. Writing this has been part of the process. Perhaps not the end, because feelings are constantly in flux, but at least a way to put down a marker and signify that perhaps it’s time to move on to a new chapter.

I don’t have children of my own. I have no way of knowing what sort of father I would be, but I’ve probably reached a point where I’ve exorcised enough of my demons to realise that I would probably not be exactly the same as Malcolm. The mistakes I’d make would probably be my own. I have no way of knowing if that’s a good thing or not, but perhaps now I’m a little more willing to find out.

In IT, there’s a concept known as the Three-Fingered Salute – a combination of keys that will reset a machine, flush the memory and allow it to start up again. Unlike pulling the plug, which can corrupt the memory or perhaps fry a processor, it’s a reasonably safe way of starting again and sometimes unavoidable when you get stuck in a loop. One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s possible, perhaps even necessary, to perform these every now and again. Sometimes you lose things, but the clean slate you gain is usually worth the price you pay.

SHIFT

EXTRA

EXIT

I Am A Philistine

I am a philistine.

I went to the opera with a friend. I had never been before, but I know that people’s first reaction to opera tends to be one of two things. They either love it instantly or they do not. The second group may learn to appreciate it, but they will never truly love it.

I know this because I have seen “Pretty Woman”.

I am a philistine.

I enjoyed the opera, but it didn’t elicit the tingle – that electric feeling on the back of your neck when you encounter a work of art that excites you on a primal, uncontrollable level.

La Boheme didn’t get the tingle, but the next day, something else did.

The theme song to “Duck Tales”.

I am a philistine.