Posts Tagged ‘old memories’

And what a time it was

 “Once you get a disk drive, you’ll see the difference. You won’t go back.”

TRS-80 model 1 computer

TRS-80 model 1 computer

It was about 1980. An industry colleague had just graduated to an Apple IIc computer. It included a built in floppy disk drive with a dizzying capacity of 760Kb of data. Enough for programs, heaps of documents, spreadsheets and who knows what else.

But I was still working with my Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80. As it was my employer’s money, I’d chosen the bigger one – it had 16Kb of RAM, instead of the standard 4Kb. I supposed the extra would probably come in handy, though I wasn’t sure how, at first.

Ah yes, the old Trash-80. It hooked up to a conventional portable audio cassette recorder to save data, which it did at a speed that would have earned derision from a competent Morse code operator. My friend with the Apple offered kindly sympathy, but I was stuck with the cassette recorder. Still, if you wrote a program (in BASIC), you could save that on the cassette, provided you allowed enough time. At first, there were very few programs around – games, text editors – mainly for sale at weekend flea markets: but if you wanted to do anything else, you wrote your own software.

I wrote a computer game for it.

You must understand that there were effectively no graphics on the black and green display, and text appeared on the screen at about the speed you could type. So it was a very particular sort of game.

I called it “Fame and Fortune in the Film Industry”.

The year was 1979, and the company I worked for had booked a stand at a film and television technology exhibition. Whatever the rest of our stand showed – our services – got some attention, but I took along the computer – and it turned out to be the big crowd-puller. Almost no-one else had one on their stand, and certainly no-one else had anything so unusual as a computer game.

The program set you up as a film producer, and presented you with a series of obstacles in your project of getting a feature film made and distributed. (There were plenty.) Every decision you made would earn you fame points and fortune points, until you either made a million dollars or went bankrupt.

The challenges were all drawn from real incidents. We were in the exciting first flush of the Australian film renaissance, making period dramas like My Brilliant Career, the Australian Identity ones like Newsfront, the Not Quite Hollywood ones like The Man from Hong Kong and Patrick; and a whole lot in between: The Irishman; Mad Dog Morgan and Mad Max, to name just a few.

Films of 1979-81

We were the lab that processed the rushes for most of these films, so we got to witness all the upsets, the disruptions, the calamities and the miracles. With names changed (to avoid being sued) these incidents made great material for my game. For example:

  • The star of your action drama breaks his leg three weeks into the shoot. Do you (a) re-cast and start again; (b) use a double for the wide shots, and just do the static close-ups with the real actor; or (c) rework the script to explain the leg plaster and crutches?
  • There’s an emulsion-side camera scratch on the exploding helicopter shot. Do you (a) get another helicopter and reshoot; (b) use the takes from the B and C units (if you were thorough enough to have had B & C units); get the lab to rotoscope out the scratch on the master shot, frame by frame (it’ll take a month)?

Your decision had a certain effect on your costs, and on the box-office takings and critical success of the film, which added to (or took away from) your fame and fortune scores.

The program had been simple enough to write, and after the popular success at the trade show, I carried on adding more incidents to the library in the program, to add to the variety. The program effectively shuffled a pack of cards at the start of every game, so that the incidents came up in a random order: but it needed quite a few to ensure that players didn’t become familiar with them all after only a few sessions.

At first it would take something like five minutes for the program to load – and a little longer to save it each time after I’d added new material. Before long it had blown out to ten or twelve minutes. But it was becoming a rich vein of drama, suspense and agonising decision-making.

Then one day I set the tape to load, and after about ten minutes, the computer announced that the program was too big to load.

Computer wizards may assure me that it would have been simple to buy extra RAM for the machine: but at the time that didn’t seem possible, nor could I justify it. The computer was really for managing the sensitometric control of the film processing systems in the lab, and the programs I’d written to do that seemed to manage quite happily with the existing memory. So I was stuck, with, it seemed, no way of recovering the program.

I never saw it again. Those same computer wizards may now point me to TRS-80 emulators that will run in a microscopic portion of a modern computer, and some device that would remodulate the morse-code-like signal from a cassette player and pump it into a USB port.

But it’s all too late. I kept the cassette for some years, but where? I think it finally got trashed as a lost cause. I suspect the data would be corrupt by now even if I could track it down.

A few months ago I was interviewed in an oral history project about the film industry, and especially those magical times, when it seemed we had the world at our feet. I could remember so much, but so little. I wished I still had the tape: it’s probably a unique archive of some of those stories. Wouldn’t I have printed the program out from time to time (an even longer process than saving it on tape)? Yes, undoubtedly: but I recall that the printouts were on a strange-looking strip of heat-sensitive metallic paper, about as wide as a toilet roll. Even if I’d kept them, they would have faded many years ago.

Perhaps if I’d got an Apple and a disk drive at the time, I’d have had a better chance of recovering everything. But hindsight, the antithesis of memory, comes too late – and memories, however they are saved, go too soon.

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you

(Simon & Garfunkel, 1967)


When Hitler came to power I was in the bath

“When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.”

allthatiamannafunder_reheatAs opening sentences go, this has to be among the best ever, so I’m pinching it to open this blog piece. After all, Anna Funder’s semi-factual novel All That I Am did rather well with that opening salvo.

I really wanted to open with a reference back to one of the very few English lessons I remember from my schooldays. We were studying Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Not, in fact, the first line, but the third:

  • The ploughman homeward plods his weary way

Why were the words in this order? The English language allowed many other ways of saying the same thing, but would it have worked any other way?

  •  Homeward the ploughman plods his weary way
  • The weary ploughman plods his way homeward
  • His weary way homeward plods the ploughman

And so on and so on. We looked at alliteration, rhythm, grammar, meaning, foregrounding and so on. I probably haven’t thought a lot about this since that time, and I won’t discuss it here. But something must have sunk in, because it came to mind when I wondered why Anna Funder’s line had hit me in the face so hard when I opened All That I Am. There is so much packed into this sentence that is worthy of a PhD all on its own. But why is it so good?

There is no doubt that the sentence has a lovely poetic rhythm: di dah di di di dah-di / dah di di di dah. But that’s not enough. It’s all about the precise juxtaposition of two ideas.

First of all, the daring matching of these two such contrasting and apparently unconnected ideas: the private, almost intimate event of little consequence, set against, arguably, one of the most momentous events in the public life of the twentieth century. Try some different, less daring pairings:

  • When Dora phoned I was in the bath.
  • When Hitler came to power I was living in the middle of Berlin.

Good starts to a story, but not really arresting.

I discovered I am not the only person to be fascinated by this sentence. Blogger Bryce Alcock cites New York Times writer, Stanley Fish,who says that first sentences need what he  calls “an angle of lean”. First sentences, says Stanley Fish, “lean forward, inclining in the direction of the elaborations they anticipate.” Funder’s book, based on two real characters who were active in the resistance to Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, weaves their personal stories around the historical events of the time with devastating effect. The opening sentence is a perfect demonstration of what is to come, and there isn’t long to wait before the connections are drawn. The text continues:

 try-this-404x229“Our apartment was on the Schiffbauerdamm near the river, right in the middle of Berlin. From its windows we could see the dome of the parliament building. The wireless in the living room was turned up loud so Hans could hear it in the kitchen, but all that drifted down to me were waves of happy cheering, like a football match. It was Monday afternoon.”

Next, consider the sentence order. It starts on the large scale, an event which took some years to complete and had effect around the world. The reader’s imagination is whetted: we are prepared for a story of grand ideas, but are drawn immediately into a brief unseen, otherwise unrecorded event, but one which involves the writer. In a film, the opening shot would start with a helicopter view of a great city and steadily shift down to street level and the assembled crowds, and then track into an open bathroom window.

Try the alternative:

  • I was in the bath when Hitler came to power.

Well, it’s grammatical, and clearly expressed. But this order of ideas suggests strongly that, as we move from the personal event to the public historical one, the novel is to be the narrator’s own view of the events of that time, rather than her personal involvement. There is a sense that the narrator wasn’t well placed to observe much, and so we are likely to be left with a personal memoir in which Hitler’s rise to power is nothing more than a context-setting reference to the period.

If we had opened the book and read:

  • I was a cleaner in the Reichstag when Hitler came to power.

It would all have seemed perfectly reasonable, and unsurprising that such a person could have been well-placed to give an account of the events. Equally, there would have been no point in reversing the order as Anna Funder did with such surprising effect.

  • When Hitler came to power I was a cleaner in the Reichstag.

If anything it is weaker than the alternative, but neither leaves us wanting any further explanation for the drawing together of the two events.

hitlerNow look at the construction of the sentence: two clauses, one subordinate to the other. Anna Funder subordinates Hitler to her narrator/observer. The principal sentence is “I was in the bath”, and the clause about Hitler is simply an adverbial clause which adds information by referring to a simultaneous event.

There’s another possibility: “When” can sometimes indicate a causal or a sequential relationship.

  • When Hitler came to power, many Jews rushed to leave Germany.
  • Hitler came to power when Hindenburg made him Chancellor.

Reversing the weight of the sentence, making bath time the adverbial clause, might have implied this causality.

  •  Hitler came to power when I was in the bath.
  • When I was in the bath, Hitler came to power.

Teasing and intriguing, but not really in the service of what is to come as the narrative unfolds.

Finally, like many other great opening sentences, it travels from the weighty proposition to the unexpected or seemingly inadequate resolution – we are thrown into the middle of a great feast and, being delivered nothing more than a snack, are left panting for more. Consider one or two other contenders for “best first sentence”:

And so I have started my career as a book reviewer. One thousand words, and I haven’t really got past the first sentence. I might need to reconsider this choice.

Correspondence from 70 years ago

Seventy years ago in 1942, the world was at war. In Britain, the blitz had eased off from its worst, but for ordinary citizens, life was tough. Food and clothing rationing was in full swing. Petrol was hard to get. Trains were full of servicemen rushing home across the country for 24 hours’ leave.

And it was the year that my parents were married. They took a week’s honeymoon in the Lake District. I believe they found more good food out among the farms, and undoubtedly had a good and relatively peaceful time.

Only one thing went wrong. The train fare from London up to the north would have cost my father a week’s salary. And, somehow, he lost the return tickets. I found the following correspondence among his meticulously-filed papers. The letters speak of a more formal time, but also of a more generous time. And all seems to have ended up well.

Commercial Superintendent
London Midland and Scottish Railway
Euston, London NW

13th April 1942

Dear Sir

On Thursday the 2nd April last, I purchased two monthly return tickets from Watford Junction to Cockermouth through Messrs Pickfords Limited, Clarendon Road, Watford. The tickets were issued on blank cards, numbered 3717/8 the cost being £6 7s 4d.

I travelled up to Cockermouth by the Night Train from Euston on Sunday night 5th April, but either handed in the whole of the ticket at Cockermouth station, or alternatively mislaid the return tickets and was unable to find then when returning last Saturday, the 11th instant.

On the instructions of the clerk at Cockermouth, I purchased for the return journey single tickets to London, numbers 9317/8 travelling on the train leaving Cockermouth Junction at 7.10 and arriving at Watford at 4.6pm, the charge for these tickets being £4 15s 4d.

I should be glad if you would make the necessary enquiries with regard to these tickets, as I understand that the amount of £4 15s 4d will be refundable if the non-use of the tickets is proves to your satisfaction.

If there is any further information that I can supply I should be happy to do so.

Yours faithfully

P J L Case


London Midland and Scottish Railway Company
District Passenger Manager’s Office
66 Drummond Street, NW1

13th May 1942

Dear Sir

Adverting to your letter of 13th ultimo, I have to inform you that I have been unable to find that the return halves of your tickets were surrendered at Cockermouth, neither is it possible to definitely establish whether they have been utilised or not. In the circumstances the Company does not admit any liability for the refundment of the extra fares paid. I do not however wish to take advantage of your unfortunate loss, and as a special case enclose a remittance for £4 14s 4d in respect of the additional fares paid and shall be obliged if you will acknowledge receipt on the attached form.

Yours faithfully


My father regularly took on large companies in this way, and it seems he often won. He was, after all, an accountant (or strictly, at that time, an audit clerk). There is, however, no trace of any further letter chasing the discrepancy of one shilling.