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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

Ceefax: An Older, Better Internet



One


We didn’t set out to have lunch at McDonalds five days in a row, but we hadn’t planned to come to Roses, a resort at the north end of Spain’s Costa Brava, at all.


This was the summer of 1989. A last minute goal from Michael Thomas in the final game of the season had given Arsenal the league title for the first time in 18 years, Ken Dodd made headlines for paying the correct amount of tax, and Tears for Fears were Sowing the Seeds of Love. Not that there was any of that on this holiday, all we were after was sun, sea and soccer. We’d booked flights from Glasgow to Girona, had a vague idea that at some point we’d try to watch FC Barcelona play, but other than that, no plans. I don’t know if we had booked our first night’s accommodation, but we stayed with a family in Girona who lived in the newer part of the city, on the west side of the Onyar river. Certainly the owner of the house appeared shocked to see us, perhaps we had arrived earlier than arranged, perhaps we randomly rang a doorbell and asked if we could stay the night. Nothing would surprise me about that holiday.


However, the alarm that our host had shown at our arrival - sober, one of us (not me) able to converse in reasonable Spanish - it was nothing to what awaited him five hours later when Gordon and I returned from the old city, somewhat worse the wear for drink, one of us (again, not me) with blood streaming from his face, and between us insufficient Spanish to explain what had happened. Even now I’m not sure if I have enough English to explain.


Two


I had got it into my head that sometime in the dim and distant past the advertising of alcohol products on UK TV channels was banned. Although there was little advertising of spirits up until the early 1970s, that was due to a secret cartel among manufacturers as opposed to a de facto ban imposed by government. My memory is disadvantaged by my mother pretending that STV (the Scottish version of ITV) simply didn’t exist. This left our household with the Reithian, but advert-free, choice of watching either BBC1 or BBC2 of an evening. But while advertising of booze never penetrated the walls of our home - not via the medium of television anyway, the Sunday Times magazine was stuffed full adverts for Dubonnet - more liberal families were exposed to the delights of Babysham, Cinzano Bianco, Harvey’s Bristol Cream and Skol.


Nowadays there’s scarcely a TV commercial break which doesn’t contain an advert for either whisky, gin, or rum. Increasingly in the case of those last two, the adverts are for alcohol free variants.


Three


The rum in the rum and cokes that we drank in the old town of Girona that first night of our holiday definitely wasn’t alcohol free.


Although we were drunk - and why not, it was the first night of our holiday after all - for point of reference, given that we had been drinking rum, we were not as drunk as the General in Withnail and I, the landlord of the Crow and Crown, the nearest pub to Uncle Monty’s house in the Lake District.


Its landlord was a retired alcoholic with military pretensions and a complexion like the inside of a teapot. By the time the doors opened he was arse-holed on rum, and got progressively more arse-holed till he could take no more and fell over about twelve o’clock.


So, not arse-holed like the General, but drunk enough not to notice as we crossed the bridge back to the west side of the Onyar, that there was a 6’6” drug addled Spaniard slowly making his way towards us from the opposite side. Had I had time to think about it, I might have thought that he reminded me of Jeff Wode, the character in the News of the World story that Withnail reads at the start of the film.


“In a world exclusive interview, thirty-three year-old shot putter, Jeff Wode, who weighs three hundred and seventeen pounds, admitted taking massive doses of anabolic steroids, drugs banned in sport. Look at him. Look at Jeff Wode. His ear lobes must weigh a pound and a half each. Imagine the size of his balls. Imagine getting in a fight with the fucker.”


But neither of us had time to think about anything much and before we knew it the fucker was in front of us, his fists flying, one of which connected with Gordon’s nose. At that point we said adiós, and started to run.


Four


Half a lifetime on, my tastes for both alcohol and holidays (not to mention unarmed combat with drug addled Spaniards) has subtly altered. Although neither Andrea nor I particularly like whisky, or, speaking for myself, can’t see it as a drink I would ever prefer to, say, a nice raspberry milkshake, some of our recent holidays have incorporated visits to whisky distilleries.


Scotland has almost 150 working distilleries, many of which have been in operation since the 19th century, and it’s that deep rooted tradition that makes them such an attractive proposition to visitors. Paradoxically, those with which we have graced our presence have been three young pretenders, all founded in 2017: Lagg on the Isle of Arran, the Isle of Skye’s Torabhaig, and the Isle of Raasay Distillery. The physical process of converting water, barley and yeast into spirit is straightforward enough, but there is indisputably a magical quality about it which makes guided tours of whisky distilleries so enjoyable. As whisky writer Dave Broom said of the Isle of Raasay Distillery, “we’re not just making whisky, we are making spirit.”


By contrast the production of gin is not so romantic, the tagline might as well be “we are just making gin, all we do is add alcohol”. I speak from experience, having been on a guided tour of a gin distillery where  the starting point was a massive plastic container of industrial sounding “grain neutral spirit.” To turn this into gin, juniper berries and other “botanicals” were added, the finished product taking no more than 48 hours to reach the bottling plant.


It strikes me that if you remove alcohol from gin to make alcohol-free gin, all you’re left with is a watery beverage with juniper berries, coriander seeds, angelica root, bits of rhubarb, elderflower, parsnip, whatever else the distiller has decided to throw in, floating about in it. All seems a bit pointless. Again, give me a nice raspberry milkshake any day.


Five


A second sighting of our previous night’s assailant on another bridge during the afternoon of our first full day in Girona, was enough to convince us that it was time to move on. Kidding ourselves that we were aesthetes, we made the half hour train journey to Figueres, birthplace of surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, who had died there seven months previously.


I couldn’t say now where in Figueres where we stayed, and searching the internet 35 years later hasn’t refreshed my memory. All I remember was that it was a few minutes walk from the spectacular Dalí Theatre-Museum.


It wasn’t the Hostal Don Pepe which among the many four and five star reviews to be found on Google has “clean room and bathroom” and “good bed, clean, for sleeping it is so good”. Neither of those descriptions could be applied to the pensión where we stayed. The room wasn’t clean by any dictionary definition of that word, there was a bathroom of sorts, accessed down a corridor lit by a flickering 25-watt bulb, and the beds appeared to be ex-prison stock with wafer thin mattresses covering the rusted springs. In daylight it had all charm of Hotel Bastardos from the Comic Strip’s A Fistful of Traveller’s Cheques. At night it was worse, a Catalonian Bates Motel


Our stay in Figueres wasn’t completely trouble-free: we managed to run out of money. Twice. The first time we were saved by the almost magical appearance on a dusty backstreet of an automatic exchange machine by which means I was able to exchange 2,000 Luxembourg francs which I was randomly carrying into pesetas. We were bailed out about 12 hours later by a Glasgow girl who we may or may not have known before we left Scotland. She was working behind a bar round the corner from the Dalí museum and kindly settled our bill when it became apparent that alcohol consumed exceeded money available to pay for it.


A few days at the seaside, away from the pressures of Spanish town life, was what we needed.


Six


At the time I said that the pensión in Figueres reminded me of Bates Motel, still does. But I’ve never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho which set the baseline for all future Tripadvisor one-star reviews of hotels in California.


In 2006 I did go to an exhibition by Scottish conceptual artist Douglas Gordon at the Royal Scottish Academy where the central exhibit was a video installation called 24 Hour Psycho. Gordon had slowed down Hitchcock’s film to two frames per second so that it lasted 24 hours against its original 109 minutes. A review described it as opening up unseen and unknowable space. I watched it for about 10 minutes, got bored and then caught the number 23 bus to the Dominion Cinema where I saw Night at The Museum, directed by Sawn Levy, starring Ben Stiller and shown at the correct speed.


Almost all of Hitchcock’s canon is to me, unseen and unknowable, or, more accurately unknown. Of the 53 feature length films he directed from The Pleasure Garden (1925) to Family Plot (1976) I have definitely seen one, the glorious To Catch a Thief (1955) with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, and I feel I may have seen The 39 Steps (1935). More likely, I’m thinking of a run-of-the-mill version of John Buchan’s novel released in 1978 starring Robert Powell who never recovered from a career defining high the previous year as J. Christ in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. (Our household must have been granted a religious exemption to enable us to watch Zeffirelli’s four-part cinematic Diatessaron, it having been broadcast on the ITV network.)


I like to think of myself of a cineaste or at the very least, someone who puts on a decent show of looking like they understand Peter Greenaway’s films, but to have viewed less than 2% of the output of the Master of Suspense is shameful. In the autumn of 2023, the University of Edinburgh ran a course on the films of Alfred Hitchcock.


The course considers Hitchcock as an auteur and focuses on themes and stylistic devices recurring in his films. Over ten weeks, we will discuss a wide range of topics: from Hitchcock’s emergence as a major film-maker in his silent movies, through his innovative transition to sound in Blackmail (1929) and Murder (1930), to the examination of propaganda elements in his wartime films and, finally, Freudian readings of Psycho (1960) & Marnie (1964). We will look at Hitchcock’s remarkably successful English thrillers and his adaptation to the USA and the Hollywood studio system.


It sounded brilliant, each week a film would be shown and discussed, not only that, but it was also taking place at the Dominion Cinema, a five minute walk from my house.

But no. Instead, I decided to cycle into a stationary campervan, break my clavicle, fracture 12 ribs, lie in the road in considerable pain for 40 minutes awaiting an ambulance, spend a week in hospital and then several months at home, sitting staring out of the open window, a bit like Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Rear Window (1954).


Seven


In Roses, Gordon and I very quickly fell into a strict daily routine, a routine better suited to a pair of octogenarians rather than two guys in their early twenties, but a routine nevertheless.


A leisurely start, 10:30, 11:00, no clock watching, and a walk along the seafront to the mini golf course, curiously called Cuc Park. There we drank lemon tea before playing a round of mini golf. Then some downtime on the beach followed by a siesta back at the hotel. After that, refreshed, the fun really began.


Along the promenade from our hotel - an improvement on the Hotel Bastardos / Bates Motel, same bathroom arrangements but with a seaview and soft toilet paper - was a modern complex containing everything that a traveller could want in the late 20th century: a bank, a newspaper shop and a McDonalds. And so arriving there just before 2:30pm when the La Caixa closed for the day we’d cash some travellers cheques, buy a day old copy of the Guardian and settle down to a McDonalds meal. Five days in a row.


The irony is that not far from Roses was El Bulli, one of the most renowned restaurants in Spain, if not the whole of Europe. Run by head chef Ferran Adrià it held three Michelin stars and was described as the “the most imaginative generator of haute cuisine on the planet". But while it might have served gastronomic delights such as lobster gazpacho, caramelised quail’s egg and white bean espuma with sea urchins, you couldn’t cash travellers cheques there or buy the Guardian.


In any case, we’d have run out of money before we got shown to our table.


Eight


Late last year there was a TV advert for McDonald’s in the form of three Ceefax pages. Ceefax was a primitive forerunner of the internet, a source of information delivered in teletext form ie through TV sets. The advert was simple, demonstrating how McDonalds’s have advanced since Ceefax was at its peak and has been using 100% British and Irish beef for the last 20 years. But the teletext aspect is probably incomprehensible to anyone born within that timeframe.


It is possible that Gordon and I would have used Ceefax to check out prices of flights from Scotland to Spain, although actually booking them would have entailed an in person visit to Sibbald Travel on Morningside Road and an exchange of cash for paper tickets. I definitely would have used Ceefax to see how hot Barcelona was likely to be for those two weeks in September 1989 ahead of going.


I read recently that in 1994 there were only ten websites. In total, in the world. I’m sure that can’t be correct, can’t be bothered checking and would guess more likely a couple of thousand. But I would be happy to live in a world with only ten websites, the vast majority of websites being superfluous, inessential, unnecessary. Ceefax had enough information for anyone - news, share prices, horse racing results, recipes - and all accessible from the comfort of your armchair. Ceefax was our analogue lives shoehorned into a future which was constrained by the parameters of our TV remote controls and - to steal a phrase used by Uwe Schütte to describe Kraftwerk’s music - was an odd transmission from a future past. There was something loveable about it, perhaps the fact that shortcut controls were colour coded in the same way as the popular Simon electronic memory game: red (headlines), green (regional news), yellow (sport), blue (everything else).


It was hard to get addicted to Ceefax - believe me, I tried - in the way that millions of us have become addicted to our smart phones. And almost impossible to fall down research rabbit holes, getting distracted from what you were trying to do in the first place.


Nine


We made it to Barcelona, managing to pull ourselves away from the attractions of Roses after the best part of a week. Of our time spent in the Catalonian capital, I recall very little. We watched FC Barcelona play Legia Warsaw at the Nou Camp in the first round of the Cup Winners Cup, presumably we went to the top of Montjuïc to enjoy the panoramic view of the city below, but whether by foot or cable car I know not. Memories all now unseen and unknowable.


I took quite a few photographs of that holiday, but only one survives: a photograph of a Cuc Park publicity van driving along the road outside our hotel in Roses. Hardly worth keeping but I’m rather fond of it, reminding me of when a cup of lemon tea and a day old newspaper was enough to keep me entertained on holiday. Still is.


Ten


Simon says, even ten websites is too many.



Image: Cuc Park publicity van, Passeig Maritim, Roses, 1989 © Mark Howitt


References:


Three

‘Its landlord was’: Bruce Robinson, Withnail and I: The Screenplay (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), 66

In a world exclusive’: Bruce Robinson, Withnail and I: The Screenplay, 7 - 8


Six

‘Opening up unseen and unknowable space’: Katrina Brown, Gagosian Quarterly (Los Angeles, Spring 2018)

The course considers’: The University of Edinburgh Short Courses Programme 2023-24, Director Focus: Alfred Hitchcock


Eight

‘An odd transmission’: Uwe Schütte, Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2020), VIII

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