memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for August, 2011

Birth entered the room

Birth entered the room

The tender wrapped thing,


The inner quietness of exhausted birthing,

Shocked by the trauma of his passage

His smudged dark hair was damp against the cloth.

The little animal was nestling cold

Just starting out.

William Bastos Milner

I knelt and peered in silent communication,

Love inchoate.

Then he raised his head

Oh my heart oh my son.

He opened sightless eyes,

Primordial, looked left and right.

Hello youngster, welcome to the world.


My Father Learns Chinese

My father was a man of many interests and enthusiasms (and indeed obsessions) one of which was a study of the Chinese language. He laboriously and lovingly painted each of the 214 Chinese cardinals on square white cards. He used a special broad-nib pen and black ink such as calligraphists use. Imagine the creative pleasure he must have felt in forming such beautiful and ancient symbols. Here are six of them:

(Notice how elaborate, to our eyes, YES seems to be).

6 of his cards

He would dot the cards, dozens at a time, around the various rooms of our house in France so that his eyes might fall on them and his mind might absorb their meaning.

On his death we were amazed to discover (among the myriad writings, translations, architectural drawings, pen-and-ink sketches of his beloved French village churches, water-colour washed landscapes, extensive and deep genealogical researches into his ancestry) a large loose-bound journal on the first page of which he had written:

4. 4. 56 

I seem to have a great desire to return to my earlier practice of keeping a general journal or commonplace book, for all purposes. So let this be it. Notes of all kinds, reflections, sketches, embroidery designs, rough copies of translations, let all come here.

Naturally there was competition among us for this pearl so the sister to whom it was assigned promised the rest of us that she would have copies bound for us.

I won’t attempt to describe this rather remarkable journal further; instead I shall illustrate (with a few woefully inadequate photos) his interest in:






He was delighted to acquire a Portuguese daughter-in-law and paid her the ultimate compliment of setting about learning Portuguese, not for oral/phonetic use but in order to enjoy the rich literature of that nation. One Christmas we sent him a copy of As Lusiadas, the epic poem celebrating Portugal’s nationhood by Luis de Camões. In January he wrote to thank us for the present:

…. I started to read it on Christmas Day after lunch … by New Year’s Day I was rounding the Cape of Storms.

In the introduction to another work of his (a genealogical study of all the ancestry, both in the male and female line going back to the end of the 16th century, of his great grand-father John Crosland Milner of Thurlstone) he wrote:

The reverence for ancestors (and filial piety to elders) is one of the most endearing qualities of the Chinese tradition. They call it hsiao and for them it is one of the cardinal virtues.



The War Photographer

Max is a professional photographer who has been covering wars in Indo-China, Africa, The Balkans and  – his preferred stamping ground – Central and South America for more than a quarter of a century.

He has worked with a stringer, sometimes for various publications and agencies, The Sunday Times, Reuters, AP etc. and sometimes as a freelance photographer. He has tracked wars across the continent from Panama to El Salvador and Honduras, from Argentina to Columbia, recording the effects of AIDS, orphaned children, starvation and drug-related strife. He at times catches a glimpse of the appalling scale of a system whereby 10% of the population control the lion’s share of a country, often rich in resources, while 90% of the population share the rest. But usually, like the rest of his kind, he dispassionately plies his trade, pointing his camera at human suffering and anguish always in search of that elusive shot – the café being ripped apart by a bomb, the woman running screaming after her kids who are being taken off in the back of a truck or, the ultimate, the fighter plane diving low over the road, people scattering to left and right, straight into the lens – the shot which would take him onto the cover of Time Magazine. Max is a tall, scruffy Australian in his mid-forties with prematurely white hair and a lined kind face.

Recently more and more he’s been overcome with a feeling of fatigue and a kind of gentleness as though he’s seen enough and now wants just to lie down on the ground and go to sleep.

This afternoon he’s roaming around a huge shanty town on the outskirts of São Paulo, working on pictures which he can use to illustrate a feature story (hyping up local colour) about the poverty and lack of basic conditions in the overcrowded favelas of Brazil. He stops in front of a group of children, automatically snapping them.

He has seen thousands of such kids, old before their time, orphaned by AIDS and wars, holding out to him the detritus of scarcity. There are six of them – three girls and three boys – and only one of them, a little girl, is smiling; the others are defiant or desperate or worst of all expressionless, as if they too, in their young lives, have already seen enough. Max notes that the blue walls of the shack behind them are pockmarked with bullet holes as though death has swept through leaving his visiting-card behind.


Ever since the Mission School closed down last year Nelson, Carlitos and little Sara have been homeless, forced to live by scavenging on rubbish tips, stealing food wherever they can and sleeping in a makeshift corrugated-iron shack which they found abandoned. They share the shack with three other children, Rio kids who drifted in from the south and attached themselves to the locals, neither side showing any resentment towards the other, bound together in the constant day-to-day struggle for survival.

Today during their wanderings through the maze of streets and alleys they have come across a pile of spent shell-casings, which they are hoping to sell for a few cents to either local used-metal merchants or else foreign journalists or TV reporters, as souvenirs of their swing through the poverty-stricken zones of South America.  (Later they’ll fly back home to London or New  York, the chattering classes with their loft conversions in Islington or their high-rise apartments in Greenwich Village and tell their dinner guests how heart-wrenching it was to see those poor little kids).

Five of them are holding out their sad little trophies for inspection (only the other little girl, Rita, is clutching an old dress that she found on the tip) eyeing the shambling photographer incuriously. He stares back at them and suddenly reaches into his pockets and takes out all the coins and notes he has on him and shovels the money into all their eager little hands, then  turns away and strides down the street and disappears around a corner leaving the kids open-mouthed with astonishment.

Is this all a stitch-up?


Here is picture from the British Library called Christ in Majesty from the Stavelot Bible. Mosan School, AD 1097.

I love this picture. Monks painted this exquisite page patiently in the fervor of their belief in the glory of God. I have always admired and revered sacred, as well as profane, art, be it the early illuminations of monks or the Plain-Chant echoing distantly from the college chapel of my school-days or the time when I was introduced (at the age of eleven) to Chartres Cathedral by my father who remarked that it was astonishing that the architects, engineers and stone-masons who designed and built what was arguably the pinnacle of Western Art were anonymous.

Neither the great masters of the Italian Renaissance nor the popes who commissioned their works were particularly devout – the formers’ genius was too broad to encompass such narrow doctrine and the venality, greed and lust-for-power of the latter too great. But The Last Supper and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are marvellous creations, are they not?

But might it not be that instead of being the product of Divine intervention they are the result of human creativity reaching upwards to the sublime. In other words instead of God creating us in his own image we are creating God in our image.

I read or heard somewhere that catholic children learn in the catechism (which is a simplistic paring down of an already rather narrow doctrine) that if a baby dies before being baptized then he/she is technically denied access to the Kingdom of Heaven; his/her soul is technically transferred to a sort of limbo-créche; one is immediately transferred to a vision of a vast grey vault containing countless little grey cradles silently waiting until … until what, until when? In Zeno-like terms (reductio ad absurdum) the proposition breaks down completely. How could the Divine Architect get it so wrong? How could he/she/it make such a hash of it? Or is he/she/it is just winding us up? Is this all a cosmic stitch-up?

Mathematicians (and who are we to argue with such purity) posit that in the limitless universe the presence of a planet identical to our world is a certainty.

A Wedding (in a time of crisis)

May 2008

Mandy is going to have a wedding. She has had her heart set on a white wedding in a church with flowers, bridesmaids, Reception in a posh country hotel with all the trimmings, ever since she can remember. The fact that neither she nor her boy-friend Mark can really afford it is not going to stand in her way.

She left school at sixteen and went to work in a local beauty salon; she lives with her mum Tracey and her brother Wayne, in a West London suburb in one those endless streets that you see flashing by as you begin your final descent into Heathrow.

Mandy works hard at cashing in on her best asset – her looks. She goes to the gym twice a week and spends a fortune on make-up, hair products and above all clothes. She buys all sort of gear, whether from Top Shop, Miss Selfridges or Zara in the shopping mall or on the market stalls on Saturday mornings where she picks up all sorts of tat. As for her face and figure, well, let’s just say that she makes the most of them; she puts her best foot forward as they say.

The furniture of her mind is sparse, being over-loaded and cluttered with a series of superficial images, clichés and sound-bytes derived mainly from the TV, magazines and the chatter of like-minded colleagues and friends. Like Sarah Palin, the Republican running mate for VP in the American Election, she would probably be unable to name any newspaper that she reads on a regular basis.

Her mother Tracey has aided and abetted her daughter in her quest for a suitable husband. Tracey and her daughter subscribe to the principle of instant gratification and buy now, pay later. As for brother Wayne, let’s not even go there.

What is rather more surprising however is that, while, the whole of the Western World is going into financial and economic melt-down, Amanda and Tracy seem to remain blithely oblivious to the situation and don’t even attempt to reign in or curb their spending habits, rather like a driver who, taking the same route to work every day, doesn’t slow down at a blind corner, on the grounds that I drive round here every day and there’s never been anything yet.

So far they’ve run up a credit card debt of over twenty thousand Pounds and the wedding will cost six thousand more; but it’s worth it – Mark is a real catch.

Recently everybody has been discussing darkly the financial markets – the Dow Jones, the Dax and the Taipei index; the pundits explain sagely about hedge funds, the collapsing housing markets, sub-prime loans, negative equity, toxic debts and so on; they worry about the various Governments’ bail-out plans – in short everyone has become an armchair expert. But the trouble is that there are no experts for this unprecedented situation: no one really has a clue.

Mark is, until recently at any rate, indeed a catch. He works in the City as a market trader, specializing in Futures, for a large Investment Bank, Lehman Brothers; this multinational octopus has its Head Office in Wall Street. Mark and Mandy met while out clubbing in the West End. He and his friends were celebrating a piece of adroit financial wizardry whereby, in few hours of buying and selling shares, they’d made over a million pounds. She was on a girls-only night out on a binge but always keeping an eye out for available men. They literally bumped into each other at the bar with Mandy spilling her drink all over Mark’s tie; it was instant attraction and, one thing leading to another, they ended up at Mark’s flat for coffee and sex.

The next morning Mark blearily staggered off to work, thinking that it had only been a one-night-stand and that was that. The calculating Mandy however had different ideas. She waited for a couple days and then phoned him on his cell phone (he’d drunkenly written the number on her wrist) suggesting they meet up for a drink after work. A couple of months later Mandy announced that she was pregnant and Mark did the honourable thing. They decided to get married as soon as possible.


Meanwhile the world stock markets, first Wall Street, then the City, the Bourse, the Berlin and Geneva stock exchanges, and finally the Asian markets – Hong Kong, Tokyo and Beijing – all begin their catastrophic plunge and then go into free fall. Governments frantically pump in billions to shore up their failing economies. Central Banks struggle to contain the situation by lowering interest rates. But in the world markets, trillions are being wiped out every day. Whole countries, like Iceland and Bulgaria, go bust! And during all this financial turmoil, before the Western Governments, in desperation, step in to nationalize them, some of the huge Investment and Lending Banks, like Lehman Brothers, (Mark’s bank), go into liquidation.

Innocent of these stirring events, Amanda and Tracy are happily planning the wedding:

–              Look Mum, what do you think of this one?

–              Oh Mandy, It’s fantastic! And it suits your colouring too and the great thing is that you’re not showing yet …

–              No, that’s right! I couldn’t bear the thought of going up the aisle all fat and ugly and everyone knowing that I’ve got one up the duff and thinking, get her! Hope she doesn’t pod in front of the altar!

–              Yeah, that’s right! Now what are you wearing for the going-away outfit? Casual or formal?

–              Oh Mum! I mean, Hello! This is 2008 you know, Casual, of course! I thought maybe my new jeans with one of those great tops I bought yesterday … oh and my white, open shoes, you know, the ones with the heels?

–              Yeah, and after the reception you and Mark will be going straight to the airport?

–              Yeah, just think it’s only a two hour flight to Ibiza!

The great day arrives. Mark, now out of a job, is increasingly worried about their financial situation and has put out feelers among his contacts in the City. But times are hard; too many people are chasing too few jobs; besides, stock market traders are perceived as being responsible for the mess and therefore not exactly the flavour of the month. He has suggested to Mandy that they cancel the church and the Reception and put off the honeymoon until a later date when their finances are more stable. Instead they could have a simple ceremony at the local Register Office, followed by a champagne lunch at a nearby restaurant, attended only by family and close friends. But Mandy insists on going through with the original plan – the full Monty, the whole disaster! Not for the first time, he wonders whether or not his wife-to-be has got a screw loose.

And it is indeed a bit of a disaster. The only good thing about the wedding is the weather with a glorious sun shining all day in a very un-English way. More typically English is the way His family looks down their noses at Her family; the flowers in the church aren’t quite right either; the Vicar doesn’t seem to know who they are and, to make matters worse, the Bride and Groom have just had a whispered but bitter row in the lobby about money. So the ceremony runs its course; the couple exchange vows and rings, with stony faces, and kiss briefly before turning to progress down the aisle, to the strains of The Wedding March. What a hollow triumph for Mandy. What a disillusion for Mark.

At the church door, Amanda breaks away and starts to run down the path, casting a reproachful look back at her husband, (much to the delight of the official Photographer who manages to capture the moment).

O Table

When the young Winston Churchill first went away to school, his mother rather vaguely took him there in the middle of the term. As her grand car disappeared down the drive, the headmaster took Churchill into his office, gave him a Latin Primer and told him to study the first page, then left the room. Page one, in the time-honoured way of such primers, dealt with a declension of the substantive feminine noun: Mensa (table): nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative: (a table, o table, table, of a table, to a table and by/with/from a table). The young boy studied this in silence and, on the master’s return, he was sitting looking slightly bemused at this new information. The headmaster asked:

–          Well, young man, any problems?

–          No sir, I don’t think so sir, but I am rather puzzled by the vocative case …

–          Well the vocative is used when one addresses the object directly, for example «o table» … but you still don’t look convinced.

–          No I understand, sir; it’s just that in our house, we don’t generally speak to our furniture.


The Angel of Death

… We got as far south as Ouargla that day, a white shimmering vision rising out of sand. The sky was an impossible blue but the south-east wind was oppressive, a precursor to a sirocco?

I wandered dreamily around the souk and watched a vendor laying out his fruit and vegetables on a mat under his striped awning. A cloud of flies transferred their attention from a pile of camel droppings to the luscious tomatoes and succulent grapes; that fruit must be really good, I thought automatically, so many flies can’t all be wrong. A shadow fell across me and I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and a chill descended on my heart.

The Grand Vizier was strolling in the green gardens of the Caliph’s magnificent palace in Cairo; he entered the famous maze and paced down the soft grassy alleys, lost in thought, his head full of Affairs of State. Suddenly he saw the Angel of Death at the end of a long alley, who frowned at him in a significant manner before disappearing down another corridor.

The agitated Vizier hurried back to the palace and requested an urgent audience with the Sultan. The young Sultan was grooming his favourite falcon but, having respect for the old man, he immediately granted him entry into his presence. The old man entered the room and spoke thus:

–              Your Highness, I have served the Fatimid family faithfully for over fifty years, advising your revered grandfather, your illustrious father and now yourself (Allah be praised) and until now I have never ever asked you for a favour. But just now, as I was walking in your Highness’ gardens, I saw The Angel of Death and he gave me a sinister knowing look.

The Sultan stroked his black oiled moustache thoughtfully, the great ruby in his turban glittered and the falcon’s fierce eyes regarded the venerable old man haughtily:

–              You have indeed served my family well Grand Vizier and because of the esteem in which we hold you, I will solve your problem. In my stables I have a magic carpet which can take you in an instance to a place on the far side of my empire and thus you will be able to escape the Angel of Death. I suggest the souk at Ouargla in the western desert.


So the Grand Vizier hastened to the stables and climbed onto the magic carpet and wished himself to Ouargla in the Western Sahara and was there in an instant. In a daze he wandered around the souk and found himself vacantly watching a fruit seller laying out his wares on a mat under his awning. Suddenly a dark shadow fell across him; he turned and a chill descended on his heart. He found himself face to face with The Angel of Death who addressed him formally:

–              Your time has arrived and I have come to fetch you and gather you up into eternity.

–              But … but … but I saw you only an hour ago in the maze of the Sultan’s garden on the other side of the empire and you frowned at me significantly.

–              Yes I did indeed see you an hour ago in the Sultan’s garden, but the look I gave you was one of surprise and astonishment;

you see I knew that I had an appointment with you in an hour’s time here in the souk in Ouargla and I was wondering how on earth you were going to make it on time.

A glass of wine with you, sir

What do you suppose that the late Charlton Heston (actor in epic movies and President of the ultra-right-wing National Rifle Association) and Keith Richard (lead guitarist of the veteran rock band The Rolling Stones and improbable survivor of life-long drug-abuse) have in common? Almost nothing except for an admiration and enthusiasm for the books of Patrick O’ Brian – they’re both P.O.B. freaks!   As is Mark Knopfler, another ace-guitarist, who pays homage to P.O.B on his Sailing to Philadelphia album – a glass of wine with you sir.

I’m reading for the third time the whole of the Maturin/Aubrey Roman Fleuve by Patrick O’Brian – there are twenty books and every one of them is great and I’m writing this as someone who has devoured his way (like a maggot) through Tolstoy, Joseph Heller, Anthony Powell, Martin Amis, George Eliot … (half an hour later) … Thomas De Quincy, Lawrence Sterne, Compton Mackenzie, Proust and Malraux, Calvino and De Lampadusa, Pushkin and Shakespeare, Eça de Queiroz and Zola and so on and so forth.

For me the O’Brian books are essential comfort reading. For example, I take a couple volumes whenever I go into hospital for a brain operation. I think he must be one of my favourite authors. He has a cult following, mostly blokes, who became addicted to him from the first hit Master and Commander in 1970 right up to Blue at the Mizzen written in 1999 and each one is a winner. Queues of haggard middle-aged, middle-class men hung around their local Waterstone’s bookshop waiting for their annual Patrick O’Brian fix. My brother Gam (also an addict) once jokingly mentioned that there was a club in North London for «Patrick O’Brian widows» whose motto was: Fuck Patrick O’Brian.

I’ve got to the beginning of the last book (Blue at the Mizzen): Jack Aubrey and Maturin find themselves at Funchal on the Island as the Royal Navy called Madeira during the 18th century. Jack has just asked Maturin, a brilliant linguist, to translate for him at the meeting with the Governor of the island:

–              Interpret, is it? As I told you before I do not speak – not as who should say speak – Portuguese. Still less do I understand the language when it is spoke. No man born of woman has ever understood spoken Portuguese, without he is a native or brought up to comprehend that strange blurred muffled indistinct utterance from a very early, almost toothless, age. Anyone with a handful of Latin – even Spanish or Catalan – can read it without much difficulty but to comprehend even the drift of the colloquial, the rapidly muttered version…


Towards the end of his life and career, O’Brian’s contribution to English Literature was acknowledged and he won the prestigious Heywood Hill Literary Prize, was awarded the CBE and received an honorary doctorate at Trinity College, Dublin. He also made a book tour of the United States. During one of his stops in the tour, at the end of his talk, a lady started gushing praise for his work; O’Brian leant gently forward:

–              What you say is very kind, Madam, but have you ever considered just exactly how much your opinion is worth?

(Oh how cruel, how cruel …)

Grey food or the ultimate culinary turn-off

Allow me to introduce you to the world of grey food. Not rather grey, not quite grey, not fairly grey, not greyish but completely grey, utterly grey, absolutely grey – a dismal, dreary, drab, depressing grey.

The Chinese have a saying: may you live in exciting times. (Well we certainly do live in exciting times, what with our various crises – economic, ecological, socio and geo-political, moral and spiritual).

But the Spanish greeting: may nothing new happen to you today is more to my taste, so the following incident took me by surprise; it was unexpected; it came at me from an angle low on my left flank while I was looking the other way, (it came as a bolt out of the blue).

It’s dinner time. First there is the usual yellow soup, which is OK if one is partial to that kind of thing – as for me, I can take it or leave it but what the heck, we eat to live here (not the other way round).

Then you can knock me sideways and call me Dick Turpin if the main course doesn’t turn out be more soup, but not just any old soup, this stuff is special, this stuff is grey! Well I’ll be jiggered, I think, whatever will these inventive and resourceful people come up with next? Blue spaghetti, green potatoes … anyway grey soup was a «first» for me.

Brief description:

  • Name   Farinho de pão
  • Colour  Grey
  • Odour  Fishy, definitely fishy
  • Shape  Amorphous
  • Texture   Viscose

We are served thus: a dose/dollop/splurge of the stuff/substance is ladled/sloshed onto our (not-soup-but-normal) plates, in such a way that there is a slight danger of the capillary effect coming into play in cases of plate-overload (which can be messy believe me, very messy). The buzz-word of the meal (farinho de pão) started at one end of the dining hall and spread/creaked/rumbled from table to table like a mournful mantra. I calculate that these immortal words (farinho de pão) were repeated (in tedious succession) between 50 and 60 times.

Hey-ho, grey thoughts on a grey day.


Y WORRY (Be happy)

About one hundred years ago I lived for a few years on the Estoril coast near Lisbon.

I shared the upper floor of an attractive house in Estoril in one of those leafy streets just behind the Casino, with two female colleagues, Nina and Sheelagh (what, Sheelagh? Yes, Sheelagh, we used to tease her gently about the spelling of her name: what exactly was your parents’ problem; was it dyslexia or just sheer bad taste). The house had a lovely terraced garden which was tended by an old gardener. There was a large fig tree growing on the lawn, beneath which I once fell asleep at 6.00 on a summer morning after a long night spent carousing in the streets of the Alfama at the feast of S. Antonio, the patron saint of Lisbon, together with olive trees, wondrous bougainvillea and herbs and finally a lemon tree from which we would casually pluck a lemon for our gin and tonics.


Unfortunately we had to vacate the house for the three summer months because the wealthy owners, who lived in a grand old-fashioned apartment in the Avenida da Republica, needed to use it for their holidays. We would return in the autumn for I had already decided to stay for another year; (I was having far too a good a time). At the beginning of July I returned home to Yorkshire where I stayed for a few weeks before hastening back for the fun in the sun. I dossed down on a friend’s floor for couple of days before another friend, the young representative of a well-known British firm in Portugal, offered me his house while he went home for a couple of weeks.

John and I had got on famously from the start and his company-rented house was in a residential street in Cascais. It was a real bachelor-pad with the master-bedroom giving out onto a swimming pool and a fridge full of half bottles of champagne. My friend John was an interesting man – young, smart and personable, he was obviously a competent business man though one sensed that he preferred our slightly freer lifestyle. He once told me with an ironic smile that in his street there was a house (obviously built by an expatriate retired couple) called Y WORRY. He had studied English literature at Oxford; fish, flesh or fowl? he would intone inquiringly as we all studied our menus in the up-market restaurants to which he would invite us.


Usually during my life the door to my heart said occupied; but not that summer. That summer the sign said vacant – come on in.

Not that I was a stranger to the green-eyed monster, that most corrosive of passions, but not that summer. That summer I rarely went into Lisbon, preferring instead to hang around the down-beat and relaxed beach cafés of the Estoril/Cascais coast. Y WORRY?

Tender is the night.

On Cascais sands I lay in the arms of my girl in the sexy moonlight – liquid nights, golden memories.

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