The first ever Rants and Raves column saw the light of day in the first ever issue of the UK’s Computer Shopper magazine in March 1988 (see Here). Back then Computer Shopper was printed in beautiful black and white on a variety of slightly yellowing newsprint which bore than a passing resemblance to cheap toilet paper. It was crying out for a column like Rants and Raves!
By that point in my career, I already had a track history of writing blithering nonsense for the less literary end of the journalism business. I had whiled away the preceding three years interviewing pop stars such as Duran Duran and Depeche Mode and writing occasional astrology columns for a teenage girls’ magazine.
Over the years the incredible ability of my fingers to type words faster than my brain can think of them has probably been the one thing that’s kept me in work while more talented hacks have fallen by the wayside. However, I digress. Which brings me to the second quality (here I use the word ‘quality’ loosely) of my writing: I digress. Not just at this moment, I don’t mean, but all the time. In fact, I don’t merely digress; I positively ramble. One moment there I am, fully determined to write three thousand words about relational database technologies and the next moment I find myself blathering on about my cat’s uncanny ability, though tiny, to snatch a saucer of milk from under the large and juicy nose of my huge and slavering Pyrenean Mountain Dog. Or at least, I used to. My cat, Millie, has now, alas, passed away into those huge mouse-hunting fields in the sky. And so, alas again, has my dog, Bran. Though that doesn’t mean you’ll be spared my musings upon our the canine friends. I now have another dog, named Bethan, who is huge, ferocious, destructive and strangely loveable. No doubt she’ll have much to say on the progress of modern technology in the months ahead….
Bethan, my invaluable collaborator on this column
Anyway, where was I…?
Ah, yes, March 1988. Mrs Thatcher was prime minister, Mr Reagan was president and I was editing a magazine called The Amstrad PC Buyer’s Guide. I’d taken over the editing job from a chap named Kevin Cox who had foolishly decided to slap the words “1000 products rated and reviewed” all over the cover. He’d been editing the first issue of the magazine for a few weeks and had rated and reviewed approximately eleven products when someone happened to mention my name to him. “You should see the stuff he writes!” this fellow gushed in an appropriately awestruck tone. “Good, is he?” asked Cox as he absently rated and reviewed a passing bluebottle. “Good? Nah! He’s rubbish. But, by heck, he’s fast!”
So, to cut a long story short, the beleaguered Kevin Cox gave up trying to rate and review the mythical 1000 products all by himself and embarked upon the more profitable activity of stuffing said products into large sacks for immediate dispatch to the Collingbourne household. We never did hit the 1000 mark but I did at least manage to wade through a few hundred word processors, spreadsheets, databases, disk utilities, memory management programs and programming language compilers in the week or so appointed to the task. Kevin Cox, meanwhile, had decided that he wasn’t really cut out to edit magazines so he promptly moved up to the rarefied rank of publisher (in a big publishing company, there are hosts of people called publishers who spend the day in activities which are unfathomable to everyone else but seem to involve a good many all-expenses-paid lunches). From issue 2, I became the editor of said journal. Shortly after that, Kevin Cox launched Computer Shopper and I was recruited as its PC columnist. Thus was Rants and Raves born.
Initially, nobody seemed quite sure whether the column would ramble on for a few months or whether it would simply die from lack of coherence. In fact it rambled on in Shopper for several more years until, one fine day, the editor of a rival magazine, PC Plus (one Dave Pearman of fond memory), decided that he’d like me to rant in his magazine instead. At the time I couldn’t see much point in switching allegiance from one magazine to another. And then Dave came up with the wizard wheeze of letting me rant in multimedia. It turned out that he had no idea what ‘ranting in multimedia’ meant which made two of us, as neither did I. But whatever it meant it sounded like fun so I resolved to give it a go.
What has Flash Gordon got to do with computers? Frankly, I forget...
In the event, what it meant was that once a month I’d spend a hot afternoon stuck inside an airless studio nattering away to a video camera. After a couple of months, I decided that this was less fun than I’d been expecting. So, from then on, instead of just ranting, I decided that we’d go into the movie business. For the next two years, my director, Wendy Smith (who’s now called Barratt - the surname, that is - her sex remains the same, only her marital status has changed) and I connived to make films which were astonishing both for the range of topics they addressed and their almost total irrelevance to PCs. Given the fact that the videos went on the cover disc of a PC magazine, their blithe disregard for anything that smacked of computers seemed to me (if not to the publisher) to be entirely a good thing. We made spoofs of The Avengers and Flash Gordon, we filmed an interview with an expert on the beasts of Bodmin Moor, we did a heavy metal version of The Village People and, on one memorable occasion, we even went to the Nevada Desert in search of aliens (see Here)! Ah, happy days….
The multi-talented Mary Branscombe here plays three Village People at once!
During this time, the then PC Plus features editor, Mary Branscombe, was recruited (not exactly against her will) as my regular partner. She was Mrs Peel to my John Steed, Scully to my Mulder - she was even a Village Person, complete with hard hat and false moustache. When Mary left, the PC Plus editorial team lost that vital pinch of salt with which it had previously taken things (catch up with Mary at her web site www.sandm.co.uk - fear not, it isn't quite as raunchy as its address may suggest!). Shortly after, I pulled the plug on the multimedia version of Rants and Raves though I continued writing the column in the magazine for many years. In fact, I was still writing it four editors after Dave Pearman had left until, finally, I could stand it no longer (this is a polite way of saying that I had “editorial and contractual differences” with the latest editor - and that’s a polite way of saying, well, something that there really is no polite way of saying….)
For some reason, Mary's career in video usually involved a good deal of gratuitous violence upon my person. Here, in our Avengers tribute, she lands a kick which I would remember for weeks to come..
In its heyday, in Computer Shopper, Rants and Raves rambled over three pages and 3,300 words. By the time it migrated to PC Plus, it was reduced to a mere 1,500 words. By the time I quit writing for PC Plus, it had dwindled to an insignificant 750 words or so - barely space enough to report on the dog’s latest adventures let alone to muse upon more tedious matters relating to computers and the like.
At this point, I realised that I could either cast off Rants and Raves like an old sock, unloved and uncared for after all those years or I could find a nice new home for it - preferably a home without an editor attached. And that is why, dear reader, you find us here today…. home at last!