Saturday, January 30, 2010


In the course of wandering around the internet tonight, I found out that Mr Peacock, the headmaster of my old school, has retired! And been replaced by a Mrs Heather Payne! This won't do. Admittedly I'm just jumping to conclusions based on the name, and I might be wrong, but I don't see how Mrs Payne is going to fulfil what I see as important prerequisites for a head teacher, like striking fear into students with an imposing well-over-six-foot frame, full beard and deep booming voice. I tell you, education isn't what it was. Mr Peacock was 'the new head' when I started there in 1987, so this is really quite a significant era for QEGS. It inspired me to have a look at the website, which has had a bit of a revamp since I last checked it out.

The coolest part, for former pupils, is probably the 'Departments' menu, which now has a page for each subject, most of which list the teachers who teach it, and so allow us to see who's still there, after all these years. Even more alarming than the new head, a couple of these pages list the teachers' first names! These modern education methods have gone too far! Apart from Mr "Call Me Steve" Harvey, who came along when I was in the sixth form, such things were unheard of and viewed with great suspicion in my schooldays. I'm sorry, but Mr Edwards is not a Bob. He's "Mr Edwards" to his face, "Taffy" behind his back if you're feeling brave, "R.W. Edwards" on report cards, "My dad" if you're Rachel Edwards in my class, but I'm fairly sure I could never call him "Bob", even if I met him nowadays.

Mr Hull and Mrs Scarborough are still teaching art - she started there when I was in the second year, I think, while he's been there since the year dot. Mr Roger Howard is still deputy head and still teaching English (and, presumably, hockey, unless he's got too old for that, but he was surprisingly passionate about the game). Mrs Boddy, Martin's mum (for some reason, my class had multiple teachers' kids in it) is still teaching maths, but apparently not biology any more. Mr Carr is still head of biology, Mrs Boucher is one of the five names listed under "our four specialist biology teachers".

The ICT department now has six teachers, apparently, one of them my old form teacher Mr Forster (he's just listed as "Mr G Forster", but he was always "Ged" behind his back, which is what you get for having a vaguely silly first name - see also Mr Lester Thompson the geography teacher). When I started at the school, Mr Forster taught "commerce", and IT lessons were taught by Mr Chatfield the elderly geography teacher. They mainly consisted of sitting in the room full of BBC micros and reading books about what could be done with super-computers that were far beyond the school's (and most small countries') budgets.

The PE teachers aren't listed, but it's probably safe to assume the ones who taught me aren't teaching it any more. People like Mr Leach, who kept on teaching PE well into his sixties but must have finally retired by now, are rare. He was extremely cool, though, in his ever-present faded blue tracksuit, occasionally flinging himself to the floor of the gym or changing rooms and doing press-ups just to show that he still could, then bouncing back to his feet again and suggesting that we all go for a ten-mile run through the rain and snow. Mr Sanderson's still teaching history, Ms Boocock still in the geography department. There are now three German teachers (in my day, it was one-and-a-half) and three Spanish teachers (none at all when I was a lad), but the entire foreign language team has been replaced since I left the school. "Bob Edwards" and "Tony Sanderson" are still teaching RE, but there's nobody I recognise in D&T or music.

Still, that's quite an impressive number, even without "Captain Peacock" (as my dad always called him) still at the helm. I just wonder if the chess club's still going without Dr Chambers's guidance. Apart from the fact that he didn't play chess, he was a really great school chess club organiser. Maybe the chess club doesn't even meet in the chemistry lab any more! Change is bad.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The anonymous pirate

I re-read Treasure Island during the long flight to Tokyo, and there's something about it that's always intrigued me. I'm sure people have written on the subject before, so if I'm treading on someone's literary-critical toes, I assure you it was unintentional. Except if you're John Sutherland, the writer of those really cool 'Literary Detective' essays, in which case yes, I'm unashamedly copying your style. Imitation, flattery, etc.

Throughout the book, narrator Jim Hawkins keeps an almost pedantic tally of how many of the twenty-seven men who set sail on the Hispaniola are still alive and whose side they're on. So when Jim returns to the island after his thrilling confrontation with Israel Hands on the schooner and stumbles into the hands of the pirates, the reader who's been paying attention knows even before narrator-Jim has told him so that there are now only six of them remaining. Drink and the devil have done for the rest.

This is the first time Jim has been in close contact with the mutineers, and so the first time we the readers get to really know them. The emphasis not just on plot, but also on character, revolutionized the writing of adventure stories, according to the badly-written foreword in my copy of the book, and it's certainly true that everyone in Treasure Island is a three-dimensional, rounded, believable human being, and that's what makes the story so fascinating to read. Compiling the little character details throughout the book, but especially in this chapter, we know that the six buccaneers are: Long John Silver, the arch-villain; Tom Morgan, the old, grey-haired, mahogany-faced sailor who, with Silver, was part of the infamous pirate Flint's crew in days gone by and who we first met back in Silver's pub in Bristol when he played along (helped by some heavy-handed prompting) with Long John's deceptions; George Merry, thirty-five years old, long and ill-looking with yellow eyes from the fever that many of the pirates contracted camping out in the swamps, who becomes the ringleader as the mutineers finally lose patience with Silver; Dick Johnson, the youngest of the crew, the one who Jim earlier overheard being talked into joining the mutiny by Long John, and who had a good upbringing before he fell in with a bad lot, carries a Bible with him and is deeply worried about the way things are going; John, whose surname we never learn (which is a pity, really, because he's one of at least four Johns on the Hispaniola, the narrative convention of avoiding duplicated Christian names not being something Robert Louis Stevenson had any time for - there are also three Toms with speaking parts), who was shot in the head during the first attack on the stockade but got up immediately and ran away, and by this point in the book is well on the way to a full recovery, though he's deadly pale and doesn't talk much; ... and one other man, about whom we know absolutely nothing.

This sixth pirate is a complete mystery. We're never told his name or any physical details about him, he just hangs around his colleagues like a ghost. In the earlier part of the book, the mutineers included among their number a lot of nameless characters who only got their brief moment in the spotlight when they were killed, but now we have this one anonymous man remaining with the five vividly-described villains (well, John is a bit of a shadowy figure, but his bandaged head gives him character). Pirate X intrigues me. Is he young like Dick, old like Morgan and Silver, or somewhere in between like George and (probably) John? Tall or short, brave or cowardly, healthy or sickly? He presumably joins in with the actions attributed to all five of Long John Silver's scurvy crew as they glare at him, huddle together in mutinous conference, get drunk and waste their limited food rations, spread out through the woods on the search for the treasure, and so on, but he never says or does anything individual that we can definitely identify.

Jim the narrator quite often describes things that 'one of them' has done, without naming names, so it's possible that Mr X has a line of dialogue here and there. The most likely point comes when the treasure hunters stumble on a skeleton, laid out straight with arms stretched above its head, which turns out to be pointed exactly in the compass direction described on the map:

"I thought so," cried the cook; "this here is a p'inter. Right up there is our line for the Pole Star and the jolly dollars. But, by thunder! if it don't make me cold inside to think of Flint. This is one of his jokes, and no mistake. Him and these six was alone here; he killed 'em, every man; and this one he hauled here and laid down by compass, shiver my timbers! They're long bones, and the hair's been yellow. Ay, that would be Allardyce. You mind Allardyce, Tom Morgan?"

"Ay, ay," returned Morgan, "I mind him; he owed me money, he did, and took my knife ashore with him."

"Speaking of knives," said another, "why don't we find his'n lying round? Flint warn't the man to pick a seaman's pocket; and the birds, I guess, would leave it be."

"By the powers, and that's true!" cried Silver.

"There ain't a thing left here," said Merry, still feeling round, among the bones, "not a copper doit nor a baccy box. It don't look nat'ral to me."

"No, by gum, it don't," agreed Silver; "not nat'ral, nor not nice, says you. Great guns! messmates, but if Flint was living, this would be a hot spot for you and me. Six they were, and six are we; and bones is what they are now."

"I saw him dead with these here deadlights," said Morgan. "Billy took me in. There he laid, with penny-pieces on his eyes."

"Dead — ay, sure enough he's dead and gone below," said the fellow with the bandage; "but if ever sperrit walked, it would be Flint's. Dear heart, but he died bad, did Flint!"

"Ay, that he did," observed another; "now he raged, and now he hollered for the rum, and now he sang. 'Fifteen Men' were his only song, mates; and I tell you true, I never rightly liked to hear it since. It was main hot, and the windy was open, and I hear that old song comin' out as clear as clear — and the deathhaul on the man already."

"Come, come," said Silver, "stow this talk. He's dead, and he don't walk, that I know; leastways, he won't walk by day, and you may lay to that. Care killed a cat. Fetch ahead for the doubloons."

'The cook' is Silver, 'the fellow with the bandage' is John, Morgan and Merry are identified by name and Dick wasn't around to witness Flint's death. The 'another' who gives the gripping description of Flint's last moments must be our mystery man. He's presumably also the 'another' who wonders about Allardyce's knife, which shows both that he knows Flint's personality and that he's got quite a sharp mind - this might be the only time in the whole book that anyone thinks of something before Long John Silver gets it. Admittedly he plays second-fiddle to George Merry, who's a pretty unimpressive specimen, but perhaps Mr X is just sensibly keeping his head down. He might just be the brains of the operation.

He certainly has a talent for survival, anyway. Events come to a head a little later, when the disenchanted pirates finally rise up in rebellion against Silver and Jim, whose lives are only saved by a volley of musket fire from the trees - Dr Livesey, Abraham Gray and Ben Gunn have come to the rescue in the nick of time. The luckless John is shot again, this time fatally, and Silver with great satisfaction takes the opportunity to rid himself of the annoying Merry. The remaining three - Morgan, Dick and Mr X - run for it, and don't trouble the heroes again. We get one more little suggestion of Mr X's history when Jim notes that there are three men on the island ('Silver, and old Morgan, and Ben Gunn') who had aided Captain Flint in his many crimes, which would suggest that our mystery man wasn't one of the pirates in Flint's glory days, and only fell in with them more recently. But none of the three surviving mutineers gets any more character development from this point on. They are marooned on the island, rather heartlessly it seems to me, and I think it's safe to say that their chances of survival rest entirely on the shoulders of Pirate X - Morgan is old and not too bright, Dick is generally hopeless and seriously ill with malaria - so it would be nice to know whether or not he's the kind of man who could rise to the challenge.

So, why is this man such an enigma, in a book populated with so many great and memorable characters? I think a clue to the answer lies in his shipmate, George Merry. Merry goes unmentioned in the book until Jim finds himself in the enemy's camp. Unlike Morgan, Dick and bandaged John, who all had their moments earlier on, he has risen from anonymity and come to sudden prominence now that the plot needs a pirate to lead the opposition to Silver. A little history is inserted into the story when Silver berates Merry for having insisted on a more direct course of action than Silver would have preferred, right from the time they first landed on the island: "But who done it? Why, it was Anderson, and Hands, and you, George Merry! And you're the last above board of that same meddling crew; and you have the Davy Jones' insolence to up and stand for cap'n over me — you, that sank the lot of us!"

It's old news to the pirates, but it's new information to the reader that Job Anderson and Israel Hands, the two most senior pirates in the first three-quarters of the narrative, formed a triumvirate with George Merry all along. Anderson was boatswain on the Hispaniola and Hands the coxswain, but what was Merry? Just an ordinary seaman? We never find out, because we're not introduced to him until long after they've fled the ship. Clearly, he was a late addition to the plot - Stevenson, like most great Victorian writers, made things up as he went along without a clear idea how his story was going to develop. Perhaps he didn't anticipate the mutineers mutineering against Silver in the end, or perhaps he did, but envisaged Israel Hands being their ringleader before he came up with the wonderful scene with Hands and Jim tussling on the Hispaniola? Possibly he regretted killing Anderson off so comparatively early on and leaving himself without a figurehead for the rebellion. Luckily, one of the remaining two anonymous pirates was available to be elevated to a higher purpose.

Clearly, Mr X was held in reserve, just in case a new plot twist occurred to the writer that needed a new character previously unthought-of. He's the substitute player on the Buccaneers' team, who never got the chance to show what he was made of. You have to feel sorry for him, but I think there's enough ambiguity for us to choose to believe he was man enough to come into his own, retrieve the remaining treasure and get off the island to a happy ending.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Do you think I will relax my discipline just because I have won? No! I will still train hard...

The director took me out for dinner after my unimpressive TV filming, and we had nabe. On a related note, I do need to keep training my memory. I've had much too much time off since last year's world championship, and now it's time to get serious about it again. This weekend, lots of training. Promise.

Also, if you're ever in Tokyo, buy some "Meltykiss" chocolates. They're absolutely delicious, except for the green tea flavour.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I Wonder (Departure)

Yes, I'm back home again. I did get back last night, but I was too tired to blog about it. I'm still more than half asleep now, but never mind, it was worth it for a fun trip to Tokyo.

I don't know that my performance on the TV show, which was called "Wonder", was really worth the cost to the TV company of flying me out there, but they seemed happy with it, anyway. It's hard to describe exactly what the show is about, it's sort of a Juke Box Jury, only with things like memory champions and record-breaking scuba-divers instead of pop songs, and the panellists guess at answers to trivia questions on the subject of the week rather than rating it. So really, now I come to think of it, it's not much like Juke Box Jury at all. I've never even seen Juke Box Jury, it was before my time, so I don't know why I made that comparison in the first place.

Anyway, we got to see snippets of the upcoming Japanese documentary, which looks really awesome, and have some entertaining banter in the studio, as well as a memory challenge in which I memorised the order of forty sushi dishes, and the panel memorised ten each. They got them all perfectly, and I had two mistakes, which wasn't the result the TV people were expecting, but never mind. One of the guests was the famous actor Hideki Takahashi, who's a really big deal in Japan, but I can't remember who the other people were. I was a bit lost with all the goings-on, since I was relying on a translator sitting perched behind me and whispering a running translation of what everyone else was saying (usually with up to five people talking at once), so my spoken contributions were minimal and usually not really an answer to the questions I was asked. Still, perhaps it looked better to Japanese viewers.

The translator, incidentally, did a really great job, and it wasn't at all her fault if I didn't know what was going on - she'd even had a crash course in the basics of memory techniques and competitions, and understood it all very well. She had a notebook full of Japanese writing with occasional English phrases like "Ben System" and "Queen Elizabeth's Glammar School, Horncastle", so the TV company had clearly done their homework extensively. The director, for one, knows more about the world of memory competitions than some of the people who compete in them, and was able to explain in details the principles of person-action-object, journeys, the difference between the Major and Ben Systems, personal details of all the competitors, anything you might care to ask. I'm confident that the finished documentary is going to be the best ever, so hopefully it will somehow end up being translated into English.

There's more to say about the trip, but it can wait until I wake up.