It was the mid-90s and although I worked at a computer every day and had heard of the internet. I had never actually seen it and had only the haziest idea of how it might be more useful than my local library. As was standard practice in 1990s workplaces, internet access had been cut off lest we employees be tempted to “abuse it for personal use” during work hours.
As for my home computer, this was a lumbering ton of yellow-grey plastic circa 1988,
purchased for £200 from a pensioner in Southampton who was updating to
a wondrous new-fangled PC, half the size.
It could just about handle early Word and the odd game of Solitaire,
but probably would have taken half an hour to connect to a home dial-up,
even if I could have afforded one.
Then one day in the Coventry Evening Telegraph –
I lived in Coventry at the time – I read that a new “internet café” was to
open on Foleshill Road.
Excitedly a student friend from the local Writers’ Group, Miranda,
and I arranged to meet on Saturday morning to “go and have a look at the Internet”.
We fair skipped to the café in our enthusiasm.
It turned out to be a disappointingly run-down converted newsagents.
We were grunted at by the equally scruffy owner who relieved us of our
£2.50’s and indicated some tatty chairs in front of screens.
We found ourselves sitting at the screens staring uncomprehendingly,
having no idea how to “log in”. Eventually we had to plead for help.
The cafe owner duly logged us in. A screen appeared with a
white space at the top. We thought of things we would like to look up,
the BBC perhaps, and typed them in. Error messages came up.
Again and again.
The internet café owner looked at us like we were mad.
“It won’t work,” I complained. “I can’t find the internet.”
“What addresses you got?” asked the owner.
“What addresses? You need addresses.”
I typed in my home address and another error message binged.
“Not thatkind of address, you need URL address.”
“Uniform Resource Locator address.”
“I don’t know what that is. We just want to look up the BBC.”
“Give me address. I find it for you.”
At that point I recall we legged it from Coventry’s first internet café,
half embarrassed by our ignorance, half wondering what all the fuss was about.
Surely this internet lark was never going to take off. Evidently
it was for computer programmers only.
It would be two years before I was re-introduced to the internet by a
sympathetic I.T. Officer at my next workplace.
He talked me through it and allowed me to open my first email account
as well as navigate the world wide web.
To my astonishment, he did not see it as an abuse of work time at all,
but as an aide to work, sparsely populated by useful websites as the
internet was in those days, and requiring knowledge of the full
URL before anything other than an Error 404 page appeared.
Little did I know that more intrepid internet explorers were
exchanging emails with celebrities like Stephen Fry who
made no attempt to hide their contact details in those heady
days and were seemingly thrilled by any fan who sought them out online.
Then again we were all thrilled to receive every email, impossible
as that seems to believe these days!
Much though the internet has transformed our lives out of all recognition since then, those early days will always hold a touch of nostalgia for me. I am also glad I knew life pre-internet. In many ways there is much about it that is to be missed, not least thriving High Streets.