Prism Microproducts

IN THIS CHAPTER:

© Bob Denton 2019
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Prism

We called our new operation Prism Microproducts. This was selected because we didn’t currently have a deal in place for the ZX Spectrum and retailers would want to buy that product from us too. We developed a response that asked, ‘Where do you get a Spectrum?’ answer, ‘Through a Prism’. Though it was several months before we did add the Spectrum to a more formal Sinclair agreement, retailers proved uncharacteristically patient for what became a commodity product.

Clive Sinclair and Spectrum

 Clive Sinclair and Spectrum

If ever I had an example of the significance of a database this would be it. I prepared a mailer and sent out a series of turnkey packages (hardware, software and accessories) to every appropriate retailer I could acquire. I recall various guides like the weighty Retail Trade Directory and others, that were avidly subsumed into our database – it worked!

ASIDE: As I write this the current season of The Apprentice is being aired. One constant failing of these hopefuls is that they forget that retailers self-evidently need to understand what the retail price will be and what margin they might expect to achieve before making a decision. This was placed at the very centre of our offer by offering three packages at different levels of cash commitment, but the higher they went, the better the margin. Not rocket science or brain surgery, but computer logic.

What a ride, Prism ‘grow’d like Topsy’. We shipped ZX81s and Spectrums by the thousand, we sold other brands, we launched modems, robots and our own luggable, the Wren. 

From a standing start, we achieved £10m turnover in our first year, £30m in the second, £50m+ in the third. Distribution of the Sinclair product operated on very slim margins, but the volumes carried us along a rapid growth.

Grabbing the tiger by the tail

The first 1,000 ZX81s were delivered from Sinclair to my double garage at Carlton in rural Bedfordshire. I got caught up in London and called Jane to say a small transit would arrive, would she direct the driver to put them in the garage. I got back to a family rebellion, the single driver of the rather large truck would not do the off-loading, so Jane and the children had to do it, By the end of the process they had filled not just the double-garage, but our dining room and much of one bedroom with stock. They were none too impressed with me.

Fortunately, we sold them through quickly. It felt a lot like Arthur Daley from Minder as cars and vans turned up at all hours of the day and night to collect their packs. They were in such demand that very few had to be couriered, the buyers were prepared to collect.

Camden Passage Islington

I couldn’t use my home again, so I negotiated for a lock-up area within a large covered garage in Islington. This was around the corner from Richard’s Camden Passage offices – I had by then taken over a small cupboard in the office as Prism’s base. The garage was large enough for us to pick and pack, but unfortunately we could not get insurance for the building. Weekly shipments arrived on a Thursday, so I had to sleep in the garage until we had shipped most of it out.

ASIDE: One of my memories of our cupboard office, was one of our first temp-staff members. She was a resting actress with a great series of voices and accents. The only chair we had for her was a bog-standard fixed chair that was missing its back. She happily sat there and fielded our calls. She would answer with a character voice, then suggest that she needed to put them through to another department, tapped the handset on a filing cabinet and then answered with a second voice from some mythical department. She did it enough to be hilarious but remained business-like otherwise.

Within weeks we had accumulated £1m in our account and I freely admit that Richard and I did sit down briefly to consider if we should just draw it all out and run!

A few months later Clive was doing a placement with Rothschilds and during their due diligence they noted we owed Sinclair some £1.7m and yet were only an off-the-shelf £100 limited-company with only two shares at issue. They naturally expressed concern.

ASIDE: Clive’s placement through Rothschilds made him very well-off, my memory is £120m+. A few days later I was staying at his apartment in Chelsea and we went out to Annabel’s club. He had enjoyed Blackjack but that evening it dawned on him that his new personal worth made this level of gambling absolutely pointless. He threw his chips to the croupier and left the club disappointed that this form of enjoyment was closed off for him.

As a result of Rothschild’s concerns, we formalised our contract and included future products. We were now locked in to each other, so that if Sinclair refused us supply then they lost distribution and their stocks would mount. They came up with what was termed a ‘Romalpa Turbo’ clause. Romalpa establishes that the title to the goods supplied remain vested in the seller until certain obligations (including full payment of the purchase price) are fulfilled by the buyer. Romalpa Turbo extended this so that if we should default then Sinclair had not only rights to recover our stocks but also to take over our receivables. With this in place we established that we paid 28 days after receipt of goods, and on that receipt Sinclair released our next shipment – this would work well for both parties for three years.

Orange Square Marbella

To mull over what was happening and get our plans together, four of the group’s senior managers went to Marbella, because Richard had a villa near there. We talked of future arrangements and organisational structures to continue our momentum.

On the return journey, I called home and was surprised when a neighbour answered Jane had written off my red BMW 635CSI the day before, she and the kids were traumatised but otherwise OK, but the dog was gone – I had a horrible journey home from the airport.

BMW 635 CSi

Jane had been travelling home from her parents in Bristol to Carlton. Turning off the M4 at exit 13 (Newbury) there was light snow falling. In those days there was seldom anything on the roundabout below the motorway – today its is a major junction. Jane braked and the early 635, pre-ABS, pirouetted. The car, rear-end first, entered the roundabout where a large truck tried to climb over the car. The BMW cage held firm and it was spat out and spun so that the front-end went under the rear wheels of the truck, the cage securing them again.

Because it was a rotational accident the only personal injury was when the kids’ heads hit the side windows. Matt admitted years later he had been asleep and one lasting effect was that he was unable to sleep in a car thereafter.

The back window had popped out and Toby, our Cavalier King Charles spaniel, jumped out of the back window like a scared rabbit. Being a typical spaniel he pulled against any lead, we therefore had to use a choker chain, but this had been removed while he was in the car – he had no name tag, and ‘chipping’ pets was not yet a thing.

Jane had called a friend in Carlton who came to collect her, the children and the luggage. So when I got back I went home to console them, particularly to dismiss Jane’s apologies for writing off my car, the first to sport my RSD800 plates.

The next morning I set off, ostensibly to the office, but found myself driving to that motorway exit and I spent the day trudging up lanes to ask the sparse population if they had seen Toby. We used a Dog Rescue line to hit local radio but never had a word of what happened to him. We knew however that anyone who fed him would achieve owner-status, loyalty was non-existent, so we conveniently assumed that’s what happened.

ASIDE: Our Carlton home had a dining room with a stairwell and ‘minstrel’s gallery’ landing so it had double-height walls. I had some box scaffolding and erected it to wallpaper this area. Jane knew enough about my approach to decorating, which usually involved a lot of expletives, so she took the kids out – out of earshot.

I needed to get this huge fifteen-foot drop marked up accurately and equipped myself with some cord and a heavy weight to act as a plumb-line. That left some means of imbuing the cord with a material that I could ping to make a line. I searched in vain for chalk and resorted to some gravy browning from the kitchen.

I clambered to the top of the scaffold and dropped my plumb line. I had given no thought to Toby, our voracious spaniel, who wanted to get at the string and no amount of expletives from the top of the scaffold would get him to stop. I had to clamber down and lock him out in the garden to get it done. If a sit-com had developed this story-line I would be amused but would think it too implausible a story-line.

Carlton was often flooded when the meandering Ouse was added to by Newport Pagnell opening its sluice to solve their high-water issues, but with no seeming regard for downstream villages. Our bedroom was downstairs with an en-suite and I recall gettng more and more annoyed one night when the adjoining loo kept gurgling all night. When we woke in the morning we learned that an elderley neighbour (just three doors away) had to be evacuated from her upstairs window, the ground floor badly flooded. The land rose aenough between us that we jyst had gurgles.

That downstairs room had one other incident worthy of mention. Jane’s mother had a clerical role with a biscuit company and she would often give us quantities of packs for her grandchildren. We used to put these out of their reach on the top of our wardrobe. The kids couldn’t get to them but we had reckoned without other pests. We kept hearing something rustling behimd the wardrobe. This could be quietend by throwing a slipper at the wardrobe. It became more and more annoying and I emptied one of the wardrobes to investigate. A pack of jammy dodgers had fallen behind the wardrobe and we found a mouse had eaten a bore hole right through teh centre of the pack!

Evening Standard (Sep-83)

We turned over big numbers, we had other contributing divisions, but despite our attempts to diversify, the Sinclair turnover remained our dominant contributor. We had a drinks party at the first million, another at five million, and the novelty then wore off. It is amazing how you learn to accommodate new behaviours.

ASIDE: Our bankers, NatWest, were keen to fete us given our meteoric rise. We were invited to luncheons at their headquarters and asked our opinions on the financial issues of the day. Rather more interesting was that we shared the same branch with the writer Douglas Adams, something of a hero for me at the time, I avidly consumed all five of his Hitchhikers Guide ‘trilogy’, both of his Dirk Gentlys and even his Meaning of Liff. He too was based in Islington, Arthur Dent met Trillian Astra at a party there, the loudest band in the universe was Disaster Area, their guitarist frontman was Hotblack Desiato, this name derived from a real Islington estate agent.

Daylight robbery

We sorted out our warehousing, by locating our stock at a TNT Luton warehouse. For a fee they would store, then pick, pack and ship our orders, which made life a lot less physical for us. The ZX Spectrum had become a commodity product – the only other time I would encounter this was the Apple iPod, which could also be used as currency.

One Sunday morning the TNT warehouse had just one individual patrolling inside as their security. Outside a young girl, driving with L-plates, drove into a skip, with a loud collision. The guard instinctively went out to help her, where he was confronted by a guy with a sawn-off, who marched him back into the warehouse. The gang put the guard into a trailer and backed it up against the warehouse wall. They had stolen around £300k at cost price of Spectrums, that meant they had taken a large number of units!

Trade press comment on stock recovered

A Regional Crime Squad was tasked with investigating the heist, run by an interesting DS who kept me appraised of progress.

We offered a reward and this bore early fruit when a sales trainer at a major company gave a nudge-nudge-wink-wink comment to his trainees, stating he could get them a cheap Spectrum. One of the trainees reported him and got a piece of the reward when we recovered 10s of units.

In another incident some suspicious guys were trailed and followed aboard a ferry at Holyhead bound for Dublin, approached by the police they threw their cache of Spectrums overboard – and somehow these soggy boxes were retrieved. The Squad eventually recovered all of our stock and only the soggy ones were the subject of an insurance claim.

As the case was being made against the raiders the DS would often phone me to say he needed to check some facts. It took me a few such trips before I realised that the appeal was in fact the pub opposite our Mora Street, city premises. It had lunchtime, ‘Readers-wives’ strippers. He would ask his questions and then spend an hour or so in the pub.

He left his folder in my office and I couldn’t resist a little skim through it. Some of the interviews contained in it would have been a straight cut-and-paste into the Sweeney or Minder. They were interviewing the guy assumed as the ultimate boss of the heist, too important to have ever been near the robbery or the goods. They recovered quite a lot of the stock in a lock-up in Margate. They asked him when he had last visited Margate, he replied ‘Is that outside London?’, they asked again and he said ‘Can’t see the point of going out of London – never have’. I was impressed by the judicious editing of expletives. But they only ever convicted low-level players and downstream handlers.

Great ambitions

We set out to use our lucrative Sinclair deal to build an ‘empire’. We created a software rack-jobbing team that visited multiple retailers’ branches to refresh their software stocks. Our modems took off too, we were selling network adaptors for all PCs. We took on representation of the Oric and Enterprise computers, we even flirted with Amstrad.

We set up a French subsidiary after gaining distribution rights for Sinclair there. Overcoming the need to have a French PDG, by appointing a Scot who had taken French nationality. This was Cameron Macsween a friend who had co-developed the first UK video game, Videomaster.

This was not enough for us, we wanted our own computer. There was a BBC computer designed and built by Acorn, we got heavily involved in a series of meetings with various ITV regions’ business heads to suggest that an ITV computer would be appropriate.

Wren advertisement

We proposed that it needed to be distinct from the BBC computer and convinced them that an executive computer was the way to go. Their TV series could therefore concentrate on the executive and small business sectors that the BBC was unable to address.

ASIDE: In 1981 Adam Osborne had launched his Osborne 1, the first commercially-available portable, which at its peak shipped 10,000 units/month. He went bankrupt in 1983. When asked why, he declared that he had ‘briefly doubted his own infallibility’.

With Transam Microsystems we developed the Wren and had Thorn/EMI build it for us – we were thus all-British, hence its name. It had a Zilog Z80 processor, used the vogue CP/M3 OS, we created an early GUI, graphics user interface, on its onboard 7” orange monitor, and it had viewdata capability – of course!

It had two 5.25” floppy disks and a port for an external Winchester hard drive. We had to concede that at 15kgs it was more luggable than portable – though for me it was easy, based on prior years of lugging Sweda 46s and Xerox 660s.

The ITV project stalled and failed  and so we entered an increasingly busy market with no special edge. Only 1,000 were ever built, but it was an exemplar of the 1983 status of PCs.

Romox cartridge programmer

I still went to the American CES shows annually and would routinely come back with products from there. Perhaps the most interesting, though least successful, was ROMOX. This was a unit that retailers could install to hold 100s of video games and other software packages in different brand formats that could be output onto ROM carts on-demand. Better yet the user could come back with the cart and overwrite a new package for a fee, smaller than the cost of a new cart. The device would also present the local and national top charts as a sales promotion. Sadly, the rights proved elusive and it just didn’t take off.

Nolan Bushnell and Androbots

I met up with, and befriended, Nolan Bushnell the originator of Pong and Atari and we launched his range of Androbots in the UK. Taking over the Hippodrome on Leicester Square in January 1984 we gave press and trade launches of our plans for the year. William Woolard of Tomorrow’s World was our presenter. We hit all the evening news broadcasts, with Angela Rippon intoning ‘Hello Topo’ robotically. As a development device Topo was timely, but the market for personal robots was still a thing of the future.

ASIDE: Nolan Bushnell had set up a business incubator company called Catalyst Technologies Venture Capital Group, offering innovators office and workshop space backed by a support team, advice and finance.

His own office was something of a marvel. He had a glass-topped desk which had a scrolling LED message device, so his secretary could send messages to him in a meeting without disturbing it. He set up each of his innovators with a camera for face-to-face conversations, but while theirs were fixed, so that they had to sit still, his tracked a device in his shirt pocket so he could pace and still be on their screen.

His office was also set up to establish moods, the one I liked most was the lights taken down low, except on his desk surface, crickets chirrupping in the background. He said it might make him look like a space cadet, but by using these technologies he would know what worked and what was marketable.

Androbot brochure

Nolan later invited Richard and I to meet up with him in Paris. He rented perhaps the most amazing building in Paris. It sat with an uninterrupted view of the Eiffel Tower from every window. Its basement had a grotto swimming pool, you walked out from what looked like a Greek temple’s portico and pillars, then descended marble steps along the broad width of the pool. The heated water took you out under rough-hewn rocks with concealed lighting.

Nolan knew how to spend his money and was proud of his profligacy, for example he had flown the Atlantic in his private jet and pointed out that he owned two, after all what would you do when the first was being serviced?

Nolan has received many accolades including being on Business Week’s list of ’50 Men Who Changed America’. Leonardo di Caprio was to play Bushnell in a movie project named Atari, but it has yet to materialise.

Prism cutting (1984) – leading by quantity shipped!
More Prism claims

As 1984 dawned we had a lot to say, and as stated above, we booked the West End’s brand-new Hippodrome, off Leicester Square, with our press presentation set for when the clocks should have been striking thirteen.

We calculated that we had sold sufficient Spectrums, when laid side-by-side that would have stretched from the Hippodrome for 62 miles to Sinclair’s Cambridge HQ. We showed the Wren and Androbot’s Topo all augmented by the futuristic laser shows at the club.

The night club’s team really got behind the launch as it was their first real opportunity to apply their new equipment with space themes like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Thus Spak Zarathustra. This had a visceral impact even after many rehearsals and two launches.

Prism 1984 Conference newsletter – started as the clocks struck thirteen
British Microcomputing Award – for Prism modem

ASIDE: Richard and I decided we needed to take out keyman insurance on each other, the notion being if either of us popped our clogs, our wife would get £1m promptly. The survivor could then carry on with the business uninterrupted and value the balance of the deceased’s share without any urgency. The insurance company required a rather detailed medical, not the usually cursory approach, and this gave me a shock.

The doctor asked did I drink, and I gave a knee-jerk response that yes I did, but only socially. He was not happy with that and asked detailed questions. Did I drink at lunchtimes and I admitted to three business lunches a week when I would have a Kir aperitif and wine. He established that the lunches were usually for two or three people and we consumed a bottle between us. He asked about after lunch and I thought it sensible not to mention my usual port. He asked about the office and I admitted I had a bar in my office so that when we worked late colleagues would often come to get a drink and pour me a scotch, say three evenings a week. He pressed and suggested that presumably I had not invested in optics, so the measures would be generous. At home? I admitted to wine with the meal, stressing this was usually from a box, so not a whole bottle, but confessed to the occasional scotch later in the evening. This had all crept on given the success we were enjoying and I had not stopped to assess this.

After listing all of this I realised this made me an alcoholic. I stopped drinking. But two days in I started getting aches in my upper arms, so I went back on it, but did reduce the amounts. We got the insurance and I had received a wake-up call.

Board meetings

We tended to hold our board meetings in interesting places. Even the ones we held at the office were usually followed by a doubles’ tennis match at Highbury Fields.

Prism Executive Board

We held one notable meeting at the Marbella Club, flying in our exec and non-exec directors for two nights with the meeting in between. Richard and I had decided not to cramp the style of our execs on the first night and they went out in a group to Puerto Banúsfor the evening. At the appointed time for the meeting the next morning we sat with the non-execs waiting on the team’s arrival, no-one showed up. I called each of their rooms and told them to get themselves down to the meeting without allowing discussion.

The first one arrived with a silly grin on his face but seemingly unable to talk. The next arrived with a look on his face that suggested if you questioned him he would strike out. The third arrived perfectly turned out, obviously his early-morning routine had kicked in. Despite our advising casualwear would be fine, he was in full suit, collar-and-tie, clutching his briefcase – but his face was one big gravel rash. The others were no better.

One of the guys was a serious type-1 diabetic and before going out had dosed himself up for his expected alcohol intake and so was then obliged to hit the booze or he would have been in trouble, the others had followed his lead. Late that night they had been walking in the port and two taller guys had the shorter, Graham, supported between them, with his arms around their necks. When one stumbled they all fell over and Graham took the fall on his face. Now it sounds amusing, but at the time I ordered them all to go and sober up and delayed the meeting for an hour.

We had been there to discuss our going to market, this was not a good start. We did later place 10% of the company for £1.2m on the OTC market, attracting several large institutional investors, so no great harm appeared to have been done.

 A tight squeeze

Another board meeting excursion, intended more as a team building exercise, was two days at Stocks Country Club near Tring in Hertfordshire. It had its city club on Kings Road, Chelsea and the pair were at this time owned by Victor Lownes. He was better known for being a Playboy executive, close confidante of Hugh Hefner, and known for dating many Playboy Playmates. It was therefore no surprise to see that the club had a series of paintings that had been commissioned to show the various Kama Sutra sex positions, each illustrated in a recognisable location around the Club, for example one was on the snooker table.

We were there for a board meeting, followed by a meal, and several of us stayed over. Coming down to breakfast I saw Victor Lownes was breaking his fast, clad in a Carlton Cannes dressing gown. All around the club were signs suggesting you should challenge Victor to backgammon, so I did. We played at a £1 a point for ten to twelve hours with fortunes ebbing and flowing between us.

I had to be told afterwards that at some stage Felicity Kendall had sat at our table. She had recently been awarded the ‘Rear of the Year’ accolade, but I had been so engrossed I had not even noticed her. I ended up £50 down, but had been more than that up on a number of occasions, it had been my first professional backgammon engagement.

BEDFORD – 1982

By now the children were both attending the local independent Harpur Trust Schools and Jane was doing her BEd at Bedford College. While I was up-and-down to London, the others were schlepping in and out of the metropolis that is Bedford – we moved into the town. The house was to be where we stayed the longest of all our properties, while Jane finished her course and started teaching, and where Sarah and Matt completed school and went off to Uni. It was a lovely detached house with seven bedrooms, two large receptions, a dining room and a large kitchen (which we made larger by knocking through to the outside rooms.

Tyndale House, 15 Merton Road, Bedford MK40 3AF

Sarah went to Dame Alice, Matt to Bedford Modern and Jane later taught in the other two Harpur Trust schools – Bedford High and Bedford School. Staff received a 60% tax-free discount on the regular fees, so this proved extremely beneficial, financially it was even better than having a wife work in a building society and gaining staff mortgage rates (and in those days mortgage rates were often double-digit!).

Jane’s BEd
Family mid-80s

Getting a bit ahead of the story, but when I was at Granada Business Services Division, we were looking at the market for home telephone exchanges. To experience this (à la Nolan Bushnell) I had one installed in our home. All rooms had an extension from where you could answer an external call and then pass it on to the relevant room/person. With teenage children this proved extremely useful.

This family home has many memories. Perhaps foremost in these is that we seemed always to have numbers of Bedford Modern boarders at the house. We learned later that they had to declare where they were going when they went out. Given that they could be in various rooms without adults intruding, we became a regular entry in their signing-out book.

A cat started to hang around the garden, often sitting on a window ledge looking in at us forlornly. Before I knew it, I came home to find Matt had fitted a cat-flap in the kitchen door and ‘Bimbo’ moved in. When, much later, the cat fell ill, the vet pointed out that this was a neutered male and he was quickly rechristened ‘Rambo’. He was one smart cat, he clearly understood I was not particularly a cat person, so made a particular beeline for my lap.

Sarah with Bimbo/Rambo

Towards the end of our twelve-year occupancy our location did become something of an issue. About half-a-dozen doors down the road that passed along the side of the house (we had a corner site), they started to have late-night parties. A small Commer van would turn up, all the furniture would be moved out into it and the party got under way.

We would have had no issue with this, but our commanding corner position is where the party’s drug-dealer would pull up his car, with the engine running into the early hours. He had several spotters who drove around to give him advance warning and he ran his engine to allow for a quick getaway. He was directly beneath our bedroom window. We called the police who were not speedy in responding, we watched as a Panda car with one young copper drove up the road, but was obviously too frightened of the dealers to stop.

Yet the police proved quite keen to use us as an observation post on another occasion. They knocked on the door and asked to sit in our lounge, which provided a good view of a previously convicted paedophile who they believed was developing recidivist tendencies.

We also once stopped the police from committing a miscarriage of justice. Our bedroom was double-aspect and a side window looked down the slightly dog-legged cross-road. We were woken by a drunk singing loudly and I watched as he walked down that road meandering between parked cars but then lost sight of him.

I went back to bed but then heard further noise and looked out to see a car stopped between the two lines of parked cars and someone tending to the drunk. He had apparently managed to collapse with part of his body sticking out into the single-lane through-route.

As I watched I saw a Panda arrive and watched as the two PCs were placing the driver into the rear of their car. I went down and saw that the driver was of some ethnic background, protesting that he had stopped to help the drunk, the two PCs were however convinced that he had hit him. I was able to arrange his release with my witness statement, before they went too far with this.

These stories make the area sound pretty dubious, and in truth the area and the town had become a tad ‘curate’s egg’ and we were in a bit that was becoming a tad scrambled. But we had twelve very good years there with good memories exceeding by many times the few bad tales listed above.

Asia

I wasn’t just visiting the States I plied through Asia too. I came across a Japanese range of self-assembly desktop robots which we represented. We opened a franchise on Tottenham Court Road, that we called Streetwise, and sold most of these ‘Meccano-like’ robots here.

Robot kits

ASIDE: I had appointed a Chinese agent in Hong Kong. In an R&R evening he inadvertently made two hilarious comments courtesy of the Chinese habit of sounding an ‘l’ as an ‘r’. He explained he no longer smoked because he had canceRRed them. Then, in discussing a mutual friend who on a tourist-trap junk dressed up in the Empress costume for a photo, explained they were having so much fun, they cRapped themselves.

The VP for Microsoft Japan sold the Japanese manufacturers something that turned out to be a non-starter, but not before they had all signed up with MSX licences. The MSX is taken to mean ‘Microsoft Extended’ and to imply ‘Microsoft Extended Basic’. It was intended to offer an operating system that would sustain 8-bit processors when others were by now espousing 16-bit.

As a result we were expecting a Japanese PC to arrive and take-on the UK and US products that were developing the market. I spent a lot of time touring Japanese companies to assess their readiness. We went close to doing a deal with a Pioneer MSX product, but the whole thing fizzled out as 16-bit took over.

ASIDE: I first encountered, while at Pioneer, a white wall-board for teacher/lecturer use that had an inbuilt copier to keep a record of their scribblings. In one meeting I used the board to outline my thought processes on where electronic products were headed and sketched out a hobby-horse of mine. This was that data, audio and video would converge into one product which I termed as Vi-Fi, similar to hi-fi but with data and video. When I went to wipe it off, they stopped me and used the photocopy function to run some copies of my drawing.

A year or so later I saw a Pioneer UK advert that used the term ViFi. I quickly wrote to the organisation pointing out that this had been my idea, that I still had my copy of the sketch I had done in their Japanese HQ, knew its date, and would sue them if they used it again. I never saw them do so. In retrospect that was sad, it was a nice concept and a term that perhaps I might have given me a warm feeling of pride of authorship.

On one around-the-world trip I had a strange experience in the Taipei Hilton, Taiwan. I was travelling with Clyde Roberts, one of the team. We were having a drink at the hotel bar and noticed a reaction among the hookers assembled there when an American woman came in with this huge guy, who settled her at a table and then left. Their reaction was because the American’s demeanour and body language suggested that she was probably willing to offer the hooker’s services at no charge. Clyde attracted her attention when he looked as if he might play the bar’s piano, and he learned bizarrely that her name was Bonnie – and Clyde!

Despite her demeanour we never saw her leave with anyone, across three nights we did see that the big guy would suddenly arrive later, and she would quickly finish up her drink and be escorted away from the bar. On one occasion we noticed the big guy had a shoulder holster and large pistol concealed beneath his jacket. We just had to know the story and it proved much stranger than we might have imagined.

Ping-Pong initiative – Nixon and Mao

In the early 1970s, Nixon’s Ping Pong initiatives had shifted official US policy away from its support of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists based in Taiwan, to the mainland Peoples’ Republic of China. However, the Governor of Nevada had sent a letter of support to Taiwan stating that the people of Nevada still knew who their real friends were.

Our visit had coincided with the inauguration of Taiwan’s President Chiang Ching-kuo, re-elected in 1984. Of course he had invited Taiwan’s friend, the Governor of Nevada, to attend the various formal occasions. The Governor had brought Bonnie along with him, she was a Vegas cocktail waitress. The Governor clearly thought her inappropriate for the formal state functions, so it was his bodyguard who took her to the hotel bar, then fetched her when the Governor returned.

China

My Far East activity also begged the question as to what might we do in China? Richard published several magazines with an Irish-American publisher, Pat McGovern. His International Data Corporation was huge in business and computer publishing, it still is today. Pat had followed on from Nixon’s Ping-Pong initiatives and founded China Computerworld newspaper, published in Beijing in Mandarin. It had a print run of 140,000 copies and each was said to have had 1,000 readers before the ink finally wore off!

Pat advised that he could effect introductions to the right people in China if we could gain the China rights for Sinclair. Clive had made several attempts in China without success and with Pat McGovern in our background he readily signed for us to have the distribution rights for China – at a stroke awarding us a third of the world!

Pat arranged for Saiman Hui to be our guide, meeting us, walking us through the Hong Kong border and taking us on to Huizhou, Guangzhou (aka Canton), and then on to Shanghai and Beijing.

Huizhou was a small cattle town gathered around a station and a square, a particularly stunning fact when you see the city has blossomed into a second Hong Kong. We were advised that we were only the seventh and eighth Westerners who had visited the city since the country’s liberalisation. We realised nobody stopped us walking around freely, so we did. We caused absolute consternation, particularly Richard for his fair hair. Crowds gathered and individuals almost fell from their cycles in surprise.

Huizhou West Lake

Our hotel was beside a lake famous throughout China, it still appears on many UK Chinese restaurant calendars. One morning we could not get out of our chalet-like room because a water buffalo was scratching itself against the door. But the real concern was a big hole in the bathroom that was our toilet, you were expected to squat over it. However, all around the edge were some pretty large droppings, rodent not human! We both provoked a state of constipation rather than risk our wedding tackle over this deep scary hole.

Early on we had a major meal with local dignitaries like the mayor and the head of the economic committee and were introduced to various local delicacies – tree fungus soup and a deboned whole chicken that had been baked in salt. There was a meat that they tried to describe with hand gestures which we translated as a fish or a lizard but they said that it was neither. We concluded it was probably dog and they were being polite, pandering to our Western beliefs – if it was, it tasted a lot like chicken!

They proved to be very sensible people, they got up when the sun rose, and went to bed when it set – but this was at 7pm while we were there. We just couldn’t sleep at that time of the evening so each day we scored a bottle of Chinese brandy and, safely inside our mosquito-net, and well away from that hole in the ground, played backgammon until late.

We were there for almost a week and concluded this must be how China was, a system that kept everyone occupied within a sort of feudal system, with a few leaders now beginning to espouse Western ways. We felt a missionary zeal in answering in full their questions about our way of life.

So we were almost angry when we travelled on to Canton (Guangzhou) and checked in to the White Swan hotel. It was completely Westernised. In the lobby, you walked through a gap in a waterfall to enter a Western-style buffet restaurant. We challenged the Head of the Economic Committee, who had been with us in both places, asking how both situations could exist so close to each other. He spouted some party-line gumph about ‘Of course we all aspire to this, but we have to move slowly.’ Our first negative conclusion.

 Me, Richard and Mayor of Huizhou

When we reached Shanghai we stayed at the luxurious Jing Jiang Hotel, in a modern apartment-style room. We learned that this city was the fashion capital of China. The downtown was very European in architectural terms, even boasting a replica Big Ben atop the Custom House, apparently still the tallest clock in Asia.

We met a Professor from Shanghai University who was extremely interesting because it became obvious that his knowledge of the West was solely from reading. He had a few evident errors or naïvetés. For example, he proclaimed he had an approach that would enable him to kiss all Western women. He would put some mistletoe in front of a mirror, because our women were all so vain that they would soon stand before the mirror and then he had the right to kiss them. Where do you start to unpick that book-learned belief?

One night we walked over to the associated Jing Jiang club.  It was remarkable.  It had a 10-pin bowling alley which had been put there for President Nixon’s visit, his team stayed in that part of the hotel and they had signed the Shanghai Communiqué here in 1972, this pledged the United States and China would work towards a normalization of relations.

In one room there were four snooker tables that had been there since the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. The baize was grey, had lost all of its nap, the rubber in the cushes had become solid. There were no longer any lines or dots, and whatever angle you hit your shot it came off the cush at right angles with a dull doink sound.

Even more bizarre, was to go down to the restaurant to find a wizened old Chinese providing the music, he sat on a stool with a guitar. Wearing collar and tie, his shirt was many sizes too large for his stringy thin neck. The overall effect was that he looked like a tortoise or turtle, yet was playing Jambalaya (On the Bayou).

We were much delayed when flying on to Beijing and so I actually read the CAAC in-flight magazine which had some unique articles. It talked about an air hostess who had worked sixteen hours (I hoped this did not extend to pilots!) yet was still caring for her passengers. She is pictured with one flyer being sick into a bag!

They had also gathered a montage of letters from happy customers, I’m not sure why I read the one in English in the foreground, but I did. It started with the comment ‘I have never flown any airline that was anything like CAAC’, they had obviously translated that far and considered this was a happy punter, hence its pride of place atop the montage. But the letter goes on to deride a number of factors experienced, it was clearly a letter of complaint not a commendation.

[PIX of article].

Arriving late to the Beijing Hotel, late for China at 8pm, we found their restaurants were closed. We persisted in our complaint, so that the reception team let us into the kitchens where we raided a fridge to get some over-the-top artificial-cream slice.

When I got to my room I made a stupid mistake, putting the plate on my bedside table and going off to see the floor-boy about arranging my laundry. When I got back the dessert was absolutely sprinkled with cockroaches.

I made my second mistake when I tried to flush the whole cake down my en-suite loo. We were there for four nights and no matter how much toilet paper (or other materials) I placed on top of it, it still floated to the top with the cockroaches stubbornly clinging on – it’s not just a nuclear attack that they can survive!

The water level was quite high and so if I sat on the seat it would have been only an inch or so from my operative parts, so I developed a sort of ‘crouching tiger’ stance over this not-so ‘hidden dragon’. I think I might have preferred taking my chances with Huizhou’s dark hole.

We made another schoolboy-error while in Beijing. We learned that the Friendship Store, a place authorised to sell goods to foreigners, was two stops by bus, so hopped onto one and found it and shopped ‘til we dropped.

But we hadn’t asked where the bus stop was for our return journey and of course all the signage was in Mandarin. We found no-one prepared to admit they spoke English, no-one wanted to be seen talking with foreigners on the street. So we had to walk back with all our purchases, fortunately one was an expanding suitcase so we wheeled it back.

With Nigel of Sinclair at the Great Wall
With the China Computer World team

The Managing Director of Sinclair, Nigel Searle, joined us for the Beijing leg, which was now scheduled to be a contract-signing. An interesting guy Nigel had earned money from his backgammon in the States and set about restructuring Richard’s and my understanding of how to win – I still use elements of his approach today. However, he was not yet inured to Chinese brandy and so we successfully got him pissed enough to beat him on the eve of our long bus trip to the Great Wall and Ming Valley. He didn’t look well all day.

Saiman’s story had come out during the trip. We initially thought he was part of China’s monitoring system, and that’s why we kept walking out without him as some sort of overt sign to confirm that we were not being constrained. We soon learned he was independent and very keenly wanting to assist. He had been in the People’s Army, posted to the Indian border to interrogate Indians (in English) who crossed into China. His wife Peidei Zheng was on China’s national television teaching English, we met her when we got to Beijing.

Peidei had been at Beijing University while Saiman was posted on the Indian border, and during the Cultural Revolution she was thrown into jail. Saiman, wearing his army uniform, had travelled to the prison and under the guise of taking her off for questioning got her out.

They later had two children when the prevailing cultural ethos, monitored by the Granny police, was to have just one. But they had obtained a chop through the back-door on a document to excuse this. Back-door chops greased much of Chinese activity.

Saiman became so cross with the Ministry of Electronics guys that they got up and left. Saiman explained that he had told them to get on with things, we were important people who had no time to waste. They came back thirty minutes later with a contract typed in Mandarin Chinese. It set out what we had been discussing, that the Ministry would buy 500,000 complete knockdown kits of the ZX Spectrum at an agreed price.

But most significantly, it agreed these would all stay in China, when the usual deals back then were usually that the principal must re-export a high percentage of the units constructed in China.

The first step was to be a test production run for Sinclair to check the quality of their work.

 FT report of our China deal

ASIDE: we got several translators to provide a cassette, interpreting that Mandarin contract into English, and we ended up with two handwritten versions. I framed the original and put it in my office. There had been several hand-written changes we inserted. When I saw someone looking at the contract in my office, I delighted in pointing at the changes and saying ‘As you can see, we couldn’t let them get away with that clause!’

International humour

Having signed the deal with the Minister of Electronics, we celebrated by holding our own 27-course banquet inside The Forbidden City.  We crossed a bridge straight out of the Wedgewood Willow Pattern.

The room we used had wooden pillars that had tens of coats of lacquer and we had two round tables. Senior staff from the Ministry of Electronics joined us and Pat McGovern, who had enabled our trip, arrived with his new lady, Lore, and her two sons.

 Beijing’s Forbidden City

On my table we began to talk about humour. I explained to the sons that in England we told jokes about the Irish, just as they did about the Poles. They were a tad surprised that their mother’s new partner was considered the equivalent of a ‘Polack’ in England. We turned to the top man of the Ministry and asked him who did the Chinese tell jokes about. You have to appreciate that, in part this question was inspired because he looked so much like the genial Chinese character immortalised by Benny Hill. He surprised us by saying they told jokes about the Mongols and told us this joke:

The Chinese joke: A Mongol lived next door to a Beijinger and saw him about to cycle off. He asked him where he was going? The Beijinger said he was going to the market to buy a new (hand) fan. The Mongol was confused because he still had the one he had been given as a child. He asked had the Beijinger broken his? The Beijinger was perplexed because his fans usually lasted perhaps four months. He quizzed the Mongol, ‘So, how do you use it?’ showing the normal hand movement. The Mongol said ‘No’ and showed how he instead shook his head from side to side.

Remarkable, that the Chinese tell ‘Irish’ jokes about the Mongols, but then the French tell them about Belgians, the Spanish about the Portuguese, the Dutch about Frisians… A Czech once told me a joke that involved the Chinese and a bike.

The Czech joke: A Czech was riding down a quiet road and saw a frog in the middle of the road, in avoiding it he crashed into a tree. Lying on the floor, the frog hopped over and asked, ‘How did you know I was a magic frog?’. The Czech replied ‘I didn’t, but I wouldn’t knowingly harm any creature’. The frog said, ‘Nonetheless I am magic and can grant you three wishes, what’s your first?’ The Czech replied ‘That China invade the Czech Republic’. ‘Consider it done’ said the Frog ‘what’s your second?’. ‘That China invade the Czech Republic’. The frog was bewildered ‘It’s not often you get to meet a magic frog, you only get three wishes, so think carefully, what is your third?’ The Czech replied immediately, ‘That China invade the Czech Republic’. The frog asked, ‘Of course your wishes will be granted, why did you ask for the same thing three times?’ ‘Because each time they invade us they have to march right across Russia and back again!’

Richard, ever the publisher, kept a journal and as the trip was so remarkable, I followed suit. It was my wife Jane who subsequently pulled out my notes to show me that I had felt the tension in the city and forecast something like the Tiananmen Square incident, some 5 to 6 years before it actually happened.

Contracting the contract

The next year I went back to help assess the completed prototypes and next steps. Sinclair had in the meantime appointed a young guy to become their Asian representative. He had never visited Asia before! He arrived in Hong Kong and instead of seeing me as a trusted aide, brushed me off saying he had to go to the British Embassy first. I explained the embassy’s pros and cons but he was insistent.

Bizarrely when we met up later, sat in a Kowloon hotel lobby he asked, if there was anywhere he could buy a calculator (duh?). This was just the first of many strange moments. Driving through Canton he commented aloud ‘You don’t see many fat people here’. During a factory visit discussing workers rates of pay, he asked if salaries varied by what they made, for example would someone making knives and forks earn less than someone producing a computer – our host asked earnestly ‘what is knife and fork?’

Worse on the eve of our key meeting he explained to me that he was going to advise them that the price agreed previously by Nigel, his CEO, was wrong and needed to be increased. I explained to him about the concept of ‘face’ and particularly his boss’s face. That he could not tell them this at the meeting and should come up with half-a-dozen good reasons why the price should be changed, none of which could include his CEO getting it wrong!

If it wasn’t so awful it would have been funny. The main man on their side was the gloriously named Wang Fang Ding who in several prior meetings had sat patiently waiting for the interpreter and had showed absolutely no signs of having any English.

When the Sinclair guy told them the price was to go up and tried out his six best reasons, Wang Fang Ding pulled out an English (language and country) magazine with an advert that showed the price in the UK had just been reduced, and worse, that it was bundled with £60 worth of free software as an extra inducement. In perfectly good English he asked how he should rationalise what the guy had said with what Sinclair was doing in their home market. The 500k unit deal was effectively dead from that instant!

Sinclair vehicles

Few people understand the back story to the Sinclair C5 electric vehicle. Thankfully, Prism was never invited to participate in the C5, but we had a ringside seat. You have first to appreciate that Sinclair was Cambridge-based and the bicycle has a very different status in that particular city. When they moved offices, Clive Sinclair arranged to have a reserved bike slot and not a car slot.

In conversation with him he believed cities should be traffic-free except for local authority electric vehicles that you picked up and left at charging points – prophesying an electrified Boris bike process. I said that if this ever happened then I would want exclusivity for the adornment products, because unlike in Beijing I thought those in the West would want to personalise their mounts.

There was clearly some involvement in this project by Fred Olsen of the famous shipping line. However, he was reclusive and actively worked to keep himself out of any limelight. Yet, Fred Olsen Lines had assisted Margaret Thatcher’s prosecution of the Falklands War, I was led to understand by loaning one or more of his ships for troop transportation. Fred Olsen was subsequently invited by the PM to join a government think-tank.

Timex Dundee assembly line

One of the two manufacturers of Sinclair computers was Timex, based at Dundee and Portugal and part-owned by Olsen. This had given him a strong appreciation of Clive. Fred arranged for Clive to join the think-tank too. It was also rumoured that Fred oiled the wheels for Clive to get his ‘K’. Of course this is only my understanding back then.

ASIDE: Fred Olsen attended a Prism press launch and I tried to indicate quietly to the press that it was he, and that they should get a photograph. They didn’t believe me, and their opportunity was lost. Today with digital cameras I don’t suppose they would have hesitated. I note that his son has no such qualms about being photographed.

One of the things that emerged from that think-tank’s discussions was that the law might be changed to allow low-powered vehicles to be used by 14-year-olds and upward, provided they could travel no faster than 15mph. Better yet, they would not require tax, insurance or a driving licence. I believe this triggered a long-held belief of Clive’s to be pursued.

Colin Chapman of Lotus had been a member of the think-tank and the two had some interesting conversations about what might be possible. Just imagine the possible synergy of Colin Chapman and Clive Sinclair? But Chapman died late in 1982 and though the C5 aesthetics had Lotus input, it was Hoover at Merthyr Tydfil, that manufactured it. Strangely there were no jokes about overtaking on a rinse cycle, but Hoover?

Clive saw the C5 being used on large industrial sites, on oil tankers and in pedestrianised city centres. But at his launch he was talked into driving it around Hyde Park Corner. Even with a pennant on a long whippy-aerial, few were encouraged to follow him onto a busy road.

 Sinclair C5 in traffic

An Economist feature (25-June-1983) quoted a Sinclair competitor as saying ‘’If it was anyone but Sinclair, we’d say he was bonkers. But can a man who has made a fortune out of calculators and computers, and could double it on flatscreen televisions, be that crazy?’

Sinclair Vehicles (‘SV’) was led by a former DeLorean executive. There were production projections of 200,000-300,000 units per year and a reported £3m campaign was designed by the Primary Contact agency.

DeLorean’s DMC-12 had sold 6,000 units and lasted seven years; though it was later immortalised in Back to the Future. Only 14,000 C5s were ever made, and only 5,000 of these were sold through; effectively the product lifecycle (pun intended) was ten months.

ASIDE: We represented others computers too, including Oric. I had known its team since Tandata, and with Oric they offered us a different retail price-point.

The Oric team provided Jane and I with a unique experience at Royal Ascot. They had become friendly with a notable coach-and-four driver who made this possible. We were invited to travel to Windsor Great Park in our togs, where we climbed aboard the coach. I was at the rear so could doff my top hat to the vehicles that were held up behind us, as we rode in a stately manner through the Park. At the course we were permitted to follow the royal party’s coaches up the hallowed turf and into an area where we could unload a picnic from inside the coach. A one-off opportunity which has meant I have turned down subsequent invitations – how could they begin to compare?

Prism demise and aftermath

Richard and I fell out on 31st October 1984 and for the very first time the 60:40 (he-me) relationship that we had happily operated upon was referenced. That is, he invoked his majority and I walked. But quite quickly thereafter the delicate balance of our arrangement with Sinclair also fell apart.

Behind this was something we only learned much later. Sinclair had done a deal to save money with its appointed manufacturers (Timex and Thorn-EMI) by removing elements from the expected quality assessment procedures of their finished products – this delivered them savings of just pence per unit, yet significant across the numbers being sold. Prism did not know this but soon felt the impact. Suddenly several multiple retailers were experiencing high returns’ rates, customers returning their Spectrum because it did not work when they plugged it in. Some retailers recorded 40% returns. Sinclair denied there was any manufacturing issue, claimed these were no-faults-found or finger-trouble.

If a retailer experienced that degree of faulty product, they had a simple response, they didn’t pay Prism. They didn’t hold back payment just for the faulty percentage, they held back all of the shipment’s payment. If Prism was not being paid then it could not pay Sinclair. So the delicate relationship Prism: Sinclair disintegrated and the Romalpa Turbo process was activated.

This was three months after I had left, Sinclair refused supply to Prism in January 1985, which led to its receivership. Romalpa Turbo had Sinclair scurrying for Prism’s stock and receivables because they now had no distribution.

 Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar doing their deal

Sinclair Research didn’t survive this either. It was acquired by Alan Sugar’s Amstrad the following year.

ASIDE: Several years later I approached a NatWest branch in Covent Garden with a business plan looking for financing. The manager listened and rejected it, had he left it there then that would have been the end of it. But he leant forward and said he would never back anything I did, because he had been a high-flyer at the bank’s regional level, but had missed the Romalpa Turbo clause which placed Sinclair ahead of the bank in the Prism receivership.

As a result, he had been demoted to become a mere branch manager, and he blamed me as one of its principals, notwithstanding my having left the organisation well before its demise. This worked in my favour because I complained to NatWest HQ and got something you never expect, a letter from the bank absolutely absolving me of any blame in the receivership. I never learned where that manager ended up as a result of his outburst, but I imagine it was a branch rather less prestigious than Covent Garden.

There were several intriguing issues that emerged from the demise. The first was that, after I had left and before the receivership, Richard signed a logistics deal with a large Irish family from the Kings Cross area, promising them exclusivity for Prism’s transportation business. They bought an expensive new truck, but in no time there was no Prism transportation for them to perform, and they remonstrated, but by then the receiver was in charge.

They waited outside the Mora Street offices of Prism and grabbed Richard as he left one evening and tried to bundle him into a vehicle. He fought them off, but, in the fracas, he had suggested that I was to blame. At the time I was angry to hear this false claim, but I guess you try anything in those circumstances.

The first I heard was when I received a phone call at home from someone saying I owed his family money. I naturally asked who he was and for what, but he would not tell me, so I said this is ridiculous, tell me who you are, or else how will I know what this is about. He would only say that I should ask my mate Hease, he would explain. I called Richard and he told me of the attempted abduction and gave me the number of a guy at the Met looking into this.

I called the police guy and he explained they were a ‘known’ family and this was probably one of several uncles who had called to try to muddy the waters as to who they were. My conscience was quite clear, I had not entered into the deal with them and had been gone from Prism for over six months by this time.

A day or so later I received a second call and despite expecting it I had not really resolved quite how I would handle it. To my surprise something inside me flipped, after explaining that this was all after my time at Prism and that I had informed the police, I then found myself shouting down the phone that I was bigger and nastier than Richard and if they came anywhere near me or mine I would [expletives and threat deleted]! For the next week if I saw someone sat in a car near home, I got the collywobbles, but I never heard from them.

Dilapidations

The second issue was the Mora Street premises. We had rented these from the owner of the Rochford Plants company, they rented or supplied house plants and fixturing to corporates. The lease had a dilapidations clause that said we would be responsible for any damage or exceptional deterioration to the premises. Being a young and fast-growing company, we had decorated it throughout, patched and then repaired the roof, added sub-divisions (tastefully) and had spent profligately on the look and feel of the premises.

So, imagine the surprise when the three principals of Prism got a dilapidations’ claim for £186,000. This became protracted and frustrating affair because the principal at Rochfords was unwell and he would go quiet for months and, just when you thought it was all over, it would re-surface.

Today I appreciate that you must take hundreds of photos and videos on taking possession, that you should keep a file of all the work, maintenance and decoration that you undertook so that at the end of the lease you can run another set of photos and have your case readily to hand. We knew none of this.

After taking advice, I blagged my way into the premises late one evening and took photos to highlight the work that we had effected, these showed our decoration was still intact and so on. In the end the Prism Chairman and I agreed and met a negotiated £30k fee in full and final settlement. It took a year or two of Richard and I only talking through lawyers, before we recalled the good days more than the demise. We would regularly become partners over ensuing years.

© Bob Denton 2019
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