Mark Hutchinson 

 

 

 

Mark Hutchinson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FIRST STEPS TO LAST STEPS

Right at the start of the 1980s I found I had quite a lot of time on my hands. We had one or two computers in work, IBMs running payment programs (remember the PETs?). I had always been interested in electronics and dabbled slightly. However, I was more into science fiction and had amassed a creditable sized library of my own by then. The little boy was still in me and I loved the flashing lights and associated sounds to be found in such wondrous places as the bridge of the Enterprise.

Those reminiscing with me will remember the thorough shock to the system when it was advertised that the common man (and woman I hasten to add) could buy their own computer. For weeks I got to grips with the arcane words - RAM, ROM and the fascinating Kansas City Interface. I pondered for a while about building my own until along came Clive Sinclair and a low cost computer. I thought I would go for that until I spotted another which had three colours; and then, THEN! The full colour adverts for the ATARI 400/800.

There was never any doubt that all others paled into insignificance. I could only afford the 400 and my cheque winged its way to Maplin Electronics the next day. This sale would begin a friendship with Maplin to last years. My heart almost stopped when the package arrived and for another decade I was to feel that thrill every time I laid my fingers on the keyboard.

As always, UK games were twice the price of their American equivalents and I had to stick with Star Raiders and the basic programming book. I decided I really needed to meet other owners and put an advert in the local paper. Along came Peter, an 800 owner (also a real ale drinker, something I was getting into and which, through CAMRA - Campaign for Real Ale, would have a major effect on my later life). We both bought copies of a hard to get American ATARI magazine called ANALOG from Maplin and he had come across an obscure magazine originally started for a user group but which was to become a major lifestyle event in all our lives - PAGE 6!

We had tried to buy ATARI stuff from the states but the customs hit us hard. However, one shop owner was over the moon about getting calls from Ireland.  All he kept saying was "Holy S#* - IRELAND!". We henceforth referred to him as Michael "HOLY S#*" White. As he was doing a stock clear out, he sent us a huge package posted as a "birthday present". This passed the customs and let us sample local American stuff that would never have got into the UK any other way.

About this time we met two other owners who lived close by. Two brothers, one into playing games all night and the other into programming. Although friends, we never seemed to have the time to set up regular meetings. Still, this was the start of the Belfast Atari Users Group - BAUG.

Peter and I decided to write and sell some stuff at a realistic price. His forte was to be arithmetic and spelling primers for children while I wanted to write instructional programming stuff. Sadly, although Peter actually wrote a fair bit on both subjects, he never completed them. I started to read the magazines to see what questions were being asked. I needed a medium to try out my skills and posted a letter off to a suitable magazine. I received a letter dated 27/6/83 confirming the placement of a reader's letter and a request for an article or two. Signed Les Ellingham - for it was he.

Actually he had started the First Steps column for beginners and was hoping to get readers to send in enough articles to keep it going. I never realised that my couple of articles would be the start of almost a decade of writing about ATARI.

The column took off and, as quite a few readers' letters were about basics, Les let me start answering them direct (provided they had an S.A.E. included). The youngest writer was 12 years old at the time, the eldest (I believe) around 80. My own knowledge was limited in certain areas but stalwarts like Garry Francis (Australia) kept other sections going. I always tried my best to answer the questions but some were technically beyond me. I know from responses that I did a good job, but one often wonders about those people never heard from again. I think the best thing about all this was that many of the people who wrote in to me became pen friends more than readers. There were several who had talked about a "pensioners" ATARI group but I do not believe it ever took off. I am deeply saddened to think that some of them will not be here today to read this column.

In 1986 Les had the idea to poll the readers and award their choice of the best of Page 6. Imagine my surprise to be awarded a beautiful piece of glassware, as "First Steps" had won by an astonishingly large margin. I still treasure it to this day.

The Page 6 Readers Award - only three were produced and awarded in 1996 to Mark Hutchinson for "First Steps", Paul Lay for "Munchy Madness" and Jim Short for "The Short Reviews". Mark says his award will never be up for sale!

Peter and I had discussed selling ATARI goods at a more reasonable price. Both of us had purchased our machines from Maplin so we made an approach to them. I got in contact with one of the sales staff, Sandie, who was very helpful and who still swaps Christmas cards with me. We found out much later that the discount was too small for much of a profit and prices to high for a big turnover so we took the decision to end trading while still in profit. The company was BAUG Software and I still have the company tie (with logo). I also had to close down the Post Office box (PO BOX 123). 

A year or so later I had my first tape in production and was able to make it to my first computer show in London where I first met Les and Sandy Ellingham. From your letters, several of you remember me. Some time later I had my second tutorial taped and a third one started. I had purchased an 810 and was working out the mysteries of floppy drives. Months later I had the fourth tutorial out on floppy.

First Steps Tutorials - All were "limited edition" produced individually for the customer. A couple were signed by the author, making them more collectible.

One letter I got was from a young lad called Frankie who really wanted to try his hand at a user group style magazine. I introduced him to the intricacies of cut & paste the old fashioned way - using cow gum. We worked on the first couple together and then, as this was his project, I eased myself out but still wrote for him. He was able to manage seven editions and had sold them around Belfast and to several places in the UK. Sadly for him O Levels were breathing heavily down his neck and he had to sort out his priorities. However, they are still remembered.

BAUD - Belfast Atari User's Digest

Towards the end of the 1980's I had helped quite a few people and was immensely proud when I started to see some of their names in page 6 with their own articles. A bit like a father who sees his offspring become a prodigy. Actually, I had spent quite some time finishing a long article and starting another. I was ready to send the first to Les when my magazine dropped through the letter box and there, to my surprise, was the same article by another author. I continued with the second article and, blow me! It happened again! I could not complain as Ann (author of both) was one of those I had helped from a raw beginner. Still, two articles consigned to the scrap heap.

I had written for some national computer magazines as well but the initial heady days were over and many were going to the wall. The writing was now on the wall. 1988 rolled around and Les took over the ATARI USER magazine and I was sent a huge parcel of unopened mail for their readers' column. Many I could not answer as the letters specifically related to past articles in that magazine. From what was NOT said but hinted in letters, it was a shock that the magazine closed and the readers had to move to another source. I could feel anger and resentment underneath the words, but never at us. Many wrote back wishing they had found PAGE 6 sooner.

At this time I became a manager and moved into mainframe computing. With work and courses I just could not keep up with the demand. However, there were enough people now writing for Les and, besides, half the magazine was now catering for the ST - which I had bought (a MEGA-2) and even reviewed ST software. I took the decision that I could not continue and broke the news to Les. We could both see the way forward was in the STs, which we liked but would never understand like we could the 8-bits.

At the same time I became a member of the local CAMRA group and went on to be the Chairman for seven years. This culminated in their first Belfast Beer Festival. I had set up their branch magazine and was using a DTP package on the ST. By festival three I was totally worn out and my private life shot. I resigned but kept up contacts with CAMRA nationally. ATARI was officially dead but the computers would roll on for many more years.

March 2001 and my work made me an offer I could not refuse. I accepted early retirement. The day I officially left was my 50th. birthday and my work pension started on that day. Lucky or what?

Almost two years later and I am Pub Chains Liaison Co-ordinator for N. Ireland (a volunteer CAMRA position), I work with their website co-ordinator on their web forum and have much to do in other national areas. I have my own web site - www.marksalehouse.com - personally recommended pubs and restaurants in the province with much information on the obligatory touristy bits. I am also a moderator on a user forum run by my web host - www.portland.co.uk.

 

www.marksalehouse.com - essential viewing if you plan to visit Northern Ireland!

I use my PC a lot and can handle the complexities of Microsoft Windows and the Office suite and a lot of other stuff but I never, ever, get that same tingle at the keyboard as I once did. I still have the 400 (with proper keyboard) 410, 1040, 810, 130, 250 ST MEGA-2 and God alone knows what other stuff in the attic. I always promise that I will go up there and sort it out. Who needs a playstation if you still have your 400 and the Star Raiders cartridge?

So that is it. Maybe not the full story, but page6.org will always let me update it as memory cells kick back in again. The point about this story is that someone out there will say, "Yes, I remember ...........". If you do, please get in touch with page6.org [contact] and reminisce along with us.

Mark Hutchinson, January 2003

P.S. Below I have sorted out a list of those people who contacted me over the years - is your name there? I would like to mention all, but I will say hello to just a few. Garry from Australia, a fellow columnist in the early days; Stan, Harold & Albert who were good friends; Paul & Lucia for their hand made paper; Colin (Bournemouth & Poole AUG); Ian ("Gnome at Home" BB); Les & Sandy for making it all happen and, finally, to all of you for making it worthwhile!

THANK YOU.

_____________

 

PEOPLE WHO WROTE TO "FIRST STEPS" 

I have held on to most of the letters from readers of my column. I never intentionally discarded any letters but Tempus Fugit, as they say, and things disappear. Any I have lost is a matter of sadness for me. This is the list of the names of those who sent surviving letters from the early 1980's onwards. I only include names and towns. Some may not have addresses as they included an S.A.E. and I failed to note the address down.

If you see your name here, or recognise the individual, please get in touch with me via page6.org. I would be most interested to hear from you.

L. Arnold

Littlehampton, W. Sussex
M. Alvin Harlow, Essex
M. Al-Yousfi Sbahia, Kuwait
Jason Aldridge Hermitage, Berks.
D.P. Allen Mytchett, Camberley
Paul Allton Yeovil, Somerset
H. Baines Bretton, Peterborough
Cherry Boulain Totton, Hants
Ian Bateman Dursley, Glocs.
Lal Bell Athboy, R.O.I.
Ronnie Bracke Wachtebeke, Belgium
Ellen Barnes Swallownest, Sheffield
Albert Bidwell Brandon, Suffolk
Norman Butler.
D. Burley Grimsby, S. Humberside
A. Blackburn Fraserburgh, Aberdeen
Peter Boulter Twickenham, Middlesex
Ian Binns Lytham, Lancs.
H. Barrett
Michael S. Beattie Whitley Bay, Newcastle
Arnold Beecroft Taunton, Somerset
Ray Baxter Morden, Surrey
 
Lal Cook Canning Town, London
Jeffrey Cuckson Newtownabbey, N.I.
Eddie & Linda Cousins Sutherland, Scotland
Sam Cheung St. Albans, Herts.
Carol Curley Harrogate, N. Yorks.
Andrew Colins Stainland, Halifax
Vincent Campion Portlaoise, R.O.I.
Paul & Lucia Clark Positano, Italy
Colin Chandler Walsall, W. Midlands
Adam Cates Lytham, Lancs.
Jim Cutler Gt. Yarmouth, Lancs.
 
Alex Dudney Durham
Domhnall Dods S. Queensferry, Lothian
G. Dutton Edlington, Doncaster
Joe Debney Solihull, W. Midlands
Matthew De-Monti Wellingborough, Northants.
Ron Dennis Nottingham
Tony Davis Ballynahinch, N.I.
S.R. Davis Sheppey, Kent
 
Les Ellingham Parkside, Stafford
A. Eaton Selly Oak, Birmingham
C.D. Edwards Croyden
 
Garry Francis N.S.W., Australia
D.E. Fogarty Salisbury, Wilts.
J. Fuller Woodley, Reading
Stan Fallaize Leigh-on-Sea, Essex
 
Mr. Garrison Sheldon, Birmingham
David Gatcum Hayward's Heath, Sussex
Mrs. D.A. Gascoine Whitchurch, Hants.
Arthur Golding Barnet, Hants.
Max Gerum Peterlee, Durham
Russell Goring Crofton, W. Yorks.
 
John Hendry Bishopbriggs, Glasgow
Colin W. Hunt Poole, Dorset
Ian D. Hillson Richmond, Surrey
John Hurdle Harpenden, Herts.
Nigel Hollyman Herne Bay, Kent
Dave Hitchens Blackpool, Lancs.
Steve Haslam
C. Hawes Worthing, Sussex
 
James Johnston Gt. Yarmouth, Norfolk
Ken Jagger Leeds, W. Yorks.
Ron James Ribbleton, Preston
John B. Jarvis Chesham, Bucks.
 
Chris Kemp Longniddry, Lothian
Dave Kelly Skelmersdale, Lancs.
 
T.M. Lloyd-Lee Weston Super Mare, Avon
Mr. Levett Middlesborough, Cleveland
R. Lipscombe Bognor Regis, Sussex
Malcolm Little Rainham, Essex
Len Lawson Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk
 
Mr. Murray Fleetwood, Lancs.
R. McDonald Wirral, Merseyside
K. McCormick Dukinfield, Cheshire
C.H. Moon Lancing, Sussex
Mark Montgomery Newtownabbey, N.I.
Geoff McHugh Hamiltonsbawn, N.I.
T. McCabe Slough, Berks.
Gavin Moram Stevenage, Herts.
Mitch Mitchum Shirley, Solihull
John Milford Cliftonville, Kent
Arthur Morris Tregaron, Dyfed
K. Marshall King's Norton, Birmingham
 
Alan Norman Hatfield, Herts.
Jiri Nedjedly Prerov, Czechoslovakia
 
Robert O'Hare Middlewich, Cheshire
T.M. O'Neill Glenrothes, Fife
Ann O'Driscoll Rahenny, Dublin
 
T. Peacey Scarborough, N. Yorks.
Andrew S. Perry Larkhall, Lanarkshire
M. Pursglove Brighton, Essex
Paul Pratt Courthouse Green, Coventry
Mr. Pullinger Aylesbury, Bucks.
Stephen Plunkett Drogheda, R.O.I.
David & Jackie Payne Edermunde-Besse, Germany
Martin Parry Llandudno, Gwynedd
Martin Plunkett Barnsley, S. Yorks.
Mike Parfitt Tottenham, London
Dr. A. Prajad Nuneaton, Warks.
 
Rod Reeves Burton on Trent, Staffs.
Martin Reed Churchdown, Glocs.
Harold Ragsdale Crieff, Perthshire
J.E. Robinson Millom, Cumbria
Paul Regan Dublin, R.O.I.
K. Ramshaw Hetton-le-Hole, Tyne & Wear
 
Frankie Smyth Belfast, N.I.
Carl Stanley Carlisle
Derek Shipley Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex
R.J. Sandercock Haverfordwest, Dyfed
Basil Spooner Fishguard, Dyfed
Paul M. Spinks Edinburgh
David Sharpe Monaghan, R.O.I.
 
David Tierney Derry City, N.I.
J. Thornton Oldham, Lancs.
Linda Tinkler Wirral, Merseyside
Tony Tokely Chapelfields, Coventry
John Thrasher Crewe, Cheshire
Brian T. Trevett Wimbourne, Dorset
Sgt. Malcolm Taylor B.F.P.O. 112
Keith Taylor Bootle, Merseyside
Jack Taylor Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria
Matthew Trimby Portishead, Bristol
A. Thompson Cwmbran, Gwent
J. Tolan Wardle, Lancs.
 
Jacqueline Wilkinson Wellingborough, N. Hants.
P. Thorpe Willett Redcar, Cleveland
S. Wayne Palmer's Green, London
John Ward Acock's Green, Birmingham
Malcolm Williams Hemel Hempstead, Herts.
Steve Wilson Weeping Cross, Staffs.
Cliff Winship Churchdown, Glocs.
Duncan Wells Darlington, Durham
N.C. Williamson Sutton, Surrey
Terry & Jackie Watts Borrowash, Derby
Stephen R. Wilds Mallorca
Barry Wilshaw Felixstowe, Suffolk
Geoff Wells Coventry
L. Wright Cirencester, Glocs.

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