Saturday, July 21, 2007

Just another frantic Friday

Sooo, let’s see. I had to get out of bed at seven o’clock in the morning to get showered and dressed before Nick arrived to film my every movement. He got here about ten minutes earlier than promised, at 7:35, while I was still eating my bacon butty, and we discussed the fun-filled day ahead.

Caught the train to Nottingham at 8:39, where Nick got told off for filming on the station and the train without permission, arrived to find that the Bentinck hotel and pub next to the station was all cordoned off by police barrier tape. No time to really gawp at it, because I wanted to find the place I was going for an interview before having to talk about it for the cameras – it turns out that the New College offices are in a great location, right near the city centre and all the good shops. Nick wanted to film the interview, but I refused to let him anywhere within sight of the place, so as not to jeapordise my chances, and packed him off to a coffee shop.

The interview was fun – they had a half-hour written test first, giving me some paperwork and asking me to put together a month’s accounts, like an exam question. I haven’t done an exam for years, but I think I picked up on the bits you were supposed to pick up on, and provided a halfway decent set of answers. More companies should do this kind of thing, I’ve always felt interviews are a pretty rubbish way of picking an accountant. But we did have a conventional kind of interview afterwards, which also went well. I judged that professional-hardworking-type would go over better than eccentric-genius, so I didn’t mention the memory stuff except once in passing, and didn’t tell them I was on the local news that evening.

Interview done, and it took rather longer than planned, we then got the bus out to Chilwell to visit Grandma. She, of course, turned out to be a natural in front of the camera, and we got a heck of a lot of entertaining footage in the can (I think that’s the technical term). We went into Beeston for lunch, and came back to find my Central TV taxi waiting for me already. By this time, the constant filming of everything was starting to get on my wick, and it was pouring with rain again. Nick kept us standing outside while he filmed establishing shots of Grandma’s place, but eventually we got in the taxi and set off for Birmingham.

“It’ll be about 40 minutes,” said the taxi driver, inaccurately as it turned out. “How long do you want me to wait for you there?”

“Wait for us?” I said, surprised. It was about quarter to four, and the show didn’t start till six. The driver wasn’t at all happy to find that he’d been hired to wait around in Birmingham for anything up to three hours. He moaned that he wouldn’t have taken the job if he’d known that, because he had an important birthday party to go to and he’d have to miss it. He phoned his boss and complained to him too. Meanwhile, it was raining very heavily and there were roadworks and traffic jams all over the place. A tree had come down over the main entrance to the Central TV studios, so we had to drive around the back to try to find a way in.

When we arrived, I decided to perform my random act of kindness for the day, and told the driver to go. We were just down the road from the train station, so taking a taxi back to Derby offended my sensibilities on several levels – as a working class hero, I don’t like taxis anyway, and as an accountant I was appalled that Central were paying a taxi to sit outside the studio for hours, whereas as someone who appreciates the importance of this birthday party, I would have hated to be responsible for keeping him sitting around.

So, having saved the big TV company a bit of money and put a dent in the profits of a small taxi firm, possibly getting the driver in trouble for it, we went into the studio, which was a very cool place. Just about as soon as we got inside, someone mentioned in passing that the train station had closed down because of the weather, but I decided to cross that bridge when we came to it.

Probably worth mentioning at this point that it was in fact Central Tonight yesterday, and East Midlands Today on Tuesday. I had got them mixed up and told everyone it was the other way around, so I do apologise to anyone who wanted to watch it and missed it. If you did, you can see my performance here, if you select Central East, and evening bulletins, and Friday July 20th. My bit starts around the 22nd minute, if you don’t really want to watch the rest of the latest news in the east midlands.

It’s a lot of fun to see what goes into the making of a live local news show. The studio set is a lot smaller than you’d think, and it’s weird to see it all brightly lit, with cameras and autocues lurking in the darkness around it. And my bit went very smoothly – they gave me a pack of cards and thirty seconds or so to memorise it during a montage of people on the streets of Nottingham trying to remember cards too, then I recalled it afterwards. I knew we wouldn’t have the time to recite the whole pack, so I just concentrated on getting the first few flawless – I would probably have struggled if we’d got past halfway through the deck. Still, it looked great on the telly.

And I got to see all the behind-the-scenes stuff, like the story they had to drop when a breaking-news thing came up (it was just about the fact that it had been raining rather a lot, so not really news as such), and the story behind the Bentinck Hotel (someone threw a firebomb into it, apparently).

Then it was just a case of getting home, which promised to be an adventure. Strangely enough, though, I was feeling extremely cheerful by that point, after having been in an irritable kind of mood most of the afternoon, what with the constant filming and being rushed from place to place. I was quite looking forward to a lengthy rail-replacement bus ride in the still pouring rain. But it turned out that half the trains were still running from New Street station, which will teach me to believe any gossip I hear in a newsroom.

There was a lot of confusion at the station, of course, with half the trains being cancelled, and we eventually got on one that we were assured went to Derby, even though the electronic displays all said Weston-super-Mare. Fortunately enough, it did go to Derby, and we got away without buying tickets too.

So today I was planning to spend the whole day in bed, apart from Nick coming round for yet more filming for a couple of hours. But I also found that I’d got the job – starting Monday, for three months with the possibility of applying for the permanent job there afterwards, assuming I like it. I think I probably will, although I’m a bit concerned by the fact that they apparently requested that I should wear a more boring tie to the office than my playing-cards one…

As for tomorrow, a bit of final practice for Germany! I need to keep reminding myself that it’s Sunday tomorrow, because I was thinking all day yesterday that it was Saturday.

Friday, July 20, 2007


I'm not even going to TRY to write about everything that I've been doing today. I've been on the go for the past fourteen hours and I need to sleep. Tomorrow I'll do some kind of epic-length blog and chronicle everything.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

B-b-b-but I'm weary...

I think that's a Porky Pig quote from "The Ducksters", where he's a contestant on a radio quiz show hosted by Daffy Duck. But I have a nagging feeling that it's actually from a different cartoon, and therefore not at all relevant to what I'm about to write, even to the small minority of people who might be expected to recognise the quote in the first place.

Anyway, I had an interview today on the breakfast show for Radio Derby. My alarm went off at seven o'clock, and I thought "Hmm" and went back to sleep. Woke up a bit later, thinking "Wait, did my alarm go off back then? What time is it?" 7:50. Need to get to the radio station on the other side of the city centre for eight o'clock.

Skipping such unnecessaries as breakfast and showers and tooth-brushing, I made it in time for the 8:20 interview, where I talked nonsense about memorising and totally failed to memorise a pack of cards for them (I don't have a great track record for memory skills when I've just got out of bed, as anyone who was in Malaysia in 2003 will tell you). But the interview seems to have been popular - as soon as I got home the phone was ringing, with the Derbyshire Evening Telegraph and the two local TV stations demanding to talk to me.

The upshot of it is that I'm on East Midlands Today tomorrow, and Central News on Tues. Possibly the other way round, but whoever it is tomorrow is sending a car for me, so I don't need to worry. I also have a pre-arranged trip to see Grandma and a new job interview in Nottingham for the morning (temp job, acceptable pay, leading to possibility of permanent job, doesn't sound great but I'll probably end up taking it anyway), all of which Nick the Channel 5 director wants to film.

I refused to let him film the interview, but otherwise he'll be following me around all day, whoopee. Seriously, the phone's been ringing non-stop this week with one thing or another, it's tiresome and I want to become a hermit. Or better yet, an accountant. The kind who goes to the office and comes home at night and doesn't have to describe to anyone the process of memorising a pack of cards.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I think I'm safe

The publicity is dying down to acceptable levels now. My favourite request came from the "World Records Academy" who thought I might want to buy an 'official' certificate for $95 ("It's a great marketing tool!") documenting my world record. I decided to pass on that one.

Radio Derby tomorrow, Central News possibly next week. You can get tired of answering the same questions over and over again. Hopefully the German championship won't be covered by Tony's PR company, so I'll be back to my usual blissful state of the rest of the world being ignorant of what I've memorised or whether that's a good thing. And then maybe, if you're lucky, I'll be able to go back to writing about other stuff in this blog.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

If you like pina coladas

My internet connection stopped working yesterday, and when I phoned them up they arranged for an engineer to come round this morning. Then a few hours later it started working again, and I told them about it, but nobody specifically said they'd cancelled the engineer, so I realised this morning there was a chance he'd still be coming round at some time between eight and twelve. So I had to get up early. Then I remembered that as well as the probability of the engineer, there was the certainty of the landlord coming round today to do the annual gas safety check. And the likelihood of people phoning me about the press release that went out yesterday describing the speed cards record. And the sporting chance of calls from three different accountancy recruitment agencies about job prospects. And the woman from Radio 4 who hasn't yet managed to talk to me despite our best efforts to arrange a mutually convenient time. And the TV documentary people who are determined to chronicle every slighest movement I make. All in all, it looked like being the kind of day when I'd constantly have people at the door, on the phone or emailing, and wouldn't be able to get anything done.

I'm not sure exactly what I was planning on 'getting done' today. But I would have been annoyed about not being able to do it, I'll assure you. So I decided to take the mature route to happiness, and run away. I went to Nottingham for the morning, and Peterborough for the afternoon, just to see if they'd changed since I last saw them. They hadn't, but I still had lots of fun browsing the shops and enjoying the feeling that people might be trying to contact me and wouldn't be able to find me. I bought a collection of James Kochalka's sketchbook diaries and two of his CDs, and admired his lifestyle, not for the first time - I'm only a memory champion because I can't draw, write children's books and cartoons and record songs with my band, you know.

Of course, when I got home, everyone was lying in wait for me. The engineer had indeed not been cancelled and had left a card, the landlord had let himself in and presumably found the flat not filled with carbon monoxide, I had oodles of emails to read through and the phone was ringing constantly - two job prospects, one of them sounding good and the other not, an interview on Radio Derby for Thursday morning (did I mention I did Radio Shropshire yesterday? I don't remember) and even a call from Tony Buzan to say congratulations.

The TV people want to film me at a job interview. This doesn't seem like a very good way to go about getting a job - if I was the financial controller of a company and wanted a new accountant, I'd go for one who didn't bring his own film crew to the interview. It kind of gives the impression that I care more about being on TV than I do about being an accountant (which, scarily, I really don't) and would be constantly dashing off to give interviews and autographs instead of preparing the monthly balance sheet reconciliations.

On the other hand, they also want to film me going to see Grandma on Friday, which might be fun. Hopefully they won't cancel it, because she's promised to beat me to death with her stick if it turns out that I'm just winding her up about the film crew. I think she's looking forward to being a TV star. She'd make a great one - there's nobody in the world who's a more natural talker, and she's got a heck of a lot of interesting stories to tell.

All in all, I find myself quite liking the idea of escaping from all the people who want to talk to me right now. Maybe I'll go into hiding somewhere until all the excitement has blown over.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Other things I forgot about Saturday

It was a lovely day! Boris commented "I thought this was England - where's the rain?". It had been pouring down constantly for the couple of months before the competition, and it started again on Sunday, but on Saturday we had baking hot summer sunshine. It was great! There was also sponsorship coming out of the wazoo - I won flights to and accommodation in Bahrain for the world championship, plus a bottle of champagne and a very nice trophy - a glass thing with blue coloured stuff inside, like a giant paperweight. Much better than a fake-metal trophy!

I also did an interview with Radio Shropshire today, and there's been a press release sent out by Tony Buzan's PR people urging all newshounds to call me. Maybe someone will, you never know. But I should probably get back to finding a job. I don't want to be sitting unemployed for too long. Well, maybe for the next two weeks so I don't have to use up holidays straight away to go to Tuttlingen.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


"Booyeah" isn't a word I normally use, but I did find a good excuse to use it yesterday. The UK Open Memory Championship was great fun - what it lacked in competitors it more than made up for in entertainment value.

There turned out to be five of us taking part - me, James Ponder and James Kemp from Britain, Boris Konrad from Germany and Tomasz Krasinski from Poland. Idriz Zogaj was planning to come from Sweden, but didn't turn up, and there was a mystery new competitor who registered the day before but then changed her mind again at the last minute. So our five desks seemed a bit lonely in the middle of the very nice main hall in the very nice Severn Centre in Highley.

The Severn Centre is a bit of a mystery - it's a HUGE sports/leisure/everything else centre (it also contains a library and a police station and probably a small zoo somewhere among the masses of tennis courts, playgrounds, fields, badminton courts, large cafeteria and bar etc etc) in a village that, although apparently the largest village in Shropshire, is still a village. It's not a huge place, and you could probably fit the whole population of Highley into the Severn Centre without an overcrowding problem. But the facilities there were more than top-notch. We need to make memory competitions there a regular feature, however impossible to reach by public transport the place is. Hold the world championships there some time, and we'll car-pool.

Things went more or less well for me. I got quite respectable scores in nine disciplines out of ten, and the speed numbers wasn't my fault (this means it was my fault, but I'm making excuses) - the camera crew made a loud clanking noise early on in the memorisation time, just as I was fiercely concentrating and that put me in a bad mood throughout the five minutes, so that every muffled noise or movement seen out of the corner of my eye infuriated and distracted me. I had no end of gaps in the recall and ended up with one complete row and one row a bit further down (I think it was the fourth) with the only gap being the last four digits. So I crossed out everything below that and settled for a woeful score of 76.

In everything else, though, I was satisfied. I was generally a way below the scores I'd been getting in practice, with a slightly slower memorising speed than I'd expected, and a less efficient recall, but I was still getting scores that were more than acceptable. From memory, a decent 70 in five-minute words, a slightly-better-than-my-old-world-record 795 in five-minute binary, a thoroughly excellent 52.5 in five-min names and faces (I'm definitely getting better at that), 615 or so in fifteen-minute numbers, five packs in ten-minute cards, 99 in abstract images (getting there with that one, too, slowly), 84 in historic dates and 95 in spoken numbers. All of those, names and images aside, are scores that I know I can improve on, but which are more than enough to satisfy me, especially in my first competition for seven or eight months.

As for speed cards, well, that's the fun one. I was about 2000 points clear of Boris by that point, so no need to go for a safe first time. I decided to go all-out for that fabled 30-second barrier. The first time through, it didn't go so well, there were three or four images that didn't come instantly to mind and I had to drag them out of my brain kicking and screaming. The time was 29.16, but the recall was unexpectedly dreadful, and I didn't come anywhere close to getting it right.

So, second attempt, TV cameras on me, local newspaper reporter hanging around, Phil Chambers sitting to my right, Dominic O'Brien keeping an eye on me from across the room, last chance to break the record, and my brain obviously not fully up to speed, I didn't expect wonders. I sort of blanked my mind out, thought to myself "Come on, let's show them what I can do!" in a silly, macho style, giggled at myself silently, and started to memorise. "That's more like it!" I thought, realising I was seeing the images much more clearly. I focused on what I was doing, getting a good feeling all the way, and stopped the timer. 26.28 seconds. Damn, that would be something, I thought. That gave me four and a half minutes to sit and think before I could recall anything - running through the journey in my brain, I had the first three locations all there, just the first image of the fourth, all present and correct for the fifth and sixth, then a big gap and then the ninth location all present and correct. Drat, I thought, must have lost concentration towards the end there. Maybe I can work them out when I get to look at the unshuffled deck. That makes 16 cards I can't place, I've rescued packs with worse.

Then my mind wandered to other things, and suddenly locations seven and eight popped merrily back into my brain - tiny bit of doubt about the exact identity and order of the images at location eight, but not enough to worry me. By recall time, I was quietly confident. I worked out what the final two missing images were, sat indecisively for a moment trying to remember the order, and finally made an educated guess that I was about 90% sure of. Then I had to wait another two and a half minutes for the recall time to end before I could check them with Phil (and an interested crowd who had gathered to watch). Sure enough, they all came out correct, and I saw fit to shout "BOOyeah!", just to alert anyone who hadn't noticed that something interesting had happened.

That capped off a definitely enjoyable day. 26.28 - I'd like to see Andi beat THAT! Everyone involved has my deepest gratitude - Phil organised the tournament impeccably, as usual, assisted ably by Gaby Kappus and others. Everything worked the way it was supposed to, even the spoken numbers (more or less), we weren't more than half an hour behind schedule. Tony Buzan paid a flying visit before dashing off to see a sheikh from Bahrain, told us the story about how scientists once said that nobody would ever memorise a 30-digit spoken number (as I'd told the camera crew he would - I'm a psychic, aided by the fact that he says the same thing at every memory competition) and the one about his university teacher who memorised all the class's details (I hadn't heard that one before, but it's in at least two of his books). He also orchestrated a phone call to Jennifer over at the Australian championships in Melbourne (Simon Orton won, brilliantly) and generally inspired everyone with his unfailing enthusiasm for the world of memory. Dominic came by in the afternoon and did the same (in a slightly more low-key way), including very kindly describing me as the reason he isn't competing. He also said that he's working on training again, he's got a new system that he's breaking in, and while he won't be competing in Bahrain, he's 70% sure he'll take part in 2008. Which will be great.

But 26.28, baby. Booyeah.

I also wrote a pen-and-paper blog on Friday night, and when I find it, I'll probably transcribe it for the world to read. It's mostly about an anecdote told to me by a taxi driver, but you'll still want to see it, I'm sure.