I don’t have a very good memory, so about a year ago I decided to try out the memory palace technique to see if it could help me. I used the method to learn all 50 states and realised while learning them that, because of the nature of the technique, it would be no harder to learn them in order of size, so that’s what I did.
I bought a few books that teach memory techniques, but this one by Derren Brown was the best. It’s also one of the funniest books I have read.
I tested myself this evening and missed three of them, but knew that they were the 14th, 26th and 46th largest states. You are meant to mentally return to your memory palace pretty often to remain familiar with its rooms – I haven’t, so I’m happy with my recall. I can see where I went wrong with the ones I forgot, so there’ll be tips in here based on my findings.
These are the steps to learn all 50 states. We’ll start with just learning them, but in the next post I will show how it is almost no more difficult to learn them in order of size.
1. Think of a room that you know very well. Consider the room’s features that are distinct and memorable – a cupboard, a lamp, a window etc. You will be assigning states to each feature, so pick things that jump straight to mind, or else you might forget them and their corresponding state. The strength of the technique is that memorisation becomes fun, and an imaginary walk through the room will bring all the states to mind without any real effort.
The room should be somewhere you will be happy to return to in your mind and ideally it should be unchanging. If you are constantly redecorating in real life, your memory palace room will be tricky to keep constant. This is why I chose the apartments in Friends for this task. If you didn’t watch the show, the following principles will still be useful.
2. Get a list of the 50 states. This is crucial.
3. Allocate each state to a feature of the room, moving clockwise around the room. The important thing here is to use your imagination and give strong sensations to each memory and location. These associations work best if they are personal, but I first started the technique by directly copying Derren Brown’s examples and they worked fine for me, so my examples may work for you…
The first and largest state is Alaska, which I think of as cold. If you start your memory palace journey by entering the room, the door could be ice cold, so that the skin of your fingers sticks to it as you push the door open. It’s vital to have a strong reaction to each memory. It could be funny, disgusting or a strange smell – it doesn’t matter, as long as it links the state with the feature in your mind.
The second largest state is Texas, so as you continue to walk clockwise around the room, assign that state to the next feature. If, for example, the next thing you encounter is a Foosball table, all of the little men on sticks could be wearing cowboy hats and boots with spurs on. Maybe they are in agony at having been impaled on large sticks to kick a little ball around for your entertainment.
Next up is California. For me that means surfing, so I continue my journey by stepping onto a surfboard and feeling it move forwards suddenly. Sensations like this – the panic of realising your chair is past the point of balance, or slipping on ice – can be strong connections for the memory.
The carpet surfing stops suddenly when you bash into a door (Joey’s bedroom, if you are following the Friends layout). On the door is a rare picture of the everyone’s favourite Montanas, Tony and Hannah.
Continue allocating a state to each feature that you encounter but consider the following…
4. Continuous stories are useful. For example, by the time I reach Oklahoma, I am near the bathroom, and someone is charging into the shower to intentionally see a man naked (Oggle a homme – Oklahoma). Unfortunately, the wrong person is in there and the pervert storms out looking sour-faced (Miss Soury – Missouri). Interrelated events help to tie all the states together. But…
5. Don’t make your clues too cryptic. In trying to make a memorable association for the state, you can end up developing a connection that is very hard to remember. For example, by the time I reach Chandler’s room in my Friends memory palace I end up with him bragging to me that he had sex with a prostitute last night. On my mental walk through this evening I knew that this was the case, that she was from Kansas, and that her head would then peek out from under the covers revealing her actual identity to be wispy-haired Bruce Dern (Nebraska), but I did not make the earlier prostitute-connection of Idaho being “I’d a ho”. So check that your associations are strong.
6. If the room turns out to be too small for all the states, move through to another one that you will remember is connected to the first. This is a much better solution that trying to squeeze more memorable locations into a small room, which just results in a mess of forgotten features. So don’t be afraid to expand; it’s your memory palace and it doesn’t need to make architectural sense, as long as you can remember what leads to where.
7. Don’t take short cuts near the end of your journey. By the time I reached the last five states I struggled to remember them because their corresponding locations were weak. In the Friends layout I have been all the way around Joey and Chandler’s flat, then all the way around Rachel and Monica’s by this point, before heading out into the hall and stopping at the top of the stairs. The locations are memorable, but my connections need improving. So don’t rush the last states – you need to develop sensations that are just as memorable here or you’ll get stuck.
8. Regularly return. You need to walk through the room several times before the memory sticks, and then occasionally stop by a week later and a month after that. To keep the memory fresh – and this is where I went wrong – you need to do mental walkthroughs every now and then.
That’s an introduction to the memory palace technique and it has worked well for me. It really is good fun when you make an absurd or disgusting connection, so it’s a much more powerful memory aid than rote learning. I highly recommend that Derren Brown book if you want to know more.
You’ll notice that by laying the states out in a journey we have already ordered them by size. You could have sorted them alphabetically, but in my next post I will show how a pretty simple trick allocates numbers to each state so that you can jump straight to the 42nd largest state, Maryland, without having to walk through all the preceding ones. I will also explain why Maryland is one of my favourite states, once the numbering system is added. As a teaser, it features Ron Weasley sitting in a comfortable chair while strippers dressed as the virgin Mary dance all around him.
If you go to a Cineworld cinema more than about twice a month it is worth getting a Cineworld Unlimited card, but at £15.90 per month (£18.90 if you want to include London’s West End), with membership having to be for at least a year, it is still quite an expensive commitment. If you don’t mind not being able to go on weekends, check out my post on cheap cinema with BAFTA membership. Otherwise, using Tesco Clubcard Boost you can make a pretty impressive saving on the year’s Unlimited membership. This deal will give you access to all UK Cineworld’s except London West End ones, any day of the week.
How much will it cost?
In exchange for £96 in clubcard vouchers, Tesco will give you one year’s Cineworld membership. £96 pounds in clubcard vouchers is loads, and I can’t use this deal because I haven’t spent enough. Spending £1 in Tesco gets you 1 point, and 100 points gives you £1 to spend in Tesco. It’s not going to be worth heading out right now to fill a trolley up with the most expensive things you can find, Supermarket Sweep-style, but if you are in a large household and have a lot of points with Tesco it’s worth considering. If you don’t want to go for the full year’s unlimited membership you can convert £4 of vouchers into a single adult ticket, or £3 for a child’s.
How much will I save?
It depends how often you go. I have made an ugly graph that shows how the savings stack up the more you go. With normal adult tickets costing £8, dropping to £7.20 if you book online, it takes 27 weeks to start saving with normal Unlimited membership if you go once a week. This drops to just 14 weeks with the clubcard deal. Over 52 visits the price per film drops to the equivalent of £3.67 and £1.85 respectively. There’s no reason you need to stop at averaging one film a week – you can even do a cinema day just going into back to back screenings if you want. Choose wisely though, as Divergent followed by Noah was a bit of a slog for me.
I spent a while on that rather uninformative graph, so it’s going in the post. Please ignore the box that mentions vertical gridlines – oops.
Unlimited passes also work with Orange Wednesday, so you can bring someone to the cinema with you on Wednesdays, which makes the savings huge.
What does Cineworld Unlimited membership give you?
You can go as many times as you like to see 2d films. It costs extra to see IMAX screenings, 3d films and opera, theatre, sport, gigs or ballet. The unlimited card entitles you to 10% off the food and drink they sell, which pulls the kiosk prices down slightly. My Cineworld has a Starbucks next to it where the discount also applies, so it’s worth asking where you can get money off. You are also entitled to advance screenings. Blue Ruin is the next one and The Raid 2 was the last – both great films. They also do secret screenings, for which clues are given on Twitter about what will be shown. This is a fun idea, but I have a feeling that Now You See Me was one of them, which would have really disappointed me as it was awful.
Are you eligible for premium membership?
When you have been an unlimited member for a year you are upgraded to a premium membership that lets you see 3d films for free and the food and drink discount increases to 25% (excludes Starbucks). One problem that I have looked into is that the Tesco clubcard deal can’t give you a rolling membership, so you are basically quitting and then reapplying for membership again if you use the Tesco deal. However, I have confirmed with the Cineworld Unlimited team that it is possible to start a new membership and have the account upgraded to premium by contact the helpdesk providing the old membership number and the new one. It’s probably worth contacting them first though. This will ensure that you keep the 25% discount and the free 3d access.
Other leisure news
My recent short story adventures of a posh guy shifted my blog from giving you leisure tips to trying to entertain you, dear reader. It seems that my success in both fields can no longer be questioned as, despite having only been around for a year, this blog has enjoyed influence at a national level, contrary to the suggestions of my low hit-counts. British women have been crowned the leisure queens of Europe. A report by the OECD found that they spend an average of 339 minutes a day relaxing – 61% more than the Chinese. This includes 126 minutes watching TV, and 87 minutes seeing friends. Why my blog has not had a similar impact on British men I don’t know.
I had a mild-weathered winter and people are always complaining about how long the shops are decorated for before the Christmas holiday. If you were disappointed by the reverse-Narnification of the festive period (always Christmas, never winter), you might enjoy my story. This is the third and final part – sorry it’s taken so long. I recommend starting from the first part, but it should be ok on its own.
When I feel like things are going against me I always remember my old friend Hugo Cooping-Whough’s father; probably the most stubborn and long-suffering man who ever lived. If you consider a man’s life as the ascent of a hill, with each adversity he encounters being a patch of bad weather or a steep incline, at the end of which he rests at the summit, watches the sunset, and drifts off in death, then Cooping-Whough Senior’s life was the longest, hardest slog ever embarked upon. The foothills of his first 30 years were gentle enough, but after that came over half a century of rain-lashed belaying. As far back as I can remember the man seemed close to the end. At more than a dozen points of his journey we nodded sagely about the quality of his innings, only to find him at a false summit at which he would pause briefly for a generous go at his hip flask before continuing up the mountain, or went on batting, depending on which metaphor you are following. He never once complained, to my knowledge, even after losing both legs to gout. You probably know enough of me to understand that, if life gives me lemons, I make vats of G&T. Well, life gave Coops a ton of them, and he chose to grapple with Life and hold it down by the neck before squeezing every last lemon into its eye.
If there is an afterlife, heaven help its residents, because old man Cooping-Whough was the most contrary man I ever met; he could have started a brawl in a nunnery. Once, after one of his many health scares, the family started to worry about inheritance and brought someone in to help him with his finances. Everything went well until the man, encouraging Coops to pass on his assets for tax purposes, stupidly said “You can’t take it with you.” Well, using the ‘C’ word with Coops was like a red rag to a right-wing bull, and he was bound to charge full throttle into whatever you told him was forbidden. With his heart now set on taking his money with him in death, but knowing that being buried with it risked exhumation, he looked into being burned on a cash pyre. Being informed that it was illegal to destroy the pound, he managed to convert his wealth into 150 million francs and would have gone through with the thing, I’m sure, if yours truly hadn’t stepped in. But that’s another story. The point is that I was lucky enough to have learned endurance from the best, and the memory of Coops’ almost pathological stubbornness has frequently given me strength when I have foolishly embarked on a boat journey up Fecal Creek with a powerful, but only half-submerged, outboard motor – messy.
This was just the sort of situation I found myself in. Uncomfortably hot, tired, and dangling above Santa’s grotto with what I suddenly realised was a formidable tinsel wedgie, the thought of Coops was exactly what I needed to extract myself, so to speak. With a huge effort I managed to swing to the side of the hole, where I could untangle the festive harness. In the corner of my eye I noticed the staff of Run 4 It, whose deadly pursuit seemed to have stopped at the threshold of the grotto. They were lined up at the white picket fence I had charged through and they still looked pretty eager to mess me up. I decided to avoid them and continue my lap of the shopping centre by trundling through another wall of the grotto – these things really are poorly constructed.
I set a pretty good pace while my hunters followed, and as I ran I thought about everything that had happened. I took it that the people at my heels were some kind of minions and my mind wandered to their master. The magnitude of what I had done dawned on me. I had killed Santa. My nephews and nieces would be livid. Perhaps one day I would be able to explain to them the depths of his depravity. But soon I questioned whether I would even be able to tell anyone? The man clearly had connections, running his operation from a popular retail outlet. I began to see that he was much more than a sweatshop manager. Yes, he was a mass-producer of toys soaked in the blood of elf-fingers and he must have had his hands in the pockets of big business, but he was more than that. He was a governmental instrument- a figurehead of consumerism who would indoctrinate the youth into a life of buying that would maintain a healthy economy. He was the bloated pound sign in a banker’s eye, with every lender reaping the rewards of a culture that expects mummy and daddy to borrow money to buy little Jimmy what he wants. Worse still, he was a religious tool; Christianity’s marketing creation for the commercialisation of a spiritual holiday. Satan Claus. Our Father Christmas. This went all the way to the top.
I continued to puff on my pipe (still going from earlier) as the depths of this conspiracy became clear to me, and I decided I should never tell anyone. Maybe the point was moot anyway – he seemed to be just the sort of figure one reads about in the history books: the kind of tyrant who is replaced before he has even been buried. By this time I had completed a whole lap of the shopping centre and was happy to pass the refreshments stand again. One down the hatch, one on the thatch, and I was just starting to think that I could get used to this jogging malarkey when the fire alarm went off.
My plan was working – the pipe smoke had set off the alarms and I took a chance on the exit doors being automatically unlocked. I sprinted towards the nearest one and launched myself into it, with Santa’s helpers in hot pursuit. I was surprised and a little disappointed to find myself exploding through the glass door, making the entire plan to deactivate the locks unnecessary. On the plus side, the door did open, so it was a success.
Outside the shopping centre, slowing down to a jog amongst the tinkle of glass, I took a deep breath of the cool night air. The street was empty, and looked quite beautiful under the Christmas lights. A light snow was falling and about an inch already lay on the ground, which I took great pleasure in crunching my way through. Behind me, the staff of Run 4 It stood at the threshold of the shopping centre, unable to cross the border. My ordeal was over. I strolled to the Land Rover feeling tired but cheerful, and quite ready to head home. The drive was tricky, as I attempted it using only my good foot, and with the vehicle of course being manual transmission, me being neither disabled nor American.
Back on home turf I felt jolly good hearing the chink of an icy tumbler in my hand. The loss of my umbrella was lamentable, as, of course, was the savage murder I had committed, but all in all I was pretty happy with the shopping trip. I had got a good bit of exercise and gained the desired pair of trainers (which, despite good intentions, were not actually to be used again).
* * *
Nearly twelve months later, I was sitting by the fire on Christmas Eve having a snack. The exercise plan had not worked out so well and I was around 17 stone, although I had a sneaking suspicion that a significant amount of muscle lay under my cushiony exterior. Checking my watch, I realised that it was on the blink again, and I was too late for a drinks party to even be fashionably late, so I decided to have a little party of my own. Heading into the kitchen to fetch a bottle to top up my whisky, I thought about what would happen in the morning. How many people would go without presents this Christmas because of me? Should I have let the old man live? There’s no doubt that he brought joy to many, even if they had no idea what the truth was.
After rummaging around in the kitchen for a while I accepted that I had no more whisky and the shops were shut so I returned to the sitting room, dispirited, to finish my dram. Opening the door I sensed that something was up. The fire was roaring, and leading to and from the hearth was a dirty great trail of sooty footprints. My heart was pounding as I looked at the coffee table to confirm my worst fears. The mince pies were gone and next to the spread of crumbs was my tumbler… he had drained every last drop of it.
It’s been out since September 2013, but I have only just completed the main story of GTA V, so here’s my review. The range of things you can do in Rockstar’s latest Grand Theft Auto game is amazing and it’s packed with great satire that will entertain you for ages. I have played for 32 hours to finish the main story, but I have really only scratched the surface, having barely tried the online version, and with the single-player game being far from over when the main story is complete. I still have 30% of the missions to do, and that’s not even mentioning the time I can spend just wondering around Los Santos, the intricately created city the game takes place in.
What’s it like?
It’s a third person action game set in an open world. Los Santos is based on L.A. and is full of characters and companies that satirise that city. Celebrity culture, intrusive social media, money-obsession, shrinks for the self-involved, shallow creative industries, pretty much everything is fair game to have fun poked at it in GTA V. Switching between three men with varied backgrounds, you basically try to pull off heists and survive while making as much cash as possible. The controls are excellent and you are free to go wherever you want in almost any way you want (although I really suck at landing helicopters).
This is the first GTA that I have properly played. In the first game, released in 1997, I just drove around trying to mow down as many Hare Krishnas as possible. Later games I dabbled with, setting the police ‘wanted’ level to max and then seeing how long I could survive. I am glad to have properly played this one because I really liked the script. You get to know the three protagonists and there is some very funny dialogue in the cut scenes, which prevented me from zoning out, which I am liable to do. Avoiding my old technique of annoying the cops until they shoot me also meant I was free to drive around the city listening to the radio – hours of fun from the 15 radio stations with amusing talk shows and classic music.
It also looks great. I came into it still feeling pretty emotional and amazed from completing The Last of Us, so wasn’t optimistic about starting GTA V. It won me over quickly though when I sat in the ferris wheel and watched the sun set over Los Santos – beautiful lighting and the movement is very smooth.
Is it offensive?
If you’re asking this question, then the answer is probably ‘Yes, it is offensive’. People seemed very concerned yet again that it was possible in GTA to have sex with a prostitute in your car, then kill her and take your money back. I was a paragon of virtue playing this game, paying for the full works and then letting her walk free. Seriously though, the point of the game is partly to shock and offend and every vice that Rockstar write into the game is done with a sardonic smile. In one mission I had to torture a guy and was given full marks for my performance because I used every tool at my disposal. Normally I would think that the scene would have a liberal message about the inefficacy of torture, but he gives useful information. That’s the most controversial bit in the game and I don’t know what I think of it.
Will this make people unhinged? No. I don’t think that having a virtual ability to carry out terrible acts of violence blurs the line between fiction and reality enough to progress to real crime. I think the point of the game is to achieve a kind of pure escapism, where you can do whatever you want and be as self-involved as you want. Los Santos is a playground where you can do anything at any time, but the absurdity of the caricatured world separates it from real life.
Rockstar considered GTA V as a spiritual successor to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, which is one of my favourite games of all time. Red Dead was like GTA in the wild west (swap cars for horses) and a comparison of the two games is interesting. The wide open spaces and fabled lawlessness of the American Frontier in 1911 was just as free a sandbox for me, but the way I played the game was totally different. I was determined to be a good man in Red Dead, surrounded by the potential of a changing country. I once pressed the wrong button near a character, which knocked him off his horse and counted as theft. I was so annoyed at my crime that I turned the console off before it could save the game. Strolling around as John Marston your character would great strangers with ‘Hey, friend.’ Fast forward 100 years and grand theft auto (the crime) is nothing to me. Other people are an inconvenience and I sometimes run them over without noticing. If someone turns at a junction that I have run a red light at, I blame them for the crash. The selfishness that is encouraged in GTA V is part of a brilliantly written game that shows how, despite living closer together than ever, we have never been so self-involved. The American dream has become a nightmare. You play a self-made man whose success is entirely at the cost of his neighbour. This may not have been done knowingly, but the fact that Rockstar wrote morality into Red Dead, so that people behaved differently around you according to your behaviour, while nothing like that exists in GTA, means that the implication is there anyway.
GTA On mobile
You can download the iFruit app for smart phones and take your gaming mobile. Here you can modify your cars and play three mini-games that train your dog so that he is better behaved in the game. I didn’t find the games to be very addictive, but played them and the tamagotchi-style care section, binning his crap and feeding him until he had learned all the tricks. I haven’t played it since. Modifying cars is easy and quite useful.
A great game. Hours of fun and something in there for everyone. Costing almost as much as a Hollywood blockbuster, I’m glad that it made $1 billion in just three days – computer games can compete with cinema. Now we just have to hope that those guys in Los Santos don’t highjack the medium and churn out unimaginative crap…
I turned and ran. The pain in my crushed foot was bad, but not unbearable if I hobbled in the right way, and I was given further impetus on realisation that the staff were in pursuit and carrying huge shoehorns, sharpened like machetes, that shimmered in the Christmas lights of the shopping centre.
I set a pretty lumbering pace and, turning my head occasionally, was pleased to see that my pursuers were nowhere near their top speed, and intended to give chase partly for sport. Well, I can’t say I wasn’t scared, but chubby here can handle a bit of discomfort, and any chance to come up with a plan is always welcome.
I had turned right after leaving the shop and could see already that all the other customers had left and the exit in front of me was shut. I was forced to follow the shops around to the left to check for another way out, or reach someone who could help, but first found myself near the sports shop, which had a collection of cheap socks and balls in cages outside it. Jogging past, I grabbed a rugby ball and pivoted on my bad foot, giving the thing an almighty thwack in the direction of the staff with my left (technically also my bad foot, but needs must). I paused just long enough to see it hit the man who had stood in the storeroom doorway to watch me escape. It hit him square on the nose with such force that his head lurched backwards while his legs went about three feet up in the air in front of him. I was delighted and doubted he would stay in pursuit.
After another 60 or 70 yards I had worked up quite a sweat and a thirst, what with the blasts of heat from every shop and all my tweed, so I was pretty glad to run past the whisky store. A stand had been left outside it with little paper cups full of samples. I could tell from a distance it was a blend, but I’m not one to just sniff at ‘em, so I grabbed a couple on the way past, and a bottle, for good measure(s). Still jogging, I necked one paper cup on the spot and threw the other over my head to clean the gash the shelf had made, which was still bleeding. Pretty tasty stuff, and I’d have liked to have savoured the bottle, but thought it wiser to tuck my hanky into the end, light it, and Molotov the gap between me and my pursuers. I still wasn’t yet sure if I wanted to harm them outright if I could avoid it (aside from the rugby ball, which was just good fun) so I torched the ground behind me, assuming they’d give up. I slowed down a bit, partly to see what they would do, and partly to watch the flames, thinking it better to enjoy the show if I was going to waste a cocktail. I was quite shocked when five of them came through the fire, having not even changed pace. This worried me. Some of them were now running in flaming shell-suits and didn’t even seem to notice. I decided to speed up.
The shops curved round to the left again and my next possible exit was at the end of the straight. By this point my lungs were really burning and my spit was like bloody glue – not unexpected, given that I hadn’t run anywhere since school, but I was disappointed that the taste of whisky had been so brief. I got the feeling that I wouldn’t be able to keep this up much longer and would soon be dragging my feet and stopping for breathers with nothing in the tank for a fight. Then I had another brainwave: this was a hole I would have to dig my way out of.
Now, my local shopping centre banned smoking in 1992 as a sort of experiment into health benefits, despite my campaigning and numerous suggested solutions (pump menthol fag smoke through the shops to counter the bad stuff, ban non-smokers, designate small areas where smoking is frowned upon, etc), but I realised now that the absurd policy might be good in this one instance. I had a feeling that the exits would open automatically if I set off the smoke alarms, so I took out my pipe, filled it and lit it, while on the run. This took no small amount of dexterity and concentration and was achieved while looking over my shoulder half the time to see if I was being gained on.
As I ran I felt myself getting hotter, though I thought nothing of it, assuming the running and the tweed were to blame. Drawing my first puff of the pipe I turned to face forward properly and set myself to a good session of running and smoking, but was shocked to find myself crashing through a small white picket fence. The thing yielded to my bulk like it was made of cardboard, and failed to slow me down at all. In the split second that I realised I was in the shopping centre’s atrociously twee ‘Santa’s Grotto’ I also knew that I would not be able to stop before blundering through the snowy cottage itself, and so committed myself to charging straight through the whole scene.
The building didn’t offer much more resistance than the fence and as soon as I penetrated the hut I felt as if I had hit a wall of heat – it must have been the source of the entire shopping centre’s oppressive warmth. Unable to stop myself, I charged onward until the ground gave way beneath my feet and I was only prevented from falling by a lucky tangle that I had got myself into with several lengths of tinsel that decorated the cottage. Underneath me was a sight I will never forget: through a crumbled-edged hole of about three yards in diameter was a drop of maybe forty yards and then a Great Lake of fire bubbling and spitting around scorched rock.
For a time I could concentrate on nothing but the unbearable temperature and the sweat running in my eyes, but after a short while I thought I could see life down there. Thousands of small people were running, their little feet powering treadmills that carried items of some description along them. Thousands of similar beings stood to the side of the conveyor belts and made repetitive motions with whatever was coming their way. I couldn’t see their faces, but I sensed that the poor creatures were not dissimilar from humans and that each one was tired beyond description. As my eyes followed this hellish production line, they settled on an enormous being on a raised section of igneous rock. A small worker was talking to him timidly and holding a long piece of paper.
“Once?” boomed the huge being, who I took to be the leader of the operation, “Check it AGAIN!” With that the tyrant gave an almighty swing of his fist catching the little employee with the back of his hand and sending him flying. He let out a round-mouthed laugh so empty of joy that it chilled me to my soul while my skin burned. I knew then that he was real. It was that shady old man Claus.
I had taken in enough of the scene now and knew that I had to do something. I have never tolerated a bully and this oaf had me shaking with anger. “I say!” I said, immediately disappointed that something more assertive hadn’t come out. I was about to follow it up with some withering put-down when he turned to face me and I was completely silenced. His pale facial hair looked to be singed by the fires, but still intact, and his complexion was even redder than my own, although patched with soot, but it was his eyes that were most memorable.
Once our gazes met, I could not look away and I sensed that he was looking not just at me but through me; into me. He riffled through my memories, my emotions, my whole life. More than that, he picked out the decisions I had made and the intentions of my actions as if he was leafing through some ephemeral book. He lingered on events that embarrassed me and scrutinised my selfish character. Eventually he looked at choices I made earlier in my life that sometimes keep me up at night and which I regret deeply. As I felt him withdraw from my mind I sensed that I had been judged and found wanting. He had shown me the many flaws in my character and I felt utter misery take over. I became dimly aware that nothing he had seen in my mind was new to him, and that he could, and had, entered it at will without my knowledge. To this day I sometimes lie in bed and wonder whether I would rather be watched over while asleep or in my waking hours.
I was in a terrible rut at this point and felt absolutely pathetic and ashamed from the telepathic experience, such that I may never have had the self-respect to make any decisions again had my eye not fallen on the little worker who had been struck. He looked so helpless and defeated that some agency within me stirred. A battle took place between my cowardice, telling me that I was good for nothing and that any intervention would be done selfishly, and a sense that the injustice below me could not be ignored. Forming fists to steel my resolve, I found my left hand tightening around my umbrella. It has been my good fortune after many lost brollies that I can now quite unconsciously hold onto one for dear life, apparently even in such grueling ordeals as this. I felt the weight of it and passed it to my good hand. Still dangling from the tinsel, I drew back my arm and let the thing fly straight towards Claus. Without footing I hadn’t really expected it to go far or fast, but I had really unleashed my full force, so worried that the throw might go completely wayward. I was wrong. It made a beeline straight for the old man’s barrel chest and he barely had time to look surprised before it had plunged right through his solar plexus with a kind of schlocking noise. It lodged half-way to the handle in there, dripping blood from its tip. After about a second he collapsed to the ground, his wide eyes staring up at me as a small wave of dust plumed out around him over the jagged rock. No time to think about what I had done, I set myself to the escape plan again…
This is the first part of a three-part short story that I have been writing over Christmas. I hope you enjoy it! It will get more Christmassy later on.
I’m not insane. If the events that follow seem impossible or overly-embellished, I can offer no further corroboration of my story’s truth than the facts herein, and only include the more subjective observations in the hope that, walking a mile in my shoes, you might know me better and trust me. I do not share my story for fortune or fame – the first of which I have, the second of which I don’t desire – and I promise that telling it causes me great discomfort, but I do so in the hope that believers and non-believers alike will think twice before they walk blindly into a similar situation, while warning the nay-sayers that the tapestry of horrors that I weave does not require their belief for it to smother them, and even a man of science ought to think twice before dismissing such terrors, so tread lightly reader, for you tread on my nightmares. I’ll also try to keep the sentences punchy.
Christmas of ’94 had been a particularly unhealthy one, with even more drinking, eating and smoking than usual, and my weight had crept up past my self-imposed upper limit of 16 st 8. Compounding the problem, I had achieved such levels of inactivity over the holiday that my motion-powered watch was running slow. Finding myself frequently too late to set out on my engagements, I settled into a downward spiral of lethargy that had to be stopped. I have no memory now of how the limit of 16 st 8 was ever selected, but by mid-January I was feeling every ounce of it, and decided to do something to get in shape, or as far from being out of it as possible.
Although I spend most of my time on the estate, occasional trips into the city keep me in touch with trends, and for about ten years I had noticed smartly dressed commuters finishing off a pretty nice suit with a pair of trainers – really embracing the rat race. At the same time, more and more people had a bottle of water constantly to hand – seems the human body nowadays needs constant hydration. For whatever reason, when I started planning to clean out the old lungs, jogging came to mind and I headed into town to get all the necessary kit.
The January sales were still doing well, unfortunately, so the shopping centre was quite mobbed, which only added to the uncomfortable heat every store seemed to be blasting over the flocks of thick-coated customers (is that hyphen in the right place?). I got most of the running gear from a cheap sports shop, but thought it worth buying quality for the shoes, so I headed to ‘Run 4 It’ around five thirty to buy some trainers, after which I planned to call my healthy work done for the day and head home for drinks o’clock.
I generally don’t like shops that use numbers as words, but Run 4 It looked alright, although they were charging obscene amounts for cotton/polyester blends. I doffed my cap to the staff and browsed for a bit, swinging my umbrella and prodding air bubbles. Eventually I stopped to listen to an employee telling a friendly looking woman that the water bottle she was holding was expensive but necessary, with the ergonomic grip making it easy to carry while jogging.
‘HAH!’ I barked, a little louder than I meant to, ‘No need for that madam, I’m sure the opposable thumbs will do the trick.’
The salesman looked at me with disgust, and I wondered if I was the first person in the shop to be dressed head to toe in tweed. The customer seemed grateful for the confidence my opinion gave her and decided against the bottle, after which the man turned to me and asked, rather aggressively, if he could help. I explained my situation and was told that they would measure my feet, help select shoes, and then check my running style.
By this time all the other customers had left the shop and its metal shutter was lowered half way down to prevent anyone wandering in. I felt bad about keeping the staff late, but they all seemed eager to help, so I resolved to buy shoes, whatever happened. The six lean employees of Run 4 It were surprisingly keen for me to put my foot in the measuring device, which should have been my first sign that something was off. They even helped me take my shoes off, which didn’t strike me as strange; probably because I was so preoccupied with the state of my socks, which were both comprised mainly of holes.
I put my right foot into the gap in the machine and watched the steel blocks slide towards it. Every pair of eyes in the room was on my foot, and as the cold metal touched my skin I knew something was up. The dial correctly read my shoe size as 11, with a width of H, whatever that means, but the machine didn’t stop there; the panels tightened and angled so that I couldn’t pull my foot out.
The staff looked excited now and I began to panic, feeling the squeeze on my foot and noticing the dial go down to 10G. “Oy!” I shouted, “Stop that thing!” The staff smiled vacantly and did nothing, before filing out the back door of the shop into the storeroom. I fell back onto my hands and started yanking, but it wouldn’t budge, and after about 20 seconds the pressure was too much; with a huge crunch I felt the bones give. It was agony, and every attempt I made to pull my foot out brought with it a wave of intense pain.
As the clamp tightened I started to hallucinate, losing perspective at times while I shifted my weight and sucked through my teeth. Pausing to dab my brow with a handkerchief I realised to my horror that I was lucid and the shifts in perspective were not in my imagination. Looking at a corner of the room I could see that, slowly, the walls of the shop were moving inwards like the machine that was crushing my foot. Racks were falling off the walls and I was hit by some of the merchandise. I recall absent-mindedly noting how impressively light the trainers were as they bounced off my forehead, before a metal shelf gashed my head quite badly.
When my foot reached size 8 and the room had lost about a metre in length and width I had a brief moment of clarity. I grabbed one of the shop’s many water bottles that had fallen off the shelf in my direction and was glad to notice that it was full. Shifting my weight slightly so that I could see the plug of the foot-measuring machine, I squirted the water bottle at the socket. My hands were terribly sweaty, and I was worried that I would drop the thing, but I have to say I was slightly miffed to find that the ergonomic grip really did the trick. I hit the plug and fused the machine. I was jolly pleased with myself, even though my foot felt like it was on fire.
I freed myself from the contraption and struggled to my feet, heading straight for the door and hurriedly putting on a pair of running shoes that had fallen near me. Doing a little roll underneath the shop’s shutter, my flat cap came off and I had to sheepishly lean back in to grab it. A member of staff was at the storeroom door looking dazed but angry, and I, realising that the roll had probably not been necessary, blushed a little, though it was probably lost in my naturally ruddy complexion. I was out, but not safe yet…
Find out what happens in part 2 here
On Monday 2nd December at 2.30am a great tv show will be repeated on Challenge. First aired in 2004, Britain’s Hardest was a ten episode competition to find the toughest man around through a series of strange challenges. It was cancelled after its first series, and is now shown every so often at times that make it hard to stumble across. Set your TiVo now, cos you’re in for a treat.
The show starts with some heavy guitar riffs and jerky camera work as Ian ‘The Machine’ Freeman asks if you ‘want some’ before attacking the camera, his fist clearly stopping before the lens. I can only assume that if any damage had been done to the photographic equipment, the entire show would have had to be canned for budgetary reasons before a single episode was filmed.
It sets the tone for the entire competition, which has impressively cheap production values. Filmed in a disused warehouse and requiring little in terms of set, the ‘hardness’ of the show is reinforced by the cold, empty setting, I suppose. Many events are started by the throwing of a glass bottle, which shatters on the ground, signalling the men to go. Wasteful and unnecessarily ‘hard’, the footage is at least clearly reused every time, to save on cleaning up.
Before men start battling to find which of them is ‘hardest’ – an amusing reoccurring priapic reference in the series – the competition is explained by Steve McFadden, who is tough because he played Phil Mitchell in Eastenders. Strolling slowly towards the camera with his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, Steve sombrely warns you how dangerous everything is. He explains that the show is an underground competition, in which 6 men cancel each other out, till only one remains. The last man standing goes through to the final, with a shot at the title and the chance to take home £10,000 in cash. Glottal stops abound. Tragically, the title was only achieved once, because Britain’s Hardest never got a second series.
Ian ‘The Machine’ Freeman co-hosts and is introduced in various ways as a cage fighter. He frequently tells the competitors things like ‘You’re here because you think you’re hard, I’m here because I am hard’.
The events challenge the men’s strength, but are also quite tactical, so that often the strongest man will fail by poor strategy. Here are some of the events they participate in:
– Pull a heavy chain along the floor
– Stop a car from rolling down a slowly steepening slope by pushing against it
– Smash up a car until it can be pushed under a pole
– Smash up a concrete block with a sledgehammer (many tough guys don’t know how to lift a hammer and so tire themselves out)
– Sit with your head in a box that slowly fills up with water until you quit
– Sit with your head in a box that slowly fills up with sand until you quit
– Dangle upside down while you are dunked in water until you quit
– Smash your way through 10 doors to the finish line.
This last event is my personal favourite. Steve tells the men that they can use their feet, their hands or their head, which, incredibly, some do. I don’t believe any man tries a handle in the entire series. Catch the first episode, because the makers seriously misjudged the hardness of their contestants and chose a realistically strong type of wood – several men fail to get through a single one.
After each event Ian ‘The Machine’ Freeman gives the losers the bad news once he has let them stew for a while like Anne Robinson. The silences in his delivery initially seem like the tension-building speech of a skilful host who has the audience in the palm of his hand, but it soon becomes apparent that he is a no-holds-bard.
When most people have been kicked out, the top three contestants have time to smack-talk each other. These men, like Ian ‘The Machine’ Freeman, were chosen for their hardness, not their eloquence and wit, which can make the face-to-face scenes great fun. Here’s a memorable bit: “They say the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and you’re a lightweight.”
Finally, the last two contestants fight topless on a podium. Punches can only be to the torso, kicks are not allowed, and the men are not trained in grappling, so this is normally a disappointment. Overall though, I love this show, and not entirely in a studenty, sarcastic, so-bad-it’s-good way: I really enjoy it. In fact, when I first stumbled across an episode I searched for a DVD of it – no luck. Then I looked for a torrent of it – no luck. Then I set a reminder with LocateTV.com so that I get an email any time it is aired. My TiVo now has the whole series and I will be stuck with the same virgin media box for all time, being unwilling to lose the hard drive and risk the classic competition never being shown again.