Being proud of the BBC

People have been talking about being proud of the BBC lately and I clearly can’t join in, since I work there and I’m inevitably partial. But, as I still feel obliged to say, I’m new at the BBC and I went to work there in my late forties, from a life doing all sorts of other things and from many years of well-documented criticism of the Corporation.

So I do feel qualified to say that I am immensely proud of the BBC – and, in particular, of the amazing people I meet there. Big-hearted, open-minded, clever and funny people like those in Jon Jacob’s brilliant Proms video. Jon works for the BBC College of Journalism but he’s a musician and a Proms nut and he – like the orchestral performers featured – does this stuff for love. What’s not to be proud of?

My inspiration

Front cover of Byte Magazine for February 1984, featuring a picture of the new Macintosh computer
Front cover of Byte Magazine for February 1984

I’m not a geek. I missed the boat. When I left school they’d just acquired a computer. It was a mysterious, chattering presence in a room in the maths department – a teletype connected to a mainframe somewhere – and I never met it.

But when I first encountered a computer – in a roomful of brand new Macs at the Polytechnic of Central London in 1985 – and set about learning about them, I beetled off to one of those Soho newsagents that still set my heart racing, with their rows and rows of thrilling imported titles, and looked in the computer section. The magazine I settled on and made my bible was called Byte – the small systems journal.

Byte was recklessly terminated in 1998. I still miss it. It was a quite awesome monthly crash course in IT – a kind of undergraduate degree in magazine form. Long, gripping articles about chip design, network architecture, software and AI. I owe more to Byte than to any other source of knowledge about computers.

Byte, which for most of its life was published by McGraw Hill, was no web pioneer. In fact, for a while, during all the really early frenzy (during which I helped publish a magazine that was all about the web), Byte was almost a holiday from the Internet – a place you could go to read about VLSI chips and ethernet while the rest of the world was going web crazy. When they decided to have a go, they did it in a very Byte way, though.

They put a man called Jon Udell on the case – he was a staff writer and he was given the job of building the magazine’s web presence and documenting the process month-by-month for readers. He brought the whole thing to life with a really forensic attitude to the emerging tools – and invented a bunch of new ones along the way. These days he works at Microsoft and he’s an influential geek with an interest in all sorts of developing areas – and his ‘interviews with innovators’ are published as part of the IT Conversations podcast.

But this one’s a bit different – a rather modest, one-hour conference speech about ‘the architecture of context’, in which he lays out his own, partial history of the net and remembers some of the lessons he learnt in the Byte days. Fascinating and inspiring.

[Sad to say the MP3 mentioned below seems to have gone]

The MP3 is from the IT Conversations podcast. Definitely worth signing up.

John Cooper Clarke

Jon Cooper Clarke on stage, mic in hand, declaiming
John Cooper Clarke

John Cooper Clarke showed up as (usually unannounced) support at practically all the gigs I attended… you know… back then. Or at least that’s how I remember it. Everything about his ‘angry coathanger’ on-stage persona led me to believe that he’d be a pretty prickly guest on Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday show a couple of weeks ago but when it came to it he was happy and open-minded, full of praise for younger artists and obviously still learning, still working. Really inspiring. Here’s the interview:

John Cooper Clarke talks to Jarvis Cocker

And here’s the haiku he read on the show (the only one he’s ever written, apparently). Brilliant:

John Cooper Clarke: Haiku number one

Lovely pic of JCC by Tiger’s Pouch. Used under licence.