memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for April, 2011

Feng Shui

These days I hardly dare not to subscribe to any old daft theory; (I’ll be voting Liberal-democrat next). Not that there is anything displeasing to my obsessive mind in the oriental idea that a spiritual balance can be achieved simply by the way you dispose your furniture around your room.


But I am seeking Feng Shui in my mind and in my heart.

Hurray To Be British!

I must confess that on this day I am proud to be British.

I’m an unashamed romantic at heart and besides, we do this kind of thing, (Royal Weddings, Coronations, and Processions etc.) rather better than anyone else, don’t we?


I wish William and Kate joy and harmony in their marriage and long may they to continue to make people like us crypto-patriots proud to belong to the same nation that produced Chaucer and Shakespeare, Newton and Darwin, Gainsborough and Turner, Blake and Coleridge, Rolls Royce and Range Rover, Peter Cook and Monty Python, John Lennon and Keith Richards, Pink Floyd and Queen, Coldplay and so on and so forth.

And so on this day I have raised my glass in silent toast – To William and Katherine!

A lone red poppy amid the alien corn.

Aprés Nous Le Déluge

Memento Mori

During the heyday of the Roman Republic the Senate had the constitutional governance, in the name of the People, of the robust and burgeoning city-state – SPQR. The policy of expansion was gradual and steady but not without some setbacks – the Carthaginian general Hannibal hauling his armoured elephants through the Alpine passes and then drawing up his army on the plains of Lombardy certainly took the Romans by surprise. But Roman arms prevailed and in due course the famed and beautiful city of Carthage, in the then fertile lands of northern Africa, was laid waste, plundered and the ground sewn with salt.

The commander of victorious Roman armies at the end the Punic wars, Publius Cornelius Scipio was descended from the gens. Cornelli – one of the six great patrician families of Rome. The Senate voted the agnomen Africanus be added to his name and granted him a Triumph.

Picture the scene: the cheering crowds, tramp of the legionnaires, the flowers thrown in front of the triumphant general’s chariot as, with a circlet of laurel-leaves on his brow, he enters the Forum and drives up the ramp in front of the Senate House to receive the plaudits of the Senate and the acclaim of the people … but wait! There is another man on the chariot behind him, a slave, who at the height of the frenzy, leans forward to his master and whispers in his ear –  MEMENTO MORI – remember that thou art mortal.

Memento Mori - Painting - Thomas Milner

Eye-catching Headline

I must say one sees some rather odd headlines in our newspaper:



Due to lack of funding, one assumes.


Loss Of knowledge

The destruction by fire of the great Library of Alexandria,  begun in 48 BC by Julius Caesar when he was forced to set fire to his own fleet and the blaze spread to the docks and to the Library and completed by the Caliph Omar nearly seven centuries later in 642 AD during the first frenzied and seemingly irresistible flames of the Islamic Faith rampaged through the Arab world, was a severe setback for Western Civilization. The Library had contained about seven thousand scrolls written by Greek, Persian and Egyptian poets, writers and philosophers.


The Caliph Omar is said to have commented: If they are to be found in the Koran then they are not needed. If they are not to be found in the Koran then they are harmful.

How much of the fruit of that wise age was lost? Not all of the most powerful search-engines in the world can discover that because it became unknown or non-knowledge.


Halcyon Days

Did you know that the word «halcyon» as in halcyon days comes from the ancient Greek word for «a kingfisher»? How’s that for a completely unnecessary, uncalled for, unwanted, unwarranted, unsolicited, a propos-of-nothing, gratuitous, pointless, out-of-the-blue and totally irrelevant piece of etymology?

Painting - MENAGERIE - by Thomas Milner

Because I Do Not Hope To Turn Again

Today is Ash Wednesday. Yesterday was Carnival, which I resolutely ignored; today is the first day of Lent, which I shall likewise ignore. But every year on this day I make a point of reading T. S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday.  I know that sounds a tad pretentious but there it is, (why would I make that up at this late stage) and I also know you will become even more irritated when I add that I read it in an edition of the poem that my father bought when it was first published in April 1930 (not one of the first 600 signed and numbered copies at the beginning the month but one of the ordinary run of 2000 copies that appeared towards the end of the same month).  (pass the sick-bag Alice).



I settle down in my chair and, holding the light 81-year book in my hands, start to read:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Post-cards From China

One morning about a week before Christmas a curious letter landed on my desk. It was from China and the envelope itself had a battered look, opened and reopened, as if it had physically travelled that immense distance. It had my name on it, carefully printed in capital letters together with the address of the school – all the rest was in the Chinese script. I opened it and found a postcard and a thin sheet of paper:

Dear Mr. Thomas Milner, I hope your health is well and you are at peace with yourself. I would like to know all about your school and study there if I can afford it, and if I can achieve a visa to visit. Please send all informations(sic). I hope your mother and father are well and the rest of your family is well. Best regards, Lin Lee.

On the back of the card, a rather badly produced cityscape of Beijing, was written: A Merry Christmas for Mr. Thomas Milner and family from Lin Lee. So I went next door to the office and asked them to send back the usual information and add her name to the list of Christmas cards for me to sign. I didn’t think much more about it until, at the beginning of February, there arrived another postcard from her, thanking me for the Christmas card. For a few years thereafter the pattern was repeated – a card before Christmas followed by another in early spring. Once she sent me a pack of six postcards of China. These were always accompanied by brief, careful, polite printed messages. I developed a feeling for this forlorn reaching-out from the far side of the world to a complete stranger, presumably arbitrarily selected. I wanted to confide in her, the way people do with strangers in bars. I wanted to tell her of my life, of my school days, of my son’s homework note-book, of my notions and ideas, of my magnolia tree in the little garden in the front of our new house, its buds opening in the spring, its flowers still growing silently in the darkness of the night.

But I didn’t. Sloth undid me and one year the postcards stopped coming.

A Singular Man

While I was at Station C in the Sahara Desert, a permanent feature of the place was a singular man called Christophe. About 50 years old at the time, his provenance was as obscure to me as was his function on the station. He acted as an intermediary between the engineers and the local community and showed a keen interest in all the aspects of the operation. He spoke English with a French accent and French with an accent which I wasn’t experienced enough to place. His father had been French (a doctor?) and his mother Armenian? … Pied Noir? Sometime in his past he had been a medical student and knew a lot about pharmacology. He was comfortable in his neatly-ironed, faded khaki shirt and trousers and actually enjoyed living in the desert and eschewed all leave. John referred to him affectionately as «the silly old fool», and once, for his birthday, the four of us appropriated a jeep and drove through the desert for dinner at the nearest oasis town. We all drank a fair amount of the fiery Algerian red wine and Christophe got rather tipsy.

One day we were discussing lexicography and I told him that my father possessed an early 18th century edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. The great Doctor was a man of inveterate prejudices, one of which was against the Scots: for example the definition of oats: what we feed to our horses, but the Scottish have for their breakfast or the views in Scotland are indifferent, the best of which is the road to England. This dictionary was the first of its kind in English and thus something of a milestone in language analysis. Christophe then showed me his painstaking compilation of a French-English technical dictionary with reference to the petro-chemical industry. I flicked through it: he’d got to CONCURRENCE VITAL which he had translated as THE STRUGGLE FOR EXISTENCE.

I was fond of him and when I left the station, I gave him my prized gold fountain-pen. We left him there, a dapper figure standing alone in the middle of the compound, struggling for existence.

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