I shared a two-bedroom set with zorac for a year at university; accordingly, I know a great deal about him. Accordingly, this makes me uniquely well-placed to pay tribute to him on his birthday. After all, what else are former flatmates for?
Mark and I met during the first year of our courses at Keble College, Oxford. I was studying Mathematics, he was studying Mathematics and Computation, later dropping the Mathematics half. It also helped that our rooms were situated reasonably close to each other geographically. We went to at least one society together, the Invariant Society, even ending up sharing the single post of computer officer for a while. (It would be possible to get into a load of eight-year-old committee wank about that, but of neither benefit nor interest to anyone.)
Mark was the mathmo I got on with best at Keble, for we shared tastes in computers and games - a certain chairmanly card game, Laser Quest and an inglorious turn in the Oxford Guild of Assassins, as was. He took up a hot tip I offered about which room to select for second year; a slightly impractical choice in that the room had no tap or sink, but it was a large room on a cool circular staircase and - most to the point - next to a bathroom with a very rare bath as opposed to a shower. We saw each other socially a fair amount during the second year and ended up sharing a two-person flat in third year. (As I recall, we were very lucky in this, because we were both unluckily drawn in very low positions on the room ballot; only other people choosing to live out of college got us a place in college at all.)
Third year saw us share a small set with a tiny kitchen, a small bathroom, a micro-hallway and two bedrooms. Due to a confusion, I got the short fat room, coolly numbered 007, and Mark got the long thin room next door. (Easy for others to remember whose room was whose, though I was at my thinnest at that point - a positively light-heavyweight 174 lbs.) We found a division of labour which suited us; Mark cooked the dinners, I did the washing-up. Mark was a significantly better cook than I was a washer-up; the lack of an oven saw his repertoire largely limited to a small number of dishes: pasta bolognaise (excellent, especially with bacon in), curry (superb), chili con carne (brilliant), beef stew (succulent) and pseudo-shepherd's-pie (the latter proving a briefly contentious issue pertaining to the presence or absence of tomato). We didn't eat a vast quantity of vegetables over the year other than tomato and onion.
Our shopping lists were rather repetitive: lots of orange juice, chocolate, chocolate biscuits and yoghurts. The latter of these was due to a national fad of 1996-7, Sainsbury's Reward Points. There were two ways to earn reward points. The slow way was to spend money on groceries, earning one point per whole pound. The fast way was to spend money on certain bonus-point groceries, often racking up 50 or 100 bonus points at a go. Between us we earned slightly over 7,000 Reward Points - that's £7,000 worth of shopping at the old rates - for a cost of possibly a few hundred pounds. I wrote a jolly piece about it at the time. One of the happy memories of the year.
One of the other big influences of the year was the Babylon 5 sci-fi show, whose third series was being broadcast in the UK at the time. I knew that Mark was a big fan, but it was something I hadn't taken much of an interest in. Nevertheless, Mark and his friends intrigued me enough to sit through a 24-hour precis of the first three series for charity, which was entertaining. I watched it, enjoyed it and forgot about it, then woke up one morning six weeks later suddenly needing to know what happened next. (Happily, tapes of the first six episodes of series four had arrived from the USA by that point!) Incidentally, Mark, is this an older version of a familiar face?
The year next to Mark was a lot of fun, all told. A memorably great night was the big election party: maths geeks and Babylon 5 geeks joined together to eat chocolate and celebrate the fall of Tory seat after Tory seat. Mark found his first girlfriend during that year, Jo, a slightly younger mathematician who has since gone off to do exciting things within Operations Research. Jo was very pretty in a sort of "nympho innocent schoolgirl" way with a happy demeanour and creative tastes. I liked her a lot, though I didn't know her particularly well. Mark and Jo made each other happy (meant literally, not euphemistically) for a few years, but it didn't work out and they drifted apart. I'm pleased that (AFAIK) they remain friendly, at least.
Mark remained in Oxford, getting a job at the local ISP and using his excellent sysadmin skills to climb through the ranks to a senior position; the company are very lucky to retain his services and expertise. Mark owns a flat two above a chip shop which he and his family have extensively redecorated and cheered up over the years; Mark's bedroom is a library to be envious of and his hard-earned collection of electronic entertainment is similarly extensive. It's a very large flat for a single man and the years have seen him act as a very generous and gracious host offering kind hospitality. I spent a week in October 1999 at his place; we watched the whole five series of Babylon 5 and the then-four TV movies in six days - between 15 and 16 hours of canon per day for six days in a row. Quite a place to take a holiday.
We've kept in touch every few months since then; we chat on the phone from time to time and I still very much like to see Mark when I'm in the area.
Then, in September 2001, one of our conversations touched by chance on Harry Potter. Knowing Mark to be a fannish type, having discovered he had enjoyed the canon too, I mentioned the existence of fan fiction and pointed him at a number of the safe-bet novel-length stories. (Since then, I have met all but one - two? - of their authors: Barb, Lori, Cassie, Penny and Carole, Ebony, the unmet R. J. Anderson and Heidi.) My comment that Most are a good, meaty length - often more than a work-next-day evening's reading was met with a requisite Tell me about it in connection with Harry Potter and the Psychic Serpent six weeks later. I had hooked Mark on Harry Potter fanfic; a return infestation for the Babylon 5 cultural virus.
Advance to early 2002. It turned out that there were three from the HP_Psych (as was) list to discuss the Psychic Serpent series who happened to be in Oxford; as I would be there for the weekend in a board game context, the men who would become known as malachan, zorac, jiggery_pokery and Keith Fraser met in a pub to chat for a few hours. We had a Keithless second meeting a few weeks later, where the conversation stuttered a little, but the seed was sown. I missed the Chamber of Secrets meet in London, but Mark knew enough people to be hooked. 2003: MacT00bage, Puntt00bage, Nimbus - 2003 and more. The rest, as they say, is history; in fact, the rest has been history for a year and a quarter (less a day).
There have been some points when I've wondered when Mark has been satisfied with his lot in life, but he has enjoyed a great deal of success and deserved all of it due to very hard work and rare smarts. I think his 28th year will go down as having been one of his best; I am thrilled that he has found hermorrine and that the two are making each other very, very happy (again, meant literally). Mark is a thoroughly decent guy; he has proved himself to be a kind, trustworthy, reliable and generous friend. It's a pleasure to know him and I hope his 29th year on this planet is happier, healthier and more prosperous still than those which have come before. Cheers, Mr. J. Have a good one.
Also accordingly, I am in a uniquely well-placed position to... shall we say, dish the dirt upon him as an extra gift for his birthday. After all, what else are former flatmates for?
The sad fact is that there really isn't very much dirt to dish on Mark at all. I would estimate that 80% of this is due to him keeping his nose clean and 20% of this is because I am just lousy at spotting dirt to be accumulated. Nevertheless, here is what I've got. Lie back and think of England, Mark! (I dare say you'll have some tales to tell on October 23rd, should you care to tell them...)
* Mark likes putting wine away and he's rather a capable drinker. It has no effect on him. Spirits? He'll keep up with you and just gets a little more talkative. However, cider? Whoa, Nelly!
* Mark had quite a collection of Sabrina Online comics featuring the titular anthropomorphic skunk printed out and stuck up on his wall throughout the Oxford era. Perhaps this was Amiga loyalism, perhaps it's something more. Frankly this is not very good dirt, though, because (a) there's nothing wrong with Furry comics in the first place, thank you very much, (b) his public pride about this fandom extends to a number of usericons and (c) they happen to be really rather good fun anyhow. Ahem.
* The most frequently-spun disc (er, tape) on the Rigby-Jones sound system of autumn '96 was "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls. In an ironic, processed-pop-hating student fashion, of course. Deeply embarrassing now, unless you're prepared to accept the truth that it's a fine bouncealong fun song and the best one that the Spice Girls ever did. Again, not really great dirt, is it?
* For Mark's 22nd birthday, he asked for - and received - a particular toddlers' toy train. The context is critical here; this was no ordinary toy train, it was The Ickle Train as played with every week on TFI Friday. Is this dirt? Only the context can fully determine.
* * It was a little kids' toy with no educational value: dirt.
* * It was, at the time, extremely cool: not dirt.
* * It was heavily advertised on TV making Mark a mindless pop culture whore: dirt.
* * The thing is damn nifty, the way it goes over the bridge and tilts the track and everything: not dirt.
* * It was advertised on TFI Friday: dirt.
* * TFI Friday producer/host Chris Evans was genuinely seen as a credible and original personality at the time: not dirt.
* * Chris Evans is now pretty universally regarded as a talentless, tasteless ginger tosser so history has judged being influenced by him, even briefly, to be a style mistake to be lived down.
* Hence the overall conclusion must be dirt. (Again, not good quality dirt, though, even if you take one charge of a wooden bird / with purple hair / that's on a metal pole so he can't go nowhere into consideration.)
* The world has seen videos of the Star Wars Kid, Ghyslain, footage of whom twirling a home-made lightsabre around has spread all over the world. Ghyslain's only folly was to be caught, though; had the world turned another way and had a camcorder been in another place at another time, Mark and his friends at the Oxford University Babylon 5 Society might have been Ghyslain five years earlier for their precisely-staged Minbari Fighting Pike toy battles. This is neatly-avoided dirt, but it loses rather a lot of impact via the "speck in your brother's eye" principle coming from the man who organised Quidditch at Nimbus - 2003.
* Mark is famously a Rocky Horror Show fan and will quite happily dress up in fishnets to attend performances. Fully decked-up, he will perform the Timewarp at the drop of a hat; in fact, he even purchased a hat specifically so that he could drop it in order to create extra Timewarp opportunities. (Only slight exaggeration.) Certainly video footage of Mark doing the pelvic thrust exists; I would link to it, but the extreme close-ups drove me insay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ane. Dirt or not? In this day and age, the enlightened view is that burlesque is merely an imaginitive way of playing with traditional gender stereotypes and roles, rather than anything to be ashamed of. After all, Mark boogieing in the aisles has nothing on the likes of Mr. & Mrs. Neil Hamilton in similar costume on-stage - and if a respected former Conservative MP can see fit to play the role, it cannot count as dirt at Mark's fanboy lower level. Oh, hang on, this is Neil Hamilton we're talking about here. (Besides, Mark looks damn good in fishnets. Or so I've heard.)
So, all told, an extremely disappointing and unembarrassing crop of gossip about our birthday boy. If the worst crime the man has committed has been to like the Spice Girls and Chris Evans at the time of their greatest popularity, he truly has dodged the pitfalls of regrettable fashion mistakes. We must therefore conclude that Mark has very little indeed to be embarrassed about.
Unless, of course, you know otherwise... ;-)