I didn't intend to let the blog lie fallow for a month, but family issues combined with an intense lack of things to say seemed to call for a hiatus. I even thought about stopping it altogether, but, after seven years of doing this, I didn't want to end the blog with a whimper. So, back again, and yes, just like July 2002, I'm heading off to North Carolina. But only for a week instead of a year. And other differences, too. Back in 2003, I dismissed Durham as a demonstration of what a city centre would look like after a neutron bomb detonation. Today, I'd love to live there. Things have changed a little. But right now, I'm deep in a form of Östalgie. Yesterday, Teletext UK announced that they will be shutting off transmission from January 2010. It's one of those things that has always been there, but from next year, it'll be gone, confined to nostalgic clip shows.
REGGIE & FERNE COTTON: Oh my God! It was mad! You had to press a 'Text' button, and then you saw this awful set of graphics that looked like a child's lego set gone wrong - STUART MACONIE: And it always landed on the page just after you wanted! You were after page 4, it came on at 5. Of 30. By which time you could have looked it up in a newspaper! STUART N. HARDY (MP Flydale North): They mocked me on their letter pages, but now I will have my revenge! STUART CAMPBELL:You useless, cretinous morons.Teletext is one of those British inventions that makes you smile. An entire news and weather service squeezed into two spare lines of a PAL television system, even capable of graphics display (character-based graphics, sure, but you try doing better in 1974). It's a feat of ingenuity up there with Sir Clive Sinclair's decision to multiplex faulty RAM chips in order to keep costs down on the Spectrum (anybody else would just get memory that worked. The British make do and mend!). The system's major weakness was that you couldn't send the whole data stream at once, only a certain amount at a time. However, this turned out to be a plus; because the data had to be continuously refreshed, news stories would often break on Ceefax/Teletext before you'd see them on television news. As the years passed, the teletext specification was improved, adding things like hi-res graphics and extra navigational features; I'm not sure why Britain never took up the Minitel/European enhancements and instead stuck with the bare minimum, though probably it had something to do with the lack of TV sets that were capable of displaying the new graphics system (we did get Fastext, though! Ah, Bamboozle…). When ITV's teletext franchise passed from Oracle to Teletext UK, I feared the worst, but instead we got a new Golden Age: the era of Digitiser, Planet Sound/Generator, and Turner The Worm. Moc-A-Moc. Digi was the pinnacle - a computer games 'magazine' (pages 470-475) that followed in the tradition of Your Sinclair and Amiga Power of being funny, strange, fiercely critical, and an ability to wind up Amiga owners in a hilarious manner. These things don't last, sadly. Mr. Campbell and Mr. Biffo were taken out back and shot for budgetary reasons, and Digitiser was no more. The Internet became a standard feature in almost everybody's home, and Teletext looked more than a little quaint in comparison at the turn of the century. But, in a pinch, it was still easier to go to page 601 to get the schedule for BBC1 rather than go to the BBC's website. But teletext's death warrant had already been signed. Digital television was, and is, our future. MPEG-4 streams of data sent over the air, allowing tens, perhaps hundreds of channels to occupy the same space as the current five do today. There's just one problem - teletext hides in the vertical blanking interval on a TV signal. But with digital transmission, there is no VBI; it's just a stream of data which doesn't need one. There's nowhere for teletext to hide anymore. There is a 'successor': MHEG-4, a specification that seems to aim for a 'rich multimedia experience', mixing text, video, and hyperlinks…but it looks like a cut-down attempt at recreating the web, and is much slower than standard Teletext to boot. I don't see it taking off, to be honest. It looked like Teletext UK would limp on until 2012 (the date at which the final analogue TV signal is switched off), but yesterday, they announced the closure of the service at the end of this year. Come January 1st, 2010, pressing 'TEXT' on your remote on ITV will give you a blank screen (although, to be fair, that's probably better than 95% of ITV's programming). Only the BBC's Ceefax will remain; the dying embers of a great British invention. And that's what I'm thinking about this morning as I head towards Heathrow. Another part of my childhood disappearing as if it was never there. And it makes me more than a little sad.