On Friday 25 February 2011 at 17:30 the Guardian Unlimited switched off Guardian Unlimited Talk with no warning to its users. This was a talkboard which had been in existence for more than ten years. Real life friendships had formed on the board. Couples had met and married there – there are children who might not exist were it not for GUT so in its own way, it has changed the course of history. It certainly changed my life, as there are many people I would never have met elsewhere, who have become firm friends.
GU ran the boards as a free service for all those years even though at times it must have felt as if they had created some sort of ungrateful monster child with a hyperactive but utterly misguided intelligence. Few are in any doubt about their right to switch it off and indeed rumours had been going around for about five years that the end was nigh. What is in question is their reason for giving no notice.
There is an email in circulation written on behalf of the Guardian’s editors that explains that they had to turn it off and, even worse, for mysterious reasons, they are not allowed to tell us why. Well golly gosh and crivens, call Enid Blighton, scratch my back and pour me a gin. This is a most excellent reason and one I shall use forthwith whenever I do anything thoughtless, bordering on spiteful, that really pisses people off. I shall call it the God excuse – I move in mysterious ways and cannot tell you why. I shall also, in future, be scheduling all upsetting and life-changing events to occur at 17:30 on the last Friday of the month, so I can ignore the problem and go to the pub. At the moment these things seem to happen at around 09:15 on a Wednesday leaving me actually having to deal with the issue and pick up the pieces, which seems hopelessly unfair and pointless.
This is my own personal take on the wonders of GUT. It is not meant to be comprehensive and I will inevitably miss much out, for which I can only apologise.
So who were GUers? Well they were the only ones likely to understand why I get a Muppets’ earworm every time someone mentions the capital of Bahrain – Manama n man a mannana. They were perhaps more likely than most not to be appalled by this behaviour but there were no guarantees as to which way they might jump. They could argue for days (or it may have been months, I gave up) about the relative merits of tinned vs dried chickpeas. They could give expert guidance on everything from the structure and formation of PCTs, to the best laptop to buy, via a debate about God and the true meaning of existence, interspersed with a spat about who would win in a fight, a caveman or an astronaut.
There was nothing so petty or trivial that GUers couldn’t argue about it, often in unexpected ways. When one poster innocently remarked that a mars bar and a packet of crisps were not perhaps the best breakfast one could think of, an almighty battle ensued about the effects that particular breakfasts, and lifestyle choices, might have on the planet. I think, though my memory may be playing tricks on me, that throwing crisp packets away may have been deemed an environmental sin so appalling that it was at least as bad as raping the planet.
Signs that you might have spent a little too much time on GUT.
You divided your life into ‘here’ and ‘irl’, where ‘irl’ meant ‘in real life’ and had become a place you didn’t frequent all that often. Or at all if you could avoid it by getting Sainsbury’s to deliver.
On the occasions when you did venture out you found yourself telling irl friends about something a ‘friend’ said when in fact you’d never met the person and hadn’t got a clue who they actually were or what their name was. Or whether they were male or female. And in fact since the case of Penny Lane you had ceased to care one way or the other since any character could be operated by anybody.
You found yourself swearing a lot, in very inventive ways, using nouns as verbs, and briefly wondered why real people didn’t seem to find this all that funny.
You had to stop yourself from writing ‘fewer ffs’ on signs at the checkouts.
Everything you ever wrote became a list of increasingly bizarre acronyms understood by only around 300 people but that didn’t matter.
Your still, inner voice referred to you by your GU user name not your real one.
Whatever they might disagree on, almost all GUers were united in their ability to work smarter rather than harder – it’s how they tended to be able to work and post on GUT. Experts in operations management, they knew there was no point in negotiating your way around half a dozen menus when all you actually had to do was right click once. The majority (probably, perhaps, maybe, please don’t shout at me) were never more irritated than when confronted by someone visibly wasting their time and everyone else’s by waiting until they were at the front of the queue for the cashpoint machine before fumbling around in their pockets for their wallet. Many of them were fundamentally bored and underused at work and probably should have been given more to do and a promotion to keep them off the internet. But GU provided a sanctuary of like-minded souls who understood that the rest of the world were a bit weird and frustrating and shouldn’t be doing that like that because it was so hideously inefficient. Whereas being efficient meant there was more time available to do stuff that you might actually want to do.
I started off on the cycling thread, back in the days when there were links with the main online site, and I needed some cyclists to chat to. It was 2004 and I had recently moved from Cambridge to Exeter. Cambridge had been full of cyclists. I would arrive in the office having been carved up by some idiot who had no idea of the possible function of indicator lights and within minutes could find half a dozen people who would know exactly why I was fuming. Exeter had fewer cyclists, though more have taken up Jesus’s own transport since. This meant that if (fair point, ‘when’) I started to fume about a driver, I was met with a blank stare followed by ‘well you don’t stop at traffic lights’. True, this more or less encapsulates the majority of GUT cycling threads, but I had found a spiritual home where I could join in with other cyclists.
Over the years, various of the cyclists have become real life friends. All of them have been a part of my life for better or worse. But the wonderful thing about GUT and where it differed from other cycling forums, was the fact that I could chat to so many different people. Some were MTB specialists. Others road raced. Many would go out with their local CTC and ride 70 miles in a weekend. Some of us just used a bike as transport, others for pleasure. Some of us rode 70 miles in a week, some of us perhaps thought there was no need to go giddy and might have clocked that up in a month. Of Sundays. But we were united by the fact that we all knew a smidsy when we saw one
Then there was Late Flowering Love, started by halfnelson some time back in 1952. (Have we found halfnelson, is he in the life raft? Or has he sunk, like many a soggy sockpuppet?) Basically, halfnelson asked if anyone had any experience of love “flowering” later in life (probably not if you use language that twee).
It was variously pointed out, in some cases several times, that:
32 (Nelson’s alleged age at the time) is not late, ffs; Nelson should move out of his parents’ home; Nelson should stay at home, it’s normal for 32-year old men to live at home. In Italy; Nelson should pay for sex. If nelson does pay for sex, it will entirely scupper any chance he ever has of getting it for free.
Also mentioned: better shoes; amateur dramatics; housework; mortgages; caring for the elderly; a dead boa constrictor; narrow-minded, prejudiced class bias; sex in alleyways; Shirley Bassey; speed dating; seediness; setting up megaduck with halfnelson; buying a Travelodge; weightwatchers; Timothy; sharks and Hitler obsessions; salsa; Australians, Catholics and the Irish; nannies; the best way to do laundry; the sad story of the alley blow job, the man with disabilities and the bastard thugs; eating crisps on public transport; Scandinavian tongue and groove; a man who eats badgers for tea and yet is married; vagina dentata; pheasants and helmets; baboons and bonobos;
(Some of that may have appeared on GUT before which I think might technically mean GU owns the copyright, but since they switched it off, do the rules apply anymore? No, I think not. I wrote it, it’s mine, cock off if you disagree).
LFL then became, briefly, one of GU’s favourite soap operas as ChampagneRocker met and obsessed over a beautiful Colombian cleaner. Unfortunately he failed to remove his mittens for long enough to get her phone number. Once this act had finally been achieved and she went round to his house for cake (I don’t think that was a euphemism), it turned out that sometimes, the stunningly beautiful are terminally boring and obsessed with busses. A character known as DonkeyDerbyDay may or may not have been dithering about whether or not to ask out a ShyGuy but enough about me, err, that. Someone at this stage remarked that it was like watching pandas mate and the panda label stuck, along with many, many recipes for bamboo.
And who can forget the Silly Question thread, though many of us may have splashed around so much mind bleach that we were in danger of unconsenting interplanetary sex one more time. Leftie asked a seemingly simple, if slightly silly, question: Can I swim with a tampon in? And the slightly more baffling corollary: how do I deal with the pain?
What followed might have been innocuous (if you don’t mind discussing ladybits, and GUT never minded a good discussion of ladybits. Or, now I think of it, any discussion of ladybits). The thread could have ended round about post 10, after it had been explained that yes, you can swim with a tampon in, though if you’re not used to using them it might help to practise putting them in beforehand and that no, they don’t hurt. You can feel them if you don’t put them in far enough but there are very few nerve endings in there so you can’t feel them so long as you push them up far enough.
There also followed some handy extra hints to these basics:
Cut your fingernails; The merits of applicator versus non-applicator; Widthways expansion (strangely not as fun and exciting as it sounds, especially on the way out); Rollerskating, horseriding and surfing (white jeans obligatory for the first). And that really should have been that, although there was a presage of things to come round about post 3 when someone <cough, Blueshadow, cough> commented that:
They soak up all the water and expand to the size of a small cushion, you will need a doctor’s latex-gloved hand or a sink plunger to get the bugger out.
And this as much as anything set the tone for what was to follow. There was talk of belts and towels: mooncups; towels vs tampons; ecology and wings; the European Sanitary Towel Mountain (sadly, no more details were developed, despite vague thoughts about what the mountaineers might look like); the hazards of unintended Brazilians; what to do with that little piece of string (pee on it, mainly). At some point around here the conversation turned to a comparison of various sexual practices (GUers were blunter than I have just been) versus using a finger to insert a tampon, a conversation which the majority of the cast and onlookers thought they would never have.
Then there was a discussion about the length of time you can leave a cotton mouse up your chuff and the practicalities of posting after dieing of Toxic Shock. We had sleeping in your knickers; whether or not you can smell someone who uses towels; the pain of vaginismus; comic sans on mooncups; medium size eggs and whether you can fit them up your toots; washable towels; diva cups and women’s football teams. And Lazlo’s favourite saucepan. Who can forget the favourite Polish saucepan in which his ex used to boil her mooncup. I think it was enamel and had a royal crest – the saucepan, not the mooncup. Or the ex. Please somebody tell me that Lazlo is on one of the life rafts and not adrift on the ethernet somewhere with only the ghost of a saucepan for company. This is GUT, we do not leave people behind (well we probably do leave some of them, but not Lazlo).
Talk was a village. It was my internet home. And the Guardian moderators erased it with the flick of a switch. You only find out the true character of your lover when they split up with you. So here’s hoping that, like someone who dumps his girlfriend by phone and then asks ‘can we still be friends’, the moderators realise that the coward’s way out is not always the easy path it first appeared to be.