When the magic took place
Memories of the ZX Spectrum are inextricably linked with those of the 1980s. If you grew up in that decade, your computing reminiscences probably don’t end with the keyboard at your fingers and the pictures on your TV screen. They are intertwined with a kaleidoscope of mental images: your home, your school, your hobbies, the people around you, the music you listened to, the TV programmes you watched, the look and feel of it all.
Those too young to remember the Eighties probably know it as an era of showiness and style, of innovation and change. While that’s true to an extent, it misrepresents what life was like for most people back then. A decade is a long time, and that big-haired, neon-lit version of the 1980s only emerged a few years in, before giving way to something more garish and commercialised. And, for the most part, this glamorous, poptastic version of the decade only existed on television, and in music videos and magazines. Unless you were of a certain age and lived close to a vibrant metropolis, life was a fairly humdrum affair from which all that pop culture glitz offered a welcome distraction.
In the early 1980s, the country was a grey, parochial place – a land of YTS schemes, picket lines and Findus Crispy Pancakes. Entertainment was three TV stations watched on a square wooden box. Offices were smoke-filled places, full of typewriters and casual sexism. Politics was a battleground, stalked by Tory radicals and Labour Trots. And above it all loomed the Cold War and the threat of armageddon.
The Eighties also represented a tipping point, from a Britain steeped in heritage and tradition to a modern, forward-looking nation. It was the twilight of a less cynical, knowing age – gloriously corny perhaps, but less uptight and pretentious than today.
For a few brief years, we had a mixture of new and old: a Britain that was still decidedly British, but experiencing its first exotic taste of globalisation. For the young, it was an especially thrilling time, because popular culture was pitched more squarely at them than ever before. A technological revolution saw electronic gadgets becoming commonplace. And all this razzmatazz was sufficiently baffling to the old guard to suggest a line had been drawn in the sand. It was the dawning of a new era that belonged to the young.
This is significant because the older generation had largely dictated our way of life up until then. Most World War Two veterans were barely out of middle-age, and their influence, interests and experiences loomed large in our lives. They respected the past and its achievements, and paid tribute to them through the preservation of everything from our social norms to our architecture.
If a modern teenage boy were whisked back to this time, he'd be astonished by how unsophisticated many people seemed, how dowdy they looked, and how little this bothered them. He'd notice that young folk paid more attention to the people and events around them than he did. He’d find they enjoyed pastimes he considered old-fashioned, and would be baffled by their lack of disdain for things that weren’t willfully stylish and cool.
The time-travelling teen would be frustrated by how difficult it was to communicate with the outside world. Sending someone a message meant writing a letter. Finding answers required a trip to the library. If he wanted to learn anything about current affairs, he’d have to buy a newspaper or tune into the nightly news. If he switched on the television before 6am or after midnight, he’d probably be greeted with static. If he left the house, he'd have no way of contacting anyone except by payphone, which was only of use if the other person was in at the time.
If he fancied playing a videogame, his best bet would be to visit a café or chip shop, where he might find a cigarette-burnt arcade machine in the corner. Otherwise, he could trying looking for an amusement arcade in a large town or visiting funfair. If he was lucky, he might lay his hands on a home videogames console, but would be shocked to discover how much it cost, how expensive the games were, and how hard they were to come by.
If he took a trip into town, he’d find fewer chain stores than he was used to, but more local shops. He’d be unlikely to come across any shopping centres, which were only just appearing in large towns and cities. Most of the brands and labels he was used to would be nowhere to be seen. What was for sale would seem shabby and unvaried. If he ventured out on a Sunday, or after 5.30pm the rest of the week, everything would be shut. If he fancied a bite to eat, he’d be more likely to find a Wimpy restaurant than a McDonald's. Food in general would appear drab and unhealthy.
The world beyond this provincial bubble would seem romantic and unreachable, and his lifelines to it – magazines, television and the radio – would make it feel larger for being so insubstantial. No wonder most young people he spoke to would be looking forward to leaving home and making it on their own, with very few of them planning to do A-Levels, let alone go to university.
Home computers felt all the more revolutionary for being born into this environment. They were the first gadgets of note that teenagers had got their hands on since the transistor radio thirty years earlier. But unlike radios, they weren't passive objects. They offered a two-way experience. They could be made to do things, and their limits were unknown.
Before they lost their novelty, home computers felt special. They were sci-fi props made real; the stuff of childhood fantasy in your bedroom. The way they baffled the older generation gave young people something that was exclusively theirs, not a hand-me-down from yesteryear. The community that sprung up around them provided a new sense of belonging - a unifying cause their parents didn't understand. It was exciting, empowering and full of possibility.
The arrival of computers coincided with a period of artistic and technological change that put youthful interests at the forefront of modern culture and brought a much-needed splash of colour to people’s lives. Anyone old enough to have experienced the before and after appreciated the difference. In time, it would be finessed and commercialised out of existence, but it was great while it lasted. This was the stuff of the true Eighties experience. There was nothing like it and, who knows, there may never be again.