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“I’m hot. My nipples are like bullets. I’m holding a banana”
In praise of Duncan MacDonald
All right, all right, simmer down. I've gathered you all here so that we can finally sort out the pressing question of 'who was the finest contributor to PC Zone' in its storied history.
Easy, Richie Shoemaker.
Now, you'll all have your own opinion, of course, and generally that will be 'Charlie Brooker'. No shame in that, the boy done well. From scrawling the CEX logo on the back of a fag packet to running a global media empire, he's certainly the highest profile ex-Zoner. And yes, he is very funny, very talented. Yes, he has written for 'proper' things like The Guardian. Channel Four, Netflix. Collaborated with Chris Morris. Like a Bronte heroine he appears to have married well and sired an appropriate number of heirs. And yes, he seems like a genuinely lovely chap who, Clooney like, is ageing very handsomely.
However, I don't come here tonight to fete Brooker, but praise MacDonald. Duncan MacDonald, aka Mr Cursor, aka Duncan Donaldo, aka Lord Scumland.
Mr Cursor? He's the one who ate cockroaches and wrote about daytime telly?
‘Yes!’ In a limited fashion and yet 'No!' in a much wider sense. You see, Mr Cursor was just one part of Duncan's output, and you would be forgiven (as this ten-year-old reader did) for not linking the two of them together.
You're still unconvinced, that's ok. Come, take my arm, and let us stroll together through the PC Zone archive; you can make up your own mind.
Get on with it.
Duncan Macdonald's career with Dennis publishing began on Your Sinclair magazine in the late 80s. Teresa Maughan, at that time YS editor, recalled he wasn't the "type of person" you would normally hire, being, in her words, "completely crazy". His colleagues at Zone were more circumspect, noting that he was a “very, very smart” and “very pleasant guy” who “burned bright”. However you choose to define him, his writing was direct, engaging, often whimsical and usually extremely funny. There is a real sense of hundreds of ideas bubbling just below the surface; that the act of writing simply gives them a semblance of order as they come tumbling forth.
Let’s look at some examples, starting with PC Zone issue #1.
Christ, this is going to be a lengthy article…
“Seeing as this is my first column and this is the first issue of PC Zone, I suppose introductions are in order… but they’ll have to wait”. So opened the first Mr Cursor (‘He’s afraid of his PC’) an appropriate introduction to the writing of Duncan MacDonald, whose style can be distilled into four humours:
1) A lengthy, digressive introduction that usually (but not always) leads back to the thing he should be talking about.
2) A slightly improbable conceit usually involving a journey, childhood memory, or conversation with
3) A larger than life set of characters, ranging from the benign ‘old lady on the tube’ to a psychotic National Lottery obsessive who extorts him for protection money.
4) A tenuous link to something Donald was interested in (sometimes games, often TV, occasionally maths or programming).
Here, ‘the conceit’ is an improbable trip to the Dordogne with an ‘art group’ in the back of the (unspokenly dodgy) tutor’s camper van. ‘The tenuous link’ is Mr Cursor painting three pictures of DOS errors whilst the rest of the class paint landscapes. The ‘digressive introduction’ is the column itself, but he does loop back in the final paragraph to end with a welcome.
Unusually, this first column doesn’t feature many other characters, but it does mark the first appearance of ‘Angela’, here a nude artists model. Is this the same ‘Angela’ (artist, recovering heroin addict) who would later turn up as the ‘old colleague’ and love interest of his South Coast Diaries? I hope so.
Having any link to computing at all scores this column quite highly on the ‘Mr Cursor gaming relevancy’ scale (it should be noted that this is a logarithmic scale and the scores tend to cluster around zero), but that is sort of the point.
The notion of writing about ‘being afraid’ of the PC was unnecessarily self-limiting. This first column does include a paragraph imploring readers to write in with their own tales of fear, “let’s all be wimps together”, but the request was never repeated.
In a way it is surprising that it took until issue #5 for Mr Cursor to dispense with talking about computers or gaming entirely (“waiting for my PC to be mended” being the cover story). Issue #6 marked the start of the ‘He’s afraid of his PC’ tagline being amended (with an ‘&’ or a ‘*’ noting another thing he feared that month). By issue #13 ‘afraid of his PC’ had been consigned to the bin, with a monthly fear taking its place.
Issue #13 is worth dwelling on because it neatly illustrates why Zone was held in such high esteem. It was funny, always, but also clever. The Cursor column opens with a quote from Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis before segueing into a paragraph about Doom over LAN. You wouldn’t find that in PC Gamer.
Throughout his tenure on the magazine, Duncan’s Mr Cursor column attracted a steady stream of hate mail, usually asking why this idiot was being given a voice when he knew nothing about gaming. The editorial line held firm that the Cursor character was designed to be ignorant and somewhat hapless, but regular readers, even those who didn’t know it was Duncan, understood the deep knowledge behind the persona.
Issue #14’s Cursor is a case in point. In this flight of fantasy Duncan imagines a game developer ‘Super Group’ (like Band Aid) who would each bring the best element of their game into a notional mega game which would give the player a fully explorable universe inside their Pentium. The laundry list of developers and games tells the audience that this person knows their stuff. The wrap-around story, about octopuses and whether or not they have orgasms, shows a writer who is absolutely confident in their mastery of the medium.
Issue #18 sees Mr Cursor time travel to the distant world of 2023 (oh) where he speaks to ‘Bob’ about the future of gaming. It turns out the future of gaming sounds very much like Eve Online (which will go down well with certain members of this parish). Another little reminder that Duncan knew what he was talking about.
You really need a subheading here.
Phew! Yes, thanks. I’ve been reading a lot of Duncan’s stuff and I think it’s rubbed off a bit.
Here, have another one.
You’re too kind. Mr Cursor is such an iconic figure in the Zone pantheon that it’s easy to forget that most of Duncan’s output was reviews, previews and features.
The traditional review format might not seem like fertile ground for a writer like him; after all, there is a clear structure and set of expected outcomes. A good review should tell the reader about the game; how it plays, looks, and feels. How does it compare to other games? And then there should be a score - a single number that boils the experience down into something mundanely quantifiable.
And here we really see Duncan deploy his talents to the full, because each review is an experiment with the form. True, there are shared commonalities (most notably the ubiquitous, rambling intro) but they run from film scripts to dole diaries, via multiple choice exam papers and, in the case of Comanche 3, a three-page description of a press junket to Florida with no real discussion of the actual game.
That said, there were a handful of more ‘standard’ reviews, and these were reserved for games that Duncan really, really liked. Take Dune 2, his very first review back in issue #1. Ok, he does spend the first few paragraphs pondering why, given how much time and effort goes into making a movie, anyone would piss it all up the wall by casting Sting. Once that is dealt with, we are treated to four pages of comprehensive, in depth analysis, going into great detail about the game, the style and how to play it. And why? Because Duncan didn’t know how to categorise it, but knew that he loved it.
Other games to receive similar treatment were Transport Tycoon (a “gloriously hi-resolution, isometric orgasmo blast from the planet Boing”, remarkable for being “created by a team of two”) and Flight Simulator 5 (because he’d managed to land a real Cessna “first time” after playing Flight Simulator 4 and was now a full paid-up member of the Church of Propeller).
Overall though, he eschewed “condescending, boring and explainy bits for simpletons” because he trusted his audience. This confidence allowed him to review F1 Grand Prix Manager “from the viewpoint of a pretend Frank Williams… and an imaginary friend called Tufty”, and to summarise AH-64D Longbow as “ A completely and utterly spanky helicopter doofer”.
“But all this is irrelevant”
If this makes Duncan sound self-indulgent, or even arrogant, then I have steered you wrong. He understood his style wasn’t for everyone, but also understood that most readers bought Zone for entertainment rather than to flick through a beige set of ratings. His review of Top Gun in issue #37 includes two made-up letters (granted they are printed under the sub-heading ‘Boring bastard’) urging Zone to “take these childish ramblings and condense them into some form of coherent perspective”. Ultimately, of course, Duncan went on being Duncan. But there is a tacit admission that he gets both sides of the argument.
Away from fictitious battles with the readership, Duncan was an extremely kind reviewer. Comparatively few of his reviews carried a low score and, when they did, he didn’t relish sticking the boot into a crap game. Generally, reviewers delight in a bad review, because it’s easy to be entertaining whilst demolishing a turd-box. Duncan didn’t do this, instead finding creative ways to express his disappointment.
Summing up the long forgotten ‘Interstate 76’ (a sort of proto GTA) he wrote “I hate having to give a lowish score because originality really should be rewarded”. He concluded “How about we applaud Interstate 76? I’ll clap first” before exhorting the readership to join in.
When a game was truly beyond the pale, like the dreadful ‘Hard Drivin’ 2’ he resorted to a made up ‘Dole Diary’ in which the hapless protagonist spent most of their giro down at Happy Shopper before dropping their last £13 on the game. The experience is so awful that they have been driven to suicide five days later. It is indicative of his style that a bad game experience doesn’t focus on shit-kicking the developers, but the disappointment of the player.
He sounds great. You’ve convinced me. Gosh, is that the time…
But we haven’t even touched on Culky yet! Or his ‘don’t play the Lottery’ algorithm (26,000 years to win £461,000 at a cost of £1,352,500). Or his short-lived marriage to Pamela Anderson (she liked the New Kent Road flyover and “Tesco at Elephant and Castle” apparently).
Ok, skipping forward. Duncan was a stalwart contributor to Zone until suddenly he wasn’t. His final review appeared in issue #52 (‘Speedster’ – “a disappointing racing game with no sense of speed”) and the last Cursor was in issue #54. This ended with an inspiring claim that he was moving to Pitcairn, a fool proof plan as there were “no jobs” meaning he could live on the beach, signing on in perpetuity.
The truth, of course, was more banal. Duncan did move, but to Worthing, not Pitcairn. And he did sign on but, as anyone who has had that pleasure will tell you, unpaid agricultural labour on Pitcairn may have been preferable.
The South Coast Diaries
In retrospect there had long been signs in Duncan’s work that something like this was in the offing. In issue #44 he talks about the council flat in “the crappy South London tower block where I live in squalor” trapped in a “continual search for methods of making cash from not much actual work”. A few issues earlier the prospect of a visit from ‘Suzie’ had sent him into a cleaning frenzy, which had necessitated multiple trips to Londis to acquire the requisite amount of bleach. A few issues later still he laments that he hasn’t owned a Hoover for three years, but a Hoover costs the same as a Nintendo 64 so… no contest, really.
The Diaries were originally commissioned by David McCandless and published on the now defunct Seethru website in 2001 as part of the ‘world building’ for the TV show ‘Attachments’ (which also featured contributions from Paul Lakin, Steve Hill and Charlie Brooker). His book of the same name was completed in 2003 and almost went to publication, before being canned at the last minute by its publisher. The version available now was compiled by his sister Vici and released in August 2020.
I won’t spoilt the content for you (if you’ve read this far, but haven’t read the book then rush out immediately and get a copy, I’ll be here when you get back) other than to say it begins with Duncan being turfed out of his flat off the Old Kent Road and finding himself adrift in Hastings (really he was in Worthing, but the rest is fairly autobiographical) with £18 in his pocket, no possessions and nowhere to sleep that night.
If that sounds horrible depressing, then it is. But the book is shot through with Duncan’s irrepressible optimism and the cast of characters, with one notable exception, are an appealing bunch of oddballs, chancers, drunks and druggies trying to live life as best they can on the forgotten rungs of society. ‘Angela’ emerges fully formed here as the love interest and the scenes with her are, to this soppy reader at least, genuinely tender and heartful.
In reality, the main antagonist in the book is the British state. In the issue #17 podcast (Episode 2) it is noted that it is a shame "such a hugely talented guy should fall through the cracks", but I would contend that he didn't fall into a crack but rather was dispassionately shoved into a box labelled 'workshy dole scum' and routinely dehumanised by a vindictive system designed to heap more misery on the shoulders of those least able to bear it.
The Return of Mr Cursor
Mr Cursor reappears in the 10th birthday celebration edition of Zone by way of a letter mailed from “Tristan da Cunha”, where he has been living for three years (if one thing is for certain, it’s that Duncan owned an atlas). “Getting to Pitcairn used up all the money I had” he writes “having arrived, I now wanted to leave”. Swapping ‘Worthing’ for ‘Pitcairn’ makes this fully autobiographical.
This revival ran intermittently for the rest of 2003, and consisted of a short story, told in five episodes, charting his escape from Tristan and eventual involvement in a plot to lure obnoxious American teen gamers to Sierra Leone so they could be murdered. As you can imagine, it hasn’t aged as well as his other writing, being too firmly rooted in one conceit which feels a little queasy in 2023.
The final Cursor was printed in issue #200. He is still “penniless” and living in “Hastings” which is “a complete shithole”. The odds are “50/50 you’ll be stabbed in the eye on any given day” so he “stays inside month after month” playing Pirates! Gold. It’s a bleak setup, but the rest of the column, where he imagines playing “Pirates! Gold Plus Online Odyssey” from inside a climate controlled GameSphere, with David Hasselhoff as his faithful boson, is excellent. The imagination is still firing, the prose clear and engaging as ever – even seemingly cut off from the world of PC gaming, he still knew what made it tick.
On dole beach with Lord Scumland
That Cursor marks the end of Duncan’s published work but there is one final strand, Twitter. He appears to have started several handles, but the main one was @LordScumland which began in May 2011. Here he finally locates himself in Worthing (which, according to his ‘Guide to the South Coast’ in the Diaries, is a step up from Hastings) and has acquired a PlayStation, blender, spider plant and dog.
No MacDonald output would be complete without ‘characters’ and they’re here too, including “the mad Polish woman” (who lives below him and occasionally hammers on his door in the early hours) and the obliquely sinister ‘Russians’ who are perpetually fighting in the street. There is no mention of ‘Angela’, but I hope she popped round occasionally.
His Twitter feed is a wonderful reprise of some of the stuff that made Mr Cursor shine. He begins with the conceit of a ‘19th Century Words Club’ but soon deviates from this to whatever happens to take his fancy. Whilst playing Skyrim he accidentally falls “off a cliff while trying to catch a butterfly" thereby earning “possibly the most effete death in videogame history”. His love of MasterChef leads to him programming a “random MasterChef recipe generator” which throws up such gems as "Octopus beak stuffed with large claw", "Flavoured bone" and “Egg”.
After a trip to America with ‘Rupert’ “a bloke I’ve known since I was a kid” and an attempt to feed his dog chicory (“Could you not soak the chicory in salt? Then he would happily eat it”) the feed goes silent in September 2012. And that is the end of that.
“I’ll try to end on a positive note, which is hard”
I wanted to finish in Duncan’s own words (the sub-heading above is from his review of Silent Thunder), but I don’t think his own assessment (“a lazy, scrounging, hedonistic tosser”) does him justice.
It’s clear from his writing that he wasn't an early rising, clean cut go-getter but, put in an environment where he was allowed to be himself, he excelled. Not only that, his format breaking style, "that irreverent side” which “rubbed off on everyone else on the magazine", blazed a path for other writers, not least Charlie Brooker, who would continue his tradition of submitting reviews dressed up as letters to maiden aunts, terrible poems, court cases and other sundry surrealism.
Theoretically, the world of 2023 should open countless opportunities for writers like Duncan. Want to write a rambling stream of consciousness about rearing cockroaches for food? Go right ahead! No one will stop you. But the reality is that no one can make a living from it anymore. Between the ever-churning content, SEO and clickbait, nobody is going to pay for a four-page game review that spends a third of its run time talking about Sting. And that’s a real shame, because I’d rather read one of those than a thousand on Steam.
Duncan died in 2017, but then a strange thing happened. In December 2019 his original Twitter account (@scumland) tweeted “If you see me on the beach in Worthing, come and say hello”. There are a couple of explanations for this, but the one I like to believe is that someone who loved him, and missed him, popped it on there as a tribute. And why not, if you find yourself on Worthing beach, raise your glass, can or cone and say “hello” to the memory of an excellent writer.
And, because originality really should be rewarded, how about we applaud Duncan MacDonald?
I’ll clap first.
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