memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for July, 2011

He likes his desk


He likes his desk it is an essentially functional unobtrusive piece of furniture its quiddity is obvious and reassuring it is something to lean on indeed he never actually looks at it only feels its presence and uses it to do-nothing-at with composure and relaxation he loves to relax at his desk and do nothing he sits slightly tilting his chair and stares forward at the wall behind the desk if he has little to do he lounges back easily looking complacently round the room which he hasn’t yet tidied and cleared up all the paper-work  but has all day to do so if he so wishes which he doesn’t because he has plenty of time and therefore lacks the necessary motivation if he has a lot to do he sits sitting staring sternly at the wall with resolve or out of the little window on his right overlooking the sandy compound he is in command of the situation he can do the work because here he is at the desk the desk is the testimony of the possible the desk is his potential people sometimes ask where did you get that desk that’s a good desk and he shrugs casually and complacently and replies that it was already in the cabin when he moved in and then they examine it taking in its dull grey colour its combination of solidity and economy of size (it fits exactly in the alcove) he notes that it only has three drawers (not six as he had previously supposed) and begins to worry about this biting away at his finger nails and breaking into a slight sweat until someone says those three drawers hold a lot I bet and he is relieved and says yes they’re pretty useful they hold quite a lot you know sometimes he tidies the desk purposefully putting work-not-yet-done into neat piles he then tilts his chair back taken aback by how easily so much work not-yet-done can be put into such business-like piles he slouches back and forces his mind away from work the thought of which threatens to make him sweat in the North African heat his desk is one of the many constants that help him to control his skipping shuddering uncontrolled drifting consciousness he has reasons to be grateful for his desk one of which is that it helps him get it all down you know his feelings about it using a sort of stream-of-consciousness technique without punctuation except the odd hyphen (oh yes and brackets too) yes he has certain reasons to be very grateful for his desk


A damsel with a dulcimer in a vision once I saw

I quickly discovered, as a new father all those years ago, the solution to the thorny problem of reading-matter for Baby’s bedtime story. With Thomas the Tank Engine Baby would have to stay alert and do some more thinking (after a hard day) whereas with Kubla Khan he could just call it a day and zonk out immediately.

Kubla Khan is a poetic masterpiece by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1798 he was living alone in a small rented cottage in the West Country. To combat life-long depression he was experimenting with large draughts of laudanum, an opium-based mixture, and one morning he sank into a trance wherein he dreamt a vision of a long epic poem about the Mogul Emperor, Kubla Khan; unfortunately he was interrupted by a knock on the door; it was a «person from Porlock» on business – probably one of the most intrusive interruptions in all of English Literature, for when, after about half an hour,  the man left, Coleridge returned to his room and found to his profound chagrin he had forgotten large tracts of his ballad and these fragments are all he could recall; (personally I think we owe a debt to the gentleman from Porlock – I can’t be doing with all these long ballads, meself).


Of course one doesn’t tell Baby all this, one simply asks XANADU? And on his sleepy nod off we go:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

My Mother

My mother is a warm feeling of unconditional maternal love.

There is a story, hidden in the weedy undercurrents of family lore, that she was blitzed early on in the war while she was living in a house in north London. A German bomber released a stick of bombs, one of which landed on the front of the house where my mother was in the kitchen at the back. Fortunately the bomb didn’t explode but such was the destructive force of the plummeting projectile that the entire front of the house was destroyed. If the bomb had exploded …

(how to drill a mixed conditional: if your father hadn’t met your mother, would you exist?)

I never heard my mother refer to this event so maybe I’ve imagined it. At the end of her life, while she was in hospital, the doctors decided that she might as well come off the cocktail of medication that she’d been on for so long as she was clearly dying. So she had a few days of great clarity. She told my brother that she’d had a vivid dream: she dreamt that she was in a white room with thin white curtains fluttering before a white open window … everything was white.

On hearing the news of our beloved mother’s death, I flew back from Portugal whither I had just returned to start my family holiday at the spa, for the funeral. During the course of that week one of us contacted our mother’s only sister, who’d been living in New York for many years, to tell her the sad news and she said that she had dreamt about our mother a few days previously and mother had been in a bright place; empathy between sisters?

MY MOTHER (photo by my father taken in driveway of our house in France)

I have a tree

I have an idea.

I have things, I have books, I have a son – I peeped into his book – he wrote about Galileo.

I have an old book about Galileo about the refutation of the accusation of the Inquisitors.

I have an idea, I have things,

I have an itch, I have notions.

I have a friend in China. She writes to me every year sending me pictures of China. Lin Lee is her name but that is all I know.

I have memories, which I select like cards slipped from the shoe.

I keep pictures from the past in a shoe box, slotted into decades.

I have a tree outside, slowly stirring in the early spring, its buds growing in the dark.

I have notions.


St. John of the Wood

St. John the Baptist came to rather a macabre end.

He was a desert preacher and an outspoken radical activist who taught Abramic Law but with a non-orthodox twist – that a Messiah or King was on the way who would sort out the rot and lead his people back onto straight and narrow path of righteousness. (And he famously baptized Jesus of Nazareth in the waters of the river Jordan).

News of his doings reached the court of the Tetrarch of Jerusalem, Herod Aggripa, who had succeeded his brother Philip Aggripa on his death and also Philip’s widow, Herodias, a member of the same Romano-Judeo dynasty; Herodias and Philip had had a daughter named Salomé; (thus the girl was Herod’s niece as well as step-daughter).

Herodias, alluring and manipulative, was very much the power behind the throne, (not unlike  Madame de Maintenon at the court of Versailles seventeen centuries later). When the preacher John seemed to implicitly challenge the King’s authority, she had him imprisoned.


She soon perceived that Herod was besotted with her 16 year-old daughter, Salomé, and accordingly she coached the young girl in all the subtle Eastern arts: never actually give him anything, daughter, but promise him everything with your eyes …

Thus it is, that on a state occasion in front of the whole court, Salomé demurely begins to dance; she slowly sways her hips and shivers her body; she glides up to Herod and then retreats like a wave on the pebbled beach; she writhes and pirouettes and claps her hands and snaps her fingers; in the Eastern manner she artfully flourishes a number of veils both to conceal and accentuate her the curves of her slim body …

(how many veils? Well actually it was about five and half but hey, let’s just call it seven shall we, just as Rome was built on seven hills, just as there are seven deadly sins and seven cardinal virtues, just as there are the seven wonders of the world and the seven pillars of wisdom – if you want to get anywhere in posterity with lists just stick seven in front of it; Lisbon, the city founded by Ulysses, is built on guess how many hills?)

Back to Salomé’s dance which is nearing a crescendo and is of such erotic power that the Bible blushes to recount it.

Anyway the upshot was that the hypnotized Herod promised anything in the world to the gorgeous girl and she (after a quick consult with Mum) asked the king for the head of John the Baptist.

The last words of this sorry tale belong to J. Alfred Prufrock  (T. S. Eliot)

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) bought in upon a platter,

I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have the seen the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

Le Quatorze Juillet

A week ago France’s national day – le Jour de Bastille – was marked as usual by a huge military parade down one the most famous venues in the world – les Champs Elysées.

You’ve got to take your hat off to the French!

Still locked into dreams of military glory, I think they must be only remaining country in Western Europe to have such an exhaustive nuts n’ bolts parade. Not that they don’t have a glorious military past – they do, culminating I suppose in their titanic struggle against the might of Germany in the First World War.

I’m reminded of an excellent film called Paths of Glory (possibly one of Stanley Kubrick’s first) starring Kirk Douglas as the French combat officer Colonel Dax serving at the fortress complex of Verdun where the might of the German 5th Army assaulted the French 2nd Army in 1916.

It was a battle of attrition and although the French emerged as tactical winners, the combined butcher’s bill was well over 300,000 dead. The horrors of Verdun struck a despairing chord in the army’s psyche; (Verdun was for the French army what The Somme was for the British army – an awful and de-humanizing exercise in futility).

By 1917 the French casualties had reached the million mark (total population of Frenchmen of combat-age was 20 million); the troops were exhausted and of low morale and were showing increased reluctance to go over the top to be slaughtered by the hail of shells and machine-gun bullets. (The full extent of the French mutinies on the western front was kept secret for decades but it is now reckoned that up to 50 divisions were affected).


Paths of Glory has Colonel Dax, the commanding officer of French soldiers who refused to continue a suicidal attack, who was a criminal defense lawyer in civilian life, attempt to defend them against a charge of cowardice in a court martial.

The film is about the execution of innocent men to strengthen others’ resolve to fight. The French Army did carry out military executions for cowardice, as did all the other major participants. However, a significant point in the film is the practice of selecting individuals at random and executing them as a punishment for the sins of the whole group. This is similar to the Roman practice of decimation, and was rarely used by the French Army in World War I.

The title of the film comes from the famous 9th stanza of the 18th century English poet Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.


Another Walk through the Valley

The years seem to fly by, do they not? I sometimes feel that Time is hurtling our lives away and wish it would slow down or, even better, skid to a stop for a while. There is still so much richness and beauty to be mined from the wonderful earth. (Where is my lost decade?)

In December 2008 the small tumour in the left side of my frontal lobe had grown to the point where the surgeon decided to remove it. We might as well take it out early in the New Year, he remarked casually as though he was talking about removing a zit.

So the following March on a Monday morning I checked into the by now familiar hospital. The same surgeon, now the Clinical Head of Neurosurgery, would be operating on my brain for the third time. I had decided to adopt a new approach. I decided to be positive and show a bit of courage (I’ll try anything once). And it worked like a charm, even though the night before the operation I’d received a visit from the anaesthetist, who put to me all the usual questions and then asked me if I had any questions about the procedure. What could go wrong during the operation, I asked: well, he replied, three things – you could have a heart attack, you could choke on your own vomit or of course you could just die. (Thanks doc.) Then I asked him about Dr. Mario, the surgeon, and he replied with admiration that he was a great surgeon, having both good hands and a good mind. I put my worries aside, put my life on hold for the duration and was in the right frame of mind as, the next morning, after being prepped, I was taken on one hospital trolley to the operating area, transferred over a counter onto another hospital trolley and wheeled into the sterile waiting area outside Theatre no.8. They were just cleaning up after the previous operation, hosing down the blood and what not. After about half an hour the theatre door opened and out came the surgeon (the Man), sleeves rolled up and wearing his brightly coloured non-regulation cap; he smiled in his usual friendly manner and said briskly right, let’s sort this one out, shall we. One of the theatre nurses made reassuring conversation in English while the anaesthetist plied his trade … I counted back from 10 … 9 … 8 …


I came to in the ICU ward that evening. It was very quiet (I was the only patient) and the lighting was dim – a duty nurse was working at a desk opposite my bed under a shaded lamp. When she saw that I was stirring she came across to my bed and waited patiently for me to return to the world. I first searched my mind for the reassurance that I had not turned into a cabbage while I was under. When it dawned on me that I was still compus mentis I felt elation. I then patrolled my body; everything seemed as it had been before except a tendency for my right hand and arm to curl up and go numb and out of control. I tried speech: did everything go ok? I asked the nurse and she smiled at me, everything went as planned, everything is ok. I consulted my memory; to my surprise I could remember the  topic I’d been discussing with my brother Gam the previous evening in the ward (about muscle atrophy), moreover I remembered the day and date and the where and the why and who I was. Satisfied with this preliminary mental scan I slept. Whenever I woke during the night I would ask the nurse if I was really OK … it is always a rush surviving a life-threatening operation.

More Painting Therapy

Oh, these warm July afternoons! I decide to fill in the time between lunch and tea by starting a new painting. Accordingly I wheel myself up to the first floor to my painting room, take up a fresh sheet of gummed A3 paper and sit in front of it for about five minutes, my mind as blank as the paper in front of me … I pull myself together and sweep a confident pencil stroke diagonally the paper and then another and a shorter one and then I’m off.


The next afternoon I enter the uncomfortable world of colour. The picture is indicating organic growth of some sort (there are no straight lines; I have denied myself the comfort of my trusty ruler).


Next day I’m two minds about whether to carry on with it or abandon the wretched thing but, being irredeemably lazy, I settle for the former in the hope that my retrieval skills can rescue it.


The final afternoon sees me doing some major tinkering, touching up, colour adjustment and generally fiddling about with it. At ten minutes to four I stop, spray it with a cheap and rather nasty-smelling hair fixative and call it a day.


Reasons to be grateful #14 – Honey

One of the good things about living in this locale is the honey; I just love honey (in any language – medevý, honig, miel, mossi, miele, mel, med, honung and bal). I have just purchased my liter-jar fix for a modest five euros from a local supplier and have the heavy glass jar of dark gold unctuous nectar in front of me.

I reckon that a small spoonful of honey spread on my bread-roll in the morning for breakfast is a real sweet way to start the day. Honey is the smell of the honeysuckle releasing its full fragrance on an evening in late spring transmuted into pure taste … heavenly.

The dripping honeycombs of my childhood on the farm, why are they mere shadows on my memory?

Why is the word syrup so scarcely used these days?

What do you think, Honey?


Another Sunday in the life

Sunday lunch in most societies, whether rich or poor, is generally supposed to be set apart from the other meals of the week either in form or content or both.

I can see the cooks all rubbing their chins in front a couple of giant turkeys (grossly pumped full of steroids to increase size and weight) and thinking, um … what we shall we do with these old birds – I know, let’s hack them into manageable chunks and bung them all into the oven …

Or maybe the chunks came from meat-retailer already hacked with the instructions: meat to roast – just stick in oven for 3 hours

Anyway we are all served with an amorphous square of roast turkey (peru assado) which is as tough as an old boot, dry and overcooked. I am interested in where the struggled-with or untouched chunks of meat will go next as they disappear back into the kitchen at the end the meal; will they continue along the food chain as dog food or to feed the pigs, if the latter we will possibly meet again in about a year’s time.

I have to remind myself that this is after all Sunday Lunch and that here badly-cut meat comes with the territory and resolutely try to concentrate on my book and block my ears to the savage berating some poor old dear is receiving for refusing to eat her soup (whence comes so much anger?) or the loud mocking echo of the moans of the demented Maria dos Anjos from the other one. I’m just starting to read Emma again and the first paragraph immediately puts me in a good humour:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

There is a time and place for all writers and the noisy environment is wonderfully offset by Jane Austen’s cool and limpid prose.

Suddenly the hoarse shriek of chairs scrapping against tiled floor signals the end of the meal and I retreat with battered ear-drums to the calm of the second floor for the afternoon; I start a new painting, sketching for an hour and feel better. After tea I spend an hour on my splendid terrace and am soothed even further. I walk up and down the corridor on my frame, consciously striving to improve my posture.


At dinner the tragi-comic farce continues. Both my table companions complain that the soup lacks salt; but guess what, they are wrong! Their taste buds have deceived them again. My father used to quote a Latin tag to us children; I can’t remember exactly how it went but it ended up the words … de gustibus and was to the effect that it was unprofitable to argue about matters of taste; (it was probably Pliny the Younger or someone). Anyway, the teachings of Pliny the Younger evidently have not reached this village … shades of Monty Python: is this a five-minute argument or do you want the full half-hour?   

(Emma has just decided that her young protégé, Jane Fairfax, would make an excellent match for Mr. Elton, the local curate …)

Later, with the low evening sun slanting in lighting up the motes of dust in the quiet hall, I wheel across the room, greeting the few left-over people still at their tables (sometimes my wheelchair is a tired old Toyota pick-up and sometimes it’s a Porsche zig-zagging adroitly among the tables – living dangerously) to the recumbent side of my old friend who used to anxiously ask me what the time was in the old days; these days however she is lies speechless with eyes closed she sleeps her breathing ragged and shallow I hold her old hand lightly and stare out into the garden meditating on a whole raft of thoughts and ideas …

And finally I arrive back in my room to find some flowers in my vase arranged Feng  Shui fashion, left doubtlessly by one the (many) kind-hearted people who work in this place.

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