Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why I love Ceefax and hate my Teletext friends

Kids, let me tell you a true story that you might have trouble believing: once upon a time long long ago - as long ago as 15 years - people didn't get all their information from the internets and digital radio and texty messages and all this new fangled *digital* whathaveyous. Seriously! I'm not making this up! Birds twittered and people said, "Oh, you, I know you what you're up to, I can read your face like a book!" It was a sad and barren time. If you were on your way to meet someone and you were late they had to wait for you and wondered when you would be getting there. They probably got a bit miffed; you didn't *text ahead* and ask them to get you a cappucino. You didn't send them a smiley face ;-)

Alright, alright, some people probably did text ahead in 1994 but I didn't. I didn't have a mobile phone until I was absolutely forced to. My girlfriend of the era eventually foistered one on me as present. But even when I was given a phone I forgot to turn it on for the first 3 years. And I definitely forgot to carry it around with me - so if it was ever switched on it would be at home on the mantle shelf. I didn't have enough pockets to carry a phone around! You'd be expecting me to walk around with a bottle of water next! Madness. What will I be carrying around next!? Sun cream!!! Besides, combat trousers and bum bags hadn't been invented back then, so where was I going to put all this stuff?? Well, maybe they had been invented, but I denied their existence - quite rightly. I was living the luddite life and I was grumpily happy and proud of myself.

It was quite nice to not have a clue what was happening in the world. I wasn't an information addict back then. A few years later of course, probably around 1998, I discovered what is referred to in addict circles as my *gateway drug*. That gateway drug was Ceefax. Available by pressing the text button on my giant TV remote control. It took me into a world of obsession, information and mordant time wasting...

If the internet is heroin and text messaging is as instantly addictive as crack cocaine then Ceefax is like a good strong cup of Yorkshire tea. More psychologically addictive than anything physical. You didn't get cravings when you were out but as soon as you were back home - and it's a very homely thing is Ceefax - you go into your *coming home rituals* - kettle on, shoes off, brew up, feet up, Ceefax page 101. 


You didn't put Sky News or Sky Sports News on to check out the latest duffer that Man City had put an offer in on (multi-millionaire arrogant duffer these days of course) - you keyed in Ceefax page 302 for the football news. 301 for the Sports Headlines. 501 for the Entertainment news if you could be bothered and 160 for the Local News.

I can scarcely remember my own phone number but I know those Ceefax numbers off by heart. Saturday afternoon when there wasn't a live radio commentary on the City match - watching page 316 flick from results page 1 (matches A-L) - to results page 2 (matches M-Z) - watching watching watching as the results were updated every 2 minutes. It was zen like. It was like watching paint dry but 300 times more exciting. Nothing - then suddenly - City 0 Newcastle 1...

A text based tragedy. I sometimes wonder what people who don't follow sport do with their lives but I believe they have what is known as 'lives'. They climb mountains, or save the needy, or talk to God or have actual drug addictions to take up their time. All the same, come the digital switchover it will never be the same. The slow pathetic wait for the information to appear on the tv screen will be gone. The new digital Ceefax is fast and easy to use. You don't even need to key in the numbers - it has a *menu*. It's all so easy. Kids, I tell you. You're missing out... Try it now while you still can.

Meanwhile, Teletext - the ITV equivalent of this tv text service was a complete nightmare - adverts every other page - it was one thing to wait 2 minutes for a page to appear but to get half an article with an advert in the middle was just torture. I hated it. Although Teletext was briefly the best and cheapest place to find cheap foreign holidays - all the same - hours could be spent watching adverts and randomly trying to find the appropriate page in the morass of information in the holiday section. Really, that Teletext thing - you'd never want to go back to that.

My Teletext Friends.

I've realised that's what they are - I've waited a while to write about this because I didn't want the person I'm now referring to to realise that this was directed at them. But: Teletext - you use it to quickly get the headlines - you just want to briefly know what's going on. That's as deep as you wanna go. I have a few 'friends' like this. Anxious to get a thin slice of detail about my life - we occasionally meet - they slice off a bit of juicy info from me and their only interest is to have something amusing to pass on to their more significant friends the next time they see them. "What's the gossip then?" asked one last time I spoke to them.

Clearly they don't know me. If there's anything more likely to make me clam up it's someone blithely asking me for 'gossip'. You're getting nothing from me my Teletext Friend. I'd like to say I'm not bitter, but I am, but I'm moving on. Now just stare at one of those images up there for 3 minutes before you do anything else. It'll give you time to think. You will get bored, but being bored can be a good thing sometimes...

This may appear disjointed, but that's what life is like on Ceefax - you flick from one topic to another in literally minutes. It really was the future back in 1997. 


  1. The funny thing is... Although I sort of understand how the Internet works, I have NO IDEA what was, or is, going on with Ceefax. How does it work? The TV doesn't send a message to a server to send back a page of information like on the Internet: my TV can't "send" anything, it's a one-way receiver. I understand the channels, they're there all the time, in the air, and the TV "tunes in" to one or other on my command. But the Ceefax pages, hundreds of them, are they also always there, like the channels, constantly transmitted? If so then why does it take 30 seconds to get to each one, with the numbers of the pages incrementing away at the top until they get to the right number and then the page appears (or occasionally, they just flick past and start again, for ever, and the page you want is just lost)? Are they downloaded at intervals by the TV and somehow stored in a memory bank in the set? If so then, again, why the wait? What IS Ceefax? 'Kin weird, man.

  2. Wikipedia says, "Ceefax uses the World System Teletext standard (originally CEPT1). As with other teletext systems, text and simple graphics are transmitted in-band with the picture signal, and decoded by controller circuitry." See it's transmitted 'in-band and decoded' - simples.
    personally I like to think it's a version of The Numskulls who live at the bbc and have to respond to my page requests, turning a roladex of pages so that the right one shows up when I choose a number. They then hold that up and a picture of it is transmitted 'in-band and decoded' down the line to me. That is the only technological explanation I can come up with.

  3. Oh I wish I didn't understand. I grew up with Prestel's biggest advocate. Ugh.