“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
The Once and Future King – TH White
LIKE all good tales the one you are about to read began a long, long time ago.
Well, the late autumn of 1984 to be precise.
I had just lost my job in teaching, and as an aspiring writer stuck in my mid 20s had no place left to go. In many ways I was lucky because my good wife was earning enough as a school teacher to put a roof over our heads and food on the table. Fine and dandy… but that still left me unemployed! So I cast around for ideas of where to go and what to do. Friends suggested I should start a private tutoring agency to help children with reading and writing difficulties. So with little preparation I did… and as quick as an arrow called my one man business: DART. It wasn’t quite like that; DART actually stood for Diagnostic And Reading Techniques!
Soon I had clients at the door of my hastily created office and tutoring studio and at a splendid £6 per hour was earning money while helping kids to read, write and spell prupally.
By the summer of 1985 the business was burgeoning with new clients by the score. I began casting about again. This time my cast was on how to develop the business without the need to work seven days a week (I was by this time working five and half days). It was solved partly by taking on a part-time secretary and by visiting WH Smiths for a newspaper.
It was while leaving the branch of WH Smiths that something cream coloured and shiny caught my eye… I looked at this wonderful thing with the eyes of a child at Christmas. It was an Acorn Electron home computer, complete with three free boxed games. And to add icing to cream cake, it was reduced at only £119, and included a free cassette tape player (for the software). The strange thing was earlier that morning my business bank statement had arrived in the post and it showed an unexpected surplus of cash in hand. So with an unassuming cheesy grin I walked back into the store, signed a cheque for £119 and waited while the shop assistant packed the box containing the new toy into a WH Smith’s bag.
Once home I unwrapped the marvellous piece of eight bit magnificence, glanced through the instructions and said the word “Shit” in a very loud voice. No one told me I would also need a monitor or where I could even get one!
So with plans of using this new computer to grow my business going west by the second I wandered back into town to the branch of WH Smiths. I gently accosted the lady who had sold me the Electron some 90 minutes earlier and began by saying: “Remember me?” She looked a little awkward as I asked how the hell was a supposed to use the new computer without a monitor? She explained that WH Smiths didn’t sell monitors, only computers, as she pointed to a Sinclair ZX Spectrum on the shelf next to her.
“Maybe these might help,” she added, pointing towards a magazine called Electron User. I hastily agreed to buy a copy and rushed back home to read up about my precious but useless toy. It took about an hour, but the answers I needed were all there in black and white… I could buy a monitor or TV/monitor via mail order. It would cost me another £60… but hey, it was worth it! So with a first class stamp I mailed off my order that afternoon. By the time the monitor arrived the following Saturday, I had read everything I needed to know about this little Acorn Electron. I had also looked keenly at the three free boxed games – all by a company called Acornsoft. One game called Sphinx Adventure intrigued me – to be honest after all these years I can’t remember what the two other were called! But, I was able to read a bit about it in a two page column by Merlin in the Electron User magazine I had bought.
In no time at all I had wired and fired up the Electron and waited patiently for the Sphinx Adventure to load. I was intrigued as I stumbled between the on screen clues, typing in all kinds of nonsense on the keyboard. It took me a while to realise that only certain combinations of two words worked and allowed me to progress. But it was intoxicating and by 10pm I was making some real progress – after being killed by a bloody Dwarf with an axe a few dozen times! By midnight I was hooked and reluctantly went up to bed when my wife came down for the third time to ask: “What on Earth are you doing?”
The next day was Sunday, so I had a whole day to play some more with Sphinx Adventure … and I did all day, oblivious to the real world around me.In two short days I had changed from an almost normal guy into a computer nerd and a text adventure addict!
After scouring the Merlin column for clues I eventually completed Sphinx Adventure on the following Wednesday evening. I took me five days, but I did have to work (tutoring) and sleep (a little). But I was hooked and sat wondering what to do next! How do I come down from this high? The Merlin column told me of the existence of other so-called text adventures and a few names stuck. The following morning (Thursday) I wandered into our small market town and into an independent shop which I knew stocked some computer software. You can imagine my surprise when I laid my eyes on a cassette box with the title Twin Kingdom Valley a name that resonated from the Merlin column. The box alerted me to the fact that this game was for the Acorn Electron! I hastily handed over the cash and made home with my new adventure. Once loaded I realised this game was quite different from Sphinx Adventure and although fun, it didn’t seem quite up to the same standard of puzzle solving.
By the time I had completed this second adventure, I was convinced of two things: one was I had to buy a copy of Electron User every month, if only for the Merlin pages; and two I needed to buy more games. Scouting the advertising pages in my one copy of Electron User I noticed a company called 21st Software in Manchester (the company was owned by a certain John Snowden who later became a life-long friend – but that’s a story for another day) sold a host of other text adventures for the Electron and all could be bought by mail order. I immediately ordered two more games by Acornsoft: Countdown to Doom and Philosopher’s Quest, plus an interesting sounding title by another company called Voodoo Castle.
A few days passed before all three adventures arrived is a sealed box. This was it, I was having another fix, and another and another. But, this time by my side was an A4 pad of paper and a pen. I decided to start trying to map the adventures as I played them.
By the late autumn of 1985 I had played and completed about a dozen text adventures for the Electron, had the Electron User delivered to my door each month by subscription and was greedily eyeing a BBC B+ computer for Christmas.
As the year passed into the cold wetness of January 1986 and into the coolness of February, I was the proud owner of a BBC B+ and an Acorn Electron computer, which sat side by side on my new desk – made from a two metre length of kitchen worktop! Above the desk was a shelf bulging with text adventures and below it was a drawer with my scribbled maps of the adventures I had solved. I was also now receiving each month both Electron User and its sister title BBC Micro User magazines and devouring the adventure pages in both.
For the Electron; Fourth Protocol, Project Theseus, Savage Island, Strange Odyssey, Quest for the Holy Grail, Lost Crystal, Citadel and Myorem (by the amazing Robico) delighted me. But with the more powerful BBC B+ I could now go further with the advanced Acornsoft adventures Quondam, Acheton, The Seventh Star and Kingdom of Hamil. I also started buying and solving the now legendary Level 9 adventures – which sadly would not play on the 32k Electron.
By May of 1986 I was a text adventure junkie. When I wasn’t playing the darn things I was drawing out ever more complicated maps, reading every syllable of the monthly adventure columns and even writing in to the authors of these columns with clues and solutions. Something else happened that month… the name and author of the BBC Micro User adventure column changed from Alice to The Mad Hatter. And boy, did I love the playful style of the new columnist. And I became more of a fan the next month when he published one of my solutions in full with full acknowledgment to me. Wow… I was famous! And it fuelled my addiction still further.
But nothing prepared me for what happened next…
One morning in late June I received a large and unexpected letter with a Cornwall postmark, addressed in handwriting I did not recognise. I quickly opened the surprise missive. It was a handwritten letter of thanks from The Mad Hatter! His letter suggested I may like to review new adventure software for Electron User. He gave me the name and phone number of the Reviews Editor at the Database Publications offices near Stockport and suggested I contact him immediately. I was beyond excited… wow, what a break!
Within an hour I was speaking directly to the reviews guy Chris Payne and was promised a couple of games to review immediately. The bonus was I would be paid between £20 and £40 per review plus I would get to keep each game I reviewed. For a junkie like me this was heaven. As I sat and took in the Mad Hatter’s letter I glanced at the foot of the notepaper to see the small letterhead: Rev R J Redrup. I turned to my desk and typed a hasty reply to Mr Hatter, thanking him for his letter and quizzically asking who was Rev R J Redrup?
Within a week the first two games for review arrived from Database Publications plus a reply from the Mad Hatter. This time his letter was signed Bob and an explanation that his day job was that of an Anglican vicar in St Kea in Cornwall. No ordinary vicar though: in my humble opinion the best adventure game columnist ever and the best man to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie!
And so began my life as a text adventure game reviewer and a lasting friendship with the Reverend Bob.
By now, I imagine I have sent many readers to sleep, so I will try and paraphrase what happened next…
I spent the rest of the year continuing my obsession with playing and mapping text adventures for the Electron and BBC B+, writing game reviews and sending in solutions to Merlin and the Mad Hatter for their respective columns.
Sometime in August my phone rang. I answered to hear the unexpected and gentle voice of Reverend Bob. He asked how I was doing, he thanked me again for my adventure solutions and mentioned that Merlin was stepping down from writing his column in Electron User, before adding: “I think you would be ideal as his replacement”. I almost gagged a response of something like “wow” “really?”
“Yes!” was Bob’s reply, “You can obviously write and love text adventures. Is there any chance you can pen a 1,000 word sample column and post it out by tomorrow?”
Without hesitation I agreed and by the next morning my humble first column was winging its way by first class post to a man called Alan McLachlan at Database Publications. A few days later the phone rang again and a guy with a broad Manchester accent told me they were delighted with the column and I was to be their new adventure columnist at a rate of £140 a month! “What shall we call you?” he asked.
“Just Nic will do,” I stuttered a reply.
“No, I mean what shall we call your column?”
I had recently finished reading TH White’s Arthurian novel The Once and Future King, and without hesitation replied: “Pendragon … you know pens and dragons and Arthur and Merlin!”
Alan laughed and agreed that I would become Pendragon.
And so Pendragon was born. My first proper column was published in November 1986, with a cover date of December and continued for the next three years. I worked on a freelance basis writing Pendragon and reviewing text adventure games and educational software until June 1988 when I was taken on as a full-time member of staff by Database Publications. My job was as Assistant Editor of the sparkling new Atari ST User, where Pendragon found a second home writing a monthly column for that magazine too.
In 1990 I left the computer magazine stable and ventured into newspaper journalism – again that’s another story!
People asked me often for my favourite text adventures on the Electron. Three stand out: Sphinx Adventure, the wonderful Village of Lost Souls and the quirky The Ferryman awaits.
Part one of my original database of Electron adventures can be found here: http://www.acornelectron.co.uk/mags/eu/arts/a-adv1.html
NOTE: Remembering how all this came about is a blast from the past and personally poignant.
In September 1987 I was diagnosed with an aggressive malignant cancer and taken into a hospital in Chepstow for surgery and later radiotherapy. My first visitor (other than my family) was this nimble guy with a bald head and a dog colour and a smile as broad as the Severn Estuary. He introduced himself as The Mad Hatter. Bob had driven all the way from Cornwall to see me.
He sat by my hospital bed, blessed me with holy water and prayed, before we both sat and drank a glass of malt whisky. We spoke for over an hour about BBC and Electron text adventures. We also discovered we had been born in exactly the same hospital – albeit 20 years apart! I have never forgotten that moment nor Bob, who got me started in a journalism career which has lasted 30 years. Needless to say I recovered. Sadly Bob died far too young in 2000.
You can learn more about The Mad Hatter in a blog written by his wonderful son Peter: http://www.themadhattercolumn.wordpress.com
Also visit this great site: http://www.myacornelectron.com