memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for May, 2011

Hic Natus Est Nicholas Saunderson

Easily the most remarkable and distinguished man to be born in our village Thurlstone was the blind mathematician Dr Nicholas Saunderson L.L.D., F.R.S.

Born in 1683, he was our great-great-great-grandmother’s great-uncle. Although totally blind from infancy, his intelligence was such that he absorbed the best education that the district could provide, and won such recognition at the University of Cambridge that he was elected, while still under thirty, to the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, (Isaac Newton was the second, Saunderson the fourth, and the present incumbent of the Chair is Prof. Stephen Hawking).

He was a fellow of the Royal Society, and enjoyed the respect and friendship of such men as Newton and Halley. There is surely something prodigious in the fact that a young man from a remote region, who had never read a book in his life (it is said that, as a boy, he learnt to write by tracing the letters on the grave-stones in the church-yard) could betake himself to university, not to study but to teach, and could there attain a professorship; and that the schooling he could get in the local district, with his own natural genius, could make him not only a master of mathematical theory and Newtonian philosophy, but an accomplished musician and a classical scholar, capable of studying Euclid in the original Greek and delivering an oration in finely tuned Latin.

Incredible as it may seem, he was fond of hunting, on horseback – a mounted servant rode before him and his own horse followed!

He didn’t publish much and his chief monument is the two-volume edition of his Algebra.  The Elements of Algebra, 1740,this was ready for publication when he died 1739 and his wife issued it after his death.

My brother James, himself a mathematician, has the family copy.

Like Pope’s Iliad and Johnson’s Dictionary, the book was published by subscription, so these sturdy calf-bound volumes found their way into many a muniments room and many a country rectory. In the list of subscribers, amongst the worthy but rather dull English forgotten scholars, squires and noblemen, one name leaps off the page: Mons. De Voltaire. Banished to England after a spell in the Bastille, Voltaire greatly admired the liberalism of thought here and mixed in the best society and met the leading writers and thinkers of the time. He met and admired Newton, whose astronomical physics he studied with some seriousness.

When he heard about the subscription to Saunderson’s book from his friend Nicholas Thiériot, he wrote back: That famous Mr. Saunderson is, I think, the blind man who understands so well the theory of colours. T’is one of the prodigies which England bears every day .Pray subscribe to me for his book, for the  royal paper,  and let my name be counted amongst the happy readers of his productions.

A Day in the Life

This morning I awake to hear from the next room a fluent and sustained tirade/telling off delivered in high tones from one our care-workers who is obviously starting her shift. I don’t know what the subject of her ire was nor her probably well-reasoned justification for it but what I do object to is her tone of moral indignation. I also know that my neighbours are an old married couple; she has a rare type of senile dementia which involves wailing and moaning at night and he is stressed out and nearing the end of his tether. It reflects one of the underlying problems of the resources of a (western) culture barely being able to cope with the problem of how to treat old people in an ageing society. What she is now sister, you will be – Memento Mori.

(Someone has evidently popped a couple of moral high-ground tabs into her tea this morning).

Today is a hot Saturday morning in late May; I didn’t sleep well and wake with a thick head, like someone suffering from a completely underserved hangover; I look out onto the warm, red terracotta roofs and study a dovecot where pigeons take off and land, congregate, hobnob and generally shoot the shit about the morning’s columbo-gossip. I then listen to News Quiz on BBC 4 online, which is a funny, witty and irreverent view of week’s news in the UK; I chuckle appreciatively as I listen – I’m a great believer in the maxim «no day can be complete if one has not laughed»  and indeed a sense of humour, however dark, helps me to endure my far from ideal existence.

These days I am more «autonomous  in my sanitary needs » and now spend more time in my bathroom than an anxious teenager preparing for her first date; a lurching awkward dance  between toilet and wash basin, between grab-bar and frame and, standing with legs carefully spaced and braced, I fumble with toothbrush and electric razor; but the result is, one may say, satisfactory.

Just before lunch I descend to the main floor and visit the nurse, to whom I offered my latest painting –  Dream 0f Butterfly– last weekend, and am bathed and soothed in the presence of her niceness. Consider this person: drop-dead gorgeous and soft-voiced with a caring manner, she is smart (studying for a Master’s degree), very sympathetic and, get this, guess where she works – in the oncology department of the local hospital! Doesn’t the wretched woman have any faults?


Lunch is the usual uninspired and unappetizing fare; suffice it to say that the best part the meal is the thoughtful cup of coffee from the machine.

About six weeks ago I made the conscious decision to withdraw from the life of the Home and retreat to the fastness of my second-floor room where I have everything I need, my books for my delectation, my laptop for work and recreation, my TV for News, my DVD for movies, my bathroom for sanitation, my corridor for exercise and finally the terrace for fresh air and a bit of sun. I paint in the deserted library (or rather book museum) on the first floor. I would have it so. I descend only for meals, doctor’s appointments and, of course, my physiotherapy sessions which I prize above all things .

And so it has been this afternoon: I laboriously write this, drink water, walk up the corridor on my frame, do breathing exercises at the end, walk back down the corridor, continue to write this, drink more water, go into the bathroom and so on andso forth. The weather is close and darkening, the mutter of thunder can be heard. We’ll probably have a storm later, which will clear the air, will it not?

Tomorrow my two boys are visiting me – it will be good to see them.

Tonight after dinner, of which I’m expecting almost nothing, I’ll probably stay on in the calm of the deserted dining room with the hot evening sun slanting in from the windows at the side of one or two of the old dears who are waiting to go up to bed.

Dover Beach

During the early sixties the Port of Dover still had medium-priced respectable hotels with names like The White Cliffs with potted plants in the lounge and middle-aged bow-tied pianists playing sub-Cole Porter numbers with rolling eyes and a sort of louche panache. The town itself, with its tangy sea-air, its cries of sea-gulls and its dazzling white cliffs seemed to offer shelter and solace from the long and confusing journey through childhood.

And later, as the ship edged out of stone harbour of my boyhood to meet the butting pitching sea, I would linger in the stern watching the shoreline of England – those famous gleaming white cliffs – receding to the horizon and feel an unfamiliar ache in my heart. (I have since discovered that the Portuguese language, that melancholy vehicle, encapsulates that emotion in one single word – saudades).


Be that as it may, I should now like to share with you one of my favourite poems; written by Mathew Arnold in 1869, it is called Dover Beach:

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The Naked Christ


Jamilah – meaning in Arabic, beautiful, graceful, lovely – lives in a small apartment building in an unfashionable district of Aleppo, with her parents and younger sister. She is an obedient Moslem girl, living according to the guide-lines laid down by the Sharia; she never appears in public without her burka and is scrupulous about her diet and hygiene habits; she washes herself at least twice a day as prescribed by Koranic law. Unfortunately there is a shortage of water in their part of the city and so she only manages to have a bath once a week. She makes a ritual of this, waiting till the rest of the family have gone out to the market on Saturday mornings, and then filling up the tub with water, taking off her robe and stepping delicately into the cool liquid; with her long black hair and her olive-toned skin she is like a painting by Ingres; she lies back and closes her eyes …


Suddenly there is loud crack, the whole building shakes and water slops out of the bath. Jamilah immediately realizes that a tremor has occurred that could pressage an earthquake. Terrified she starts to rise from the water … at that moment, a neighbor, Hassan, is passing the door of her apartment; he bursts into the hall then into the bathroom just as Jamilah is stepping out of the bath, her nude body gleaming in the half-light: instinctively, in her modesty and shame, her hands cover her … (can you guess what? … No, you’ve guessed wrong), her hands fly up to cover her face.


Charley woke up that Saturday morning and stretched luxuriously. His girlfriend Bella was sitting at the kitchen table, eating a slice of toast and reading the paper; in the background the TV was saying …. and we interrupt this program with some breaking news: there has been a major earthquake in northern Syria; the quake, measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale, struck the city of Aleppo this morning; so far the authorities are saying that 250 people have been killed but the death toll is bound to rise …

–          Turn that thing off, will you please; don’t you realize Bel that today’s the big day of my demonstration.

–          What! You’re not really going through with that stunt, are you? People will just think you’re another exhibitionist, just one more mad streaker; they just won’t get it! Look, let’s look it up in the dictionary: streak, streak of luck etc. here we are: verb intr. = the non-sexual act of taking off one’s clothes and running naked through a public place. Well you can count me out, I’m not going to be shown up in front of my friends …

–           I just want to get some free publicity for our stand on the Environment and the Green Party.

Not for the first time in their relationship did it occur to Bella that her boyfriend was a bit of a head-case; she was having serious doubts about his sanity – maybe it was time to dump him.

So Charley went alone to the game – a semi-final of the League Cup, Spurs v Liverpool at White Hart Lane, a classic confrontation. He passed innocently through the turnstiles and picked his way to his place on the benches near the edge of the pitch. He had chosen half-time to make his move; he felt completely calm and his face was impassive; only his eyes betrayed him, showing the rich glint of lunacy. The whistle blew for the end of the first half; as the players were leaving the pitch Charley took off all his clothes and ran naked on to the pitch. The rest is history. The TV cameras soon picked him up, streaking down the side of the field, to be quickly joined by the security team which flanked him in a curiously protective tableau.

And then CLICK – the famous iconic photograph was taken and syndicated throughout the western world. Let us examine this image: the pose is heroic and sublime, the white naked man with his arms outstretched and his handsome bearded profile staring sideways at the face of the policeman who is covering his private parts with his helmet. The image is suggestive of a Renaissance painting – Michael Angelo could have drawn that pose, in fact it reminds one of The Creation of Man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Man pointing limply at God (a bit gay)? Or it is redolent of a scene by Leonardo de Vinci – Jesus being helped by the Roman soldiers towards his crucifixion – forgive them Father, for they know not what they do… (Charley sees himself essentially as a martyr for his cause and, in his mad way, glories in the publicity – streaking is, after all, a form of perversion).

ALEPPO (two weeks later)

Hassan had managed to bundle Jamilah out of the building before the main quake struck, and both were saved. Her family was also safe in the market, but they had lost all their possessions. They now live in a tent village provided by the Red Crescent. They are used to crisis-management and count themselves lucky to be alive (Allah be praised). About half the inhabitants of the poorly-built apartment block, including Jamilah’s uncle and aunt, had been killed. Two tents down the row live Hassan and his family. His parents regard Jamilah’s rescue by Hassan as a sign from God and both families agree that Hassan and Jamilah should be betrothed. Out of tragedy comes joy. What the betrothed couple thinks of all this is neither here nor there – the old traditional ways are the best.

So tomorrow Hassan is going to be formally introduced to Jamilah. Hassan is curious about the girl; he hardly knows her; after all, he hasn’t yet even seen her face!

My new laptop

Today I’ve just a bought a new laptop – a streamlined, sleek, ecologically-correct machine, a dark charcoal in colour with acres of memory and meadows of capacity. The screen is startlingly, even forbiddingly, clear and bright. The touch-pad is disconcertingly discreet in that it is invisible – at first one thinks that this well-known brand has made a disastrously basic design-error until one realizes that it is to facilitate wiping down the marks of the sweaty fumbling fingerprints after each day, like those up-market (German) oven-hobs made up of a single sheet of heat-proof glass.

It’s a bit like driving an old Datsun for years, coaxing it along, getting used to its little ways, cursing it sometimes but developing a weary affection for the old thing with its dashboard stuffed with old parking tickets and its boot full of junk … and then suddenly sitting at the controls of a brand-new Audi.

I must confess to rather missing the old Datsun. We’d been through a lot together that old laptop and me, through good times and bad, the first hesitant tapping at the keys when each word was a stumbling effort and I had to rest after each sentence. We agonized about our various consultations and operations. We got our revenge on the real or imagined slights of the staff by writing it all down, getting all the splenetic bile out of our systems and onto the page.

We chortled our through many a Monty Python clip on U Tube, chuckled through many a Fawlty Towers episode: disapproved our way through many a Rhiana and Lady Gaga video.

We went on the obligatory trawl through the murky world of porn and soon came to the conclusion that it was a self-serving industry and self-defeating too, being about as erotic as the boiled fish and potatoes served up to us every Tuesday evening.

We wasted many a good hour with the card games, do you remember, and I pared them to four games played in order of ease: Free Cell (doddle), Hearts (which I usually used to win) Solitaire (challenging) and my favourite – Spyder Solitaire – I was a two-suit man.

And all the time the memories came back and fluency of expression improved; the material was growing or gestating in your memory, was it not? Then we began think Book! Why not, what do we have to lose? Then came the frenziedly steep learning curve of Online Publishing. How we exulted in the publication of our book! At least it’s out there, we thought … but out where? What a come-down it was when we realized that after about six weeks the book had been bought by only seven and half people. But we rallied round, didn’t we …

I turn to the new machine which is purring softly as if to say just you wait and see what I can do. I address the machine sternly, who do think you’re staring at with your Skype eye? Just you be careful, this old laptop is worth ten of your sort.


Great great-uncle shoots tiger in cave

My great grand-mother, Annie Horsley, was born on Nov. 27th 1854 at Pallamcottah in Southern India, where her father worked as civil engineer; he held the rank of Colonel in the Royal Engineers. She was the youngest child, having one older sister and five older brothers. On  their father’s retirement at the surprisingly young age of 41 – a reorganisation of the Indian Army making many officers redundant, Annie’s mother’s two brothers-in-law, Col. William Cantis and Col. Archibald Young both retiring on Pension at the same time – the family returned to England and settled in Canterbury.

All the five boys were sent to the ancient King’s School, in the precincts of the vast candle-lit Cathedral. They were contemporaries with their cousins John and Stephen; Canon Horsley recalls how they were all identified in order, in the old manner, Horsley Primus to Horsley Septimus. Of these seven boys, all but one – Canon Horsley himself – passed their working lives abroad in the service of God and the Queen, so strong was the family tradition. Annie’s eldest brother William entered the Indian Civil Service from Cambridge and after a career as forest officer served as a judge in the state of Hyderabad.

He has left a vivid memorial of himself in a series of letters from India which he wrote to his father between 1870 and 1891. The conditions of the correspondence were ideal – an affectionate son writing to a father who had lived almost the same life, and would follow every detail with interest and knowledge. There is an old typescript of the letters on rice-paper (perhaps made up for the father) which is in my brother Gamaliel’s possession, well worth reading for themselves, not merely as family records. They provide in fresh authentic detail, the raw material that Rudyard Kippling was to work up into some of the finest of his elaborately polished short stories. According to family tradition an episode from William The Conqueror – presumably the goat feeding – was furnished by Horsley’s experiences in famine relief; and many parts of the finer story The Tomb of his Ancestors – including the local setting – seem to come straight from the text of the letters. What contact there was between the men is not clear, but contact there must have been.

William Horsley was a good talker, who in later life loved to hold his hearers with tales of forest and hill. Stories of bison-hunt and tiger kill, and of his carefree days as a bachelor forest officer, on his own in his little kingdom in the Satpura hills, an un-mapped forest 200 miles from to end; and the occasion when he, along with an Indian tracker, silently pursued a wounded marauding tiger until they cornered it in a cave whereupon he entered the cave and shot the tiger.


There may be significance in the dates; Kippling settled in England in 1889; Horsley retired in 1892; The Day’s Work was published in 1894. (I have a 1st Edition of it).

William Horsley died in 1915.  A fine photograph brings before us the splendid old man. But even better is the poem in which his daughter evokes

Tiger stories told to me at night                                                                                                      By the fire in the library. Light,                                                                                                      Deflected from the reading lamp, falls close,

Cutting angles on the muscled hand,                                                                                          Glittering on the glinting greying hair.                                                                                     His tired eyes, wrinkled by the Indian glare,                                                                          Stare at the big guns resting in their stand …

                                   My father’s face remains                                                                             Forever fixed, his features burnt in steel.                                                                                  His tired eyes do not see me, they reveal                                                                                             Steep wooded ghauts, ravines drenched in the rains.

The Flowers of Doom


The 5th March here in Portugal marked the 10th anniversary of the tragic collapse of the central span of a bridge over the river Douro at Castello de Paiva. A coach and two cars, which were passing over the bridge, fell into the swollen river and were swept away; out of 70 people killed only two bodies were recovered. When I discovered the reason  for the passengers’ presence on the coach – they were returning from annual day-trip to view the almond trees in blossom in the upper-Douro – I thought it was so poignant that I was moved to record the event with the following (inadequate) words:


They went on a coach to view
The almond trees in bloom
You know, just a day-trip
To see the flowers of doom.

Hurry up Mum, we’re late
And Johnny, get your bag;
So tired! But it’s worth it
Always a nice little outing.

A concrete pillar eroded
By time and neglect
You know how it is – things,
Just waiting to happen.

Where’s Maria, not here?
She couldn’t come, sore throat
Poor little thing, but Aunty’s
Coming instead and pronto.

Over the river so high
Brown and swirling and
Angry and fierce, riding
Down to the Mouth.

So off we go, winding up
The brown Douro river
To Tras-os-Montes to see
The amendoeiras in flower.

A fierce swollen river
As later we’ll learn,
Three meters-per-second
And a bed full of junk.

A good day is had by all
Despite the bad weather.
The flowers look nice and
At least we’re together.

Down the cruel river
Past Freixo floating
And Foz knew them too
To the ocean’s deep swell.

Though the sky’s really grey
Hardly anyone moans;
We sit in the café and play
With our mobile phones.

Those currents moving
By Gulf Stream you know
Far out and swing back
To Cape Finnistere

Time for home now.
Work tomorrow
Doctor’s on Thursday
And the loan from the bank
And Silvia’s new boyfriend
And that pain in my side
And how rude she was
And that look he gave me
And the clothes must be dry
And feeling sleepy
And nearly home
And that look
And Sleep

Terror oh God
Pain oh Jesus
Water oh mother

                Forgive me Our Lady of the Flowers                                                                                     For I was lost in the Palace of Sorrows

High in the Douro valley
The almonds blossom still
With a cold, white beauty
The flowers of doom.



I’m driving along in the Sahara Desert (you know, as one does) in the company of young Abdel Kader. It is an early afternoon in December with the sky a pale washed blue and still warm at midday. He has just shown me a deserted French Foreign-Legion fort – a desolate place which is gradually being reclaimed by the desert sands. I explore the place, climbing up to the ramparts and indulging in the usual clichés, Beau Geste desperately repulsing the Berber hordes etc. Actually what I found most evocative were the prison cells with the graffiti presumably scratched on the walls by the miscreant legionnaires.


Back on the sandy track with me again at the wheel, Abdel Kader mentions diffidently that his village isn’t far away and asks my permission for him to visit his wife for a while. I say yes of course, but ask where his village is because, as usual, all I can see is sand. Abdel guides us along the winding tracks until we find the village with its characteristic white windowless dwellings nestling in a whaddi. At the end of the village is a small date grove which, it appears, belongs to Abdel’s family. He asks me if I wouldn’t mind waiting there while he pays a visit to his wife and baby and again I agree. I enter the garden and look round for a place to settle among the tall stately palms, sitting down eventually with my back to the trunk of a towering date-palm. Perfect peace – all I can I hear is the gentle murmur of the irrigation streams which are watering each individual palm tree. The harmonious beauty of the setting argues the existence of a divine plan. I fall into a contemplative trance and allow my beating heart to slow right down and fall asleep.

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough                                                        

 A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness.

I awake to find Abdel and his father Mohamed eyeing me expressionlessly. I look at my watch – it’s time to get back to the camp. Before we leave I am offered a small hempen sack of dates; some of the dates have been harvested from the very tree under which I have been reposing and are therefore a special gift from God, Mohamed assures me and opines that I will have a lucky life. (I sometimes ponder this and come to the conclusion that, yes, I have had my fair share of luck). He shows me how to assess a good date: first it should be dry and light brown in colour and when held up to the light it should be translucent; the ripe fruit should be firm and sweet. I like dates and keep the bag in a drawer of my desk, partaking of several each day.


I first fell in love with the Plumbago bush whilst on holiday in the Algarve more years ago than I care to consider

One minute I was innocent of Plumbago, insouciantly minding my own business without a care in the world and then suddenly I discovered Plumbago …a combination of the resonance of the name and the delicate beauty of the pale blue flowers proved too much for me. From then on the final assessment of any garden was reduced to that reference viz. did it or did it not contain a plumbago bush.


Many horticultural avenues fanned out at my feet. Now I could join in conversations about gardens and gently them steer in the direction of shrubs and bushes, coyly circling the word Plumpago like someone shy of mentioning a loved one’s name but nevertheless wanting someone else to bring it up. Or I could cultivate plumbagos and become an elderly eccentric, alone in a garden comprising only of plumbago bushes, my family long since fled from of this obsession. And, like Orson Wells at the end of Citizen Kane breathing his last word «rose-bud», I would breathe mine – «plumbago»

Fruta da Epoca

Sweet Cherry.

Vigorous tree with strong apical control with an erect-pyramidal canopy shape, capable of reaching 50 ft. In cultivation, sweet cherries are maintained 12-15 ft in height. Leaves are relatively large (largest of cultivated Prunus), elliptic with mildly serrated margins, acute tips, petioled, and strongly veined.

Consider the cherries which are harvested in due season from the orchards of the Douro valley – red, plump, succulent, delicious.

I doubt that these will end up on the shelves of Sainsburys or Tescos like the strawberries of the Algarve, that are whisked away by the waiting refrigerated trucks, throbbing in the misty dawn, and driven along the hot dusty motorways of Spain and France and through the Tunnel to the London vegetable warehouses at dusk.

No, these cherries will flood the fruit markets of Penafiel and Bom Successo and each kitchen-table in the region will have a laughing overflowing abundance and children shall dangle them from their ears and youths and maidens shall dance joyously in the church-squares of the golden valley.


In the Home the appearance of cherries will be greeted by the incurious and unexpressed satisfaction of the continuance of the seasons – of course, cherries, what else? The old people will think.

Although we are on the verge of this season, the presence of a bowl of shiny dark cherries in front of one of the old dears (brought that afternoon by a visiting daughter) drew tacit attention from some of us. It was supper-time and the rest of us had boring old stewed apple; but not this old dear who set about her bowl of cherries with a will, spitting out stones while the cup of her curved fingers fed another one into her chewing mouth. From time to time she would lift her crouching face from the plate and glance around with a look that said: eat your hearts out, suckers and if anyone thinks that they’re going to get a bite of my cherries, well they’ve got another think coming …

Blessed are the Ungiven for they shall inherit … for they shall inherit what? … I know, for they shall inherit all the cherries!

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