If you’re of my age or a few years older, and a football fan, you will have a particular memory of Saturday afternoons: sitting in front of a dark screen saying “Manchester United 1-0 Liverpool” for an hour and a half, prodding the TV remote periodically to get it to refresh.
The Saturday three o’clock games, then as now, were not on the telly. But unlike now, you couldn’t knock together a dodgy semi-legal feed from an Iraqi satellite station; you couldn’t follow it on the minute-by-minute reports here at Telegraph.co.uk/football. You couldn’t even get text alerts. If Radio 5 wasn’t covering it, you’d know nothing about it. But you could follow it on Ceefax. It wasn’t exciting, but it was information, and it was available as it happened. (Cricket fans will also remember following the whole of a five-day Test match on it, an exercise in Zen-like monotony not unlike that of actually watching a whole five-day Test match.) And today, after 38 years, Ceefax is finally over.
It was slow, it was creaky. Refreshing the page took long minutes and sometimes failed. The little three-digit number at the top, which I have a feeling was in hexadecimal or something, whirred around trying to find what you’d asked of it, and failed as often as it succeeded. When the TV signal was bad, it became indecipherable: “Wjfverhampt3n Wandttsrs 3-# Queee’s PxJk RanPers”, that sort of thing. I always felt this sort of angry pity for it, as though it were a panicking servant-boy falling over his own feet in his rush to bring me my bowl of lark’s tongues.
But it was the first true real-time information network. For the first time weather, sports, news, market reports, package holiday offers and TV listings were available at the touch of a button, or more accurately the touch of several buttons and a four-minute wait. It even had (touchingly basic) games – mainly quizzes – and a children’s section. It’s facile to say it was the internet of its time (although its French equivalent Minitel allowed you to buy things online and search the phone directory – you could even use it for email and chat). But it was a step towards the internet, and almost as futuristic when it arrived as YouTube was in 2004.
I don’t want to get misty-eyed. Technology advances, and my generation is particularly keen on manufactured nostalgia. It’s a sort of attempt, I think, to root ourselves in history. We don’t have a war or a famine or even a proper great depression; we’ve lived through the longest period of continued peace and prosperity in Europe in history. So we get nostalgic about children’s television – Cities of Gold, Trapdoor, The A-Team, that Ulysses-in-space thing, The Magic Roundabout – because cultural ephemera are among the few things that have actually changed. The other thing, of course, is technology, so we all go on about how great the ZX Spectrum was, or the BBC Micro, or Sensible Soccer on the Atari. These days people are even getting teary over memories of early websites and browsers, like USE.net or Netscape or Geocities. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
But actually the reason people don’t play the Atari any more is because it’s not as good as an X-Box, and the reason people stopped using Ceefax is because it’s not as useful or as versatile as the internet. It’s creative destruction, the march of progress, and pretending to be upset because Global Hypercolor t-shirts aren’t fashionable any more is silly.
Still, the death of Ceefax is worth marking, if not actually mourning. It was a moment when the nature of how we consume information started moving away from people in the media tipping out our allotted portions at certain times of the day, and towards us in our homes thinking “I want to know this now” and going and finding it. News websites and Twitter and TV on demand and Trip Advisor and Minecraft were all foreshadowed, if you look at it in a certain light, by Ceefax. It was old, and had to die, but it was a good thing while it lasted. Res5 in peare, CePfax, as it might have said.