A personal account of the best, and probably only, teletext gathering in the UK this year. Illustrated via a bad camera phone, though fortunately a real photographer was present.
The train to Wigan was absolutely packed with people, though it turned out that they were just going to some football match. Their loss, because nestled down Library Street were the intimate confines of Wigan STEAM, a science and arts hub. Normally, this prepares children for an exciting future of filling garages with things that might be useful one day, but on that weekend, it was taken over by technology that died before they were born.
Dan Farrimond is the linchpin of the teletext scene. Well, more of an anarchic collective, which probably explains his occasional air of bewilderment while trying to herd unruly pixel-twiddlers, and ensure that the visiting public are not crushed by massive CRTs. Dan shoulders such burdens without complaint, which is probably why he gets stuck with organising Block Party every year. Thanks, Dan!
I made a beeline for one of Alistair Cree's mysterious boxes, beneath his ZX Spectrum. This was an obscure teletext receiver add-on for which, in the absence of documentation, Alistair had casually reverse engineered the firmware. It was displaying pages via his homebrew creation, the Teletext Insertomatic 4000, occasionally drifting off-signal in a progression of beautiful glitches. Many of those pages had also been made using his online teletext editor. Gosh.
There were many Raspberry Pis, including several inside the TI-4000, running Peter Kwan's VBIT inserter. This software generates the invisible part of the analogue signal where teletext resides, so will work with any old television that used to receive it. The result is everything you remember: coloured buttons, page numbers, and reveals. Well, except for overlaid subtitles, but Peter has extra hardware for that if you need it.
Though not present, Alistair Buxton has written much essential code, most notably the basis of Jason Robertson's teletext recovery project. If you have any unwanted television recordings, VHS or Beta, Jason can extract teletext as it appeared on the day you made the recording.
Also absent: Simon Rawles, pioneer of easy online teletext editing. Though he may have been a remote participant in the real-time drawing collaboration / trainwreck.
Buster, temporary Dog in Residence, provided an outsider's perspective. Snapper was too busy sleeping, or purging shady social media followers, and besides, had seen this all before. Buster's main contribution was to bark at people heading for the toilet. This served no apparent purpose, but kept him occupied: a microcosm of modern teletext.
Wigan STEAM was also hosting “The Lonely Sea”, an exhibition by Dustin Lyon. While I was tentatively fiddling with some mesmerising wavy strings, not quite sure if the knobs were intended for public tweaking, Buster was far more confident in his interpretation. Heading straight for the floor-level television embedded in pebbles, a brief sniff confirmed that this was indeed the seaside, though an attentive handler thwarted liquid endorsement.
If teletext is niche, then viewdata is the inner niche. It was the early love child of teletext and the internet, swiftly abandoned once the internet started flirting with browsers that could display standard definition pornography. Rob O'Donnell brought enough equipment to break most folding tables, and I rather liked the quaintly innocent services on display.
Sadly, they were mere fragments, with most data lost on long-decommissioned monolithic hardware. Recovering teletext is relatively simple, thanks to the happy accident of home video recording, but most viewdata lived and died on centralised servers. So, should you come across any old backup media or hardware, please let Rob know before chucking it.
All this technology is nothing unless employed in the service of chunky pictures. The most prolific creator, and occasional Digitiser muse (you know, that old teletext games service), is Steve Horsley. There's no mistaking Raquel Meyers' style, and Carl Attrill gave away some lovely dinky hardback portfolios. Andy Jenkinson skilfully applied unpopular control codes, while Jolene won the hypothetical mixed-media category for best use of Hama Beads.
Browsing the competition entries, which you can vote on until the end of this month, may be discouraging for those who fancy trying teletext art for themselves, but don't know where to start. Please rest assured that, once out of the public eye, most of those people revert to hasty scrawls of naughty bits and words. If there ever was a bar to entry, it's now low enough to be a trip hazard.
My only regret, other than arriving too tired to socialise on the first night, is that it sometimes felt awkward for the general public. This was mostly due to the cosy venue, which was fine for the creators, but made browsing difficult. The teletext crowd is lovely, but perhaps those who only remembered Bamboozle felt trapped in the deep end.
You'll be absolutely fine though, if you've read this far. See you next year!
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