My first real office job was reviewing video games alongside one of my best friends.
Every occupation that followed was compared to that - and as a result has been a bit rubbish.
As a former paperboy, newsagent cashier and current Waitrose meat department assistant/A-Level student I was hardly a logical choice to help out with a fledgling Teletext games section, but I had a few things going for me.
It was April 1993 and I had been following the work of my friend Paul at Teletext.
I was aware of Paul before I met him - he had been a couple of years above me at school, and was friends with one of my friend’s brothers. It was when I was invited to a RPG session, with him as the games master, that we got chummy.
This wasn’t your common-or-garden role-playing sword and sorcery. The first campaign began with an all-day session of a dark DC Heroes game which would become a haunting obsession over the years.
We would walk home together afterwards (no cars, no driving licenses) and talk about the stuff you bond over. In a pre-instant-gratification age, Paul had an uncanny knack for remembering the same trivial things I did, but better and with a more thorough knowledge.
Mainly we became friends because we laughed at the same things and appreciated the nerdier stuff in life - comics, sci-fi films, unconventional humour and funny noises like “a-snurrrrr a-snurrrrrrr… chal chal!”
I had always been a fan of the medium since my Fancy Dan Uncle got a teletext TV with all its press-reveal-jokes, so when Paul took up writing about gaming on the new Teletext (capital T) service I paid attention.
As a SNES, Megadrive and Amiga owner I was interested in what he said as well as the way he and Tim (who I had yet to meet) were saying it.
I had wanted to be a journalist since I was about 10, partly inspired by my first appearance in the local rag as a vox-pop with my expert opinions on Wimbledon (“It’s boring”). Throughout high school it was no secret I wanted to write.
I would write letters to my friends, I even wrote at least two essays for friends which they then recopied for their English GCSE coursework. But even when I was 15 I wasn’t stupid. I knew languages would help me in any career so I stupidly took French and German.
I say stupidly because neither came easily and I should have been focusing on my English. In my end of school year interview with my higher education advisor (a pompous old slight lunatic who I was meeting for the first and last time in our 5-minute chat) I told him I wanted to be a journalist and would be taking A-levels in English Literature, Media Studies and Political Studies.
He replied that becoming a journalist was going to be hard, so he suggested I drop the Media Studies and and Political Studies and take History and Economics. I stood up, said “thanks, sir” and left more determined than ever that someday I would write about his Economics suggestion so everyone would know what a knob he was (et voila!)
So: Paul had a problem. He was under pressure from the readership to review Amiga games but they couldn’t blag a machine for free. I had one and was keeping fairly up to date with games courtesy of Waitrose.
It was around this time, mainly to support Paul, I entered a limerick contest on Digitiser to win an Amos language software bundle or something:
There once was a man in disguise,
(Something something something about pies),
“You bastard old man, you’ve ruined my plan,
And squirted warm milk in my eyes!”
I signed off as Mister Cheese to remain anonymous and stuck several Edam cheese stickers (thanks, Waitrose) on my entry. And then didn’t think much more about it.
The result? Once the cat was out of the bag, Paul got in touch and said they wanted me to come in and review Amiga games for Digitiser and that Tim had been won over about me being a good fit because of my limerick. I was to start whenever convenient, allowing for my college classes. I think Paul had fought my corner knowing we shared a lot of passions and hopefully that I wouldn’t let him down.
Very soon after that I was officially a freelance journalist getting 50 quid a day to muck about while skipping classes.
My first review was some World War I game for the Amiga (naturally), and it was probably 120 words in all. I remember an attempt at humour referring to “waxing up your moustache” which was a bit of a stretch. The official opinion: good enough. But I knew I could do better.
Writing for Digitiser was great. Apart from working with the boys and the benefits of sitting watching MTV all day (when we weren’t commandeering the TV to plug in SNES games), learning to make every word count made a big difference to my writing. I was learning as I went, but when I got more formal training, my peers would write long flowery copy well over the assigned limit whereas I was writing short and concise and falling below.
Also: like an old man’s rubber brother, my desk was a window sill in the early days. There wasn’t a terminal for all three of us so I would have to move around the office hunting an empty one. Part of my 50 quid would be earned inputting letters, the charts and even signing “photos” of Turner The Worm to send to kids that requested them.
As an office junior, I didn’t care. I was starting out in a career and took the gamble that while hundreds of students would have Media Studies A-levels, very few would have this experience on their CV. As college wound down, my grades were average as expected.
I had signed up to do a two-year Classical History A-level condensed to one year the following September, was still replenishing bacon supplies in a butcher’s outfit and commuting into Fulham to muck about a couple of days a week. There was very little official paperwork regarding my contract, such as it was, so when it was made more formal I was also given the chance to work on other sections as an inputter.
Working as Bamber Boozle creating Teletext quizzes I was at least given some creative assignments along with copying out viewers letters and also getting a standard inputter rate of 80 quid a day. I was still watching a lot of MTV and wandering over to Digitiser corner to muck about between assignments.
I branched out further to Generator, writing the odd review or article on the sly (and eventually being busted over a profile I wrote on Supergrass and hauled before a senior editor only to be told “it was actually very good”), and covering for the one-man-show that was Planet Sound.
All very fun for different reasons.
But it was the Digitiser days I cherished. Sitting around writing the Pant-oh at Christmas was one long snigger-fest. I was experimenting with the graphics, creating chal-monsters and sending them via private message to Paul… while sitting next to him. Paul was constantly redesigning the layout.
Tim’s writing still drove Paul and I to improve in those early days. Reviews went from a page and a half of text to more than three pages sometimes. The Man With The Long Chin spawned a family and the Man Page with his adventures became a daily highlight both to read and occasionally to write.
The fake ads would be a group effort with Paul at the keyboard laughing loudest of all as he tweaked graphics and pitched random noises and words. The nonsense we assumed was self-indulgent struck a chord. Digitiser had a cult following and it was growing. Official figures had our viewership so high (relative to other sections) that Atari flat-out refused to believe they were true.
There’s no feeling like sitting playing Crash Test Dummies on the SNES long after the review was written, when your boss comes over and sincerely says “Sorry to interrupt”, and you sigh impatiently: “Yes? What is it?”
The fight with the establishment wasn’t one I relished but it was fun. I was fearful at blowing my cushy gig, well aware that my lucky start wasn’t something that was going to happen again if I blew it. I was just 19 and living with my parents, so I didn’t have the commitments that Paul and Tim had, but I would take fewer risks - partly out of the disbelief I was being paid to do what I was doing.
I still laugh out loud at the thought of SoccerMan 2001 - one of Paul’s creations during the England-less World Cup of 1994 who had a football for a head and quoth: “I play upon a ladle, a ladle, a ladle, I play upon a ladle and my name is SoccerMan 2001 - that’s my song!”
Look! I'm laughing at this time: now.
This was the height of the Sega/Nintendo war in the UK and one of my favorite memories of Digi-On-Tour was the Power of N party. Cheeky Sega had projected their logo on to the site of the swanky party which, in my memory, had very little to do with games at all.
It stands in my mind for three things: 1) taking it in turns to kick a large polystyrene letter N that acted as a door/archway between areas and pretending it was an accident. 2) It was the first time I had sushi. 3) Running down a pedestrian tunnel on the way home, possibly under the Westway “chasing goblins”.
After about a year of multitasking, though still helping with Digi two days a week, I was approached about a full-time job as a Junior Writer.
Teletext were good to me - despite the politics and some of the personalities - because I wanted security and hadn’t let them down. I helped out to write whatever was needed from the women’s section to interviews with rugby players I had never heard of.
Eventually I was standing in more and more for the TV, showbiz, Generator and music sections and less and less for Bamboozle and Digitiser. That was the price I would pay for getting paid holidays and sick days. In fact, the editor made sure I signed my contract in time to get paid while I was on holiday in Rhodes the following week. I was 20 and indestructible.
Time passed. I was starting to dislike my office nickname “Junior” - but I was surprised to be approached by the editor, who wanted to promote me. He was finding it hard to justify with my lack of formal training.
Generously Teletext sent me on a prestigious intensive three-month course, which I would complete on my return at work and also at a local newspaper.
In return I would agree to stay two full years after I got my diploma. I would also be on full pay while I was studying. I bit their bloody hand off.
Then Tim was fired - the coffee throwing was awful. It was surreal to see two senior members of staff weaving through the cubicles trying to cut him off, but not wanting to get too close.
Apparently, he got into the locked garage to get his bike out to ride home. The high-ups watched him carefully, certain he was going to vandalize their cars. Instead he got on his bike and pedalled away, blowing kisses. I don’t think I’ve seen him since - except on the telly.
In January 1997, I returned from three months in Hastings with 100wpm in tee line shorthand, and a crash course in newspaper journalism.
Turns out a lot had changed. Club 140 was now Club 440 (true story: for a brief while the kids/teen pages on 140 had its name changed to Club 297 even though it was on page 140, because the PO Box number was 297 and it was thought it would encourage more letters from viewers.
When I say a brief while, it was probably less than two days. There was a staff of three dedicated writers led by the former editor of Number One magazine (a rival to Smash Hits). I stayed with this crew for the foreseeable future, occasionally moving to other sections as cover and to complete my diploma requirements.
My time on Digitiser had as good as ended. I took some sideways steps to get fully trained and get my post-grad diploma without the actual grad part, and was headhunted by the local newspaper where I was working part-time, but a deal couldn’t be worked out.
Part of the diploma requirements included an essay which I wrote about the past, present and future of teletext (the medium). I got to interview the late Colin McIntyre, one of Ceefax’s pioneers, and Sir David English - who had a vested interest in Teletext as it was a component of his media empire.
My editor would often say he asked after me, as I was the first staff member to be reverse-trained in this way. On completion I got a pay rise and the chance to work full-time on any features section I wanted.
The high-ups all assumed I would take the sports desk, but while I was a football expert I didn’t have the all-round knowledge they needed so I chose the TV Plus section. I worked under a fabulous old-school mentor (who used to have his own column in the Mail) named Steve Absalom, and a hard-working, thoughtful and talented former-freelance named Simon Spinks (true story: I once laughed for three days straight on receipt of a fax to our desk titled "FAO SIMON STINKS").
SMOKING AT THE BBC
I spent my days interviewing TV personalities and drinking and smoking at the BBC. There was added pressure and attention, but we were a good team and tight deadlines (we updated almost everything three times a day) motivated me.
Paul would still share funny things on the inter-office mail but he was pretty much a one-man show until I referred a friend of mine - Gavin "Mr Udders" Lambert - for an inputting job, primarily helping him with the chips and teats. He ended up being Paul’s right hand man and a close friend.
Gavin also took on some of my former responsibilities and made them his own - the fanzine section on the sports pages was something I was given credit for, though the inception was someone else’s idea and I just maintained it once it was off the ground.
Gavin made it his within a few weeks of arriving. Paul had his doubts about Gav; in his first few days, with time running out and no sign of the games charts that needed to be updated, he came and told me “There wouldn’t be charts this week because I can’t find the fax". Then Paul came and found me and asked what the blinking flip this kid’s problem was.
Paul began working from home, but I was still mainly enjoying my work on the TV desk. As a team we had all our bases covered. Steve was an old school hack and taught me everything I didn’t learn from my degree course.
Simon taught me plenty too - when to back down, when to not stop, what makes a good story. I kept order and watched them, building contacts and learning how to get a story when there was nothing on the horizon. But I wasn’t playing SNES games, getting internal mails about being deployed to polish the company car fleet (“with my splendid knob”) or laughing as I wrote.
By the end of my six years at Teletext both Steve and Simon had moved on which left me resentful. I was working with two different writers who provided a different dynamic. We were more efficient and slick, but it wasn’t as much fun. I had been talked out of quitting journalism after becoming particularly jaded after a BBC launch featuring Rolf Harris and Rosemary Ford at London Zoo.
I felt I was just doing a job, but my attitude wasn’t well-received. I was chastised for not being more demonstrative after getting an exclusive interview with Jerry Springer.
My reply was: “I had done that story, I wanted to move on to the next one”. This was met with a nonsensical (to me) response that I should have shouted it from the rooftops, and taken a long lunch at the pub round the corner.
The commute felt increasingly like a long slog into a misery factory. The commute home was just as bad knowing I had to go back the following day. On weekends I would play Championship Manager pretty much every waking minute, then go back to work.
In late 1999, it didn’t matter anymore, because I emigrated to the U S of A.
A very long story made very short: on my last night in England I went out for a curry with a group of three friends - two of which were Paul Rosenfacen and Gavin (the third was Gavin’s brother - one of my best friends since primary school).
I didn’t get back to Blighty for almost 11 years to the day, but when we sat back down at the same curry house it felt like we were just picking up where we left off.
I’m sure there’s a moral linking Digitiser and lifelong friends there somewhere. But in re-reading all this that there's a chance I have may have "messed up".
GAMES OF MY YEARS: DIGITISER - PART ELEVEN by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: DIGITISER - PART TEN by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: DIGITISER - PART NINE by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: DIGITISER - PART EIGHT by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: DIGITISER - PART SEVEN by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: DIGITISER - PART SIX by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: DIGITISER - PART FIVE by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: DIGITISER - PART FOUR by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: DIGITISER - PART THREE by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: DIGITISER - PART TWO by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: DIGITISER - PART ONE by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: 16-BIT - PART TWO by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: 16-BIT - PART ONE by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: THE ARCADES - PART ONE by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: THE ARCADES - PART TWO by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: SEGA MASTER SYSTEM - PART ONE by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: SEGA MASTER SYSTEM - PART TWO by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: ATARI - PART ONE by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: ATARI - PART TWO by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: THE ZX SPECTRUM PART ONE by Mr Biffo
GAMES OF MY YEARS: THE ZX SPECTRUM PART TWO by Mr Biffo