Ciotóg: How the PC rebooted my life

This isn’t a heartwarming story of bravery or a triumph against overwhelming adversity. It’s a lot more mundane than that. It’s about how tools that emerged in my late 20s allowed me to start a process that I should have embarked upon in my mid-teens.

Growing up near Nottingham, I was something of a late starter.  I left school eventually with fairly modest qualifications and drifted between casual work (behind a bar, behind a brush, delivering bales of leather in East London, knocking on doors selling my own photography and doing telesales for Exchange & Mart and Autocar magazine).

I eventually started the slow process of getting a degree over five years (with two gap-years for re-takes), attracted more by the decadent student lifestyle that the fairly generous funding arrangements afforded at the time.

All in all, it was a bit of a mess. I liked reading and arguing, but I hated writing. It was, for me, an unattractive chore. I was fine in seminars but the essays struggled to get a pass-mark.

I’m left handed. And where the roman languages conflate this with something sinister, I always thought the Irish understood this affliction better. My mother – an Irish speaker (and fellow left-hander) – told me that the word for people like us was ciotóg (pronounced cwith-orge) – a word with two meanings: Left-handed, and useless, or awkward.

Now, plenty of people overcome this mild handicap. But I had an additional affliction; Where many of my friends organize their thoughts in their heads, in mind-maps, abbreviated notes or doodles, I do this in a slightly more tortuous way.

I take information in, extract what I think the valuable stuff is and put it on paper. I then try to weave it into an argument or an observation. As the author Flannery O’Connor said, ‘I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.’

I never know – until I’ve done this – whether an idea works or not. I can’t argue a point with any conviction until it’s passed this test. When politics is your enthusiasm, this matters.

I was always quite a political animal. I was active in left-wing campaigns during my late teens and joined the Labour Party as soon as they would have me (flirting also with the Communists, who in Nottingham were firmly in the Eurocommunist camp). As a student, I was intermittently active and I edited the Student Union magazine at Kingston Polytechnic.

When I finally went for a proper job in publishing, my interviewers asked me what my career goal was. “I want to be the publisher of Marxism Today” I replied. My career plan was….

  • get a job in a proper commercial publisher, learning the ropes
  • once I’ve understood the basics, look for a job in lefty publishing
  • get noticed by MT and be handed the job of my dreams

It sort-of worked. I rose to the heady position of being Advertising Manager at the New Statesman, and was the elected Staff Director on the board. When Marxism Today closed, as a director, I rubber-stamped the decision to buy the title (mainly for it’s subscriber-list).

The New Statesman's cover-mounted floppy disk, 1994

But it was at the New Statesman, my life was changed by the arrival of the desktop PC.

I became addicted to the green-screen office Amstrads with clunky copies of Wordstar on them. I taught myself to touch-type. As new Windows-based PCs started to arrive, I hung around the office after work, mastering Desktop Publishing programmes and lots of new applications that were obsolete by the time I’d learned them.

It was a period of personal growth. I was the one in the office that everyone went to when they wanted a leaflet designed as a favour because I was fascinated enough with PCs to spend hours mucking around, problem-solving fairly primitive freeware applications.

Buried in this period of personal growth, I made a huge mistake: I ignored the advice to learn html.  But I’d also worked out that the Internet presented huge transformative possibilities for the left, and I’d even persuaded the management of the magazine to give away a free cover-mounted floppy disk offering early dial-up and news-reading software.

But by 1995, I was ready to finally start taking my own potential seriously. I did what most people would have done more than a decade earlier: I took the pay-cut needed to get a job near the bottom of the pile in politics. I started as a political researcher for a great young MEP whose politics I admired. And inspired by the possibilities of organizing my thoughts without resorting to handwriting, I registered for a MSc course in Politics and Administration at Birkbeck college.

The work establishing a web-development company, the blogging and the social media work all came later. But the ability to write and easily edit

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