Friday, December 30, 2016

Memory League!

I'm having no end of fun with the Memory League training site! Not signed up there yet? You really should be! The important thing it provides, for me at least, is targets to aim for and scores to improve. Complicated rankings designed by the ever-brilliant Simon Orton and presented in the kind of dashboard views I create with Excel spreadsheets at work all the time and everyone thinks are awesome, so I appreciate and admire anyone who dreams up the same kind of thing. I'm hoping I can keep up with regular training in that, then transition it into also training for the old-fashioned longer-duration kind of memory competition disciplines, because I'm still hoping to at least turn up at a fair few pen-and-paper competitions in 2017.

And check this out! Memory League Championships in 2017 and beyond! Not only are lots of cool countries planning their own MLCs, including another UK one of course, we can look forward to the World Championship in April 2018 at Silicon Valley Comic Con! I love it when two passions of mine come together like that, and having missed the Las Vegas Memoriad, I've doubly-especially-definitely GOT to go along to this one!

More memory people need to be enthusiastic about comics, there are definite mental connections between the visual storytelling medium of comics and the mental imagery of memory systems. Also, there need to be more people at these things who can understand me when I say it's great that Ivy the Terrible is back in the Beano - as a child of the eighties, I've always had a soft spot for the only eighties-created character to become a Beano mainstay*, so was quietly outraged when she was dropped. We're not quite back to the days when she had a two-page weekly strip drawn by the Beano's best artist, but I'm still delighted to see a three-panel adventure drawn by the great Lew Stringer!

*Edited moments after posting to add... you know, except Calamity James, who was created around the same time and is still going strong and as brilliantly funny as ever. This is what happens when you move onto other subjects after talking about memory for the first two paragraphs, you forget things.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

It's WAR! And we're ALL going to DIE!

The long-awaited next random comic from my collection, as chosen by someone I don't remember, is number 3180 - Viz #122, from February 2003!

Does Viz count as a comic, or a magazine? It traditionally describes itself as a comic, so I think it counts as part of my comic collection, but really it's something that stands alone - the only other things that fall into the same category are other magazines that exist solely to publish stuff that's been rejected by Viz because it's not good enough. It's a nice position to be in.

If you're not British, none of this will really make any sense to you - Viz started life as a parody of British children's comics, soon branched out into also parodying British tabloid newspapers and magazines, and by 2003 was well-established as Britain's foremost adult-humour publication in its own right. But if you don't know the kind of thing it started life by making fun of... you won't get the joke, sorry. Still, if this review convinces one foreign blog-reader to give it a try and buy a copy, that might deter them from taking legal action against me for writing about it on the internet. Because they do that kind of thing, I've heard.

Actually, I wish the random number had given us a better issue of Viz if I'm going to be introducing it to people. This one hasn't got a photo story, or a hilarious adventure tale, or a lot of the regular characters, or any especially funny letters... but never mind. It came out at the time when Britain was umming and ahhing about exactly when we were going to do what the Americans told us and join in the invasion of Iraq, so that's the current-affairs theme of a lot of what's inside.

In British comic tradition, Viz doesn't credit the creators - a few of the artists who aren't part of the 'editorial cabinet' do sign their work, but otherwise all we get is a small print list on the first page, saying it's written and produced by Fulchester Industries, with contributors John Fardell, Cat Sullivan, Carl Hollingsworth, Joe Campi, Biscuit Tin, Paul Palmer, Barney Farmer and Lee Healey.

So, the comic starts with a three-page Biffa Bacon strip. Biffa's parents gently break the sad news to him that his grandfather's died, and then call him a big soft shite for crying about it...

Viz is published in Newcastle - when it started out, practically the whole comic was written in geordie dialect, but nowadays it's gone a bit more national; only Biffa Bacon and Sid the Sexist are really broad geordie. Anyway, the Bacons go to the funeral, Fatha and Mutha play friendly jokes on Biffa by slamming the coffin lid on his head and smacking him in the face with a clock, and then the whole family observe a minute's violence in Grandfatha's memory, smashing gravestones over each other's heads in the garden of remembrance. Classic stuff.

Letterbocks covers two pages, without any all-that-funny "readers' letters" this time, and there's only three Top Tips in this one. It's usually a lot better than this! There's also "Miriam answers your problems, translates her answers into German on the internet, and then back into English" and a three-panel "Sly and the Kidney Stone" strip.

Then we have a one-page adventure of Russ Abbot's Dormouse Madhouse - the comedian tricycles around the country with a dolls' house full of zany dormice (one has borderline personality disorder and another is suffering from schizophrenic catalepsy) who would get up to all sorts of crazy misadventures if Russ didn't keep them well-medicated with prozac, lithium, thorazine and largactil. They thwart a bank robbery by weaving a basket quickly. It's great, it really is!

Next page is a competition to win a holiday, sponsored by "Not Another Teen Movie", about which they're hilariously rude, with the editorial slant of not having watched it but knowing it's a load of rubbish. To win, you have to find five synonyms for holiday diarrhoea in a wordsearch.

Then a one-page strip of more schoolgirl bullying with Fatty and Skinny, Susannah and Trinny. Whatever happened to those two, anyway? Not that I ever watched them in the first place, but I haven't heard about them for years. Still, they were regulars in Viz at this time, destroying the self-esteem of girls who can't afford fashionable clothes at school. In this one they go swimming. Sort of a one-joke thing, really.

Next, two pages of Finbarr Saunders and his Double Entendres, another longstanding Viz regular. Mr Gimlet spends the strip trying his best to get a reaction from Finbarr with his usual contrived innuendos, but now Finbarr's only responding to Russian exchange visitor Sergei's hilarious mispronunciations. He also gets to shag Mrs Saunders at the end. Poor Mr Gimlet...

One page strip of Laurel and Hardy the Midwife - wonderful silliness in the traditional style. Laurel and Hardy are a midwife but keep getting distracted by painting the wall and carrying a piano upstairs, with slapstick consequences. In the end the frustrated father calls for an ambulance, but the police escort is the Keystone Cops.

A newspaper article about a graffiti artist winning the prestigious Saatchi Prize for Contemporary Art by scrawling "Suck my nips" on a wall... is a joke they'd done before, multiple times, I'm sure. Then we get a parody advertisement for "Quumf!" - the magazine for men who sniff ladies' bike saddles.

One page of Mrs Brady the Old Lady, whose friend Cissie slips on the ice and breaks her hip, giving Ada the opportunity to talk at great length to paramedics about her own medical problems. It's the kind of thing that never gets old.

Perhaps the highlight of this issue of Viz is the first ever Drunken Bakers strip, the long-running series, still continuing today, of adventures of two bakers who technically still run a shop, but never manage to bake any bread products because of their alcohol problem...

It's so wonderfully unremittingly bleak and depressing, the strip achieves true artistic genius. In this one, they consider making oatcakes, but the thought doesn't get very far.

A page and a half of Boyz R Uz, the parody of manufactured boy bands, is a bit strange really - it's still mired in the 1990s, and hasn't yet twigged to making fun of Pop Idol and X-Factor, or whatever was the big thing on TV at the time. I know for a fact those things already existed in 2003.

The middle-page centrespread gives us our free Rolling Stones It's a Gas Gas Gas Mask! You can cut it out and assemble it yourself, with half a pringles tube and a few odour eaters for the mouth bit, two glacier mint wrappers for the eyes, and a few rubber bands and things! The accompanying text, explaining why we need to be ready with our gas masks for the inevitable war with Iraq, is brilliant - as well as explaining the Rolling Stones connection as "We've teamed up with Britain's fave boy band to bring you this cut out & keep gas mask," and a testimonial from Brian Jones, "If I wasn't dead, this gas mask would probably save my life", the main text takes the traditional British tone: "The Marquess of Queensbury's rules mean nothing to evil Saddam who thinks little of killing Iraqui men, women and children in pursuit of his dastardly plans. But worse than that, this crazed dictator has even set fire to oil wells, destroying millions of barrels of our precious oil. We're facing a man almost as evil as Nasty Nick off the first series of Big Brother in a war he was too cowardly even to start." And there's a classification of the relative strength of gases, with the strongest being "that gas the Penguin squirts at Batman out the end of his umbrella". Classic Viz stuff.

A page of "Have Your Say" letters debating whether it's a good or bad thing that scientists are now able to produce clones of Saddam Hussain is followed by a one-page Tommy Salter's Chemical Capers strip in which the boy genius's mum makes him get rid of his evil baby Saddam Hussain clone.
He eventually flushes it down the toilet, before being told to go and clean up his bedroom, which is full of baby Hitlers and Mussolinis. This is the most traditional-Viz-strip thing in this issue - the kind of thing that would appear in a British children's comic, with a slight twist. The absence of Gilbert Ratchet or Tinribs from this issue is another shocking omission.

Next, a one-page story of "Beautician and the Beast" - Villagers, come quickly! The beast has taken my daughter - a Boots beautician - prisoner in his castle! With the villagers approaching with their flaming torches and pitchforks, the Beast tries to make the beautician fall in love with him, but she just tortures him with painful beauty products while delivering her sales pitch with an expression of contempt and superiority. It's very true to life!

Then we have one and a half pages of "The McBrowntrouts", a parody of "The Broons" that is apparently just different enough, this time, for Viz to get away with it. A few years earlier they invoked the wrath of DC Thomson with a strip called "The McBroons" that was identical to the Broons in every way except that the punchline involved toilet humour. This version is a lot safer; the characters only vaguely resemble the Broons, and the style of the strip is more a general parody of old-fashioned comics, including rhyming captions. This week the McBrowntrouts enter the Biggest Shite In Glasgow Contest. There's a really really funny McBrowntrouts strip in I think the next issue of Viz; it's a real shame I got this random number instead...

Half a page of the adventures of Ben "Bend Over" Dover, who tries to make an innocent film of a wedding only for it to turn into hardcore pornography, then a two-page newspaper-article about henpecked husbands being haunted by the ghosts of their nagging wives. This, again, is the kind of thing there's normally much more of in Viz!

After that we get a one-page strip of The Critics, who buy a non-existent art installation from a modern artist with no name, although he takes payment in the form of a cheque made out to Nigel Ponsonby-Wankwelle, and one page of Otto S. Fixiation, who has zany misadventures trying to satisfy his jaded middle-aged sex needs with a bit of self-strangulation. Both very funny.

Then we get three pages of the Profanisaurus, definitions of unusual rude words, that a lot of people find really funny but I've never liked all that much. I mean, it's schoolboy stuff, but not funny schoolboy stuff like the rest of Viz! And then, crammed into the last page, it's three of the characters who normally get a page or two each - Roger Mellie, Sid the Sexist and the Fat Slags. Roger has a celebrity boxing match against Thora Hird, Sid gives tantric sex (or in his case, tantric wanking) a try, and Baz and Dave discuss the edible knickers he got San for Christmas (he ate as much as he could on Christmas morning, a bit more on Boxing Day and put the rest in the freezer).

For £2, not much more than most of the other comics in my collection, that's a heck of a lot of content! It's no wonder Viz is so popular, considering this is one of the least funny issues I've ever seen and it's still got plenty to laugh at.

If you'd like to see a review of a random comic from my pile, give me a number between 3 and 3333, and I'll oblige! Maybe I'll make it a monthly thing in 2017, set myself some kind of publishing deadline...

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Red Dwarf retrospective

I've got the whole week off work (the company I work for now is the very sensible kind of company that completely shuts down between Christmas and New Year), so I'll catch up on all those things I said I'd ramble on about in my blog. First off, Red Dwarf XI!

With hindsight, and having watched all six episodes of the new series multiple times, I think I can safely say it's a very good one. If it's not quite as much fun as watching the episodes from the golden age (series 3-5, say), it still does justify making new ones - there are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, quite a few clever plots in the classic Red Dwarf style, quite a lot of things that generally make me say 'ha, yes, that was a good one!'

So, let's start by complaining about things (because, y'know, this is the internet, I'm an opinionated nerd, it's what we do) before moving on to talking about the good stuff. Lighting - turn down the blue, people! Seriously, nearly every scene is bathed in harsh blue light and I don't really see the point of it. Every now and then they move into a setting that's lit more naturally, and it's a real relief. Acting - I just don't get the sense that the actors are enjoying it, which is weird. I'm sure they must be, since nostalgia is the main reason for the series existing, but if they are, they should show it more. Go over the top now and then and don't look so restrained! The day job - the Red Dwarf crew's purpose in life now seems to be to travel around the universe, salvaging technology from derelict spaceships. Firstly, why do they need a purpose in life at all? I miss the days when Lister gave his occupation as 'bum'. And secondly, if they're going to have a driving raison d'etre, what happened to Lister's stated purpose of a few years ago of finding Kochanski? Originality - all the episodes are variations on themes of earlier episodes, there's nothing particularly new or different about them, and there's a limit to how long you can do that without it getting old...

Okay, now the good bits - there's some hilarious dialogue, like the Captain Bollocks scene in "Give and Take", and basically everything with Snacky in the same episode. One particularly brilliant visual gag with the 3-D printer in "Officer Rimmer", which might be the single funniest scene Red Dwarf has ever done. Lots of clever dialogue in "Twentica" especially with the technological speakeasy. Ingenious and brilliantly silly time-travel stuff in "Give and Take", not to mention a new character who we need to see again (shame that they filmed the next series at the same time as this one, so if we do see him again it won't be for a long time...) Nice character moments for everyone, even Cat (who spends a lot of time just standing in the background) which really make the most of the dynamic between them. It's all very promising for the future, so here's hoping it goes on beyond series twelve and lasts forever!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Free weekend!

Wow, I don't even remember what I DO when I've not got a memory or othello competition to think about at the weekend... do I go out for a bike ride? I think I will, if the weather stays nice-ish like it is at the moment. In days gone by I'd be spending the whole weekend doing hour cards, hour numbers, 30-minute binary, so maybe I'll give that a try too. A sort of pre-emptive new year's resolution to get back into memory training!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

4 ways to avoid running out of money in retirement

For many years now, I've been seeing these internet ads urging 'If you have a £250,000 portfolio, download the guide by Forbes columnist and money manager Ken Fisher's firm. It's called "The Definitive Guide to Retirement Income."'

I don't think I'm really the target audience for this. I have no idea who Ken Fisher is. I have no idea what "Forbes" is. And at the risk of sounding like a socialist radical again, if you have a £250,000 portfolio... then you have TOO MUCH MONEY, and need to give some of it away right now, please.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

It's Christmas in Cambridge!

Remember at the start of the year when I said I'd go to lots of othello tournaments in 2016? Well, I did at least get to the Cambridge Christmas Tournament (impressively held in December for a change this year) today. We had an impressive 12 competitors, 75% of them being the combined Plowman/Brand families out in force, but also including me, Imre and Roy. I'm horribly out of practice, but still only lost to Imre and Guy, ending up in third place with wins including a really quite fascinating game against Richard. Okay, NEXT year, more othello tournaments!

But for now, I need to brush up on my Memory League skills, if I'm to have any hope of beating Jan-Hendrik in the first round of the MLOK tomorrow. I actually don't think I have any chance at all, but maybe he'll forget to compete. That's what I'm pinning my hopes on here.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Red Star Robinson

The Peak app has a fun new game on it where you control a turtle, eating jellyfish and avoiding nets and traps. It's all very Ecco the Dolphin, though I don't think he ever ate quite so many jellyfish. But there are bonus symbols on it including a bright red starfish, which for some reason always makes me think "Red Star Robinson", after the young hero from the Hotspur comic in days of old, who fought crime with the aid of his alien robot butler Mr Syrius Thrice.

I need an alien robot butler. Not because I've got a need to thwart bank robberies on a weekly basis, but just to cook my dinner and clean my flat for me.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

MLOK your block off!

Anyone at all interested in Memory League competition should know that Clay's organising a big online knockout competition (just for fun) that everybody should sign up to! You can join by letting him know on the Facebook post or the Art of Memory forum - give it a go, regardless of how good you are at remembering things! It'll be fun!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

As if my life wasn't stressful enough!

I'm REALLY on the point of a nervous breakdown at the moment - after a whole lot of stress about the preparations for next weekend's memory competition in London (in the course of which I've been needlessly rude to people and caused no end of offence, probably), and then finding out yesterday that next week we've got the big Ofsted inspection at work, which will involve me in a whole lot of extra short-notice number-crunching, probably, NOW I find out that I'm on telly on Wednesday night!

Please don't tune in to ITV at 10:45 to watch How To Remember Everything, narrated by Mr Brown from the recent Paddington Bear movie, Hugh Bonneville (I think he was in Downton Abbey, too, but I think my blog-readers are more the Paddington Bear type). It's the stuff they filmed leading up to the 2014 World Memory Championship, I thought the whole project was long gone and forgotten!

Maybe it's just my state of mind right now, but I'm really quite terrified that the director, annoyed by my habit of making extensive pronouncements about my beliefs and principles and then telling him I'm not being serious and he shouldn't put it in the documentary (as I recall, I did that quite a lot), has dedicated the last two years to making me look bad.

This is quite possibly paranoia on my part. It would take five minutes to make me look bad, and two years to make me look good. But still, nervous breakdown. Big time.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Black Friday

Any British business that talks about "Black Friday" needs to be burnt at the stake and told not to be so American in future, unless they've provided all their customers with a day off work and a roast turkey dinner the day before. It's just not on, I'm afraid.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


I've just noticed that my last post was my 2500th on this blog! Talk about quantity over quality! I should have done something special to celebrate it, really, but at least it was a forward-looking post about what I'm going to do in the future.

I also need to keep up a daily blogging routine for the rest of the year if I don't want to fall below 100 posts in 2016, don't I? I'm sure I'll think of something to write about - I've still got my latest randomly-selected comic to talk about, I'll get round to that shortly, although it's not even a particularly good issue of Viz...

What's comic number 2500? West Coast Avengers #24 - that's a pretty good one, actually! Maybe I'll write about that, too. What else have I neglected while I've been doing nothing but memory competitions? I'm sure I'll think of something. I meant to summarise the latest season of Red Dwarf, since it's the only "new" TV thing I've been watching lately, I'm sure you'd all be fascinated by that. Then I could recount the putting-a-red-towel-in-the-washer-with-my-work-shirts incident of the other day. They look better pink, actually.

Monday, November 21, 2016

2017 Memory

It's almost time to forget about memory for the year (just a few world championships and things to go...) and concentrate on what's happening in the glorious future world that is 2017!

For me, anyway - I really would like to get properly into competitions again. And I think the only way to really do it is by going around the world as much as possible and competing. It's sort of backwards, but competing is the only thing that really gets me fired up to prepare to compete. So I'll look around and see what's happening within easy commuting distance and plan my holidays accordingly!

Back in Britain, I've resolved to play a part in arranging lots of competitions already - I think the Friendly Championship does have to continue, and I think one of the May bank holiday weekends is the best time for it to happen. Maybe have another Numbers and Cards on the following day, if people want one. Location-wise, I'll have to see what I can arrange, but somewhere in the Birmingham area is most likely, though Broneirion would be nice if they somehow don't have a wedding or something on every convenient weekend. In August we'll have the big two-day competition at the MSO in London, and then in November another Memory League Championship would be wonderful; that one I'm eager to compete in myself and let someone else take charge.

That's a nice every-three-months schedule, don't you think? Should there be one in February too, just to keep the pattern? No, let's go with a new policy of announcing them far in advance and preserving the traditional 'winter break' in memory...

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Memory League Of Her Own

It really was a great competition! All the results of the first-ever UK Memory League Championship can be seen on the website, courtesy of the ever-wonderful Simon Orton keeping it all running from half the world away. I love living in the future, I really do.

Katie Kermode was as unbeatable today as yesterday - after three 3-0 wins in the group stage, she brushed aside Dan, Marlo and Nelson 3-0, 3-0 and 4-0 in the final to wrap up a commanding performance. I didn't expect it to be quite so one-sided! We are most definitely going to do it again next year, and what's more I'm going to be a competitor next time. I've absolutely resolved to do it, so it'll happen. We invite applications for the important job of "surprise task creator and general show-runner"!

The surprise tasks were a lot of fun - firstly, we had what I called "Visual Memory":

The recall grid was 23 by 17 - I suspect everyone was expecting a nice round number, so it was good to keep them guessing. People's approaches differed. James Paterson had the particularly clever idea of leaving his recall paper blank and trusting his opponent to make enough mistakes to end up with a negative score. It didn't work with Nelson, but it would have beaten Dan and Clay! Katie top-scored, unsurprisingly enough, but with a top score of 8 points, it just goes to show how tricky something like this is, when you have to make up a system on the fly - ten minutes' strategising time is all they got before being thrown straight into these things!

Surprise task 2 got a nice lot of laughs - Intergalactic Names and Faces!

Katie top-scored again, to nobody's great surprise - Clay's response was the best; in a subsequent 'normal' names round, he filled in a name he'd forgotten as "alienese ben jesus". Yes, I drew the pictures myself.

Surprise task 3 was a bit more boring, but good for promoting Peak - it was the "Baggage Claim" game from their excellent app, with the additional twist of timers; fastest one wins. Katie won, naturally. Everybody needs to find a way to catch up with her!

I'll work on my memory, but it might be a hopeless task - for example, I'm pretty sure I left the speed stacks timers for the aforementioned game lying around in Peak's office...

Big thanks and congratulations to all our British competitors - Phill and Jake were there to watch the fun as well, so it was a gathering of unprecedented British-memoriness! Cheers once more to amazing winner Katie, amazing innovator Nelson, amazing sponsor Peak, amazing creator Simon, and all the rest of you amazing people!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

What a memorable day!

Wow, this was awesome! Twelve brave British memory athletes gathered together today at the office of Peak to compete in the first ever national Memory League Championship!

Left to right, we have Katie Kermode, Clay Knight, Marlo Knight, Ben Pridmore (not competing, just taking the easy option of running the show), Nelson Dellis, a really big panda, James Paterson, James Ponder, Gordon Cowell, Henry Bole, Dan Evans, Dan Holloway, Richard Shanahan and Melodie Dequieros. The latter two are Peak employees who courageously gave it a try!

Not shown, but the awesomest of them all, is Simon Orton, who was keeping everything ticking over from Australia! Also deserving of a hearty round of applause is Dianne See from Peak, who's been kindly arranging everything about the venue!

You can see all the results here - we started with a pre-qualification tournament to sort the entrants into four seeding pots, then randomly drew one of each pot into each of the three groups. Then in each group it was all-play-all in a best-of-five match [first discipline randomly chosen from the five options with each player having up to two vetoes, loser of that chooses the second discipline, thereafter choice alternates - I'll write it up in more detail when I'm not so tired!] to give us a quarter-final lineup of the top two in each group and the two best third places.

The quarter-finals happen tomorrow morning, but today has seen some amazing scores and some thrilling matches; standing out in the first category a perfect 50 words in 53.45 seconds by Katie and 30 images in 14.90 seconds by Clay - they both came close to breaking the world record in other attempts too! In the 'thrilling' section were some fierce duels between Dan E and Gordon, and Dan H and Melodie - the latter two both new to the world of memory competitions and I hope having a whale of a time.

I do hope that this unprecedented gathering of British memory folk (not able to compete but watching the fun was Jake O'Gorman, with Phill Ash also at least hoping to drop in and say hello, and several others who just couldn't make this weekend too) will lead to greater things not just in this super-cool kind of memory competition, but in the more boring kind too!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Lest we forget

Remembrance Day was last week, but courtesy of the newspaper archive on, let's take a moment to remember 1916, when the Pridmore family made the front page of the Sheffield Independent. As described at length in my blog post five years ago, Arthur and John Pridmore had died at Ypres in 1914, and their brothers Albert and George Harry, as well as their sister Florence's husband John/James Palmer had all been wounded in action. Albert subsequently died in 1917, and George Harry in 1918. It's nice to see photos of them, but the caption gets John's initials wrong - the father was William Thomas, the soldier was John Thomas.

Albert's son, also called Albert, had died the previous year. Rather lost among the war news, he got two short paragraphs in the Sheffield Daily Independent, Tuesday 12 October 1915. His name and age are both wrong.

   At the Great Central Goods Yard, Sheffield, last night, Arthur Pridmore (17) of Brownell street, employed at the yard, was found lying on the lines where an engine had recently passed. His left leg had been completely severed below the knee, and he had sustained severe injury to his head.
   He was taken to the Royal Infirmary in the Fire Brigade Ambulance, and Dr. Cobb pronounced life extinct. The body was afterwards removed to the Public Mortuary.

Two days later, the newspaper reports the coroner's inquest.

Coroner's Jury & Young Boys on Night Work.
   The question as to the employment on night work of young boys was raised at an inquest held in Sheffield yesterday on the body of Albert Pridmore (14) of Brownell street, a wagon greaser employed by the Great Central Railway Co., who was killed at the Bridgehouses Goods Station of the company on Monday night.
   The evidence showed that Monday night was the youth's second on night work. He had finished one job on a goods train, and had then to go to a cabin to fill his grease box ready to grease another train. His body was found in the six-foot way, one foot being completely severed and in the four-foot way. He was apparently run over either by a train or a light engine. No one witnessed the accident.
   A boy who was working with Pridmore, George Bingley, aged 15, said they had finished greasing the train with the exception of one new wagon. An examiner warned them not to go between wagons, but to go round a light engine at the back of the train.
Discovery of the Body.
   Witness showed Pridmore how to grease the new wagon, and then, making sure that the train was not about to move, went underneath the wagon while Pridmore was walking around the end of the train. Witness went underneath the wagon because the time was approaching for the train to depart, and the work had to be done. He himself warned Pridmore to go round the train and not between the wagons.
   When witness finished greasing the wagon the train started, and looking up he saw a light flicker near the rear of the train. He took no particular notice of this at first, but when he found that his mate had not been to the cabin for grease he went to look if anything had happened, and found the body in the six-foot way. It must have been the deceased's hand lamp which flickered.
Lack of Experience.
   Another witness said he did not think the boy had sufficient experience to do the work on nights.
   The Coroner said the boy Bingley had admitted having broken the rules by passing underneath the wagons of the train. He (the Coroner), however, was not going to blame him. He thought the boy's explanation was a perfectly satisfactory one. He agreed that the deceased had not had sufficient experience, but he was not satisfied that he was following the other's example. As to the employment on nights of such young lads, the jury knew that we were not living in ordinary times, and that everybody was short of labour.
   The jury returned a verdict of accidental death, stating that there was no evidence to show whether the boy was run over by the loaded train or light engine, further adding that they thought that young boys who were engaged on the railway at night time, having finished their work, should be escorted back to the cabin by the men under whom they were working.

The world really has come a long way in the last hundred years, hasn't it?

Wet Welsh Weekend of Memory

Tomorrow it's the super-exciting Peak UK Memory League Championship! So I should really write up the super-exciting competitions from last weekend, or things will get terribly confusing...

They happened at the wonderful Broneirion, a real proper country house on top of a mountain (or at least a really big hill) in Wales. As well as the competition room, which was called Brownsea Island, everyone was staying overnight in a bedroom with a name - mine was Caradoc, and I think the coolest was Gordon's, Uther Pendragon. King Arthur's dad, you know. Also, there was a dining room, drawing room, billiard room and library. The library had books in it, but the billiard room didn't have a billiard table. The bathrooms had extremely Victorian fittings, including an absolutely enormous bath, big enough to lie in at full stretch!

I hired a car for the weekend to get me down there. I still hate driving, but it was a nice little mini thing, and I didn't crash it into anything at all. Came close a couple of times, but that doesn't count. I got there in good time in the morning - I was supposed to be picking Silvio up at Shrewsbury station along the way, but he'd got on the wrong train and was at Wolverhampton when I arrived at Shrewsbury. I advised him to get on a train to Newtown, the second-closest station to the competition venue (the closest is Caersws, and I didn't want to try to pronounce or spell that to someone with a limited understanding of English, let alone Welsh). He did, but the train then broke down, and he was stuck in the middle of nowhere for hours.

My fellow arbiter Nick, meanwhile, was also lost in the British train network somewhere and running late. There were some people who did get there in time, though - Søren, Dan, Gordon and Dai. So we got started with the first ever Numbers and Cards Championship! Dai, though, had to leave early on because he wasn't feeling well, but Silvio eventually arrived and joined in in the afternoon. Gordon also skipped the first round of speed numbers, because Scotland were winning the rugby 21-15 and he needed to give them his moral support in the closing minutes. Australia got a last-minute try and conversion and won 22-21.

But since most of the disciplines were either brand new or subtly different from the usual way they're done, everything was Officially (to the extent that that means anything these days) a New World Record - and a senior record (Søren), a Danish record (Søren again), an Italian record (Silvio),  a Scottish record (Gordon) and a Welsh record (Dan). The only completely new discipline was speed numbers - memorise a 100-digit number as fast as possible - and Silvio took the honours for that with 2:26.46. Which was good, because nobody got them all right in the first trial, and I wouldn't have liked to announce that the Official World Record is 98 digits in five minutes.

The interesting innovation in cards was that all the recall was done by rearranging unshuffled packs. The consensus seemed to be that this is more difficult than writing it down, but I personally think it's easier. We need to do this at more competitions in the future, and see what other people think.

All the exciting things in these pictures happened during the course of the day - the first one is a giant wasp that Nick heroically killed and stamped on when I told him to gently usher it out the door or window.

Other things that happened included a psychological discussion or two - it's generally mathematically agreed that you should guess exactly two digits on the final line in binary, to have a good chance of getting a potentially all-important extra point. We speculated on the idea of guessing an extra word at the end of words memory, but I said all that would come of that was giving the arbiters a chance to psychoanalyse competitors based on the first word that came into their heads.

But Freud would have had a field day with our entrants this weekend - in one discipline, Gordon made a mistake by confusing two mental images, his mother and himself. In the same one, Søren confused his wife with his sister. And I should probably spare the blushes of the one who mis-memorised one of the names and faces, and instead of "Rodd" wrote "Schaft"...

But a good time was had by all in the Numbers and Cards! Søren was the worthy winner! And after that we all went to the dining room for an excellent meal, before following the Victorian tradition and withdrawing to the drawing room afterwards. Had there been any ladies present, naturally we would have made them leave the dining room first while the gentlemen stayed behind for port and cigars. Still, the drawing room had comfy armchairs, a genuine log fire (that pumped out a heck of a lot of heat!) and a piano which Gordon made me envious by playing beautifully. He tells me it's just a matter of practice, but somehow I've just never been able to do that with musical instruments.

I retired to bed, and got up bright and early the next morning to have a giant bath before the Friendly Championship kicked off. To make it a special occasion, I brought the Brazilian Mystery Cloak. Well, nobody's seen it for a while, and I think I need to make it my Official Memory Championship Organizer apparel.

There were also a bunch of national records, personal bests and so on to be fought for here - notably, this was the first ever competition to have 15-minute binary digits (the IAM's hopefully very temporary replacement for abstract images), so there was a world record up for grabs! Søren officially grabbed it with 876 on his way to a very impressive overall victory!

We also had a great lunch on the Sunday (the food all weekend was delicious!), and the competition even finished ahead of schedule, like no memory competition in history! Really, the whole thing was a lot of fun, and I hope we can do it again next year. Some time in May, maybe. Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Friendliness in the manor house

I've just got back from a totally wonderful Friendly Memory Championship - the 11th annual competition, amazingly enough! I had sort of resolved not to do it next year, and move on to new and exciting things, but I think I'm so attached to it now, it'll just have to go on forever. Next year, then, probably May time!

I'll blog more about the details when I have a moment to gather my thoughts (warning - this may be a good long time coming), but the venue (as found by Dan) was absolutely wonderful - if you're holding a similar kind of event, or just want to go to a wonderful old-fashioned country house, book yourself a weekend at Broneirion!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Numbers and Cards

A quick results summary, here in the beautiful surroundings of Broneirion. A small select group of memorisers got together to act as guinea pigs for the first ever "Numbers and Cards thing". It maybe needs a better title, but we can work on that. What with getting on the wrong trains, pulling out through not feeling well, watching the rugby, and other important distractions, not everybody could compete in the whole thing, but it all worked pretty well regardless. Congratulations to Søren Damtoft for a commanding performance and overall victory!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Printing Things Out Day

It's a tedious process, it really is. Especially when you're running two competitions on successive days. I look forward to the day when all memory championships are done on computer and organised by someone other than me. Maybe next year I'll get back into training and start competing again - except for the MSO championship, obviously...

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Memory Medley

It's the Memoriad in Las Vegas this week, which I would have liked to go to, but since I'm so totally out of practice I can't really justify the expense, especially since I've agreed to run all these competitions back in blighty over the next month. Still, I'm sure everybody'll have a great time!

As for the competitions I'm running, here's a quick reminder. Everything this year is a bit on the last-minute side, so I can forgive you for not knowing what's going on. Next year, everything I run (which I think will be two competitions at most) will be announced far, far in advance. See the bottom of this very post, for instance!

Saturday November 12th - Numbers and Cards, Broneirion, Wales.
Sunday November 13th - The Friendly Championship, Broneirion again.
Saturday/Sunday November 19th/20th - Peak UK Memory League Championship, London.
Saturday/Sunday December 3rd/4th - Peak IAM European Open, London.

The latter two are sponsored by Peak, the app for genuinely really fun "mind-training" games. I'd recommend it even if they weren't generously hosting memory competitions! [You know what I'm like, if I didn't like the app I'd say so, and sponsorship be damned, and get told off by everybody in the memory world. Luckily, I do like this one!]

All but the Memory League Championship are open to everyone; that one is invitation only and limited to British memorisers (BUT, if you're British and would like to compete, I'm currently waiting to hear back about filling a couple of vacated spots, so please let me know if you're interested!)

So that's your lot for 2016. But THEN, I'm happy to give advance warning that there will be a big, cool memory championship at the Mind Sports Olympiad in 2017, at JW3 in London, probably on Monday/Tuesday 21st/22nd August. It will be an international standard event, with the overall winner calculated in the usual way by adding up the scores of all ten disciplines, but it will also be split into three 'modules', which MSO competitors can pick and choose from, and which will each have their own individual winner and medals. Oh, and this competition will also be called the European Open, or something along those lines. But in both cases that just means it's in Europe, not that you have to be European to compete.

Day 1 morning/afternoon - "Marathon Memory" - 30-minute numbers, 30-minute cards and 30-minute binary.
Day 2 morning - "Natural Memory" - 15-minute names, 15-minute words, 15-minute images (or whatever the IAM come up with as a new discipline)
Day 2 afternoon - "Speed Memory" - 5-minute dates, 5-minute numbers, spoken numbers, speed cards.

I would urge everybody to come along to the whole MSO in 2017! I'm going to, and I'll probably wax lyrical about how I went to the first one as a 20-year-old in 1997, and now I'm going to this one as a 40-year-old in 2017, and ah me, where did all the years go, half of my lifetime, and so on and so forth. Look forward to it!

PS After my post earlier today, I need to put in some kind of disclaimer saying "any and all spelling mistakes in this post are obviously deliberately made as some kind of ironic comment. No, really, they are."

If you're going to use words like "author" and "professional"...

I get junk emails quite regularly from a thing called "Authorcraft - the professional network for authors." I don't remember why, which probably means I signed up to it with vague ideas of promoting my book about memory, in the days when I was determined to make an effort to write a proper book about memory. But I've finally decided to unsubscribe today after receiving their latest mass mailing with the subject line "AuthorCraft Caoching Call this Tuesday 8st November". And the attached email doesn't seem to be making a point about the necessity of proof-reading what you write, either. This is probably why I've never become an author, obviously - I'd much rather read a bad book with good spelling than a good book with bad. I'm probably very out of tune with the way book-readers' minds work...

Monday, October 24, 2016


I've come across the diaries of Elizabeth Firth on the universal repository of everything that is the internet. She was a woman of no particular significance, and her diaries are quite literally the dullest things ever written, but they're still of interest to people because Patrick Bronte (father of the famous writers) proposed marriage to her in 1821. She turned him down, sensibly enough - she was young and fairly wealthy, he was twice her age with no money and six small children - but that gives her enough of a connection that her brief scribbles documenting which of her neighbours came to tea that day can still be enthusiastically pored over by fans of that kind of thing.

I would quite like to be famous one day for having been vaguely acquainted with someone notorious. I really hope that somewhere in this last decade of drivel I've subjected my blog-readers to, there's a passing comment about someone who in the distant years to come will be considered really cool and important. I can just imagine people of the 23rd century looking back on this and writing inaccurate footnotes to explain what I'm referring to in blog entries either side of the one where I said I was hanging out with the cool and important person.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Remember memory?

I haven't written enough about memory stuff just lately. The upcoming competitions are all taking shape, whenever I get a moment to spare to arrange things about them - I've got next week off work, more because I needed to use up another five days before the end of the year than because I particularly had to be off, but it'll be nice to spend the week alternately loafing around and finalising all the details for the championships.

Also in memory world, I might well be appearing on a very cool programme, on British TV no less, before too long. I was just thinking to myself "I haven't been on British TV for yonks..." when I got the message about this one - am I one of those people who always dreams of being on TV, even at my advanced age and satisfactory levels of semi-fame? Or was it just perfect timing? Whatever the reason, I said yes straight away, so fingers crossed, it'll be fun for everyone!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

By the horns of the prophet Balag, it's episode 3 of The Pirate Planet!

An anonymouse asked me to write a blog about episodes of Doctor Who written by Douglas Adams. This is a very impressively random request, and I'd like to see more of that kind of thing, please!

Now, there are actually only four episodes of Doctor Who with the credit "written by Douglas Adams" - the four episodes of the serial "The Pirate Planet" (September - October 1978). He also wrote the vast majority of the serial "City of Death", which was credited to BBC stock pseudonym 'David Agnew', and the serial "Shada", which was partly filmed but then abandoned and never broadcast due to a strike. And he was the script editor for series seventeen (1979-80), which included the latter two stories and four others, all of which he contributed a fair bit of writing to. But if you want to be picky and write about episodes 'officially' written by Douglas Adams, you're basically stuck with The Pirate Planet.

As it happens, episode 3 of The Pirate Planet was aired on BBC1 on my second birthday, Saturday October 14th, 1978, at 6:20pm (in between Noel Edmonds' Lucky Numbers and Larry Grayson's Generation Game). I probably didn't watch it. You never know, though, my parents might have had it on in the background and plonked me down in front of it for half an hour before bedtime in the hopes of keeping me quiet while they dealt with my four-month-old baby brother, but I think it's unlikely.

The Pirate Planet was the first thing Douglas Adams wrote for Doctor Who, and still one of the first things he wrote for television, though he'd chipped in bits and pieces here and there for a few years beforehand. He'd previously submitted a script called "The Krikkitmen" to the producer of Doctor Who, which was rejected and eventually recycled into his book "Life, the Universe and Everything", with the Doctor replaced by the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy crew - similarly, large parts of "Shada" and even "City of Death" ended up in "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency", many years down the road. The Pirate Planet also has a Hitchhiker's connection - very shortly after being commissioned to write the Doctor Who scripts, Adams was given the go-ahead to write the radio series that made him famous. He made that his number one priority, it's fair to say.

The writer's TV inexperience shows. The script to The Pirate Planet calls for a very large number of sets, costumes and characters - even after being rewritten extensively by script editor Anthony Read to make it possible to do it on a BBC budget - with the inevitable consequence that the sets and costumes look very very cheap and tacky, and the acting is pretty uniformly awful. No highly-paid big-name guest stars in this one, although apparently one actor insisted on and got a pay rise because she was required to play the part without her false teeth.

I've got the video - or at least my brother has, and his video collection is crammed into one of my cupboards - so I can happily watch it now and describe it on my blog. But before I do, let's travel back in time a little way, before the internet came along, before videos of old Doctor Who adventures came along, and let's settle down in the 1980s and look around ourselves. As a young Doctor Who fan, I can't just go out and buy a DVD or even a video cassette of the Doctor Who story of my choice. I certainly can't go on the internet and watch it on YouTube or illegally download it from somewhere. The only way I can experience the history of Doctor Who is by borrowing the books from the library.

There were novelisations of nearly every Doctor Who story ever made, going all the way back to 1963. Nearly all of them were written by Terrance Dicks, and all of them were fun, exciting and just awesome to this young fan! But there were just a few Doctor Who stories that weren't available as books - the ones written by Douglas Adams. He wouldn't give permission for anyone else to novelise them, and he wasn't prepared to do it himself for the paltry amount that Terrance Dicks got paid, either (or, to put it more charitably, he was too busy with his many other works). So while I had read and enjoyed the rest of series sixteen (the "Key To Time" year), The Pirate Planet was a fascinating mystery to me. What happened in it? Was it a good story? I didn't even know the title (even reference books were few and far between back then), so I couldn't even speculate whether it was about a planet full of pirates. Would I ever know?

Watching the video, after all that build-up, was something of a let-down. It's not that great. But now let's travel back a bit further, imagine ourselves on my second birthday, October 14th 1978, and tune in our television set (you don't need to tune in a dial, it's a swanky modern TV set with pre-set buttons, hired for a reasonable fee from Radio Rentals) to BBC1. Sit back and enjoy tonight's episode!

The opening titles at this point in history are a sort of rectangular pattern of swirling colours - the TARDIS appears in the middle of it as the theme tune plays, and moves closer towards the viewer, before fading away to be replaced by a wavy tunnel with a circular light at the end, which the camera chases down... then it fades into a picture of Tom Baker's face, which is in turn replaced by the diamond-shaped Doctor Who logo, which recedes down a diamond-shaped tunnel and eventually disappears as the story title "THE PIRATE PLANET" appears on screen, followed by "BY DOUGLAS ADAMS" and finally "PART THREE"

Tom Baker is in his fifth year as the Doctor now, and still going strong. We recall that this year (we're in the second four-part story of the latest series), he and his robot dog K-9 (voiced by John Leeson) have been joined by new companion Romana (played by Mary Tamm), a fellow Time Lord. They've been tasked with retrieving the six segments of the Key To Time, and it's become clear that each story this season will involve them searching for a particular segment, somewhere in time and space, and getting drawn into a largely unrelated adventure.

We start straight off with the ending to last week's episode - in a very poorly-lit underground cavern (really, it's hard to see anything happening), the black-uniformed soldiers of the Captain are chasing the Doctor, Romana and their new friend Kimus (who wears the stylish costume of the people from the planet Zanak). They run into the creepy robe-wearing Mentiads - "Doctor, we have come for you!", the leader ominously intones. That's where we left them last week. Close-up of the Doctor's face, complete with scar on his lip (Tom Baker was bitten by a dog just before filming started!) that is in various stages of healing throughout this story, playing havoc with continuity.

If we stretch our memories, we can remember that the Doctor and his companions thought they were arriving on the planet Calufrax in search of the second segment of the Key, but found themselves instead on Zanak, a planet commanded by the insane piratical Captain and populated by affluent and docile people. It has turned out that the planet Zanak itself is hollow, and can be teleported around the universe, materialising around a smaller planet and draining it of its precious minerals and jewels. Extremely cool concept!

One of the Mentiads pulls back his hood, and Kimus is surprised to see that it's his friend Pralix. It turns out that "We have come for you" is open to interpretation - the Mentiads are nice, and use their mental powers to create a force-wall protecting the heroes from the soldiers. They take the Doctor and his friends back to their base, where K-9 already is, along with another new friend, Mula. She's also surprised that the Mentiads have turned out to be nice.

Back at the Captain's headquarters (the Bridge), he reacts badly to a soldier reporting that the Doctor has escaped again. He unleashes his robot parrot (excuse me, his "polyphase avitron" - classic Douglas Adams stuff) to kill the hapless messenger. The costumes, sets and acting around the Captain are the worst of a bad bunch in this serial.

The Mentiads explain that they're opposed to the Captain, steadily recruiting new people to form a telepathic gestalt to resist him. The Doctor fills them in on Zanak's nature and activities. The Captain rants a bit more to his head scientist, Mr Fibuli. Bruce Purchase, as the Captain, goes too far with his overacting, I think - even though it's part of the script that he's a blustering fool rather than a real leader. His nurse, the real power behind the throne, does a very good job of remaining silently in the background.

The Mentiads fill the Doctor in on the history of their planet - it was ruined by wars instigated by Queen Xanxia, and returned to prosperity when the Captain arrived and took over. The Doctor gets Romana to explain why draining the "life force" of planets affects the telepathic Mentiads, in a way that's very technobabbly and really not as funny as you might expect from Douglas Adams - Doctor Who had recently moved away from a phase of deadly-serious adaptations of classic horror stories and into more light-hearted and silly directions (a good thing, on balance; the 'gothic' era is wildly overrated), but this one doesn't go anywhere near as far into comedy as it could.

The Captain and Mr Fibuli give the viewer a bit of exposition by telling each other what they already know, and don't add anything very significant to what the other characters have already said. He laments being trapped on the planet, and vows to kill the Doctor. The nurse approves.

Then we get our first look this episode at the astonishingly cheap model of the city, because the Doctor and Kimus have gone back to the surface since we last saw them. They lure the pilot of an air-car away with a trail of licorice allsorts, but it doesn't work, and they're captured. Mr Fibuli explains that they've identified the next planet for their piracy, rich in the mineral they need to fix their transporting equipment - turns out it's Earth.

K-9 has been left in the air-car - he hotwires and steals it (well, he extends the sucker thing out of the centre of his head, anyway - you have to use your imagination with K-9, it's not a very complicated prop), while Romana, Mula and the Mentiads walk through the wilderness, and the Doctor wakes up to find himself chained to a wall and confronted by the Captain. Actually, they're not chains. The BBC couldn't afford chains. They're very clearly car seatbelts, in fact. He goads the Captain into releasing him.

The Captain shows the Doctor the little bits of rock that are the remains of the worlds he's plundered. They're compressed in a way that worries the Doctor - it's one of those things that would destroy the universe if it goes just a little bit slightly wrong. The Mentiads are approaching the Bridge, and the Captain makes ready to resist them. He has a machine, powered by crystals from all the plundered planets, that can kill them or something - Kimus is infuriated and wants to attack the Captain. The Captain sets the polyphase avitron on him, but luckily, K-9 arrives just in time!

And... oh dear... there's a fight scene between the two robotic animals. On a shoestring budget. It's one of the stupidest-looking moments in television history. The Doctor and Kimus understandably run away from it and find themselves in a chamber with an old woman, frozen in time. It's Queen Xanxia (no false teeth or anything), suspended in the last few seconds of her life. Outside the door, the nurse is unusually impatient as the guards try to break in.

K-9 joins the Doctor, having killed the parrot. Sending him and Kimus down to sabotage the engines, the Doctor goes back out to see the Captain. He sentences the Doctor to die by walking the plank. "You can't be serious," the Doctor says, sounding more irritated than anything, probably because the cheap set doesn't at all convey the idea that the plank is supposed to be sticking out of a window over a thousand-foot drop. But the guard shoots at his feet, and the Doctor falls! Cliffhanger ending! The credits roll (Tom Baker is credited as playing "Doctor Who", as was always the case, even though in the episodes themselves the character is always just referred to as "The Doctor"), and we'll turn the telly off and put two-year-old me to bed, then settle down to watch Larry Grayson.

So there we have it - it's not a particularly great episode, certainly not by the standards of Douglas Adams, but it's fun and watchable. Far from the worst thing Doctor Who ever did, anyway, and quite worth watching if you're in the right mood. But if you're looking for classic Adams stuff... well, there's a reason he was never famous for writing Doctor Who, I'm afraid.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Signed and delivered

Today's randomly-chosen comic from my collection is number 1010 - Hellions #3, from 2005! Let's see what the next next next generation of mutant superheroes was up to, at that moment!

 A brief history of the X-Men comics is necessary at this point. The X-Men first appeared in 1963 - a comic about a team of teenage mutants at Professor X's school. It was a little bit lost among the many other superhero comics Marvel launched at that time, revolutionising the whole concept of superhero comics and remaining popular to this day, fifty-plus years later. The comic was cancelled in 1970.

It was relaunched in 1975, with a mostly all-new team, adults now (the originals had grown up in a slightly ambiguous way, but weren't teenagers any more at any rate), and became very, very, very popular. The coolest comic in the world, in fact, and so ripe for spin-offs, although at first Marvel were concerned about diluting the concept, and so kept these to a minimum.

The one they did allow, in fact, was New Mutants - a 1982 comic about a small number of teenage heroes who became the adult X-Men's students, and had adventures befitting the next generation of superheroes. There was a rival school of teenage mutants, more evil, called the Hellions and run by Emma Frost, the White Queen. The New Mutants carried on for a while, eventually embracing the gritty, tough, cool trends of the early nineties, changing their name to X-Force, carrying great big guns around and so forth.

In 1993, Marvel launched a new series with a whole new bunch of teenage mutants. This one was called Generation X, and they were, I suppose, the next next generation of mutant superheroes. They had a school too, separate but allied to the X-Men, and one of their teachers was Emma Frost, now on the X-Men's side but still basically the same evil person she's always been. They were cool, for a little while. The 'Generation X' thing got old quite fast, though...

In 2000 came the X-Men movie, which decided to go with the Hogwarts approach and depict the X-Men as having a school catering to hundreds of teenage mutants with cool superpowers (if anyone's wondering who copied whom, the movie came before the Harry Potter movies, but after the first few Harry Potter books), and before long the comics followed the movie's lead, and the X-Men now had a school full of the next next next generation of mutants!

After just being in the background of the grown-up X-Men's comics for a while, the students got their own comic, confusingly called New Mutants (although nobody referred to the characters by that name) in 2003. It focused on a small group of friends at the school, and was very slice-of-life rather than superhero-action - they went to classes, had dates, had arguments, had love triangles, and so forth. Then in 2004 the whole thing was shaken up a bit, the comic was renamed New X-Men: Academy X (in the hope that having "X-Men" on the cover would sell more copies), and the stories got a lot more superheroey - the students were split into squads of six, each under the supervision of one of the older X-Men, and they used their powers a lot more, in cool tests and training challenges. The comic focused on the six heroes, a squad called the New Mutants (that's right, as soon as the title stops being "New Mutants", the characters in it start being called "New Mutants") supervised by one of the original New Mutants, Moonstar; with their antagonists being the Hellions, supervised by Emma Frost.

That brings us up to 2005, when the Hellions were given their own four-issue limited series, and it just shows the problem with 'next generation of superheroes' comics - the previous generations aren't going anywhere! The original X-Men are still around, as young and active as they've always been! The New Mutants are still there, in a sort of uncomfortable no-man's-land of not being quite as grown-up as the X-Men but still being sort of more grown up than they used to be. Generation X are shunted off into limbo, because nobody knows what to do with them. How can we thrill to the adventures of this latest generation, knowing that we can't really see them grow and develop into adult superheroes in their own right, because of the classic superhero-aging problem? (And guess what, it's now 2016, and of course there's a next next next next generation of mutant superheroes out there now...)

So let's turn our attention to the Hellions. This comic has a helpful first page, telling us who the characters are and summarising the story so far - the kind of thing that was badly needed but missing from a lot of comics in this era of paperback-size stories chopped into six issues, but isn't at all necessary for this one, which follows the traditional superhero comic style; the characters mention in dialogue who they are and what's happened until now, they have a self-contained adventure in each issue, building up on sub-plots along the way, and ending with a nice cliffhanger leading into the next. Still, for the purposes of this review, the first page is very helpful:
 (It does seem to promise us Doctor Octopus, who doesn't appear in this comic at all, though...)

The first page doesn't have the creator credits, which come a bit later on - it's written by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir (a husband-and-wife partnership), pencilled by Clayton Henry and inked by Mark Morales with (in smaller font) Jay Leisten and Rick Ketcham. When you see a penciller and three inkers, it usually means the artwork is a panic-to-hit-the-deadline kind of job, but this one actually looks very nice, all the way through! A lot of panels don't have backgrounds, but the characters all look good, detailed and consistently the same, the poses are a little bit stagey but quite acceptable, and the whole story flows very nicely. I like it a lot.

Colours are (particularly well done) by Wil Quintana, letters by Dave Sharpe, and the editorial board consists of assistant editor Sean Ryan, associate editor Nick Lowe, editor Mike Marts, editor in chief Joe Quesada and publisher Dan Buckley.

The Hellions, it turns out, work perfectly well as protagonists of their own series! They're not just a stereotypical group of bullies at all, even in the parent comic - Brian is a nice guy who just happens to be Julian's best friend; Sooraya is perfectly okay, just a bit unsociable and stand-offish; Kevin is the tortured loner who longs to touch other human beings but never can. This series lets us get to know them a little better, and it's very very well done, too.

We open in the research facilities of Genetassist, in the California Desert. Paladin and Diamondback, two long-established minor Marvel characters who work as mercenaries, generally on the side of good, are at work here, stealing "the sample" and deleting all the data on it from the computer files, while fighting off other people who are after it too. All the major players will be out to get it, Diamondback observes, so they'd better hurry.

Suddenly, the case is snatched - Cessily has slithered her way through the laser beams, as shown on the cover, and nabbed it! The mercenaries are confronted by the full lineup of Hellions - "Didn't anyone teach you that stealing is wrong?" Julian quips.

Then we flash back to two hours previously, with the team discussing the cool things the Kingmaker has done. Cessily is selfishly upset that Kevin can touch anyone now - she fancies him, so it was really quite good when she was the only one he could touch. She and Julian (the most self-centred and unpleasant pair on the team) have a really nice brief heart-to-heart about it, before the Kingmaker calls them in to the meeting room and tells them it's time to sign their contracts. They've had their wishes, now he takes Kevin's cure back, won't bring Sooraya's mother to America and so forth, until they agree to do a favour for him. Reasonably, he even agrees to tell them what this favour will be.

The relationship with the Kingmaker is nicely done, too - even Julian, who's always so cocky and confident around his fellow schoolchildren, looks a lot more nervous and teenagery in the company of a big, assured adult. He shows them Genetassist, explains that they've just completed a major project, and that the Hellions' job is to "stop it being stolen, and bring it to me." He explains that Paladin and Diamondback, among others, are after it. Most of the squad are happy to sign contracts straight away, Cessily needs a little more persuading, but eventually signs.

Back to the present moment, it's time for the big fight. And it's a good one, too - Paladin and Diamondback are outnumbered and don't have any particularly cool powers (they're normal humans with fancy but low-level technology), but they have the advantage of long experience in the superhero game. They both take the attitude that the kids are the ones who are outclassed, and it shows in the first part of the fight.

Brian takes the simple approach and "tags" the briefcase, making the mercenaries run away, but as soon as Diamondback gets out of range, she spins and throws one of her diamonds at his head, knocking him out and cancelling his powers. While Kevin laments that he's useless in this situation (his powers are still turned off by his last dose of the cure, even if he could find a way to use them in the fight), Santo and Cessily go on the attack but are taken down by the pros. Sooraya follows, but not before the mercs have pointed out that the Hellions are stealing a weapon, not doing whatever they think they're doing. Julian's more of a problem - his telekinesis stops him being harmed, and he can just smash Paladin and Diamondback into the walls by exerting his will (he'd probably have done that right at the start, but he was busy getting the unconscious Brian out of the way in case he got hurt). Unimpressed with Diamondback's insistence that she's one of the good guys,  he shuts her up.

The squad fly away with the case (Julian can fly, and he telekinetically carries the others behind him). The others are uncertain whether they're doing the right thing, and Julian rattles off a succession of valid explanations in a single speech bubble (I love this speech - he's uncertain too, so he's babbling, but the things he says do all make some kind of sense) "Even if they were with SHIELD, where were the agents? Why mercs? They were stealing it, too! You really trust the government any more than the Kingmaker? We made a deal, guys. Signed and delivered."

Back at the Kingmaker's base, Kevin's still not happy and doesn't want to hand over the case. Julian does, Brian agrees with him, but Santo steps in and insists he wants to know what's inside too. So does Cessily, and she can easily use her powers to pick the lock. Sooraya, characteristically, stands back and doesn't get involved. But the case turns out to contain some kind of canister, and the Hellions are none the wiser, until the Kingmaker comes along and tells them it's a biological weapon that could kill millions of people. And yes, it doesn't belong to him, his client "didn't want to have to pay them for the weapon, and he didn't want the government to get it." He insists that the team hand it over, and Julian snatches the case back from Kevin, and does so. A deal's a deal. Cliffhanger ending!

It's a really fun story, I'm glad I got the nudge to go back and read it again. Marvel never did enough with these characters - poor Brian and Kevin have been killed off since this series (though that's not such a permanent problem with Marvel characters as it is with most people), the other four are sort of hanging around in the background among all the millions of other X-Men and not doing much. But they all really shone for a little while in 2005...

If you'd like to see another random comic, give me a number between 2 and 3333! Thanks!

Friday, October 14, 2016

You invited everyone

Mid-Life Krysis is a song by Travis, from their 2003 album "12 Memories", which was full of protest songs about the Iraq war that were very worthy and admirable but nowhere near as good as their previous albums of non-political but much more musically appealing songs. They were probably having a mid-life crisis at the time they wrote it. I was never sure why they spelt it 'krysis' instead of 'crisis', but now I realise that it was an impressively ahead-of-its-time reference to 'Krysis', the latest episode of Red Dwarf, in which Kryten celebrates his birthday and has a mid-life crisis.

It sort of made me wonder, what with it being my 40th birthday, whether I should have a mid-life crisis. It might be fun, but on the other hand, it just seems like too much effort. Besides, I'm not mid-life. Since I'm not planning on ever dying, it follows that I'll never reach the mid-point of my life either, so I'll just plod along as I have been doing until I get bored with it.

I really must unsubscribe from those recruitment agencies, though - look at this one I've just got: "There is a chance to manage a small but busy team also so if you have not managed people before, this is your opportunity to add this to your CV. This company offers flexible working hours so great for anyone who works hard but who wants to finish early on a Friday or to get to that gym class mid week. "

What kind of person do they think I am? Adding important management experience to my CV by day, dashing off to that gym class at night? If they send me an email about a job that will encourage me to watch Red Dwarf and eat cake, well, then I might just be interested.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

I'm turning 40 tomorrow

Could someone do something about that, please? Because I'm sure there must be some mistake.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Northern exposure

Do I count as 'northern' any more? I'm something like twenty miles south of Birmingham nowadays. Well, I'm not southern, anyway.

I get regular spam emails from all the recruitment agencies I've ever registered with, informing me about all the thrilling accountancy jobs out there that would suit someone of my qualifications and experience. The funny thing about it is that all of them come with a paragraph from the agency saying that this job would be a great thing to add a specific kind of experience to my CV.

Add to my CV? I'm (very) nearly forty years old. Even when I was in my twenties, I never looked for a job that I could add to my CV and use as a stepping-stone to some mythical future better job, further down the line. Who does that? Who cares so much about their career development that they apply for a job with the intention of later applying for another job and boasting that they worked in the first job? This is probably why I'm not a financial director.

It's the same with my sort-of career as a memory man. Someone really did once offer me some kind of memory performance gig (I forget what it was) and tell me it would be "great exposure" for me. This is showbiz talk for "not going to pay you" and I was quite thrilled to get it - it means someone, somewhere, thinks my memory tricks are the kind of thing I expect to get paid for!

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Is the world truly ending?

In the latest random-number selection from my comic collection, thanks to an unimaginative anonymouse who wanted to see what came first on my list, I give you 1602, part one, from November 2003.

 Written by the famous author Neil Gaiman, this was a high-prestige project for Marvel, part of their policy (new at the time) of moving away from just telling stories set in the boring old Marvel universe, and branching out into new interpretations of their characters. In 1996, they "killed off" all the cool characters and relaunched them as Heroes Reborn, telling the old stories but in cooler 1990s ways. It was rubbish, and abandoned after a year, but it paved the way for "Ultimate" versions of the heroes a couple of years later, this time running alongside the old-style comics. 1602, on the other hand, isn't an attempt to launch a new universe, it's basically just letting Neil Gaiman play with the characters by writing them in a story set in 1602.

Unlike the previous two comics I reviewed, this one came out when the internet was up and running, and so it got a lot of attention from fans, wondering what was going on - not helped by Marvel first claiming that the series would be connected in some way to the mainstream universe, and then backtracking and saying that no, it wouldn't, really, sort of. But no comic is improved by knowing what internet fans said about it, so let's just ignore that whole side of things. It was fun at the time, though!

Art is by the big-name comic artist Andy Kubert, and 'digitally painted' by Richard Isanove, although the cover is drawn by Scott McKowen. Todd Klein does the lettering, and this is probably the peak of Marvel's too-many-cooks editorial policy - Joe Quesada is editor, Nick Lowe is assistant editor, Nanci Dakesian is managing editor, Kelly Lamy is assistant managing editor, Joe Quesada (again) is editor in chief and Bill Jemas is president. It's a wonder there was room for any comic after all those credits.

There really isn't much story in this issue. Some sort of plot does develop in the course of the eight-issue series, but this opening one is really just about introducing the characters. None of it makes any sense to readers who aren't familiar with the classic Marvel superheroes (the cast is strictly limited to characters from the 1960s), and if you are, the appeal basically lies in saying 'oh, that's a clever take on what such-and-such-a-character's 1602 counterpart would be'. Over and over again. Despite this, though, the whole thing is a fun read, and I do recommend it!

The art is quite epic, very nicely coloured to suggest candlelight, sunrise, sunset, night and so on (not a single scene in this one takes place in broad daylight), although some of the character posing is stiff and unnatural, and the facial expressions are a bit strange - people always seem to have their eyes half closed.

We open our story in Hampton Court, England, in 1602. Continuing straight on from the cover, we see that our cloaked figure is Doctor Stephen Strange (as in, Dr Strange, master of the mystic arts). He wears an Elizabethan ruff and a beard, rather than his classic moustache, and enters a room to meet Queen Elizabeth herself, and Sir Nicholas Fury (Nick Fury, agent of SHIELD). He's got a beard too, of course, as well as his traditional eyepatch. Elizabeth has her face plastered in white makeup, and coughs into a bloodstained handkerchief throughout the conversation, in a historically-accurate way.

She introduces the two men to each other, and they discuss whether the recent earthquakes, red skies and so on are signs of the apocalypse. Dr Strange isn't prepared to go that far ("No man shall know the day or the hour, eh?") but explains that he needs Sir Nicholas's help to convey something powerful from the Holy Land to England. He agrees, and the two of them go their separate ways.

Meanwhile, in Domdaniel, Spain, a young man with wings is chained up in the Inquisition's dungeon. His name doesn't seem to be mentioned in this comic, but it's clearly the Angel, of the X-Men. He laments his fate.

In Westminster, young Peter Parquagh (guess who?) studies a spider while a blind Irish singer called Matthew (that'll be Daredevil) entertains the customers of a tavern with the ballad of the Four from the Fantastick. Peter works for Sir Nicholas, while Matthew secretly has acrobatic powers, can see in the dark, and works as Sir Nicholas's informant, agreeing to help bring the mysterious treasure safely to England.

Dr Strange, meanwhile, goes back to his house in the village of Greenwich (see what we did there? He lives in Greenwich Village, New York, in the classic comics) where his beloved Clea speculates with him about the possibility of James of Scotland becoming King of England when Elizabeth dies, and then helps him gaze into a magic mirror to see visions of what is to come. It's not very enlightening - a red-garbed nun in the court of the Inquisition perceives his astral form and dismisses him.

She's Sister Wanda (the Scarlet Witch), and she and Petros (Quicksilver) serve the Inquisitor (who doesn't look anything like Magneto, but doesn't really need to, because who else could it be?) and discuss their planned alliance with King James to make common cause against the witchbreed (as in, mutants like the X-Men and themselves). It's all part of a typical plan to rise to power, convincing the English that the witchbreed plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The Inquisitor's enemy, Javier, will be powerless to stop him!

On board the Virginia Maid, in the middle of the Atlantic, is a young girl accompanied by a monosyllabic blond-haired native American called Rojhaz (Captain America), and she's worried what might happen if she 'changes' again... She's not actually a Marvel character, and caused much confusion among readers at the time. She's a real-life person, Virginia Dare, who's the subject of a legend that Neil Gaiman thought was common knowledge and was rather surprised to find out that nobody else had heard of it.

Sir Nicholas and Peter discuss the Templar treasure and fight off an assassin, while Matthew goes to his friend Captain Nelson's ship (hey, look, it's Daredevil's fat friend Foggy Nelson!) before dawn breaks in Spain and it's time to burn the Angel at the stake. But he's saved by two more witchbreed heroes!

 They identify themselves as Scotius Summerisle (Scott Summers, Cyclops) and Robert Trefusis (Bobby Drake, Iceman - and why he doesn't get to keep the surname Drake, which was a famous name in 1602 England, I don't know). Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth has a dream of the Old Man (the Ancient One, Dr Strange's mentor) beginning on his journey from Jerusalem with the artifact. Then the witchbreed go back to their ship and introduce the Angel to John Grey (as in Jean Grey, Marvel Girl, doing the classic Shakespearean thing and disguising herself as a boy), before setting sail to their schoolhouse. And that's the rather anticlimactic end.

Like I say, it's a fun enough story, but the appeal is pretty much entirely in the novelty value of seeing the classic Marvel characters in new forms. The rest of the series is more entertaining in its own right, so I'd recommend that you check out the collected edition!

Despite being part of the Marvel Knights 'hardcore comics' kind of imprint, and having "Marvel PSR" (which probably stood for parental supervision recommended, although Marvel had only just introduced these ratings at the time and didn't go out of their way to tell anyone what they meant) on the cover, the moody Elizabethan artwork of this one is interspersed with a full complement of 'teen' adverts. Most notably, we get the high-point of the Lorillard Tobacco Company's legally-mandated youth smoking prevention policy, which consisted of running ads in comics using the slogan "Tobacco is whacko! (if you're a teen)"

Once you turn twenty, of course, tobacco is great. But it's kind of hard to see how this particularly strange picture is trying to convey the idea that smoking is a bad thing, isn't it? Especially if you read British comics of the 1950s and are used to 'whacko' meaning 'really jolly good'. Perhaps it's just meant to give teens nightmares about cigarettes with scary faces on them.

If you'd like to see another random comic review, give me a number between 3 and 3333, and I'll pull the appropriate comic from the pile!