memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for September, 2011

Take the weather with you

Have you noticed that with the weather there is no pleasing some people.

To sum up: in the winter it’s too cold; in the spring it’s too wet; in the summer it’s too hot and in the autumn it’s too foggy.

Maybe it was always so, from South of the Tropics to the Polar Rim, from the Western Isles to East of Eden, people have looked up at the sky and commented about the weather since time immemorial.


I happen to live in a particularly pleasant and temperate corner of south-west Europe and agree with John Ruskin when he said:

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

The person who exemplifies my opening statement takes a pretty dim and pessimistic view of the weather conditions on any given day. One glorious sunny day in early June I remarked to her: what a lovely day! She thought for a moment and then came back with: yes, but they’re giving rain for the weekend. Oh for Heaven’s sake carpe diem, you silly person, carpe diem!

And now over to Crowded House (sound of clapping and applause)

Walking ’round the room singing “Stormy Weather”

At 57 Mt. Pleasant Street

Well, it’s the same room, but everything’s different

You can fight the sleep but not the dream


Things ain’t cooking in my kitchen

Strange affliction wash over me

Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire

Couldn’t conquer the blue sky


Well, there’s a small boat made of china

It’s going nowhere on the mantlepiece

Well, do I lie like a loungeroom lizard

Or do I sing like a bird released


Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you

Everywhere you go, always take the weather

Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you

Everywhere you go, always take the weather

The weather with you



Evenings are another country

The days here at the Home have a semblance of normality but the evenings, well the evenings are another country where at times one’s thoughts are darkened by the sighs of the old ones lifting, vapours rising from the dark earth in a country church-yard.

They dip in and out of sleep with moist eyes fluttering weakly rolling in their sockets.

I am sitting by Sr. Manuel, tall, skeletal, fine distinguished face ravaged by sores and blotches spasmodic hands clutching flapping hiding his cavernous eyes weeping muttering quiet persuasive senseless words.

Sr. Manuel has Alzheimer’s Disease: not Mild Cognitive Impairment like a lot of old people here but full-blown Alzheimer’s.

The noise is intense (five or six women all talking near the top of their voices) and he is agitated; I recall that, unlike most people here, he is a cultivated man and was a journalist by trade and indeed had books published.

After the Noise has left quiet descends but I stay on at his side for about a quarter of an hour. His dark restless eyes skidding all over the place at times settle on me, intense and disturbing. I strive to empathize with him but without much success. I feel helpless and sad. I suspect he is in great mental agony. Is this my future?


Thirty years of life

What separates this picture of me leaning against a vehicle adapted to rolling on sand

From this picture of me sitting in a vehicle adapted to rolling on sand.


Thirty years of life

With its comforts & discomforts

With its rewards & failures

With its health & illnesses

With its boredom & excitements

With its betrayals & constancies

With its joys & sorrows



To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

The Red Priest

Luigi Mancini was waiting on tables at one the famous out-door cafés in St. Mark’s Square. Although he had only been working at the job for three weeks – he’d got it through the good offices of his uncle Julio – he took to the work naturally and skillfully, deftly fetching and moving extra chairs, alertly attentive to the customers’ orders with his napkin over one arm and pencil poised in his hand, he was every inch the Venetian waiter that the tourists expected. As 4 o’clock approached he glanced across the square, waiting for the odd couple to appear, you could set your watch by them, he thought. They lurked in the shadows, on the far side of the square, next to Floriano’s. The man elderly and burly in his scruffy raincoat and hat, one brim pinned back Australian fashion, was seated on a folding chair beside his Asiatic-looking diminutive companion crouching modestly next to him. Soon the end of my first shift, thought Luigi, and I can take the weight of my feet, drink a fino and discreetly count up my day’s tips. (Something in the romantic air of Venice seemed to make the tourists dig a little deeper into their pockets).

Robert Pennington gazed across the square barely aware of the scene around him. He was constructing a magazine article in his head and the deadline was looming. The article, part of a series entitled Eminent Venetians was the brain-child of a sub-editor of The Daily Post, a newspaper that occupied that mindless but fertile middle-ground between the Tabloids and the Broadsheets. Rob had worked for The Rag, as it had been known in the old days in Fleet Street, for over twenty years. Time was when he had been at the cutting-edge of reporting, dodging bullets in Beirut or delving into Columbian drug Cartels – ace-reporter R.L. Pennington bringing incisive and pithy articles to your breakfast table each morning!

It was during this period, when he had just filed a background piece about life in post-Pol Pot Cambodia and was kicking his heels in a bamboo-built village, skimming pebbles across the brown waters of the Mekong River, that he met his wife, Mi Sung. She’d lost all her family in the Killing-Fields of Cambodia and had escaped here to this Laotian village. She had found a job working behind a bar and living above it. The moment she saw the tall shambling overweight Englishman, with his grizzled head and weary face, she wordlessly latched onto him, taking him upstairs to her room and into her bed and had stubbornly followed him around ever since.

Now however more than fifteen years later and looking more than his sixty years, Robert had been relegated to the Features page and had been allocated an article on the Venetian composer Vivaldi:

–          … and make it sexy, Rob, and not too technical, not too many contrapuntal motets and more naughty little choirboys … remember our brain-dead readership.

Actually Robert would have preferred Marco Polo or one of the Bellini painters or even Casanova.  And so here in Venice, on this draughty square, with his inscrutable wife crouching at his side, Robert began to compose the piece in his mind:

–          Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678, where his father was one of the best violinists in the Ducal Chapel at St Mark’s Basilica. From the earliest age he was steeped in the musical tradition, following his father in becoming proficient violinist, but he was marked out for the Church. Ordained priest in 1703 he seemed to settle in this vocation. In eighteenth-century Italy, as elsewhere in Catholic Europe, an ecclesiastical career carried with it considerable prestige …

Robert to his chagrin had been straying back into the stilted style of the school-room; why not just get to point and write that Vivaldi started having asthma attacks which prevented him from celebrating mass. Making the best of a difficult situation the young priest immediately enrolled in the Seminario Musicale, one the most famous conservatories in Venice.

Here, Robert hyped an image of the young Vivaldi, nicknamed The Red Priest,  scurrying wheezing across the square, soutane flapping in the April wind, his mind forming and annotating the notes of an embryonic  concerto …

–          In a few years he became a violin teacher, choirmaster and conductor, an established composer, a virtuoso famed throughout Europe, an opera composer and an impresario. History has been very unkind to such a genius; he died in 1741, utterly destitute. Vivaldi’s output was vast and included 470 concertos, more than two thirds of which are concertos for soloists, a genre which found its true master in Vivaldi. He created the actual principle of the concerto, in which the orchestra accompanies a solo instrument for the duration of a work; he would substitute a human voice for an instrument, for example the baritone was replaced by the oboe, the bass voice by the bassoon and the soprano by the mandolin …

Hang about thought Robert this is putting even me to sleep, never mind the readers. His mind drifted back to his student days when, to alleviate a steady diet of pop/rock and jazz music, he would resort to the classical stuff: only the popular pieces as he was just starting to explore that kind of music – never overlook the obvious was his motto in those days; (it still was, now he came to think of it). So he listened to all the favourites – Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Shubert and so on. But even then he was particular fond of an album of Vivaldi’s mandolin concertos, which he played again and again, their calm plangent harmonies providing a soothing antidote to the electrifying frenetic guitar of Jimi Hendrix.

Back to the Padre Rosso; he consulted his notes and remembering his editor’s stricture to spice up the article, he spotted an area which he thought he could develop (translation=invent).

–          Vivaldi, although a frequent traveler abroad as well as to other Italian cities, (he was a kind of eighteen-century version of Robbie Williams), was associated, during most of his working life, with the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four Venetian orphanages for girls. There he first met the lovely Lucrezia, a buxom young orphan girl with jet- black hair and languishing eyes who saw possibilities in the young red-haired priest. In the passing of time Mother Nature took her course and the pair settled into a long-standing liason. Well you can’t keep a secret like that for long in such a closed community; (a more enlightened age would have found much to censure in this relationship) to cut a long story short they became an «item».

Let’s wrap this up now and type it into the lap-top back at the Pensione. Even Mi Sung  sitting patiently at his side with such an oriental self-effacement was becoming restless.

–          Although Vivaldi is recognized today primarily on account of his many fine concertos, he was also the composer of some forty five operas and a considerable amount of church music, the best known of which was the Gloria in D major. The Gloria is in twelve effectively contrasted movements. Venetian composers, like those at Bologna, were inspired no doubt by the architecture of their churches, to experiment with musical colours and sonorities

Robert swung his head back to contemplate the famous be-crossed copulas on the multi-domes of the cathedral. Venice had once been a great maritime state trading as far as Syria and Palestine and bringing back the Eastern styles of architecture, which had inspired St. Mark’s, just as at roughly the same period the Portuguese forays as far as India would bear architectural fruit and decorate with their fantastic twisted carvings the great churches of Belem and Batalha in the Manueline style. Here we go again, Rob, drifting off the subject; try to concentrate:

–          But Vivaldi’s most famous work by far was the dramatic and passionate The Four Seasons; far ahead of its time it was a colossal success wherever it was first performed. But fame is transient and fickle and eventually his name was consigned to oblivion for years.

At last, to Mi Sung’s relief, Robert gathered up his scribbled notes and ideas, folded up his chair, handed it to his long-suffering wife and left the square.

Luigi the waiter was stacking up the chairs and folding the umbrellas; the grey sky presaged rain and the taxis and gondolas on the edge of the Grand Canal bobbed uneasily on the oily water. The tourists were departing from the square to their hotels and restaurants, and Luigi after wiping down the tables would then take his evening break; (he was meeting his girl-friend Teresa for a bite to eat at the Burger-King in the mall).


The Stone Baby

Some little stories rise up by chance and demand to be told, however ineptly. Here is a rather fascinating medical case which was recently recounted to me by my elder son, who studies (and works) at the University Hospital of Coimbra.


One day last year an elderly woman in her 70s was admitted to the hospital complaining of stomach pains and cramps. She was from a remote village of Beiras and had had limited access to medical care.


Apparently, about 60 years ago when she was fifteen, she became pregnant – father unknown. Month after month the baby grew silently in her womb with her scarcely being aware of it until it neared full term and time to be born.

But it wasn’t born. It had a stranger destiny. Over the years the (dead) foetus gradually calcified inside the womb, spinning its own white tomb. Sixty summers and sixty winters passed in the tiny mountain community with the timeless rhythms of the seasons.


Until last year at Coimbra Hospital where it was scanned, diagnosed and surgically extracted and caused amazement! Such a case hadn’t occurred for over two hundred years. It created quite a stir amongst the medical fraternity. James was helping in the radiology department at the time and actually saw the radio-imaging – it was a perfectly-formed embryonic fossil.

And now presumably it forms the chief attraction some Museum of Forensic Pathology somewhere … surreal, definitely surreal.


But let us turn our attention to this picture of a very different baby, alive and well, with her mother and father; a joyous sight, surely? But hold up there! Why are Baby, Mum and Dad in separate bubbles and what are those fish-like things sticking into Baby’s head? It all looks a bit weird to me, yes definitely weird.


The Swimmer

Starting the day with a swim is highly recommended.

So I enrolled at my local Municipal Baths at Feira. These were modern, strategically located facilities with a 25-metre pool (half-Olympic size) and a circular shallow heated pool for children and for hydro-therapy for the physically-disadvantaged (such as I am now).

I opted for the free regime three times a week during the dead middle-of-the-week morning and started building it into my routine.

I must confess at this point that I am not a very good swimmer. I was simply never taught how.

When I was at my Prep school the sadistic gym-teacher would herd us 9 year-old, white and shivering boys down to the deep-end of the pool and, one by one, we had to jump in … sauve qui peut … in a water-gulping splashing panic most of us managed make it to the side of the pool which we gripped, gasping for air. (One poor little wretch, doubtless assuming that all was up with him, refused to move his limbs and sank like a stone to bottom of the pool, so that the gym-master had to spoil his fancy track-suit by diving in and fishing him out).

I never learned how to breathe correctly, for example, so I ended up with a limited repertoire of only two strokes – the breast-stroke and the back-stroke. Nevertheless I read somewhere that swimming exercised more muscles of the body then any sport.


So I would slowly churn (or ripple) my solitary furrow along the watery lane towards the future.

Sometimes there was a swimming class for a group of middle-aged women who used to cluster at one end of the pool and exercise the only part of their bodies that didn’t really need it – their mouths.

From time to time a white-skinned girl, a Municipal Goddess, with the wide shoulders and streamlined hips of the professional swimmer would dive in and cover 20 lengths of the pool in an unbelievably short time, cutting through the water efficiently with her lazy powerful strokes and her flashy racing turns. Then she would unhurriedly climb of the pool and stalk gracefully from the hall (leaving us, the doggy-paddle brigade, feeling somewhat rueful and chastened).

Yes, there’s nothing better than a good swim to start the day.


After all the shouting,

After huge helpless explosions

Of coughing and sneezing,

After the angry scraping of chairs,

After the protesting screech of trolley wheels,

After clashing clatter of stacking plates,

After the cacophony of tossing cutlery,

After the moaning and lamentation,

After the shouting and recrimination,

The pink beauty of the evening sky

Behind the trees,

The mellow red-wine balm,

The zingy coffee-lift,

Restore my spirits and

Bring calm to this unquiet hall.




The Angolan Bar

During the time that I lived in Estoril in the early 80s, in a street behind the Hotel Paris there was a small, dreary failed shopping centre, in the empty concrete bowels of which, we came across the Angolan Bar.

Basic furniture, orange plastic chairs and white tables, dirty concrete floor, a juke-box and a pinball machine, one entered it dramatically through glass-doors onto a  square platform from which one descended some grey concrete steps; so that each newcomer  was under brief scrutiny (which could be quite off-putting at first).

The habitués of this curious dive were mostly returnees from the former Portuguese African colonies, Cabo Verde, Angola and Mozambique. After the 25th April revolution in 1974 the new communist government abruptly granted all the African possessions independence, and a flood of more than a million mostly destitute people returned to Portugal, angry and disoriented. This imposed a severe social and economic strain, as the mother-country, one the smallest economies in Western Europe, struggled to absorb this influx.

The atmosphere of the bar subconsciously reflected this; there were undercurrents of past expansiveness and present cramped privation, as the inhabitants of the bar, black and white, drank cold thin beer in tall glasses along the bar. It was a tribute to their impartiality that we were accepted there.

I would drop in from time to time, perhaps after having dinner at a restaurant in Cascais. Life for us language teachers living along the line was a Kingdom of Cockayne in those days.

One night three of us were lounging at a table with our brandies when a tall black man came in, sharply dressed in a long black leather coat and a gold chain round his neck; he had a side-kick with him. They went to the bar and after ordering beers, spoke with Tiago the barman who nodded in our direction. They sauntered over to our table and introduced themselves as Morgan and Kev from (the manor) of Hackney in north London. They were knowing, self-confident fellows but genial and polite. We got into conversation: they were exploring the possibilities of the scene down here, possibly as an alternative to the south of Spain, for their associates back in London. I was wearing my usual scruffy T-shirt and jeans but happened to be wearing my gold signet ring and a gold Omega watch (which I hadn’t yet sold). For some reason Morgan got it into his head that I shared his marginal criminality and was lying low, skulking here on the Estoril coast. Every time I tried to extricate myself from this misapprehension I only managed to dig myself deeper into a hole:

–              Well Tom, what’s your «job» here?

–              I’m an English teacher actually, teaching English as a foreign language.

–              Yeah I like it, Tom, like it but don’t you have to know Portuguese for that job?

–              No not really, that’s the beauty of it, you see it’s based on a direct method of teaching whereby only the target language is used right from the beginning …

–              So me and Kev here could get into this line of work?

–              Well yes I suppose so, as long as you’ve had the requisite training and showed a flair for the job-

–              Yeah, «requisite» «flair», good words, I like it … so what are the hours like?

–              The hours are good, that can’t be denied; we only work in the evenings, so we have the rest of the day free to go to the beach or whatever …

–              … Whatever projects you happen to be working on yeah I like your style Tom.

–              I spend a lot of time just walking the old streets of Lisbon, observing the peculiarities of the architecture, having lunch in out-of-the-way cafés and reading my book – it’s a pretty relaxing life after North Africa.

–              Oh, so you worked in Africa, did you?

–              Yes, I did three contracts out there in all …

–              Say no more, I can respect another man’s privacy. It looks like you’ve got a nice little number going for you here, nice, tasty. I like your style, Tom.

The two rose to leave, Morgan still shaking his head in admiration. My two companions, laconic New Zealanders, had been quietly enjoying the joke:

watch out for Tom, they said ironically, he’s the arch-criminal of Cascais who’s been doing over all these houses, we’ve been reading about lately in the Anglo-Portuguese News.

The assasins

The origins of the Assassins trace back to just before the First Crusade around 1080. They belonged to a cult founded by Sheik Hasan-i-Sabbah. A passionate believer of the Isma’ili beliefs, Hasan-i-Sabbah was well liked throughout Syria and most of the Middle East by other Isma’ili, which led to a number of people becoming his followers. Using his fame and popularity Sabbah founded the Order of the Assassins.

After creating the Order, Sabbah searched for a location that would be fit for a sturdy headquarters and decided on the mountain-top fortress at Alamut in what is now northwestern Iran. Sabbah adapted the fortress to suit his needs of not only defense from hostile forces but also indoctrination of his followers.

Spending most of his days at Alamut working on religious works and doctrines for his Order, Sabbah was never to leave his fortress again in his lifetime. He had established a secret society of deadly assassins, one which was built in a hierarchical format. Below Sabbah, the Grandmaster, were those known as Greater Propagandists, followed by the normal Propagandists, the Rafiqs Companions, and the Lasiqs Adherents. It was the Lasiqs who were trained to become some of the most feared assassins, or as they were called, Fida’i (self-sacrificing agent), in the known world.

Marco Polo describes how the Old Man of the Mountain (Sabbah) would drug his young followers with hashish (hence the word assassin), lead them to a paradise and then claim that only he had the means to allow for their return. Perceiving that Sabbah was either a prophet or some kind of magic man, his disciples, believing that only he had the key to paradise, became fanatics to his cause, willing to carry out his every request.

With his new weapons, Sabbah began to order multiple assassinations. Such was his fearsome reputation that he could «warn-off» Crusader-lords such as Richard 1st of England and generals such as the great Saladin himself simply by leaving a couple of (hashish) cakes in their sleeping tents (under their pillows).

Over ten centuries later, exactly ten years ago today, another old man of the mountain, Osama bin Laden, lurking in a cave deep in the tribal uplands of the Afghanistan/Pakistan borderlands, launched his own fanatical Fida’i, brainwashed by the hideous, twisted and hate-filled ideology of religious extremism, to attack the heart of America. On this infamous day the soldiers of Al Qaida high-jacked four airliners two of which they slammed into the Twin Towers of New York.

Up to three thousand innocent men, women and children perished.

May their souls rest in eternal peace.


Life among the Italians

During my third contract in the Sahara in the autumn of 1979 I stayed for about 3 months on an Italian Pipe line (IPL) camp in the oil-fields of the eastern part of the desert.


It is one of my life’s ironies that there, in that barren place, I consistently ate some of the best food of my life.

I took to the Italians at once. It was the first time that I’d had any real contact with these vivacious and agreeable people.

One of their priorities was food. When they first came to construct a camp in the desert one of the first things they would do was to gouge out deep cellars with their mechanical diggers, under the kitchens, where the large quantities of cheeses, wines, hams and sausages flown in from Milan, Parma or Siena could mature in cool peace far from the desert heat.


All the pasta was freshly made the same day; the fettuccini was delicious, the ravioli in its steaming crust was to die for and the spaghetti olio é àlio tossed in chives, parsley, crushed garlic and virgin olive-oil was, in its simplicity, a work of art. Nor was fish, steamed, grilled or baked neglected. The cook was a real chef from a smart restaurant in Milan, lured to the African desert no doubt for huge sums. He was a dead ringer for the American actor Ernst Borgnine. He trained up his three Arab boys in many culinary skills, ranging from rolling out the pasta to laying out the diced carrots and spring onions for the dips, all under his watchful eye. Pudding was often a Cook’s Creation, a cake, fruit-trifle, blancmange or soufflé.

Not surprisingly the fame of the cooking on the IPL camp spread up and down the line and elaborate excuses would made to be in that vicinity at lunch or dinner time.

As SAIPEM, the parent company and part of the Italian energy giant ENI, was based in the Milan area, most of the personnel were recruited from the north of Italy (Lombardy) and had a healthy disdain for Romans, considering their city Milan as being more dynamic, productive and creative than the capital.

I as a northerner myself could relate to this; indeed there was nothing new about this first-city/second-city rivalry – Osaka/Tokyo, Peking/Shanghai, Madrid/Barcelona, London/Manchester, Lisbon/Oporto … the list is endless, with the recurrent theme that the industrial north was providing wealth for the southern capital.

I was intrigued by the interpersonal reaction between them, so different from the dour style of the Anglo-Americans. The beauty and expressiveness of the sing-song cadences of the language, (I’d spent eight lacklustre and seemingly unproductive years studying Latin at school), the expressive gesticulation (yes, Italians really do talk with their hands) all contributed to increase my admiration of the culture which had burned so richly and with such artistic splendour during the Renaissance. To sum up, just as the Dutch know floods, Italians know food.


They were presided over by an approachable, youngish bearded man whom they would respectfully address as «Signor Engineero». Sometimes he would come into the hall and have lunch with his crew with whom he had an unassuming but authoritative manner. One day I was pointed out to him, as someone who liked a game of chess, so he came across and proposed a game. Quickly the table was cleared and a board was fetched and the game begun watched by a cluster of spectators.

This is a new one, I thought, playing chess in the Sahara Desert with an audience of hairy Italian pipe-liners. The Italians make a drama out of it; I could just imagine their murmured commentary (in demotic English):

–              My money’s on our Engineer, but you never know; the Englishman’s an unknown quantity ….

–              Yeah, so far they seem to be equally matched … king’s pawn opening, classic pawn defence by   the Englishman … the Sicilian Defence offered by the cunning Englishman but rejected by our clever Engineer etc.

I gained some kudos by these games with our Engineer. Just to finish this section, I’d like to make two completely disparate observations.

Firstly my schooldays study of Latin has since proved invaluable in the analysis of my own language, English which though belonging to the Germanic group is cognate to the Romance languages.

Secondly and more importantly when the shy chef made one his rare appearances at the end a meal he was usually greeted by a round of appreciative applause.


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