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
First Steps Tutorials - All
were "limited edition" produced individually for the
customer. A couple were signed by the author, making them more
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
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
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.
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!
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.
|Michael S. Beattie
||Canning Town, London
|Eddie & Linda
||St. Albans, Herts.
||Harrogate, N. Yorks.
|Paul & Lucia
||Walsall, W. Midlands
||Gt. Yarmouth, Lancs.
|Mrs. D.A. Gascoine
||Crofton, W. Yorks.
|Colin W. Hunt
|Ian D. Hillson
||Herne Bay, Kent
||Leeds, W. Yorks.
|John B. Jarvis
||Weston Super Mare,
||Bognor Regis, Sussex
||Bury St. Edmunds,
|Andrew S. Perry
|David & Jackie
||Barnsley, S. Yorks.
|Dr. A. Prajad
||Burton on Trent,
|Paul M. Spinks
||Derry City, N.I.
|Brian T. Trevett
|Sgt. Malcolm Taylor
|P. Thorpe Willett
|Terry & Jackie
|Stephen R. Wilds