I’ve not always been a programmer, but since I could hold a keyboard I’ve been a computer nut. A nerd, if not always a geek. I collected games with obsessive avarice, although my choices were always the weird ones of the culturally isolated hobbyist – whatever sounded cool in Your Sinclair – rather than the collaborative ones of a community of hardcore gamers – Mario, Sonic, that sort of thing.
Over the course of ten years I graduated from a ZX Spectrum to a Commodore Amiga before leaving for university and its PCs. But when my hobby and I both went on holiday together, it was the amusement arcades we haunted. The gambling machines and “one-armed bandits” – a name for them that I can only ever hear in softly Lancastrian quotation marks – interested me not at all. I always wanted to play on the video games.
My mum has often said that to see me, aged 8 and older, connected by a sweaty child’s grip to the clunky joystick of one of the old upright cabinets, was like witnessing a drawn-out, non-fatal electrocution. Whatever the game – and initially they were pixellated beauties like Defender and Asteroids, gradually improving through Pac-Man and Mappy to Rastan, Time Pilot and Spy Hunter – I would utterly drop myself into it, and flail around in sympathy with the activity of whatever object I happened to be controlling.
Alongside my books, these were also my books. They were flights of fancy, silly experimentations, confusing Japanese imported weirdnesses. The ones I still love the most had their simple but – for a child, at any rate – enchanting narratives: even Space Invaders has its cliffhangers, and permits the player to express their own skills and cunning in a way that makes me smile now, to think of how much it made an occasionally lonely, awkward little kid smile back then. I was in love.
And then we moved away, and then I went to university, and then they built houses on Knott End’s failing arcades, and then – much as it brings me to tears to even Google it – the gravitational centre of my gaming world, Fleetwood Pier, burned down. Yet, even now, along the Fylde coast, a few of the old uprights still survive. None of the beautiful cocktail (or table-top) cabinets. But in between the far more prevalent bandits, and the Houses of the Dead, and the racing games, there are rare and beautiful gems. You have to hunt them out, though.
On our last full day on the coast recently, while K. watched the royal wedding, I wandered into Blackpool proper and tried a few of the arcades. The piers were an odd mix of brand new video games, bandits, those machines that have piles of tenpences and even tuppences stacked on precipices, and incredibly ancient animatronic rifle ranges operated – or more often not – by infra-red signals. Coral Island was about the same, and its flashiness and size – it has an electric train to take families on a tour round its ceiling at second-story height – didn’t impress me much.
Only as I was about to give up, far enough south for the shops to start turning back into hotels in preparation for the Pleasure Beach even further down, did I try out one last arcade. And it was largely much of the same. Except… tucked into a corner, demure and lovely, was a Ms. Pac-Man. I played it with a wistful smile: it wasn’t the same as being back in the halcyon days of my youth, but it was an opportunity to briefly hold in my hands a souvenir of those days.
The Pit,a Amidar, Elevator Action, Carousel and Dig Dug are like the names of long-forgotten girlfriends. The dim light towards the back of the great room at Fleetwood Pier was like the hoverfly dusk you could sit on a porch and enjoy at the end of a hard day’s work. And that smell of wood, hot electronics, fresh rubber seals and cheap carpets or tiles… mixed together, they’re like the taste of the first lips I kissed.