Sunday, April 3, 2022

What Have I Come Upstairs For? The Memory Game

Zoë Sharp

I would be the first to admit that I have a dreadful memory. Faces? No problem. I even recognised an old colleague from a local paper we briefly worked for in northern England thirty years ago, who I spotted sitting on a bench at a theme park in Florida, so not quite in context. But names? Hopeless. I regularly go upstairs and forget what it is I went for. And shopping without a list is a nightmare.

So, I was intrigued to be recently re-reading Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown and come across the section on dramatically improving your memory. Derren Brown, for those of you who are not aware of him, is part illusionist, part psychologist, and all showman. The Guardian newspaper described him as, "Clearly the best dinner-party guest in history – he’s either a balls-out con artist or the scariest man in Britain." His various TV series over here have dumbfounded and entertained in equal measure, and while the rather knowing style of his book took a bit of getting used to, the information contained in it is just fascinating.

And why is this relevant here? Because, if I understand him correctly and extrapolate accordingly, fiction writers should have the best memories ever. Elephants should be as fickle goldfish compared to us lot.

Why? Because we exercise our imaginations on a regular basis.

Ye-es, it foxed me to begin with, but stick with me on this one, OK? And do give this a whirl. I tried the example in the book and was amazed that it worked flawlessly.

Making a List

You see, Brown claims that most people, given a list of twenty disparate, unconnected words, can recall about seven with any degree of accuracy. He gave such a list and suggested that you read it through, and then try and jot down as many as you can recall, in the same order. I took the liberty of substituting my own words. Or, rather, so I wasn’t subconsciously picking words that I might find easy to remember, I asked someone else to do provide the list for me. And here they are:




















So, having read through them, look away from the screen and try and write them down, in the same order they’re listed here. How did you do? If you got past seven, you’re Marvo the Memory Man and you don’t need to read any further. Put it aside for a bit, and then try again, without re-reading the list, but in reverse order this time. Ah, now that’s a stumper, isn’t it?

How it’s done, according to Brown’s method, is create a link from one word to the next by producing an image that connects the words. A vivid image, with smells and emotions attached to it. If the image is of something that stinks, sniff it. If it’s funny, find it so.

The more Daliesque and surreal, the better.

The elements need to interact in some way, and each little scene needs to be odd enough to be memorable. Some people, apparently, don’t like visualisation and claim not to be very good at it, but we’re writers, for heaven’s sake. We spend our days making stuff up – that’s what we do.

So, here’s my own list of connections between the above words:


A group of Edwardians in striped blazers and straw boater hats, riding along on their bicycles, very slow and stately, but in case of rain they all have cabriolet tops they can raise over their heads, with big curved hinges on the sides like an old-fashioned pram, and tassels along the front.


A nice little VW Cabriolet, gleaming in white, all colour-coded, and when you climb inside it’s still white like you’re sitting in your fridge, with wire racks and dairy products on the shelves and a light that comes on when you open the door. There’s a big bottle of milk strapped to the passenger seat. The air con keeps it frosty cold.


You open the door of your fridge and a rollercoaster track unfurls out of the salad drawer, complete with screaming passengers, and goes careering round the kitchen, making it impossible to sneak down for a midnight snack without waking the entire street.


The farmer next to the amusement park hates the people who ride the rollercoaster making all that racket, so he always drives his muckspreader along the hedge next to the bottom of the first drop, and sprays them all with cow manure as they hurtle past. Particularly nasty if you’ve got your mouth open as you go.


Someone’s come up with a new way of recycling cow manure, which instead of being scattered is reformed inside the muckspreader into neat round pincushions, the size of pillows, which it deposits in a neat orderly row as the farmer drives his tractor through the local ladies’ sewing circle.


The only trouble with the cowpat pincushions is when you stick a pin in them they let out a great cloud of stinking vapour and leak a nasty greeny fluid all over the place, which you have to soak up by putting a blotter under the pincushion wherever you go.


An ingenious murderess decides to soak the blotter on her husband’s desk in hemlock, so he will be gradually poisoned as the hemlock leaches out and into his hands whenever he works late into the night.


The entire cast of a Shakespeare play toast each other with hemlock-laced glasses of wine, thus dying tragically at the end of the first act, not realising that the leading man is a method actor who has genuinely dosed them all with real poison.


Will Shakespeare finds himself momentarily lost for words and invents a new one – thingamabob – which instantly becomes all the rage in Elizabethan England. Queen Elizabeth I instantly demands he produce one, by royal command, and he has to cobble something together or lose his head.


Nonagenarian little old ladies can be easily identified by the fact that they’re each followed about by a thingamabob, which is a little bouncy squeaky thing, like a cross between a space hopper and a tribble, which won’t leave them alone. There they all are in the park, swatting at these troublesome thingamabobs with their umbrellas.


When anybody reaches the ripe old age of 90, their nonagenarian status is celebrated by awarding them a Rolex watch. The only trouble is, it’s a big garish one, plastered with diamonds, and the streets are filled with old folk dressed up in flashy watches and gold chains like gangster rappers.


All Nissan Skyline sports cars comes with a Rolex attached to the front of the bonnet so the driver can time themselves as they lap the Nürburgring in Germany. It’s also used as a means of handicapping the faster ones. The quicker you drive, the bigger watch you have to have, thus not only increasing drag, but also preventing the driver from seeing where they’re going, and slowing them down. At least they know exactly what time they crashed.


As a party trick, someone drives their Skyline around the inside of their filter coffee machine, like a fairground wall of death. Round and round they go, until they’re almost vertical up the sides, kicking up great rooster tails of coffee grounds and leaving tyre tracks in the paper filter.


After heavy rain sluices cauliflowers into the drains, you have to insert big filters to stop them clogging everything up, otherwise they create the most awful stench of rotting vegetation.


When your grandfather gets on a bit and loses his teeth, the only thing he can eat is mulched up very well-pureed cauliflower, which you have to cook for him in giant vats until it goes grey, and then put through a blender, at which point he packs it into his cheeks like a hamster. Grandfathers only have to be fed once a week using this method.


Grandfathers are not acquired in the usual way, but introduced into the family nest like cuckoos, in the hopes that they’ll be cared for like the other family members. Of course, grandfathers can be bigger and more aggressive than other relatives, and often push them out of the nest using their Zimmer frames.


Swiss cuckoo clocks are using tortoises instead of the more traditional birds to call the time. At the top of the hour the doors open and a tortoise emerges, very, very slowly, on the end of a spring. It can take these clocks several days to strike noon and midnight.


To keep your tortoise warm in winter, you cover his shell in carpet, preferably shag pile, so there’s all these tortoises ambling about with multicoloured carpet stuck to their backs.

I have to say that Derren Brown’s own list – and the explanation of the links between the words – was probably much better and far more amusing than my own. But you get the idea. If anyone can come up with sillier or more vivid connections, please feel free. But let me know how you get on. Because, it’s rather nice to know that this fertile imagination we have can be put to other uses, isn’t it?

This week’s Word of the Week is dunkelflaute, (pronounced “dun-kel-flout-er”), which is German for ‘dark doldrums’, but which has been adopted by the renewable energy industry for what happens to electricity output from solar panels when the sun doesn’t shine, or from wind turbines on a still day. It could also be applied to what happens to writers when inspiration fails and the words don’t flow. So much more expressive than plain old ‘writer’s block’.

So, they were muckspreading in the field next to the garden last week,

and Dido clearly has NO common sense!



  1. I read a book in college (good God, 45 years-ish ago) about memory tricks, and this was one of them. For YEARS I could remember my list of words, mostly, and can STILL remember a few of them. It's a technique that CAN work, but you have to work at IT. A similar/related technique for remembering people's names: look at them and find features of them that really stick out, and them make a similarly fantastical image that relates their looks to their name. There was a guy I knew at the time named Dan Sisler (see, I STILL remember, and haven't seen the guy for 45 years!) He was already going bald, had a big, high forehead, and I visualized a frying PAN SIZZLing on his forehead. Worked like a charm.

    1. I love that idea, EvKa, although I fear I'd bump into the gentleman in question at a later date and say, "I remember you. You're Dan Forehead!"

  2. I'm glad that I'm not the only one who can't recall why I came up stairs. Trouble is, I often can't remember why I was downstairs in the first place...

  3. I'm just happy if I can remember where the stairs are....

  4. In 1956, Psychologist George Miller wrote a famous paper "The Magic Number Seven - plus or minus two" describing the limits on human memory. I'm pleased to see that someone has monetised it!
    -- Stan, the educational psychologist!

    My problem is that I never remember to create a mnemonic.