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A tale of two Pratchetts
Confessions of a dick whose work is mediocre at best
I haven’t read through enough issues since PC Zone closed to be too embarrassed about my writing from back in the day. However, there are a couple of articles that cause me to wince whenever their pages flick by in my rapidly failing and fusty memory.
One is the issue #112 cover review for Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, where I indulged in a reprehensible spot of fat-shaming and which was a step beyond the usual PC Zone modus operandi of spitting out barbed jokes at others’ expense. I can’t even use the flimsy defence that was “harmless banter”, since I recall being uncomfortable with the offending line as soon as it was published. Sorry Lisa.
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The other article that causes the anus of my soul to pucker up whenever it’s recalled is one I didn’t actually write, but rather contributed to by way of a moment of madness that happened to be recorded, transcribed and printed in the May 1999 issue.
I was with then-editor Chris Anderson, Paul “Mallo” Mallinson, “Dear” Keith Pullin, and Paul “Prezzer” Presley and we were encamped in The Playing Fields1, a gaming bar close to the Bolsover Street office. Being a little quieter and better lit, it had taken over from the pub as the place where where we used to clock off early to discus the merits of various games for our early Supertest features. On this occasion the subject was adventure games.
As was tradition, the conversation kicked off during work hours, but with it being towards the end of the day and the point where heavy drinking was considered necessary to get the best copy, I was well on my way to being inebriated. Thus, having downed a few pints and saying very little of substance about Alone in the Dark, Blade Runner and various LucasArts adventures, we alighted on the final nominee, Discworld 2, probably the one game among them that I had the least experience of playing. Inevitably the mention of Terry Pratchett came up and in my eagerness to relay an encounter with the author by way of ingratiating myself with the baying Zone readership, my fat mouth blurted out “I hate you, your books and your games”.
We’ll get to where that outburst came from in a bit. In the meantime, I think you’ll agree that, even in the context of an alcohol-fuelled PC Zone Supertest and regardless of the provocation, it was a dick thing to say.
I hope I said a few other things that weren’t quite so idiotic, but they didn’t make it into the feature so I’ll never know. Going by what was published, I managed to hold my tongue for the duration of the discussion, but as a parting shot I delivered a final couplet before the proverbial tape ran out: “The man is a tit and his work is shit” – referring of course to one of the most beloved literary figures in human history; one that has sold 85 million books during and beyond a prolific career that shows no signs of abating.
I very much came to regret that boneheaded remark, although not for some time afterwards. I have a vague memory of Mallo calling me up after he’d transcribed the evening’s ramblings and asking if I was ok with that quote being used. True to the PC Zone ethos of dimly not caring much about what was said in the haze of the moment, I likely shrugged indifference and didn’t give it another thought. It’s not like the target of my ire would ever read it, I surely reasoned. Best-selling authors must have better things to be doing than reading about how they are perceived by computer game hacks with teeny-weeny axes to grind.
But, of course, my impulsive and gratuitous utterances came back to haunt me. Not too long afterwards, in fact, when a certain Miss Rhianna Pratchett, only daughter of Terry, applied to become PC Zone’s first editorial assistant.
Of the job interview that followed I don’t remember much detail, aside from Rhianna being very polite, knowledgeable (especially on the subject of Diablo 2), confident, dressed in black (of course) and, it seemed, oblivious to my published fulmination a year or so previous.
I do recall the conversation shortly afterwards, between myself and editor Dave Woods, about which of the three candidates we’d interviewed was most suitable for the job. All being equal – which they weren’t, Rhianna was the standout candidate – Dave quite rightly thought it high time PC Zone had a female on the editorial team and was particularly taken with them being the daughter of Britain’s best-selling author at the time.
As you might imagine I wasn’t quite so enthusiastic. I’m not the enthusiastic type for one thing. For another, there was a lot of talk during the interview about beardy-weirdy RPGs and very little on the much more important subject of FPSs. Thus I might have muttered something about Rhianna maybe not seeming “PC Zone enough”, which would’ve been a bit rich considering I’d turned up for my own interview wearing a suit and tie and probably didn’t mention shooters at all.
Since reading Tom Bramwell’s 2014 Eurogamer editorial “I am sexist”, I’ve often wondered if I had a problem with Rhianna joining the team; not with Rhianna specifically (not beyond the issue of having to explain my Supertest outburst, anyway), but purely on the basis that she was a woman.
Despite the fact that throughout PC Zone’s history there was a largely female production team, from the magazine’s launch in 1993 until Rhianna was hired in early in 2001 – for close to half the life of the magazine – PC Zone’s entire editorial team was male. Consequently for eight years the people that discussed and decided content, tone, and, of course, who would be writing what in each issue, were blokes. It also meant that most of the freelance writers were men.2
I do think therefore that there was an implicit sense that PC Zone’s identity was bound up in low-level lad culture, even if we were sometimes unaware or ignorant and have since tried to distance ourselves from it. If I’m honest with myself, like letting the girl into the treehouse, I perhaps feared that Rhianna being part of the team would cause us to temper our behaviour, which in turn would dilute was PC Zone was about. In hindsight - and as this article illuminates – it wouldn’t have been a bad thing if it had. In the end it didn’t, and, looking back, it’s a huge regret that we didn’t realise sooner that having more women on the team would not only have made PC Zone better and more inclusive, but likely more successful as well.
So, while I didn’t have a problem with Rhianna joining our editorial clique on merit, I most certainly did on the basis that I might soon have to explain to the beloved only child of the nation’s favourite writer why I’d been so disparaging about him in print.
Briefly it seemed an option to keep quiet in the hope that the offending article would never be unearthed, until it was announced to the office that Rhianna would be joining the team, at which point PC Zone’s ever-tactful disk editor Dan Emery slipped a copy of issue #76 on my desk, open at page 124.
“Good luck explaining that,” he chuckled from within a cloud of cigarette smoke that then bobbed towards the kitchen.
In the end Rhianna was very gracious, but then she had no choice, really, given that it was her first week on the job and here was her immediate boss summoning her to his desk to explain something she was in no position to get incensed about. She accepted my apology with a slightly bemused look, and seemed to understand my reasoning, in spite of the fact I bumbled my way through an explanation, which should’ve – but I’m quite sure didn’t – go a little something like this:
Somewhere around late 1993 or early 1994 and fresh from university, I was working in WHSmith in Brent Cross in north London, where Terry Pratchett came one day to sign copies of his latest book for the assembled fans – of which there were many hundreds.
Despite being a lowly shop assistant at the time (three years out from joining PC Zone), I was deemed to have done a decent job of looking after Leonard Nimoy3 a couple of weeks previously (lovely guy) and Margaret Thatcher a few weeks before that (very pleasant actually, despite being evil), so was entrusted with shadowing Mr. Pratchett and providing for his every desire. This amounted to rather gruff demands for water, to stop asking if he wanted anything, and later, before he left, directions to the staff toilets.
Upon fulfilling the final duty I figured I’d wait for him to come back out, thinking he might need guiding to the exit. It’s fair to say he wasn’t too pleased to see me when he emerged a couple of minutes later. “What are you doing?” he charged more in frustration than in anger, but which I took to be the latter. He clearly wanted to GTFO, which was understandable given how packed and chaotic the store had been that Saturday afternoon. It never occurred to me that he might have been to the store before – it was WH Smith’s flagship location after all – and that he didn’t need me to be able to retrace his steps.
It’s fair to say that our brief exchanges didn’t endear Terry Pratchett to me in the slightest. Which was fine. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s not like I was a fan of his books. (I’d bought The Colour of Magic as a young teenager and couldn’t get on with it at all). And so, I surmised him to be generally unpleasant and a curmudgeon, in spite of his fine hat. Of course, it was almost certainly the case that he was just having a bad day – made worse by an obsequious yet absent-minded little shit getting in his way and following him about.
Rhianna explained as much, when, a few days into the PC Zone job, she came into the office one morning, took me aside and soberly offered a belated apology on behalf of her father. It was of course unnecessary and had the effect of making me feel even worse about my outburst than I had before, since now it was beyond doubt that Terry Pratchett had read what I’d said about him and yet he was the one compelled to say sorry. In spite of that, we agreed to draw a line under the whole thing and, on pain of awkwardness, endeavour to not speak of it again. And in the 20-odd years since, we’ve managed to do just that.
That was until it almost came up it in the latest episode of the podcast. There’s an oblique reference just before the five-minute mark, but we didn’t go any further in the end. Perhaps we should have done and I needn’t have written all this.
“The man is a tit and his work is shit.”
I’m still haunted and ashamed by those words. I suppose they’re my equivalent of the Tweet that’s posted in a moment of late night drunkenness that can never be fully scrubbed from the internet. In those terms I’m not the worst culprit and, for sure, the Pratchetts have faced more substantive criticisms and put up with worse behaviour since, but I can’t help but be reminded of my words every time I read mention of Terry or his books, or increasingly the fine efforts of Rhianna in an industry that we share.
My only hope for a merciful release is that, when my time comes, Death might shepherd me to where Terry Pratchett is waiting to share a frothing pint and – after a final apology – to discuss the greatest adventure games ever made. As long as Discworld isn’t among them, or I’ve had by then the chance to properly play it, we should be ok.
Previously on PC Zone Lives… Daikatana: When PC Zone make John Romero a pitch
The Playing Fields went out of business in 2002, around the time that Supertests became less about drinking and more about dressing up; which was a very good thing for Supertests, but not for The Playing Fields.
Beyond the very occasional freelance contributions of Teresa Maughan and Amaya Lopez (both veterans of Zero magazine, which had a much more diverse team and outlook), I can only recall one other female freelancer writing for PC Zone during my time on the team. The fact that her name eludes me and she would only have written a handful of reviews is suitably damning.
Nimoy was in the UK to promote his autobiography I am Spock, which the internet says was published in October 1995 – which is odd because I’d moved on to other things by then. Anyway, during a break in signings, Nimoy asked me to go over to Our Price on the other side of Brent Cross to see if they had any of his albums in stock. Highly Illogical had recently been rereleased on CD, which, I assume, he wanted a copy of. If he just wanted rid of me, he did a fine job of not letting it show.