'When I recite some of these numbers, it hurts'

It's emotionally draining breaking a world record... Tom Morton tells Simon Parry about the pain of reciting pi.

Tom Morton spends six hours a day on his numbers. He reckons he must have written out more than 50 miles of them on the small paper rolls stacked on his desk. He learns and revises by day, and drives a taxi at night. In November, he'll sit down in a hotel suite in Blackpool and attempt to break the British record for reciting pi, the infinite mathematical expression. The record stands at 20,013 decimal places. He reckons it'll take him about seven hours.

Tom Morton didn't realise that his memory was different from anybody else's until he was 20. He had dropped out of college in Northern Ireland and didn't have a job or much enthusiasm for anything. He offered a room in his flat to a Chinese man. "Like me, he was a loner. I liked him because he didn't ask any questions. He had all these memory and concentration studies. I flicked through them once and thought that picture associations were a neat idea." A few months later, he started to see how many car number plates he could remember. When he got home, he found that he could write about 130 of them down. He asked his sister to try. Only then did he realise that he might be different.

He started doing turns in clubs as a memory man. He felt as though finding his memory made sense of how he'd been seeing the world. He moved to Blackpool and on to the hotel circuit, beating calculators, writing backwards, memorising packs of cards in under a minute. But he felt he wasn't getting anywhere. To get into the more lucrative after-dinner market and professional cabaret circuit, he needed a record. "It's a bit like going for a job without qualifications. If I can get this record, it could make all the difference; the Guinness Book of Records is the ultimate calling card."

He thought about tackling the world phone-number record. But the Guinness Book of Records insisted that he learn the same phone numbers as the current world record holder - that meant 15,000 Chinese phone numbers, so he settled on pi.

He feels confident about breaking the record now, but a month ago, he was on the point of packing it in. He learnt about 10,000 numbers and found he couldn't absorb any more. So he rethought his technique.

His mistake was trying to remember the whole number as one continuous image. So he created 20 groups of 1,000 numbers. Each group represents a different journey, such as a tour of Belfast or a cycling holiday he took as a child. As he traces a journey, he picks up the numbers along the route.

To remember the numbers, he built up his own numerical alphabet, linking images to about 150 numbers. Numbers one to 10 are standard rhyming associations: one equals gun, two equals shoe, and so on. But then he goes off into his own associations. For a group of numbers, he creates a cartoon in his mind which he places along the route of the journey. For example, the sequence 0478164378 is located at the Pleasure Beach on his tour of Blackpool: 0 is a unicycle, 78 is a Vauxhall Cavalier (the date of its manufacture), 64 is himself, the year of his birth. So he sees a unicycle riding up the Pepsi Max roller-coaster, meeting four Vauxhall Cavaliers, one of which is knocked down by one Tom Morton, leaving three Vauxhall Cavaliers. He tries to make the images as absurd as possible; they make better mnemonics.

Many journeys are drawn from his past: "It's like driving down a road where you witnessed a fatal accident; you try to avoid it. Well, I can't. I have to relive difficult events. When I recite some of these numbers, it hurts. It's emotionally draining. But then, those numbers are the easiest to remember."

By the end of November, Tom Morton will know whether a year's asceticism will have been worth it. He doesn't entertain the idea of failure, or of making a mistake. Or that it's all a waste of time. His memory now defines him. As he says: "I've got a vast imagination and learning these numbers is a way of controlling it. I can't switch off my memory like a television or a radio. I don't really have a choice." That's why he has already got designs on the world record held by Hideaki Tomoyori of Japan. It stands at 40,000 decimal places.

Suggested Topics
News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

    £300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

    High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

    £70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

    Teaching Assistant

    £50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

    Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

    £400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits