Wiffle Lever To Full!

Daleks, Death Stars and Dreamy Sci-Fi Nostalgia…

Archive for February, 2009

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 59

Tuesday 28th February 1984

Woke up at 7.45 and got up at 8.10. First at school I had a read, then we went in for Hymn Practice. When we came out I did Topic, then I read again. After that I wrote some of my long story and at 12.00 I had dinner. After dinner I played cricket and at 12.30 I went into Computer club.

Me, Ozzie and Tucker wrote a program for calculating Skill and Stamina in a fighting fantasy book. Came out at 1.45 and did some Some Maths, then I wrote some of a story I had started Yonkers ago. At 3.15 I came home and at 3.45 I went to Doug’s and we took K9 to my house.

Then we took some photgraphs of him and at 4.40 we watched Charlie Brown. At 5.05 Doug went home and at 5.10 I watched Grange Hill. At 5.40 I watched Tucker’s Luck and at 6.15 I wrote a Poggy Doggy game for the ZX. At 9.00 I watched Alas Smith and Jones and at 9.30 I went to bed.

‘Me, Ozzie and Tucker wrote a program for calculating Skill and Stamina in a fighting fantasy book’ Woah!!! Get back behind the barrier, ladies, and form an orderly queue!

Yes, clearly bored with playing playground cricket amongst Orange Fruitie wrappers and clouds of wasps, I’d decided to embrace my inner geek (rapidly becoming a very outer geek) and enroll… yikes… for ‘Computer Club’. An excuse for half-a-dozen pale young boys raised entirely on Mother’s Pride egg sandwiches to gather around a fawn BBC Micro on a trolley and do some (ahem) ‘serious coding’ in peace without being bothered by Christopher Herbert waffing his own farts around and laughing maniacally.


If there’s anything in the world more quintessentially mid-80s geeky than writing programs to aid Fighting Fantasy statistic-keeping on a BBC Micro then I’d like to see it. Sealed in a hermetic, aroma-proof container, naturally.

I like the word ‘Yonkers’ here. Definitely a variation on my parents own use of the word ‘yonks’ to mean any time between one and thirty years ago. Not sure if it has any linguistic connection to the phrase ‘donkeys’ years’, a phrase I still like to regularly drop into conversation, if only to see the puzzlement on young peoples’ faces.

It’s the only pleasure I get these days.


The ‘long story’, by the way, was a rambling sci-fi epic involving the teenage space fighter pilot Zak Quarquon and his quest to depose the merciless Lord Wav Kinquex, warlord of the planet Drexel. Something like that anyway… I’m making it up as a I go along now, just I was exactly 25 years ago today. Whenever I handed the latest instalment to Mrs Mulhearn for her perusal, her shoulders visibly slumped.

And, yay! An historic day after all. Our K9 photo-session in my garden is heavily documented in Chapter One of ‘Wiffle Lever To Full!’, as it required Doug and me to push our home-made, full-sized wooden K9 replica half a mile along the busy main road from his house to mine, in the face of a busy rush-hour traffic. As I point out in the book, this was the first time in my life I ever saw anyone make a fully-fledged ‘wanker’ sign. 

Taking the photos, however, feels amazingly fresh and clean and crisp in the memory. I don’t think I’d ever been so proud of anything in my life, and I’m not just talking about K9 here. My friendship with Doug and the way we’d worked tirelessly together on this utterly brilliantly daft venture made this a very special time for me indeed.

So here we are, in my back garden, exactly 25 years ago today. Doug’s in the blue top, I’m in the red socks and yes – that’s Poggy Doggy. I haven’t looked properly at these pictures for a long time, and I find it almost heartbreaking to look into our own eyes again. It’s Yonkers ago, but it really doesn’t seem it. 

Where does it all go? And can I have it back?


Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 58

Monday 27th February 1984


Woke up at 7.45 and got up at 8.00. First at school we went in for assembly then when we came out we went into Topic groups. Then I did some writing with Frankie about Italy. At 12.00 I had dinner and after dinner I played cricket with Ozzie, Gazzie, Doug and Nibbsy.

When we went in I did Maths and at 3.15 I came home and at 3.40 I went down to Doug’s and we started a new model called MOG-E. Then we went inside but were bored so we went outside again and played with K9.

Then we did some more of MOG-E and I went home at 5.00. At 5.10 I had tea and after tea I wrote a letter to Richard Moxham. Then I Washed my hair. At 8.00 I watched Duty Free and at 8.30 I wrote my diary. At 9.30 I went to bed.levendaleprimary


Ah, the end of a blissful week of half-term fun comes to an abrupt end. Still, at least Paul Frank (farm lad, black shirt with white tie, you remember) and I managed to console ourselves by writing about the lack of proper road transport in Venice. I’m pretty sure that’s what our Italian Topic project was about.


Good to see a game of cricket attempted between four people rather than the more traditional, but clearly misguided, 22. This time, darting between the two wasp-infested rubbish bins at either end of the playground, we’ll have had two batsmen, a bowler, and one hapless wicket-keeper (probably Nibbsy) whose job it was to chase dejectedly after every single ball that Gaz or Doug had lamped with wild abandon 50 yards over the school hedgerow.   

It was probably character-building, but only if you’re determined to become a really embittered, twisted and vindictive character.


I’m still really impressed by mine and Doug’s ability to move swiftly from one woodwork project to another. Although… (dramatic music)… this one was to be our downfall. Yes, sadly MOG-E was our bete noir, The One That Got Away. As you can probably guess, he was a wooden robot cat (and yes, the excruciating pun was mine) but he barely got beyond the prototype stage before we re-assessed our progress and decided that we really couldn’t be arsed. He’s probably still stuck at the back of Doug’s old garage somewhere, mewing softly and wondering when his ears are and legs are going to be attached.

There was another project on the way, though… stay tuned!


And back home in time for Duty Free! I always had it in mind that I’d watched this uber-Eighties sitcom from the start, but clearly I didn’t – this was the third episode of the debut series. For the benefit of our younger viewers, Duty Free was a very, VERY broad farce acted between two middle-aged couples on holiday in Spain, with one of the husbands (Keith Barron) having an affair with his counterpart’s wife (Joanna Van Gyseghem, who became a mid-80s ‘posh totty’ sex symbol despite it being obvious that Barron’s on-screen wife Gwen ‘Life Of Brian’ Taylor was actually far sexier). 

It was basically like watching an entire three-series sitcom built around Howard and Marina’s affair in Last Of The Summer Wine. And, amazingly, it was topping the TV charts by the end of the series, causing a tabloid sensation by knocking the seemingly unassailable Coronation Street from its perch.

Written by Eric ‘Rising Damp’ Chappell though, so it can’t have been too shabby… can it? I haven’t seen it since 1986, so I’m probably in no position to judge.

And if ‘at 8.30 I wrote my diary’ then when did I write ‘at 9.30 I went to bed’? Doctor, it’s a temporal paradox! Quick… is that an eddy in the space-time continuum racing towards us?

(No, it’s actually one of Doug’s cricket strokes entering geo-stationary orbit. Get after it, Nibbsy…)

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 57

Sunday 26th February 1984

Woke up at 9.15 and got up at 10.15. I started to do some more of the Doctor Who program but Doug rang and I went to his house. We touched up K9 and painted the antennae then I came home and Doug caught up with me.

At my house we did some of the Doctor Who program, then we had a few games and after that we went upstairs and mucked about. When we came downstairs we took Poggy Doggy for a walk past the woods and down Private Lane. Then we came back at about 5.20 and went inside until 5.30 When Doug went home.

At 5.45 I had tea and after tea I wrote some of the Doctor Who program but it all crashed so I switched it off for a while. At 7.15 I watched One by One, at 8.5 I wrote my diary and at 8.35 I watched Ever decreasing circles. At 9.05 I had a bath, at 9.20 I watched That’s life and at 10.10 I went to bed.

K9 needed a lot of touching up, didn’t he? There must have been streaks of grey paint all over the walls in Doug’s house.

Going ‘down Private Lane’, although it sounds like a depraved euphemism, was all above board. Well, sort of. Walking down the main road, past my house and away in the opposite direction from Doug’s house and Yarm High Street, we entered a rural idyll. My garden backed onto a huge expanse of farmers’ fields (belonging to Mr Smith, our next-door neighbour’s burly, bearded Geoff Capes-lookalike son) and amongst those were dotted sproadic clumps of woodland.


Private Lane snaked from the main road into one of these copses. A handful of houses were dotted around its edge, but they didn’t interest us. We just wanted to be in the woods, which held two main attractions for us. Firstly, a regular selection of torn-up pages from Razzle magazine, and secondly THE MOST SENSATIONAL COLLECTION OF CONKER TREES IN THE WORLD.


Obviously February’s not an ideal time to be conkering, so clearly we’d taken Poggy Doggy with us to snuffle out some prime examples of mid-1980s smut from under the bushes. Although there were probably the mouldering remains of last year’s harvest still dotted around the woodland floor. I’m talking about both smut and conkers now, by the way.

As the year progressed, we spent increasing number of afternoons clambering around these woods, building dens and tarzies and trying to ride up the trees on our bikes.  A dense, thick area of North Yorkshire woodland is still my favourite lump of natural environment, with only the upland Arctic tundra coming a rather distant second.


I’m also quite proud of the fact that my generation of 11-year-olds were able to program computers. Not just drag a few windows around the screen, but actually start from scratch and CODE. After fourteen months of ZX81 ownership I was becoming rather a dab hand at programming, and although I was by no means the best in the world (that was Jason Robson in the year below me) I was definitely up for making a few Daleks roam around the portable TV screen, even if they did look like this…


Are you watching, Jason Robson? Are you? ARE YOU???

No surprise that ‘it all crashed’ though. When it came to solid, dependable reliability, the ZX81 was up there with the Large Hadron Collider and Pete Doherty. And a ZX81 crash was far more permanent than your average 2009 PC wobbly. As ‘saving’ any of my work in progress generally required faffing around with a portable tape recorder (covered in streaks of grey paint) for anything up to 40 minutes, I tended not to bother. 

Amidst such early Eighties adversity were great scientific temperaments cultivated. Not mine, I hasten to add, I’ve got all the cool, collected patience of a seventh birthday party. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if, at the centre of the world’s largest high-energy particle accelerator 175 metres beneath the streets of Geneva, is a little black computer with plastic keys and a 16K rampack.

And Pete Doherty.

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 56

Saturday 25th February 1984

Woke up at 8.10 but went back to sleep and Woke up again at 9.15. At 10.15 I got up and at 10.30 Doug rang and I went down to his house at 10.35. At Doug’s we touched K9 up then went back to my house and played on the ZX81.

Then we went on Conyers field and played football, and when we came back we cut out some cardboard antennae for K9, then we went back to Doug’s and stuck them together. When we came back to my house we had a hamburger then we wrote a letter to Doctor Who monthly.

After that we went to Doug’s and put the antennae on K9, then we took Doug’s bike over the estate near Doug’s house, onto the kebble estate then we got lost on the Mcleans estate and came out about a mile off course.

Then we went on Conyers and did skids and at 5.00 Doug went home. 5.30 had tea and after tea I started a Doctor Who program on the ZX. At 8.15 I watched Les Dawson and at 9.45 I went to bed.

Another blissful half-time day spent arsing around and making nuisances of ourselves!


I miss being small, and my tiny home town providing ample opportunities for adventure. I loved the fact that Doug and I could get hopelessly lost in the housing estates a mile from our own houses, and we did… regularly. It felt fabulous being out on our bikes by ourselves, and not really knowing where we were.  Would we have to camp down for the night in Knaith Close, and live on the half-packet of Fruit Polos that Doug had in his parka pocket? We actually really, really wanted to… (Although, if pushed, I’d have expressed a preference for Chewitts)

The cold weather gave things an extra frisson, too. If my memories of the 1970s are all orange and brown, then by the early 1980s the world was pale. Empty white skies, stonewashed jeans, shiny metallic music and the beige, unsullied newness of the freshly-constructed estates around Yarm. They’re part of the fabric of the town now, but in 1984 these houses were fresh additions to an old, close-knit farming community. ‘Mcleans’ and ‘Kebble’ weren’t local names, they were the names of the construction companies building new homes for young Eighties families in pastel-shaded jumpers and Mark 2 Ford Fiestas.


All of this and ‘skids’ too! Or, to give the practice its proper title, ‘pulling skids’. Using the tarmac path running around the perimeter of Conyers School as our Raleigh Chopper Formula 1 track, we’d pelt hell for leather on our bikes to an agreed point, then slam on the brakes and yank the handlebars round into a terrifying curve. The resulting skids frequently propelled us into a giggling heap of legs, hair and Parka on the freezing tarmac, and yet the only hint of permanent damage was the occasional crack of an unlucky Fruit Polo.

I did, however, spend pretty much the entire first thirteen years of my life in trousers with tattered knees, the ragged flaps of St Michael polyester hanging loose to reveal… well, my own tattered knees behind them.

Good to see K9 edging closer to completeness! So, in the first two months of the year, I’d constructed two robots and written a full-length Fighting Fantasy book. Incredibly prolific stuff, and what ambitions did it leave me to fulfill? Oh blimey… writing a letter to Doctor Who Monthly…


We did, too. I remember it well. We sat in my bedroom, Doug shouting suggestions from atop my pale yellow bedspread (amazingly, duvets didn’t reach the Fischer household until 1985) and me frantically hammering on the green Hermes 3000 typewriter that bore the brunt of all my early 80s literary efforts. The letter expressed a few concerns about the plot details of ‘Frontios’ (‘Howcome the TARDIS materialised underground by itself after being clearly destroyed in Episode 1? Did we miss something?’ Erm… yes) and suggested that Will Chandler, the grubby 17th century urchin from ‘The Awakening’ should have stayed aboard the TARDIS as a cracking new companion. Which I still don’t think would have been a bad idea…

Nice to see mention of a ‘hamburger’ as well. Bear in mind these were the salad days (ho ho) before the first McDonalds appeared on Teesside, so what we’ll have actually eaten will have been a gritty, dark-brown Findus frisbee chucked into my Mum’s greasy frying pan and then shoved between two slices of white Mother’s Pride bread. I’m lovin’ it…

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 55

Friday 24th February 1984

Woke up at 9.00 and got up at 9.45. At 10.00 I rang Doug and then I went down to Doug’s house and painted K9’s face red. Then Doug touched up the grey and I put the stickers on the control box. Then we went to my house and typed in a ZX81 program called Fire.

After a few games on that I read a letter that Richard Moxham had sent. Then we had bacon and egg and after that we went on Conyers field and played football. When we came back we had a muck about and about threeish we went on the field again.

We lost the ball twice in a garden and just climbed over the hedge.

After a while we came back and at 5.5 We watched Grange Hill and at 5.40 Doug went home. At 6.40 I watched Doctor Who and at 7.00 I watched the A Team. At 8.00 I Watched That’s my boy and at 8.45 I watched Points of view.

Can ASBOs be awarded retrospectively? Look – I’m being naughty!!!


Alright, so climbing over a hedge to retrieve our football from somebody’s garden is hardly up there with the Baader-Meinhof gang. In fact it’s not even up there with Dennis The Menace’s gang (I always wanted to be Pieface) but it’s something that – even two months earlier than this – I really wouldn’t have dared attempt.

I didn’t have a strict upbringing at all, my parents were lovely, but for the first eleven years of my life I was very meek and polite and well-behaved, and until 1984 my preferred approach to the football/garden dilemma would undoubtedly have been to traipse around to the front door of the house, knock gently and politely ask if I could ‘possibly have mai footh’ball back, plahse’ in an accent that would have made Little Lord Fauntleroy scratch his britches and say ‘Blimey, he’s a bit of a toff, isn’t he?’


All of which implies that I was letting my standards slip a bit, but I don’t see it like that at all. I was just – as my Mum would no doubt say – ‘coming out of myself a bit’ and it was probably long overdue. And having Doug as my best friend was the main contributing factor, because – like all the bestest of best friends – he brought out the bestest in me. Doug was far more outgoing and streetwise than me, and I don’t think it was a bad thing that a little bit of that was starting to rub off.

Anyway, the garden was sandwiched between Conyers comprehensive school field (a delightful mudbath with the occasional football post stuck in it at a janty angle) and the big, Edwardian-style houses on the main road between my house and Doug’s. It was only a little hedge, the ball was a matter of feet away, and the garden was a bloody tip, so we didn’t see any harm.

Besides, the bloke who lived in it was – in Doug’s words – an ‘auld feller’, so what was he going to do about it? These thoughts were foremost in my mind as I clambered over the hedge and – oh, the shame – JUMPED INTO SOMEBODY ELSE’S GARDEN WITHOUT BEING INVITED.


I can remember my heart racing and even feeling a little bit faint. What if the curtains twitched, and the ‘auld feller’ with his piercing eyes caught sight of me? What if he was a wizard, like the one in The Forest Of Doom, and tangled me in a web of dastardly magic before running my football through with a two-handed broadsword? Or – even worse – what if he knew who I was, and went to tell my parents?

These myriad thoughts collided together in my over-sensitive head as I plucked our football from a nest of laburnum bushes. I threw it back to Doug, clambered over the hedge, and swore never to fall foul of the law EVER AGAIN.

Until ten minutes later, when another of my ambitious free kicks soared over the capsizing crossbar, and I had to go back.

Good to see K9 reaching completion anyway, and another letter from Richard Moxham (my earlier bestest friend, remember – he emigrated to Canada when we were eight) arriving on the doormat that morning. We used to write voraciously to each other – all about The A-Team and Star Wars and TJ Hooker – although I remember being very aware of our differing cultural upbringings when he sent me a letter coated in the spiky, alien-looking logos of Van Halen and Twisted Sister.


I was always more of a Frankie Goes To Hollywood man. 

Nice to see a namecheck for Points Of View as well, still presented at this stage by the mighty Barry Took, and no doubt packed with letters complaining about the treatment of Bonnie Langford by The Adventure Game’s hungry vortex…

By the way, I think everyone should say hello to Gaz ‘Gazzie’ Jones, Hilton resident, Philips Videopac G7000 owner and a man who knows a lot about the location of mid-1980s bus stops. He’s posted on Volumes 28 and 37, making him the first star of the actual 1984 diary to make a personal appearance on here!


(He’ll never speak to me again now… ;-))

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 54

Thursday 23rd February 1984

Woke up at 9.30 and got up at 9.45 When Doug rang. When I got down at Doug’s he had started to paint K9 in white undercoat and I helped him finish it. Then mam came down and me and Doug went down to Yarm with her. Got a Sinclair programs. Then Doug’s mam gave us a lift down to my house.

Then me and Doug played on the ZX and at 1.30 Doug went home because he had to go to the hospital. Then I typed a program in the ZX called Miner, taped it, then played it until 3.30 When Doug came back and we played Miner. At 4.00 we went back to Doug’s and painted K9 grey then at 5.00 I came home.

At 5.30 I had tea and at 5.40 I watched The Adventure game and at 6.40 I watched Doctor Who. At 7.00 I played Miner then at 7.30 I watched Carry on lauging. 9.00 Watched The Steam Video Company and at 9.30 I went to  bed.

I still think our full-sized wooden K9, coated entirely in off-white undercoat, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. It was like a ghost K9, come to haunt our childhoods for six short hours before getting the tin of grey gloss we’d bought from Woolies lashed all over it. And – no doubt – us. I think I was still picking grey chunks out of my hair six months later. In fact, if you look closely, you can even see a few flecks of grey K9 paint dotted along my temples to this very day…

Some incredibly complicated travel arrangements here. My Mum didn’t drive in 1984, so she must have walked down to Doug’s house from ours and somehow persuaded us to come with her on the rest of the half-mile walk. Then, I’m guessing, we met Doug’s Mum somewhere in the High Street and she drove us back, with me clutching my brand new copy of Sinclair Programs.

I’ve just found this fabulous online picture of Yarm High Street in the mid-1980s, and it takes me right back…


I’ve no idea why Doug had to go to hospital (probably emergency surgery to have the white undercoat removed from his parka) but it’s good to see I wasted no time in cranking up the ZX81 while he was under the knife. Now… it’s natural when you see the words ‘ZX’ and ‘Miner’ together to assume ‘Yes! Manic Miner for the Spectrum’. (When I say ‘natural’ I do, of course, mean ‘obsessively retentive with tendencies to spend too much time thinking about BASIC subroutines’. But hey, we all have our guilty pleasures…)


But no… I was still ten months away from owning a ZX Spectrum (although I frequently dreamed about them and would wake up all flushed with my heart racing), so this will have been another typey-in game from the pages of Sinclair Programs. I can’t remember much about it, but it probably involved… well, a miner (made, like all ZX81 graphics, out of asterisks, semi-colons and letter ‘O’s) chasing dollar signs around a blocky cave. No wonder Doug lasted half an hour before dragging me away to get some nice, healthy, outdoor paint fumes down me.

OK, Doctor Whoey bit – tonight was Part One of Planet Of Fire, an episode that many male, heterosexual Doctor Who fans hold in high regard for its complex plotting, bravura acting performances and – oh – THE FACT THAT NEW COMPANION NICOLA BRYANT SPENDS THE ENTIRE EPISODE FLOUNCING AROUND IN A TINY BIKINI.


It probably speaks volumes about me that… well, I didn’t even notice. Not a bit. As far as I was concerned Doctor Who was about dangerous derring-do and time travel and fighting evil stuff, and the fact that the new companion Peri wasn’t really dressed for Middlesbrough in February didn’t register with me at all. The only thing that did threaten to distract me from the story was the sound of my Dad weeping into the Evening Gazette, clearly distraught that he’d raised a robotic son immune to the lure of human flesh. Or he might just have been reading the latest Boro match report…

And the contestants on tonight’s Adventure Game were occasional Newsround substitute Paul McDowell, reigning Mastermind champion (and future Egghead!) Chris Hughes and – wait for it – the mighty Bonnie Langford. But by this point I had eyes only for Rongad the backwards-talking Australian, and it sparked me off on a craze for talking backwards myself as often as possible. A practice that would drive my form teacher Mrs Keasey to the verge of a nervous breakdown over the ensuing weeks.


Doogy rev, doogy rev…

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 53

Wednesday 22nd February 1984

Woke up at 9.15 and got up at 9.45. Then I rang Doug to see if he could come down and go to Stockton and he could so I walked Poggy Doggy down and met him. We got the 11.00 bus to Stockton, and first we went in Smiths and saw an A Team book.

On the way down to Uptons we saw the knight rider car in the shopping centre and in Uptons we looked at the videopac games. Then we got some grey paint from Woolworths and some stickers from Dressers. Then we got some red paint from Leslie Browns.  Came home at 1.30, Had a bacon sandwich then went to Dougs and touched up K9 with wood putty.

Then we started a cricket program on the ZX. After that we went on Conyers field and played football, Then we had tea. At 7.20 Doug’s mam came for him and I played on the videopac. Then I read my MAD and played on the ZX. After that at 8.40 I tidied some Dr Who mags up and at 9.00 I watched Minder. 10.00 Went to bed.

What a daring leap into a very alien world of retail! We visited four high street shops on this ambitious expedition to Stockton, and… wait for it… none of them are there any more. Yikes.

Well, alright… there’s still a WH Smiths in Stockton, but it’s not in the same place. In 1984, Smiths was a cornerstone of the town’s thriving High Street, but it recently moved to smaller premises in an almost-but-not-quite-out-of-town retail park away behind the opposite side of the street. It now looks like it’s hiding from the rough, tough bullies of Pound Shops and discount bars that seem to have taken over the main part of the High Street.  


Of the rest… well, I’m sure anyone but the most dedicated troglodyte (who, as we all know, do all their weekly shopping online) knows about the demise of Woolies.

I walked past the old Stockton branch last week, and it was a sad sight… the classic Woolworths sign still hangs forlornly over a completely empty and desolate shop unit. It looked cold, and old, and lonely… and several times smaller than the bustling, busy shop that I remember as a kid – filled with colours and toys and sweets and exciting Star Wars goodies. And, of course, grey paint… for our model K9’s wooden body, in case you were wondering.   

Uptons was a North-Eastern department store pretty much next to Woolies in the Castlegate Shopping Centre. It had a thriving electrical department where my parents’ friend Alex worked… a funny, dapper little man with Kenny Everett’s beard and, on his desk, a pile of home-made TDK D90 compilation tapes labelled ‘Now That’s What Alex Calls Terrible Music’ with a Berol Handwriter pen. I thought this was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen. I’d like to say I didn’t get out much, but my 1984 diary pretty much proves otherwise.


Dressers was another small North-Eastern business, a stationary shop (as in it sold stationary… although let’s face it, it didn’t move about much either) crammed full of oil paints and coloured pencils and exciting piles of sticky-on Letraset. The stickers that we bought were just plain, coloured labels to put on top of K9’s control box to give the impression of brightly flashing knobs and buttons. Anyone who laughed there at the phrase ‘brightly flashing knobs’… go and sit at the back of the class. And face the wall, we don’t want to see your horrible face.


bobafettAnd Leslie Browns!!!!! Oh, bestill my beating heart. Leslie Browns was a family-run toyshop right at the heart of Stockton High Street, and I LOVED IT WITH ALL MY HEART. Half of my 1970s and 80s Star Wars collection came from here (the other half from Middlesbrough’s similarly brilliant Romer Parrish shop) and – in 1980 – I got my Empire Strikes Back book signed here by Boba Fett. Yes, the REAL Boba Fett. He tramped down the stairs (from the model train department) and was mobbed by a throng of horrible kids waving Star Wars Imperial Blasters at him. I’ve no idea what he was doing in Stockton, but I like to think he went for a wander around the market afterwards, and maybe bought a side of beef, a fresh cauliflower and some sports socks (three pairs for a pound) for Darth Vader.


The red paint we bought was modelling paint for K9’s ‘eyes’. I love the above picture, by the way… although what it doesn’t show is that the ‘ball’ being thrown by the little boy to the little girl on the shop’s front actually ‘moved’… the lights lit up to show it going backwards and fowards. Hooray, it’s like a Pink Floyd live show!


Leslie Brown’s itself stayed open until 1991, and on its last day of trading I nicked off from sixth form and had one last look around for old times sake. I was eighteen, and on the way out a little tear ran down my face. I’m so bloody soft.    

There is, of course, a huge elephant in the room here. Or, rather, a huge talking car in the Castlegate Shopping Centre. Hem, hem…

‘we saw the knight rider car in the shopping centre’

What?!?!??! How on Earth did this happen, and how on Earth do I have NO RECOLLECTION OF THIS WHATSOEVER? The Castlegate Shopping Centre is pretty modestly-sized, and it smells permanently of butchers shops and floor polish, so it’s hard to imagine that The Hoff himself made the journey (unless he fancied a swift half of floor polish). Presumably, then, the car was doing a solo tour in its capacity as the Art Garfunkel of the partnership. It’s gone from my mind completely, though. Can any Stockton-ites remember this at all?



I never watched Knight Rider mind you, I thought it was rubbish and too far-fetched. Much more realistic to have, say, an 800-year-old Time Lord pottering around the galaxy in a battered police box…

I tried to get onto Conyers field today to make a little film (it’s Yarm’s comprehensive school, and has huge expanses of football and rugby pitches) but it’s all fenced off and shuttered up these days. Until very recently you used to be able to wander around the fields and school grounds at will at all times of day and night, but now it’s like Stalag Luft. I’m not sure whether the intention is to keep the grotty bloggers out or the grotty schoolkids in.

And ‘went to Dougs and touched up K9’. Ha! Ha! Ha! Alright, I’m joining you at the back of the class. Facing the wall.

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 52

Tuesday 21st February 1984

Woke up at 8.45 and got up at 9.45. At 10.00 Doug rang to see if I could come down, and I could so I grabbed some paint and brushes and met Doug half way to his house. When we got there we made the control box for K9, and put it on. Then K9 was finished and only needed painting.

At 11.45 Mam came for me and I went home and had dinner. After dinner I got changed and at 1.10 Ozzie came for me and we went to his house. First we played Jetpac on the Spectrum, then we had a go on the sharp computer while the Spectrum Cricket game loaded. When we had finished we played Spectrum cricket and Ozzie won.

At 4.00 I came home and went to Doug’s but there was nobody in so I came back and had tea. 5.5 Watched Grange Hill, then at 6.40 I watched Tucker’s luck. After that I played on the videopac and at 9.00 I watched Alas Smith and Jones. 9.45 Went to bed.


The first time I ever played on a ZX Spectrum. Oh yes, the beginning of a headlong, passionate, life-changing five-year love affair began on this otherwise unremarkable chilly day in February.

Ozzie was, of course, Ian Oswald, my curly-haired Fighting Fantasy collaborator, and this was the first time I’d ever been invited to his fabulous rambling home in the nearby village of Maltby. Ozzie was smart and funny and a good mate, and – amazingly – he had TWO COMPUTERS in his house… partly the result, I think, of his Dad being a maths lecturer at the nearby Teesside Polytechnic. Or, as it became a few short years later, the somewhat grander-sounding  ‘University of Teesside’.


In 1984, dual computer ownership made the Oswalds a futuristic rocket family on a par with The Jetsons. In fact here are the whole clan travelling to the nearby Yorkshire Dragoon for their weekly Sunday dinner…

I’m almost (but only almost) proud of the fact that I can remember exactly which model of Sharp computer the Oswald family owned. It was a Sharp MZ80K, and it looked like this…


Look at the built-in tape recorder! THIS IS THE FUTURE!!!

As far as we were concerned, this was a rather grown-up, serious computer intended for household accounts and co-ordinating mutually assured nuclear missile strikes (a popular family pastime in Maltby). However, it did have a nifty, in-built version of ‘Hangman’ which would do to pass the time while the ZX Spectrum took fifteen minutes to load ‘Jetpac’, crashing twice along the way with the dreaded ‘R: Tape Loading Error’.

Jetpac was a legendary game though, and well worth the wait. It was produced by the godlike geniuses of the mysterious Ultimate Play The Game software house, virtually anonymous coders based in the mysterious (and surely fictional) hide-out of Ashby De La Zouch. And it was one of a string of hits that made them The Beatles of the North Leicestershire software world…

I can’t remember with 100% accuracy, but after a spell of gruelling, intensive research (thanks, Google) I think that the ‘Cricket’ game that we played was actually a typey-in game published in the Sinclair Programs magazine sometime in 1983.


So yes… for the benefit of our younger readers, these weren’t games bought ready-made on tape or disc or even (gasp) CD-R, but games whose code was published over several pages of an inky high street magazine. We pale-skinned young boys would then devote days of our lives to typing them in manually on the Spectrum’s rubber keyboard, usually getting through at least fifteen R: Tape Loading Errors, and anything up to six cartons of cold milk shoved up against overheating 16K rampacks.

And this is the result… yep, this IS Sinclair Programs’ version of ‘Cricket’…


If any of you have kids who constantly complain that their X-Box 360 or PS3 or Nintendo Wii games are ‘crap’, then I suggest you show them this. I think the fourth stickman on the left is Graham Dilley.

Good to see our model K9 moving on apace as well. We’d completed the ‘control box’ (ie the little oblong of switches and buttons on top of his body), although you’ll notice that despite braving my Dad’s ever-growing dead spider collection to ‘grab some paint and brushes’, we didn’t do any actual painting. Consider that a tantalising teaser for tomorrow’s diary entry…

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with my friend MJ Hibbett’s glorious paen to the ZX Spectrum. Firstly because it contains references to both Jetpac and R:Tape Loading Errors, but also because he speaks the truth…

‘The games you get today, well they might be very flash
But they’ll never beat the thrill of getting through Jetpac’

He’s right of course… games back then were built to last, and the X-Box 360, PS3 and Nintendo Wii are all crap. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

If anyone’s interested, MJ and I are playing a live gig together next Tuesday (24th) at the Lamb pub at 94 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London. It’s my first-ever London gig and it’d be lovely to see any of you there! Just getting my excuses in early in case next Wednesday’s diary entry is late.

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 51

Monday 20th February 1984

Woke up at 9.15 but went to sleep, and woke up again at 10.25. At 10.30 I got up and Doug rang, then I got some K9 mags and went down to Doug’s. We put the panel on K9’s side, then I made some lettering and Doug cut it out, then when we had stuck it onto K9 We came back to my house and had dinner.

After dinner we went back to Doug’s and finished the panel. Then I came back for a hand drill but it was in the car, so I went back to Doug’s. We made some antennae out of wire, Then put them on the head and finished the panels. Then made a screen.

At 3.45 I came home and had tea, then I looked at the Blackpool brochure. After that I wrote some of the Jewel and I played on the videopac when I got sick of writing. 9.30 Went in the bath and went to bed.

What better way to spend our half term holiday than polishing off our home-made full-size wooden replica of K9? Except he didn’t need polishing, he just needed a lick of paint. Yes, at this stage our K9 was still made of bare, unadorned wood – every panel being a different shade and texture because he was constructed entirely from left-over bits of timber from Doug’s Dad’s rabbit-hutch building business.

Still, let’s have a look at what we were working towards…


So, the ‘lettering’ was the ‘K-9’ on his side, which I drew with a blunt pencil onto a tatty square of Balsa wood before handing it over to Doug to ‘cut it out’, giving him sole responsibility for the Stanley knife beacause otherwise I was likely to remove a) one of my fingers b) one of Doug’s fingers, or c) most importantly, a crucial part of K9’s lettering.

The antenna are on the top of his head, and we made them out of wire mesh half-inched from a semi-completed rabbit hutch, and a chunk of cardboard cut from an old Tudor Crisps box at the back of the garage. Obviously back in 1977, the original Doctor Who producers would have given their right arms to be blessed with this kind of budget.

The ‘screen’ that we made is on the other side of K9… it’s just an extra piece of square panelling that resembles a portable Grundig TV screen stuck on the poor dog’s flank, presumably so that the Doctor – while out and about battling Daleks in the dusty wastelands of Skaro – never needs to miss Pebble Mill At One or Crown Court.

I love the fact that, in the midst of a full day working in Doug’s garage, we ‘came back to my house and had dinner’. I’m assuming from this that Doug’s parents were out of the house, and so to avoid the unimaginable horrors of (gasp!) ACTUALLY PREPARING FOOD FOR OURSELVES, we walked half a mile back to my house and whined at my poor mother until she relented and made us one of three potential dinners…


Dinner No 1: Beans-on-toast (two slices of blindingly white Mother’s Pride bread, toasted under an industrial-sized grill, covered in lashings of Stork SB and coated in half a tin of luridly orange Heinz Beans)

Dinner No 2: Cheese-on-toast (two slices of blindingly white Mother’s Pride bread, toasted under an industrial-sized grill then covered in thick lunks of luridly orange cheddar cheese from Fine Fare, and re-grilled to the temperature of volcanic magmata before being sliced in half, to serve)

Dinner No 3: Bacon sandwich (two slices two slices of blindingly white Mother’s Pride bread covered in lashings of Stork SB and filled with four rashers of streaky bacon from Newbould’s the Butcher before being quartered and coated in luridly red Heinz tomato ketchup). 

Any of these options would then be followed by two of what my parents still refer to as ‘pikelets’, however what they’re actually talking about are these…


Crumpets. CRUMPETS. Staple of 457 Carry On jokes (source: Gov’t ‘Crumpet Misuse in British Comedy’ White Paper 1979) and a delicious comestible that – thanks to Fischer family tradition – I utterly misnamed until the age of 27. Pikelets do exist of course, but they look like this…


I’ve never eaten one of these in my life. Case dismissed, M’Lud. (Cue ‘Distant Hills’ theme closing theme, and the interminable wait until Children’s ITV starterd…)

You’ll note that in 1984 I was still using traditional Northern mealtime references. ‘Dinner’ was a modest meal taken between 12-1pm, and is what the rest of the civilised Western world refers to as ‘lunch’. And  ‘Tea’ was the main meal of the day, the traditional ‘meat and two veg’ taken between 5-6pm, and this is what the rest of the civilised Western world refers to as ‘dinner”.

At some point in my life, despite never having lived outside Teesside for any length of time, I revised my policies and fell meekly in line with the 1986 United Nations Agreement On Proper Names For Mealtimes, Like. I’m not sure when this happened, but I can offer two potential explanations…

a) I am a ruthless social climber who thinks nothing of adopting middle-class affectations in order to further his career prospects.  

b) My live-in girlfriend is from the South-West, and I just fall in with what she says for the sake of a quiet life.

It’s one or the other. You be the judge (Sorcha, you’re forbidden from commenting on this)  

Just in case you were worried about the continuing safety of our fingers, the ‘hand drill’ we were hunting for wasn’t one of these…


It was one of these…


And blimey, another bath only eight days after my previous soaking! My Dad must have been working some serious overtime to permit such wanton abuse of the immersion heater.

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 50

Sunday 19th February 1984

Woke up at 8.45 and got up at 10.00. After a go on the videopac I rang Doug and he asked if I wanted to go swimming. I could, and then I went outside and played on the Tarzie until 10.30 When Doug came and we played on the videopac. At 11.05 We went swimming, then we went to Doug’s grans and took the dog for a walk.

At about 3.30 we came back to my house and played on the videopac for a bit, then we went outside and played football in the front garden. After that we played football on the school field, and at 5.30 Doug went home and I had tea.

After tea I washed my hair and at 7.15 I watched One by One. At 8.35 I watched Ever Decreasing Circles, then at 9.20 I watched That’s life. 10.15 Watched The Skating and at about 11.00 I went to bed.

So much exercise! I think I’ve used up my quota for the whole of 2009 (one swim, two hours of half-arsed football) in the space of one chilly Sunday afternoon here. No wonder I was such a skinny kid, despite the ceaseless intake of Spam Fritters and Butterscotch Angel Delight. 

I’m sure this was a day on which our plans for pop chart domination stepped up a gear, because I remember discussing the prospect with Doug as we walked his gran’s enthusiastic brown terrier around the streets of Thornaby in the drizzle. I imagine Beyonce and The Killers began their illustrious careers under similar circumstances (although I see Beyonce as more of a whippet girl)


And The Killers, as everybody knows, are from Fairfield rather than Thornaby.

So… the plan was for myself, Doug and Ian ‘Ozzie’ Oswald to become the hit punk-pop chart trio ‘Titchie Ritchie and the Weirdos’. We had two songs in the pipeline, both composed (I’m pretty sure) during this dog walk. These were…


Inspired by the coolest, hippest fly gangstas of the day (New Edition, Adam Ant, Roland Rat) this was, indeed, a bona fide rap about the band itself, in an authentic self-aggrandising styleee. The only lines that I can remember being…

‘You all know me, my name’s Ritchie
For no real reason, they call me Titchie
This is the Weirdo Rap
This is the Weirdo Rap
This is the Weirdo Rap
This is the Weirdo Rap’

All rapped in squeaky voices to music that sounded a bit like this… (without Metal Mickey on it, naturally. Although we might have given Esther a bit part providing she could get Doc Cox’s autograph for us…)

I think it’s worth pointing out that, at this stage, we hadn’t actually decided which of the three of us was going to take centre stage and ‘become’ Titchie Ritchie. It was an argument that would, eventually, tear the band apart – but for now, it was all about the music. Man.

It’s entirely possible that the only reason I can’t remember any more of this song is that… well, there IS no more. After such a gargantuan creative effort, we’ll no doubt have got bored and moved onto…


(Which goes vaguely to the tune of Eddie Cochran’s ‘C’mon Everybody’ – I think we took the philosophy that the copyright laws couldn’t possibly apply to anybody under the age of twelve…) 

I go into the house and I bang my head on the door
I go into my room and I bang my head on the floor
My father banged his head until he gave a shout
He shouted to my mother ‘I’ve worn it out’
Ooooooooh, headbanging.

Right… I have to confess that this wasn’t the original idea for this song. The original lyric – as composed by myself and Doug – referred not to the head, but to an entirely different fixture on the male anatomy. I blame the parents, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and ‘Alas Smith and Jones’. In that order.

Although an official release was extremely unlikely, given that we were unable to perform more than the opening two lines without collapsing into snotty, tear-stained hysterical laughter.

I’m the same these days when I attempt to sing anything by The Killers or Beyonce.

pigpenI’m intrigued by my personal hygeine in these diaries, as well. How filthy exactly WERE people in 1984? Or was it just me? Going by my diary alone, in the first 50 days of the year, these were the only ablutions I ever bothered myself with…

2nd January – bath
9th January – bath and hair washed
12 January – washed mud off legs (no bath, though)
19th January – bath
1st February – bath
4th February – bath (in preparation for Kerry’s birthday disco)
5th February – bath (on a bit of a roll here)
12th February – bath (that’s more like it)
19th February – hair washed

Did I really only average one bath a week, and my hair washed once a month? And, if so, how bad must Christopher Herbert’s hygeine record have been for him to be THAT MUCH MORE smelly than me?!?! 
Or was it just that nobody ever told me the obvious and painful truth…? (weeps into a Vosene shampoo bottle)