the last word: surf's up sarf of the river

THE suzi feay COLUMN

I always like to do things locally when I can, whether it's buying grub from the oxymoronic grocery store "Vital Delicacies", visiting fringe theatres, or supping at the pub where sad old Alsatians with coats the texture of "Welcome" mats eat packets of crisps off the floor. Rumour has it that there's a contemporary art gallery on Deptford High Street and a bespoke tailor's where Vic and Bob used to get their fancy schmutter before going off to become gentleman farmers, but generally life here is pretty limited. So we are all delighted and intrigued when Deptford's - perhaps even south London's - first Internet cafe opens.

We four intrepid cyber-virgins meet in the pub across the road for a quick stiffener beforehand. We are absurdly nervous; the place looks so intimidating, mostly because there never seems to be anyone inside. We sidle up to the door, rattle the handle diffidently and, when the door fails to budge, grin at each other with relief, murmuring "obviously not open yet" and prepare to scamper away. Then - scrape, fumble - the door opens ("sorry - security reasons") and we are ushered in, blinking. First pleasant surprise: we thought the Surf-net Cafe would be staffed by cool, contemptuous 16-year-olds ("Yeah - siddown grandma"). This venerable gent looks like an eel-and-pie vendor.

"Are you here to surf?" he inquires with courtly formality, and sets us down with coffees and a stack of Internet magazines. "I'll get you started when you're ready." These mags are all utterly baffling, and there's obviously nothing else for it: Quick, NetNurse! The screens!

"You're familiar with computers, I take it ..." Embarrassed silence. "You can use a keyboard and a mouse?" he hastily rephrases, and four cloudy brows smooth over. "Then you'll have no problem." We split up into pairs and hook up to the Net via Australia for some reason (no, I don't know WHY - look, you don't need a degree in meteorology to surf) and with astounding ease I find myself browsing through movie gossip in an obscure Toronto magazine, calling up film stills and reviews and biographies. Over the way, Kev is watching a knee operation, with riveting commentary by two German doctors.

At first it's all very "You first," "Nooo, after you", but soon we are jostling and sulking: "I wanna go! This one's so bo-o-oring!" Our attention- spans are shrinking; anything that takes too long to download is summarily ditched. "How to Pick any Lock" shimmers up out of the ether, which has me moralising straight away about the threat to law and order posed by this turbulent new medium. These fears subside after 10 minutes spent perusing the degree-level diagrams, explanations and lengthy philosophical notes about the elegance and logic of lock-picking.

My turn, and I cruise up to Time Out's pages, rather startled to discover that I need to register a lot of personal details before I can get in. After you've filled in all the guff, they have the cheek to tell you: "This information is not secure." But hey, babe, in this world of masks and quarrelling personae you don't have to tell the truth; TO now has a 45-year-old astronaut with a keen interest in children on its cyber- books.

Then it's off for a spot of fantasy car-buying, courtesy of Top Gear's Car Chase Questionnaire. Q: Is fuel consumption a consideration? A: Nah! Q: How about safety? A: Not fussed. Q: What sort of car is sir interested in: four-wheel-drive, saloon... ? A: Anything as long as it's quick. Q: And the price? A: Money's no object. The cor-blimey-would-you-credit-it result: a Lamborghini Diablo Roadster, max speed 201.9 mph. The statistics are pulse-fluttering enough, but why no pix, why no sound-effects?

Coos of amazement from the 'puter next door distract our attention. Kev, in a sudden burst of solipsism, has put in a search for his own (rather unusual) surname. This sends him speeding off to Fort Lauderdale to encounter some long-lost relly with his own website. You can click on "My Roots", "Fishing", "Dogs" etc for old Monty's ramblings. Our response is a mixture of "Sad man!" and admiration that this old geezer has instantly twigged the ego-potential of the new medium. He's the on-line equivalent of those blokes who send 20,000-word essays entitled "My War Experiences" to magazines. Next there's a duel to be the first team to spirit up Pamela Anderson's twin globes on screen. You could easily lose an hour in Pammie's cleavage, such is the wealth of material. Soon her straining bosom taunts us from across the room, while all we've got is her forehead surmounting a stubborn grey rectangle of untransmitted flesh. Like cyberpucks we hop across the globe accessing student cartoons, ruminations, jokes, nonsense and, back home, fascinating details of Dalston's City Challenge. Our voyage is not entirely problem-free: Kev and Al keep getting booted summarily off the Net, while we encounter numerous No Access signs. The cyber-playground is fenced round with barbed wire, and some of the kids are snooty. Most of the sites we cruise are time-wasters, the quality of the writing and, sadly, the information is negligible, yet even dullards like us can dimly appreciate the limitless possibilities flickering beyond our eyeballs.

Despite the hitches, when NetNurse murmurs, "Your time's nearly up," we all plead "Another half-hour!" It's 9.30pm, we're full of coffee and Diet Coke, and starting to look keenly at the refrigerated display of Snickers bars and cookies. We want snack foods, and we want them now! We want to graze on dry, sugary cereal and absent-mindedly wipe our fingers on our mouse-mats! It's our right! We're wired!!

It is left to Al, who has been quiet so far, to execute the climactic flourish. Search for Pornography, she types in, giggling. A few clicks later, just as the pictures of rude girls exhibiting their shaving nicks flicker into view, and all our jaws drop, NetNurse nips over and pulls the plug. Time's up. We'll be back, though. Oh yes.

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