The Soviet ZX Spectrum and the years of long ago


You know when technology has become ubiquitous. People don't buy it as a main Christmas present except as the equivalent of socks, and museums grow up devoted to it.

I can't help but think of that this yuletide as my mind drifts back to my lovely dad and his present to me, bought at great expense on his and my mum's part long ago one Christmas of a ZX spectrum 48k machine. I think the date must have been around Christmas 1985, the last of his life. I was thirteen years old.

I still recall the smell and odd feel of the old ZX, marketed in the US of course in a different form as a timex machine. Corby at that time still contained relatively young people who remembered what life was like when a steelworks throbbed and belched its way off of the concrete centre. It was a Celtic and east European enclave, and the John Menzies in the town centre was a store more at home in Scotland than England. It competed with Tandys, and sat beneath a concrete lintel in a market square that could easily have held a swimming pool in its modernist mock-plaza pit. There were dark concrete corridors off of it and the place smelt of years of iron, golden virginia tobacco and yeasty pee.

My dad carried the spectrum box--that lovely, extended cuboid box that smelt of plastic--out of the store on his shoulder like a stevedore. Brian 'Bernard J. Lawn' Meenagh allowed a small victory in the eyes of his son, whatever the world did, for once. He had such schemes, but they mostly boiled down to being valid in our eyes. I loved him.

Corby had a division along the major confessional lines of the christian world. It fell between a small orthodox group, catholics, and protestants. It fell into my silly childish imagination that Protestants worked at the Commodore 64 plant that used to subsist on tax breaks and ugly machines, whereas catholics worked at the golden wonder plant that, with much hilarity since there's no life in eyeing potatoes, burned to a crisp a few years later. Spectrums came from some outside place and bucked all the conventions by being so space age and weird, and I wanted one for a long time. They were probably made by Americans and tough smart heartbroken Jews for the Vatican when they weren't busy stealing firefox off of the USSR and saving the world. Something like that. When I found out that Sinclair was a balding English twit who'd managed to make it lucky once the spectrum box still let me accept him.

It made strange noises when loading, which was done by rigging up an old tape machine from one of the pubs we ran when the steelworks closed. The games were fun, and I pretended to bend my slightly dyslexic mind to learn the basic code. I remember my little sister toddling into the room I shared with my brother once and tearing up all the tapes, but I could never really shout at her so I went and complained to my dad until he told me she was only a wee girl and anyway, tangled things could get undone. She was a very cute child.

So, a few years later, when I was lecturing for American Ivy League alumni at Oxford in the summer, I was touched to discover a broken down old spectrum in a computer museum at Bletchley Park. It had not quite become a tourist attraction and I was leading a course on Churchill, so it was something of a treat to go there when it was nominally closed to everyone else. I'm glad to see they finally rebuilt the 'bombe' there.

The computer graveyard was as jumbled and poignant as any part of Brompton cemetery in the mornings, and a tangle of wires. The little lines of the spectrum and its bright colours and odd styling, which was very out of fashion at the time, were like a little riff from the eighties. Long ago calling, from very far away. Queen on a short-play tape.

And now tonight, on the edge of the end of the long and empty boom that began with the Japanese deflation and the fall of the Soviets--whose destructive atheism I despised--I discover that they had adopted and adapted the Spectrum as their own. They called it a 'Hobbit' and after the fall of the USSR the machine was marketed in the UK. It had a capacity to be networked before anyone thought of that as practical, and was designed to be used in Soviet schools not so much as a personal computer as an access point for a collective unit. Strange. The net is so often presented as a liberator of the individual intelligence, but it seems to function best as a collator of individual activity into local wholes, the best efforts of wikipedia editors and aggressive bloggers notwithstanding. In any event, the idea made me catch a little.

So here, on this night of the fourth week of advent, is a raised tea cup to my memories of the brave little spectrum and it's eastern counterpart, which of course failed. In the west, it was split. The spectrum name was absorbed into Alan Sugar's empire (and even if he weren't the sort of chippy Jewish businessman I admire I'd like him for it) and the technology was reincarnated in the 'QL' machine which was too ambitious for its time.

It's all very far away now because nobody bothers about hardware now. I remember it though. God rest ye in the long ago!

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