Saturday, December 24, 2022


[click to enlarge]

The Acorn Electron, the computer slingshot that launched me into the world of home computing, was infamously not ready for its original release date in Christmas 1982, and not enough of them could be made in time for Christmas 1983. With demand drying up ahead of Christmas 1984, the deteriorating finances of Acorn Computers Ltd, who introduced computing to millions of school children with the iconic BBC Micro [link], led to their being sold to Olivetti in 1985.

I didn’t know any of this when our family bought two Acorn Electrons and a bundle of software cassettes in the late 1980s. Games, programs, joysticks and other peripherals continued to be developed into the 1990s, supporting the near quarter million units that entered people’s homes, mostly at a reduced price to clear stock. 

The Electron was exactly what we wanted. We were taught the BBC BASIC programming language at school, and that confidence came home with us. When it came to loading games from cassette, we knew to enter “CHAIN” rather than just “LOAD”, and I knew my way around creating short musical tunes using the “SOUND” and “ENVELOPE” commands, separating out the notes and sound types, rather than the less intuitive “POKE” command and codes I later found for the SID chip in the Commodore 64 [link]. Meanwhile, Electron games we enjoyed were the wire-framed 3D spaceships of “Elite”, the maze quest game “Repton” and “Snapper”, the obligatory “Pac-Man” knock-off. 

At half the size and, initially at £199, half the price, the Acorn Electron was essentially a cut-down BBC Micro designed to meet the challenge of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. This cutting down was the computer’s downfall, as removing some of the display modes and sound channels available to the BBC Micro gave developers the expense, if they chose to spend it, of rewriting programs to be compatible - the Electron-compatible version of “Elite” is a minor triumph as a result. However, the largest problem was condensing the scores of logic chips on the BBC Micro’s motherboard into a single custom chip, a far bigger task than Sinclair had doing the same for the simpler ZX Spectrum, and one that drove back the release date of the Electron, and continued causing manufacturing problems afterwards. At least the Electron, unlike the original ZX Spectrum, had a keyboard with proper keys.

Again, we didn’t know anything about this – we were upgrading from the computing dead-end of the Commodore Plus/4, a productivity-minded machine incompatible with the more capable Commodore 64, only receiving more support decades later. The ability to use the same type of computer as at school put our family at a tremendous advantage, and in a decade where technology at home and work exponentially increased, we welcomed it. 

Acorn stopped supporting the Electron after 1986, by which time it had unveiled the Archimedes, the first computer powered by an ARM processor (“ARM” initially standing for “Acorn RISC Machine” before it was spun off into its own company). Once that made its way into school, it became the first computer I used with a graphical interface, and the later RISC PC hosted my first use of the internet. It took Acorn’s demise in 1998 to eventually come across the IBM-compatible PC that dominates people’s idea of a computer today, something that never felt as special as a result – no wonder I own a Mac now.

At the time of writing, thirty years have now passed since our Electrons were replaced by a Commodore Amiga 500 in Christmas 1992, the era of 8-bit computers having finally been overtaken. Once again, there was little to learn – we were ready to fly.

Sunday, December 18, 2022


Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is an animated cartoon character introduced almost a century ago that is now having their moment, having stayed fresh through little exposure. Most notable for having been taken away from Walt Disney in a contract dispute with the series’ distributor, leading to his creation of Mickey Mouse, Oswald has made only sporadic appearances in video games, cartoon shorts, theme park appearances and merchandising since The Walt Disney Company regained rights to the character in 2006, but the appearance of two new shorts in December 2022, one to advertise a collaboration between Disney and fashion brand Givenchy, have given Oswald new vitality.

Oswald appears superficially to be a rabbit version of his 1920s contemporary Felix the Cat, and the “rubber hose” animation, frantic stories and stretchy cartoon logic in Oswald’s cartoons were pioneered by Felix, whose tail could turn into objects just like Oswald’s ears can. To a modern audience, these cartoons could appear either to be jerky, slow or repetitive, which is down to the innovation and sophistication in animated shorts produced later by Disney, Warner Bros. and MGM, taking advantages of using plastic cels over paper, multi-plane camerawork, as well as colour and sound. Watching these earlier cartoons is like bridging the gap between what animated cartoons became, and newspaper strip cartoons like “Mutt & Jeff” and “Krazy Kat”, which themselves received their own animated series.

Likewise, both Oswald and Felix suffered from the rise of Mickey Mouse, and the change in direction of animation and story towards a more realistic and natural style, but while Felix the Cat retained a similar appearance through major reboots in the 1930s and beyond, Oswald was redesigned multiple times by successor animators Hugh Harman & Rudolph Ising, and by Walter Lantz, who later created Woody Woodpecker. With the stylised black rabbit design supplanted by shorter limbs, then Mickey-like white gloves and shorts, and a more childlike personality, and again by a very Disney-like realistic rabbit design, the character that became known as just “Oswald Rabbit” had no connection to the Disney original. 

The 2006 deal with NBC Universal that traded Oswald for the services of ABC and ESPN American football commentator Al Michaels was for the trademark of “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit”, the twenty-seven Disney-produced cartoons produced in 1927-29, and anything physical relating to them that Universal still possessed – anything made from then remains with Universal in almost complete obscurity, leaving Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to be known as only Walt Disney’s original creation, existing in one particular moment of animation history, untouched by time or entropy. Mickey Mouse, personality bland-ed out of him by changing times, tastes and placement as a corporate mascot, comes off worse to me as a result, although the more recent “Mickey Mouse” TV series produced by Paul Rudish reintroduced some of the irascibility the character first displayed in 1928, which over time had been subsumed into Donald Duck.

The new Oswald short, directed by “Pocahontas” director Eric Goldberg, and the new Givenchy fashion campaign, are notable for featuring hand-drawn animation, with the clothes featuring Oswald with the aim of capturing “the spirit of adventure”. A special animated billboard has also appeared in Times Square, New York. There is the sense that Disney is building towards something. It may prove to be the beginning of another Disney franchise, but with this character still being relatively untouched, it has the potential to be its most vibrant.

Sunday, December 11, 2022


As much as I like Coca-Cola, I am increasingly turning to British soft drinks. Dinner usually includes a glass of Vimto, while I may choose Tango or Tizer when I am out somewhere. If I find a pub serving Pepsi instead of Coke – I really don’t like Pepsi - that means their supplier should have also stocked them with R. White’s lemonade, so I will choose that instead.

I don’t think this is because my tastes have changed, more than my consciously trying other flavours because my tastes do not include alcohol, let alone tea or coffee. I am happy Guinness 0.0 now exists, while I consider Vimto, a cordial of blackcurrants, grapes and raspberries, to be a non-alcoholic version of Pimm’s No. 1, until they join the bandwagon. A good non-alcoholic drink should taste similar to the fuelled-up version anyway, as Budweiser Prohibition Brew (now Budweiser Zero) also proved.

And then there’s Tizer. Introduced in 1924, Tizer is like a mid-point between Vimto and the strange, sherbet-like (to me) taste of Irn-Bru, the official drink of the Cop26 climate summit when it was held in Glasgow, and a drink I have since found contains quinine to taste, and whose colour I keep calling “Agent Orange” instead of “sunset yellow”. With Tizer having a strong citrus flavour comprised of whatever has been put into it, including what gives it its particularly red colour – it’s not just Coca-Cola that employs the idea of “secret recipe” in their mystique, I mean advertising - I usually say that Tizer “tastes of red”. The flavour is of itself, making comparisons difficult. Tizer’s original name was “Pickup’s Appetizer”, named for its inventors Fred and Tom Pickup, making it an aperitif in the same way that Jägermeister is meant to be a digestif.

Tizer has been owned and made since 1972 by A.G. Barr plc of Cumbernauld, originators of Irn-Bru in 1899, moving the drink there from its native Manchester, from where Vimto also appeared. Drinks sold under the “Barr” name include their own cola, cherryade, lemonade, orangeade, limeade, bubblegum flavour, ice cream soda, ginger beer and “shandyade”. Reading through this list made me realise that supermarket own brand drinks have also supplanted the old brands, being sold just as widely, taking up as much space on shelves at a lower cost, and probably not too dissimilar in taste.

From what I can see, or from what the shelves of my nearest corner shop can attest, Barr is the last of the regional soft drink makers that were the main suppliers of soft drinks for its local area, much like channel 3 on British televisions was for Granada, Meridian or Tyne Tees, before “ITV” became the main name. Other such brands with history reaching back to the 19th century like Corona, Alpine and R. White’s, of which only the lemonade now remains on sale, wouldn’t be sold nationwide until the 1960s and 70s.

As it stands, British soft drinks are dominated by three companies: alongside A.G. Barr is Britvic, which owns Tango, Robinsons fruit drinks and R. White’s in addition to producing Pepsi, 7Up, Gatorade and Lipton’s Ice Tea under licence; and Coca-Cola which, despite being an outpost of the US giant, originated the pineapple and grapefruit drink Lilt in the UK in 1975. In other words, they compete on brands rather than flavours. It isn’t a surprise that Corona, bought by Beechams in 1958 and sold to Britvic in 1987, has failed to survive while its orange soda brand Tango, which was introduced in 1950 and produced alongside a separate Corona orangeade, that must have tasted different in some way to be worth the effort, has thrived since the 1990s through its use of surreal and absurdist advertising – “You know when you've been Tango'd” was a slogan used in everyday life at one point, whereas “I’se Got the Ize”, from a 1986 Tizer ad that showed the drink changing the drinker’s speech, didn’t take so well. 

The temperance movements of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries have, while losing out to liberation and moderation, have left their mark in what I get to drink instead. With Coca-Cola gaining popularity quickly due to its being introduced in 1886, the same year alcohol was banned in its home city of Atlanta, “Vim Tonic”, later Vimto, was introduced in Manchester in 1908 just as a new Licensing Act sought to increase alcohol duty and reduce the number of pubs. This history gives the impression that soft drinks are what you have “instead”, which for me is preferable from umpteen types of beer and wine.

That said, I can’t think of an alcoholic equivalent of Tizer. Aperol? Ruby Grapefruit Bacardi Breezer?

Sunday, December 4, 2022


I previously said “Station to Station” (1975) was my favourite David Bowie album [link], but the album I have the T-shirt for is “Scary Monsters... and Super Creeps” (1980), which closed the “classic” Bowie period of the 1970s, before he reinvented himself as “himself” for “Let’s Dance” in 1983.

“Scary Monsters” begins and ends with two versions of the same song, “It’s No Game”, the first sung as a wail against an oncoming onslaught, the second much calmer, as if having accepted a new status quo. Initially feeling like a set-up for an album with an anti-fascist theme, most clearly in the lyrics to “Fashion”, “It’s No Game” launches you into what becomes almost a definitive Bowie statement on recurrent themes of alienation, madness and misunderstanding, before taking on a new confidence with the next album.

What I had not expected was for “It’s No Game” to have dated from the start of Bowie’s “classic” era. A new box set, “Divine Symmetry”, was released in November 2022 to act as a complement to 1971’s “Hunky Dory” album, showing the process that led to “Life on Mars”, “Oh You Pretty Things” and “Changes”, while including songs that remained as demos or were only performed live. One of these, “Tired of My Life”, starts as a folk-like song more reminiscent of Bowie’s previous album “The Man Who Sold the World”, but you start recognising the chord progression, and then the middle section: “Pull the curtains on yesterday and it seems so much later / Put a bullet in my brain and I'll make all the papers.” 

The verses around it may have changed, and the remaining lines polished further, but hearing “It’s No Game” in “Tired of My Life” is inescapable, just as listening to “King of the City” will lead you to start singing “Ashes to Ashes” along with it. I shouldn’t have expected something like this to have been done – if you bought the remised reissue of the Beatles album known as “The White Album” that came with an extra CD of demo songs, you will know that John Lennon’s “Child of Nature” had its lyrics rewritten to become “Jealous Guy” – but there is something about hearing David Bowie essentially recycling old material years after writing, and not just when plans don’t work out, such as a musical version of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” being repurposed into 1974’s “Diamond Dogs” album. 

Even if these recordings were known, or even released previously, grouping them together to display an artist’s creative process confirms the adage about how much of it is perspiration over inspiration. Add in “Scream Like a Baby”, reusing the music composed by Bowie for “I Am a Laser”, a 1973 song he wrote for backing group The Astronettes, and Bowie’s covering of Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come”, and half of the ten tracks for “Scary Monsters” existed before the album’s production began, which departed from Bowie’s usual process by having backing tracks recorded before lyrics were written, instead of pre-written demos or Brian Eno-led improvisation.

This exposure to Bowie’s musical processes will continue, but it will come at the expense of the mystique that the works were intended to create. With the selling of the publishing rights to his back catalogue for $250 million to Warner Chappell Music in January 2022, everything will eventually come out. We remain curious, but we cannot put our fingers in our ears, we will eventually know Bowie inside out.