The day I met the memory man

Wednesday afternoon, outside the reading room at the British Museum, I am awaiting the arrival of the World Memory Champion. It's rather exciting. I expect he'll be wearing a velvet waistcoat, possibly a fob watch and almost certainly a wispy little goatee. And even though I know he is from Hertfordshire, I somehow expect him to speak with a Russian lilt.

But when Andi Bell slopes over, I confess I am a little disappointed. He is unassumingly dressed in jeans, a lime green T-shirt and a baseball cap. Nine years ago, Bell, 35, read an article about the famous memoriser Dominic O'Brien. Inspired, he decided that he was simply going to become the best goddamn memoriser in town.

It was a decision that catapulted him from a humdrum existence of "warehouse work, unemployment and misery" into a giddy whirl of playing cards, personal appearances, and television performances. Today, ladies and gentlemen, Bell is going to teach me how to improve my memory. In less than one hour, I will have a working knowledge of the past 1,000 years in history.

We sit in the museum cafeteria. "Right," says Bell, "think of 10 rooms in a building you know very well." I think of the house I grew up in. He tells me we're going to assign a century to each room. "What is your first room?" he asks.

"It's my bedroom, Andi."

"Your bedroom is the 1000s," he says. "Imagine the Battle of Hastings in the middle of the room. Well, not right in the middle, just beyond that, closer to the door."

Immediately before the door I should imagine a water clock to remind me of Su-Sung's invention in China. I've never seen a water clock, so I imagine something which looks a little like a moon dial made of water. Andi then instructs me to imagine a sword, thrust into the doorframe, to represent the beginning of the crusades, at the end of the 11th century.

The 12th century is conveniently situated on the landing. Though to be frank, I'm not too smitten with Thomas à Beckett lounging around on the cusp of the stairs, or Genghis Khan pushing past me as I begin my descent. By the end of the tour, I've got Marco Polo at the bottom of the stairs, Queen Victoria in the pantry and the Mona Lisa in the dining room. Whatever will my mother say?

The basic idea is that you visualise events, and assign them to a particular point in the room, depending upon where they fall in the course of the century; events at the start of a century, such as Michaelangelo's sculpture of David (1501), you will stumble upon as soon as you enter the room, whereas the Spanish Armada (1588) will be floating about your ankles as you leave.

Essentially, the historical events become like furniture - you learn to associate them with a particular room, and location. To me, Mozart now sits, like a sturdy-legged table, in the middle of my kitchen. I have to manoeuvre around him to get to Beethoven. This technique isn't confined to memorising historical data. Bell points out that you can learn a speech by simply visualising a concrete noun from each sentence and putting it in a room. "I have hundreds of rooms and locations all around London," he says, with a swagger.

Bell is a dab hand at memorising playing cards, and for this, he employs a similar technique. "The three of diamonds is always Mozart," he tells me, before divulging that Mozart lives at Tower Bridge. I get a bit lost at this point, and the family to my right stop eating their sandwiches and begin shooting worried glances in our direction.

"A few years ago, if someone had asked me when Joan of Arc had been burned at the stake I might've been 100 years out," Bell confesses. "But I taught myself to have a good memory. There's a technique behind this which is more clever than I am." He shrugs. "I'm just trying to show what's possible with human memory."

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