Robert Irwin

On my way to the British Museum to do some research for my novel, I think of pinball, and despair. Once thought of, the temptation cannot be resisted. I turn off and head for a pub a block to the south of New Oxford Street. It has a pinball machine which I have been playing a lot in the last few weeks. This particular model is called ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’. Its slogan is ‘Love never dies.’ All these machines have storylines, most often based on the imagery of science fiction or of games of chance. A pinball machine’s story is graphically spread across both the playfield and the backglass, while the game’s bumpers, rollovers, gates and so on are customised to fit in with the theme. In ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, the silver ball hurtles along dark, stone-flagged corridors and up cobwebbed ramps, bounces off battlements and disappears from time to time into catacombs. An odd feature is an additional ball which is occasionally released, seemingly at random, and which wobbles somnambulistically across the playfield from left to right before disappearing again. The effect is eerie and puts me off my game, so that the ball I am playing with often slips away between the two lower flippers and is lost. The backglass features Transylvanian beauties. An electronic voice issues what are probably challenges laced with menace, but, being slightly deaf, I cannot hear them.

I wonder if it helps that I have read the book? In fact, despite my familiarity with Bram Stoker’s masterpiece and my ability to decode the book’s multi-layered subtexts about, among other things, colonialism, sadomasochistic sex, miscegenation and vaccination, I am not doing very well at this particular game and have won no replays. Do the designers seriously expect me to fantasise as I play? Am I supposed to allow myself to be guided by its images, so that I cast myself in the role of Doctor Van Helsing and imagine the ball to be a silver bullet that I am trying to aim at the buffers and drop targets which double as legions of vampires? As my score mounts, the lights flash more fiercely and a hideous carillon of electronic bells begins to sound.

Actually I am not so fond of all this excitement. I should like something quieter and what I fantasise about is something which does not yet exist – the ‘Barbara Pym Crampton Hodnett’ pinball game. In the story painted by this machine’s graphics (watercolour, of course), the layout will be formal and the ball will roll gently up garden paths and then, having reached the top of its arc and flirted gently with the buffers, it will turn back down sunlit country lanes, pausing perhaps to bounce off a church hall or a village shop. At the top of the playfield, the player will be presented with the representation of a village fête, in which high scores can only be attained by targeting the pots of jam and bric-a-brac of the bring-and-buy-sale. The backglass, with a scorechart tricked out to look like the score-board of a rural cricket club, will feature some not especially seductive village librarians and curates’ wives posing over a recumbent university lecturer. One would expect to get rather low, even understated scores on this machine.

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