Toys For The Boys (And Girls)

Computer freelancers, being the affluent, acquisitive creatures that they are, have always tended to be first with the toys of the age. Having freelanced since 1973 I have had ample opportunity to observe the species at first hand.

The leather-bound "executive" briefcase, even if it only contained sandwiches and a flow-charting template (does anyone remember them?), impressed for a while. At one time it seemed that every contractor would be carrying a "pilot case" or one of those brushed aluminium boxes beloved of photographers.

In the early 70s this acquisitiveness took the form of the early (and bulky) Casio four-function electronic calculators and Sinclair Black Watch LED timepieces. One fellow-contractor wore out the batteries of his within a few days, having demonstrated it to anyone who stopped long enough by his desk.

Later in that decade it was the nascent video cassette recorder. Tony had a Philips N1500, the daddy of them all, which could record for one hour on the longest tape then available. I remember struggling home with an N1700 model (2 hours record/play time) for which I had parted with nearly 700, no small sum in 1978! Permies (then known to us as "lifers") gaped with amazement, not realising that video recorders were to become commonplace within a few years.

Among the car buffs, "collectable" Jaguars were once all the rage. Another Tony had a V12 E-Type and Terry swanned around in an "Inspector Morse" Mark 2. But the typical 70s contractor's transport was probably one of the many variants of the Ford Capri, preferably the 3-litre model. The 80s brought the Ford Escort XR3/XR3i, which swiftly became known as the contractor's belly-button (because they all had them). A personalised number plate was de rigeur. Other "hot hatchbacks" (or buzz-boxes) followed, notably the VW Golf GTI.

A Porsche became the superior freelancer's favourite mode of transport, though these sat uncomfortably next to the IT Manager's company Mondeo in the car park. The Porsches were soon equipped with car telephones and their owners (in reality, lessees) struggled around with early portable phones which had power-packs almost as big as the field radios seen in late-night war movies. Now every contractor parks his or her mobile on the edge of the desk and nobody bats an eyelid.

The 70s introduced long-haul holidays to Jack and Jill Contractor, especially to the States in those halcyon days when a pound bought $2.40. Some of these people, with scant regard to the United Kingdom's then ban on personal radio communications equipment, brought back the Citizens' Band radios that they'd seen in every Radio Shack store. Some ingenuity was required to bring in the bigger antennae! The 27 MHz band started to crackle with mock trucker-talk as a select band of contractors made their way down the infant M11 (or as much of it as was then open). But within a few years it seemed that every seven-year-old in the Herts/Essex borders had been given a CB rig for Christmas and was using it to jam up all 40 channels. The contractors had had enough - they said 10-10 to CB and fitted their vehicles with high-quality in-car entertainment, especially power-amplifiers and Compact Disc players.

Once a Rolex Oyster watch could be guaranteed to bring admiring glances. The trouble was, as computer contracting reached the Far East, many freelancers brought back examples that were about as kosher as a pork pie. With the end of the Soviet empire the Russian locomotive driver's watch, built like a brick outhouse, carried some kudos for a while.

At first the permies made fun of my Sony personal stereo cassette player but they quickly bought the cheaper imitations as they became available. It's a pity that I'd moved on by the time I bought my Philips personal stereo CD/radio player - that would have blown 'em away!

Closer to our own sphere of activity, ownership of a personal computer would once have made one stand out in the crowd. Previously the preserve of the hobbyist, machines such as Tandy's TRS-80 and Commodore's Pet (whose name caused great amusement in French-speaking countries) enabled a programmer to come home from a hard day's coding in COBOL to spend the evening doing the same thing in Basic. Buying the original IBM PC (I'm probably required to insert a copyright symbol here) was an act of faith, given its limited capabilities and astronomical cost. Now, it's likely that the contractor's kids have each got their own multimedia machine.

"In matters of the cloth he is as fickle as can be" - sang Ray Davies about the Dedicated Follower of Fashion. He might have been referring to some of the contractors I've known. Where most have been satisfied with the efforts of their local bespoke tailor or M&S, others - especially those working in media or finance locations - have paraded Gieves and Hawkes, Ralph Lauren and Harvie and Hudson. The female of the breed, not to be outdone, are regularly to be found buying their power-suits in Harrods and Harvey Nicks. There are probably, somewhere, contractors wearing Armani and Versace but I've yet to meet them!

What of the future? It is said that technology fatigue is responsible for the failure of such innovations as digital audio tape (DAT) and mini-disc CD to catch on in any great degree. Certainly, I haven't come across any contractor sporting such devices. The truth is it now takes a lot more to impress a populace that has seen the introduction of as much gadgetry as has appeared in the last quarter-century. So how will contractors be able to make impressions on the permies in the next century?

© Brian Smith 1995

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