Saturday, January 16, 2010

Morality play

Scene: Barbara's living room. Rotherham Roland is lying under a settee, with just his protruding legs visible. Garstin enters.

Rotherham Roland: Garstin, is that you?
Garstin: Who else would it be?
Rotherham Roland: Five minutes ago, it was a man to read the gas meter, and five minutes before that, it was a burglar who stole the gas meter.
Garstin: How did they get in? You and I are the only ones with keys to Barbara's house.
Rotherham Roland: Burglars, or at least the more successful burglars, can generally enter houses without using keys. And the burglar left the door open, so the gas meter man didn't need one either. However, he considerately closed it behind him after I explained that the gas meter had been stolen.
Garstin: That still doesn't explain why you're under that settee.
Rotherham Roland: You didn't ask me why I'm under the settee.
Garstin: I didn't say that I had asked you why you're under the settee.
Rotherham Roland: Shut the bloody hell up and just get this settee off me, Garstin. It's crushing my head, ribs and nose.
Garstin: All right. Just let me put this Cadbury's Creme Egg on the kitchen counter. I'll be wanting to eat it later, and if I leave it in my pocket or my hand for too long, it'll start to melt, and the two component parts of the chocolate 'shell' will become separated when I bite into it. And frankly, that thought doesn't appeal to me at all.
Rotherham Roland: Any time you're ready.
Garstin: Don't rush me. This operation takes time. Where's my spirit level?
Rotherham Roland: It's probably at your house. Were you expecting it to be in Barbara's kitchen?
Garstin: Because I need to know whether the kitchen counter slopes downwards towards the floor before I put my Cadbury's Creme Egg on it.
Rotherham Roland: Are you even listening to me? You just replied as if I'd asked you why you need your spirit level, but I didn't.
Garstin: Hardly my fault if you don't understand the basic principles of conversation, Phil.
Rotherham Roland: Phil? I'm Rotherham Roland!
Garstin: Oh, sorry, I can only see your legs, I assumed you were Phil.
Rotherham Roland: Phil who? And if you thought I was this Phil person, why did you claim earlier that only you and I have the keys to Barbara's house?
Garstin: It's extremely rude to ask a second question before a fellow has had time to reply to the first. Now I'm confused.
Rotherham Roland: Just get this bloody hell settee off me.
Garstin: I don't know how to get settees off people.
Rotherham Roland: Fine. Then just eat your Cadbury's Creme Egg.
Garstin: I never had a Cadbury's Creme Egg. I don't even like them. I don't know why I claimed to have one earlier, I suppose I just wanted you to think I'm cool.
Rotherham Roland: I do think you're cool, Garstin. And the reason I think you're cool is because you yourself are cool. You don't need to pretend to be someone you're not.
Garstin: That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me, Phil. I'm touched.

Garstin absent-mindedly sits on the settee, crushing Rotherham Roland.

The end.

Friday, January 15, 2010

How misty men like Cromwell ought to live

I'm reliably informed by my mother that "Wolf Hall", by Hilary Mantel, is a great book. It's about Thomas Cromwell, and contains a really groovy description of a memory system used by either him or someone else (I've only got a photocopy of one page that doesn't say who it's talking about). I urge everyone to buy the book, and read not just page 216, but the whole thing.

Anyway, this immediately reminded me of the line in the title, up there, written about Thomas's great-great-great-nephew Oliver [family relationship lazily looked up on wikipedia and so probably incorrect] in 1849, by the Rev. T. Brayshaw (according to this website, which is almost certainly more reliable than wikipedia because it belongs to Russian memory man, othello player and circus strongman Oleg Stepanov and is a transcription of a 19th-century book about memory - and all 19th-century books were entirely accurate and free from factual error). It's part of a mnemonic poem you can use to learn the sequence and dates of English monarchs, and it includes the couplet "Fair MODEL [1625] did first Charles, when martyred, give, / How MISTY [1649] men like Cromwell ought to live."

When I first read this poem, I thought "What a stupid line. In what way could Cromwell be described as 'misty'? It makes no sense at all, and so doesn't work as a mnemonic!" Of course, this meant that the only phrase from this poem that stuck in my head was "misty men like Cromwell", and ensured that any time I've seen a patch of mist since then, I've always thought of Oliver Cromwell [and presumably also his son, who doesn't get a line to himself in the poem]. Three cheers for the power of mnemonics and the golden rule that silly nonsensical images are the most memorable!

The one thing I didn't remember, of course, is what year the word "misty" was supposed to represent, because the Reverend Brayshaw used a system of his own devising that nobody else has ever used since. Still, his book of Metrical Mnemonics sounds downright awesome, and I must try to find a copy. Not least because either his book, the 1885 book that quoted it, or Oleg's transcription of the latter, misses out a line of the poem.

It's the line about King John - 1199, which in this system is [B or C], [T or V], [T or V] ("battle" sounds obvious but seems to be disallowed because all the other mnemonic words in the poem use only the three consonants, no extra ones on the end), and rhyming with the following line "His FACE, IN Parliament, weak third Henry shows." I'd suspect "covet" for the mnemonic, and "goes" for the rhyme, but I can't think of a good way to make a nice metric out of them...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

In the long run

Starting tomorrow, I'm going to write big long blog posts every night for at least a week. All this brevity lately, I'm turning into Twitter. And I really don't want to become Stephen Fry.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Drat it

It's hard to find the time to learn Japanese and practice memory when there's constantly football on the telly. The TV people should be more considerate, and show nothing but Coronation Street all night, on every channel. Then I might actually accomplish something.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Up Close And Personal

If you're interested in a lengthy interview with me about memory competitions, with sensible and interesting questions unlike the kind you normally see in interviews with me, click here! If you're not, then click somewhere else. Or switch off your computer and go out and do something less boring instead!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Lateral Thinking

The Israeli journalist I was talking to on Sunday came out with the old chestnut "Do you ever walk into a room and find you can't remember what you were meaning to do there?" I cheerfully replied that yes, I do, all the time. "What do you do then?", she asked. "I do something else,' I replied. "If I can't remember, it can't have been anything important."

She found this quite funny, especially since she'd asked Tony Buzan the same question a couple of days earlier, and he'd spelled out extensive techniques and strategies for remembering what you were meaning to do.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


I feel like I've really got things done this weekend. It's more of a state of mind than anything you could objectively point to and say that I've actually done, but even so. A productive weekend, rather than a lazy one. This is the kind of thing that puts me in memory-training mood, which is great. Hopefully I'll do some serious practice over the coming weeks. It's not too long until the memory season starts up again, after all...

Can I also just throw in a recommendation to read Order of the Stick? I've just finished reading the latest compilation book, and there are so many awesome and clever and hilarious moments, it's worth reading even if like me you've only got a passing knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons.

Oh, and also, the weather's better. It's just cold, wet and miserable out there now, with just a few stray lumps of ice in the road. Perfect!