Silver surfers riding the digital wave!

You shouldn't have to know all about beta programs, HTML and cookies to enjoy the benefits of computers, just as you don't need to understand sump assemblies in order to wash your clothes.

Steven Russell

You shouldn't have to know all about beta programs, HTML and cookies to enjoy the benefits of computers, just as you don't need to understand sump assemblies in order to wash your clothes. But jargon abounds and it helps if someone can lead you through the fog. Steven Russell meets a silver-surfing Sherpa

GIVE me a hammer-drill, give me a sander, give me anything like that and I'm away. I've no issues with using those sorts of tools at all, but put me in front of a computer and it's 'Oh my god, what have I done now?'”

Actually, such a reaction is just about history for Vivienne Lynskey, who's escaping the digital jungle thanks to free lessons from Age Concern Colchester. After just a couple of one-hour sessions she's much more confident about calling up the photographs her son-in-law has downloaded, for instance. “Before,” she admits, “I wouldn't have had a clue.”

Vivienne's been taught by Adrian Arnold, a retired local vet now helping Homo sapiens of a certain vintage experience the technological liberation taken for granted by younger generations.

He aims to replace frustration with fun and strip away the downright baffling computer-speak that deters so many people from tapping into a vast well of knowledge, sending messages to their friends, and 1,001 other things.

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New students find themselves invited to bash away at the keyboard with gay abandon to dispel fears that computers break easily. And they'll be set homework: to dream up off-the-wall questions about computing and the internet - the craziest the queries, the happier it makes teacher.

“Stupid questions are the sort you learn most from,” says Adrian, 69. “I've had some brilliant ones. Do you ever use that key?” He points to the one between Esc and tab. A pupil asked what it was for. They could get the ` by pressing it, and a ¬ by using the shift key, but not the ¦. “'Crikey,' I said. But that's just the sort of thing I love.” (Pressing the key simultaneously with ctrl and alt will get the ¦ though goodness knows why you'd need it. Answers on a postcard . . .)

Give him a magic wand and he'd love to blow away the technical verbiage that acts as a barrier to the uninitiated and unconfident.

“Basically, I'm self-taught. Well, have you looked through computer manuals? There are acronyms, jargon, computer-speak. Even today, you can go to buy a computer, but the chances are you'll be confronted by someone who will ask you how many megahertz you want, what degree of RAM you would like, whether you're into SCSI ports - by which time you're running out of the shop, screaming.”

Adrian took early retirement about a decade ago and, being a bit handy with keyboard and mouse, it wasn't long before people were asking for help in mastering their computers. It was fun. “All four grandparents were teachers - the grandfathers both headmasters - but I never thought of myself as a teacher.”

An advert in the parish newsletter, offering his services, soon had prospective clients on the phone. Adrian felt it important to teach them in their homes, using their own equipment. “Many had previously been on adult education courses, where each week they'd sit at a different computer. It's rather like learning to drive in a Mini, then the next week in a Peugeot 106 and the next in an Astra.”

Many requests for assistance came from grandmas who had been given computers so they could keep in touch with relatives abroad - only they didn't know how to use them. Once, he made someone cry - tears of joy, it must be said, as one lady needing help with attachments was shown how to open a file and cried as a beautiful photograph of her grandchildren scrolled down in front of her eyes.

A couple of years ago, wife Jen read about Age Concern Colchester requiring tutors for its Catch the Mouse scheme, which taught folk over the age of 60 to use their home computers. It's right up your street, she said, so he volunteered and now teaches one morning a week.

Early on, Adrian realised that people found it difficult remembering masses of new information, so over time he produced and fine-tuned handouts. These notes form the core of his latest venture: a handy book called Computing for the Older and Wiser. (Quirkily enough, the publishers have just been approached about the chances of it being translated into Lithuanian . . .)

The idea of a published guide came to him some years ago, when there were few help-books available. Most hailed from the other side of the Atlantic, “and had that particularly weak American humour which the British don't like - we're terribly superior about our sense of humour - and, also, they still tended to use a lot of computer-speak”.

Fate took a bit of a turn here, as he spent a couple of years co-authoring a book on the history of his home village: Boxted, near Colchester. When thoughts turned again to a computer guide, the market was flooded and he feared he'd missed the boat. Not so - and, even better, publisher John Wiley and Sons liked the concept.

Adrian doesn't subscribe to the theory that being older bars folk from the digital world, or that they're mentally suited to a gentle game of bingo rather than surfing the net. What's important is the motivation to use a computer and the enthusiasm to learn.

“The one thing I stress in the book is that it does take practice and it does take time. It takes us longer. But the one thing retired people have got is time.”

He reckons three or so hour-long lessons will give most novices enough confidence and knowledge to get going. People can then come back to him if they want to try something different, such as digital photography or spreadsheets.

“I often say to my private clients that I'm a bit like a farmer and I've opened a field to them; but there are lots of other fields next to that one and they look over the fence and say 'Hmm, I'd quite like to get into that field,' so they ring me up and ask 'Could you open this gate, please?' And that's how it progresses.”

In the past he's helped four clients older than 90. “If someone over 90 wants to start learning computers, they've got a fascinating and active mind, believe me.”

There are three typical concerns distracting most new learners. One is the fear of breaking the hardware - hence that invitation to pound the keyboard. Then there's anxiety about losing data; so they explore how to save work. The final worry is about appearing foolish in front of their friends and peers. “With a one-on-one” - Adrian's preferred mode of teaching - “we can have fun and talk about those 'stupid questions'. I say I will never laugh at them, but I will laugh with them. It definitely is the stupid questions you learn most from. 'What is broadband?' So I explain it. 'Oh, I thought it was something much more complicated than that.' 'Well, it can be made much more complicated, but that's basically what broadband is about.'”

He does come across folk who don't take to IT, but very often they've been “persuaded” to study it by someone else: a spouse or one of their children, commonly. “And you can see there's no enthusiasm - and fair enough. Why should there be? There are no oughts and shoulds about it.

“Computers aren't for everybody and there's no point spending hundreds of pounds if you don't like it or aren't going to use it. So people shouldn't feel bounced into it, even if they've been given the stuff free.”

Men, he suggests, are generally more difficult to teach than women. “They want to rush at it! Whereas women say 'Can we do that again?', and they take notes, men are flitters: they want to jump on ahead!”

“A man, you'll teach him how to send an email and he'll say 'OK, got that . . . now, how do you use Google?' No, you haven't got it yet. Let's send another email. 'OK, right, so I go to . . . how do I get rid of this? . . . oh god . . . how do I put the address in?' You do need to practise it and prove you can do it yourself.”

Adrian caught the computing bug in the early 1980s, when a new Apple introduced to his veterinary practice helped no end with the book-keeping.

After Felsted School, near Braintree, he'd gone to Cambridge as one of Clare College's first two veterinary students. After working in Dunstable, and then Woking, he set up a partnership in Crawley. It grew rapidly - too rapidly - and after 14 years had become a five-man, two-centre practice. The personal touch was lost.

Adrian and family decided to start over in 1979, choosing the north Colchester area because there were precious few other surgeries nearby and because there was major house-building at places such as Highwoods. He bought an old vicarage in Bergholt Road, near the main railway station, and for a time there was just him and a practice nurse.

He saw that computers could help a business run efficiently, was one of the first to computerise all his veterinary records, and became president of the British Veterinary Computing Association. Once the World Wide Web and email came within reach, he extended his interest to home-computing.

“I'm not a geek, though,” he laughs. “Someone my age couldn't possibly be a geek. My wife has a different term for it, when I really get hooked into it - and I do. 'You're getting obsessed again!' she says.”

Computing for the Older and Wiser: Get Up and Running on Your Home PC is published by John Wiley & Sons at £12.99. ISBN 978-0470770993

COMPUTERS have the power to bring people together, as Adrian Arnold knows well. For one thing, they've helped cement relationships with his four grandchildren: Harrison, Jemima, Noah and Jude, aged 10, eight, seven and five.

“When they were very young, they all liked pictures, and Google had wonderful pictures. Harrison had a penchant for airplane crashes! He wanted me to get them up and print them off, and he had a folder of them.” When Jemima was three, she'd sit on granddad's lap and choose pictures of Barbie dolls. “Now it's got to the stage where the 10-year-old grandson sits there, I stand next to him, and he teaches me how to play World of Warcraft!” (An adventure game.)

Harrison and Jemima live in Singapore, so the emails ping back and forth. Adrian also writes stories for all his grandchildren, in which they appear. “It's a little bit like a Famous Five thing.” He tries to send them a chapter a week and aims to leave each instalment hanging on a cliff-edge.

VIVIENNE Lynskey wasn't scared stiff by information technology; she just needed pointing in the right direction. “I'm not totally naïve, but I lacked the confidence.”

There was a computer in the home when she lived in London, but it was mainly used by her daughter for GCSE work, “so I never really got involved in it. Coming up here a couple of years ago, I thought 'I really must do something about this. I must move with the times! I'm now 60.' So I got myself a computer and saw the advert for Age Concern.”

Vivienne had actually been on a course in London before she moved to Essex, “but it was 'we'll give you a book and you work your way through that'. There wasn't the one-to-one that you get with Adrian. If you went wrong, you put your hand up, like you did at school, and waited for someone. They'd come up and go bumph, bumph, bumph. 'Oh . . . right . . . OK . . . could you show me why I did that?'”

Then there was the baffling jargon. “I had all the books from the previous course and there's no way the ordinary person can actually follow them.”

Vivienne is now a perfect example of the person who knows exactly what she wants from computers and isn't prepared to be seduced or threatened by the hype.

“Well, I'm not the type of person who wants to sit in front of it every day. These people who want to go on to the internet and all the chat sites, and datelines and blogs . . . no, I'm sorry, that's not for me. I just wanted to gain confidence and to know how to enter the internet, because I want to book holidays! And look up any information I need.

“My son-in-law set my computer up and said 'You can get all your household bills on this,' and I just looked at him and thought 'Yeah, right!' That is not what I would use it for, though millions do.

“You can go online and book all your insurances, but it's easier to pick up the phone and ring companies and talk to somebody, and iron out any issues one-to-one. Sometimes you put information into the computer and it won't accept it, and you think 'Oh, for goodness' sake! What have I done now? And you have to go through the whole thing again.

“Some things it's good for, but I wouldn't make it my be-all and end-all.

“I've got a nephew who comes home and sits there on Facebook. I just say 'Could you not pick up the phone and talk to somebody?' He says 'Oh, this way I can contact so many people . . .' Oh please! I can't be doing with all that!”

AGE Concern Colchester offers one-to-one computer tuition for older people from the borough. The course consists of three one-hour sessions. However, the charity warns the lessons are very popular and it has a waiting list stretching well into the summer. Contact 01206 368420

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