memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for October, 2011

The Eye of the Needle

Imagine the headline: JESUS CHRIST OCCUPIES WALL-STREET. It would cause a bit a furore, wouldn’t it?

But is it so crazy? Only a cursory glance through the Gospels would seem to indicate that yes, if Jesus Christ were alive today, he might indeed join the Occupy Wall-Street movement.

He was a born preacher who extolled the virtues of Meekness, Kindness and Sharing with others… He preached Poverty and urged people to dump all their stuff and follow Him. He was an activist who entered the Temple of Jerusalem and violently ejected the money lenders who were doing business there … would He be on the side of the 10% who owned 90% of the wealth, I somehow doubt it!

He opines that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

And when in the Book of Genesis, God ordered Man to go forth and multiply, He didn’t mean go forth and multiply thy Hedge-Funds neither did He mean go forth and multiply thy Sovereign Debt … He just meant go forth and multiply. (So we went forth and multiplied until we reached the seven billion mark).

Yes, certainly, let’s go with Jesus Christ Occupies Wall-Street.

7 Billion and rising

That’s the story tous court and no amount of growth curves and demographic bar-charts will add to that stark figure – 7 BILLION people now inhabit the earth.

A glance at a history of world population reveals that at the time of Christ the population stood at 200 million.

Let’s leap forward to the tenth century when it has doubled to 400 mil. During the middle-ages all over the globe, poverty, high infant mortality rates, plagues (like the Black Death) and above all wars, incessant wars – tribal, feudal, dynastic, and religious – kept the population growth in check (or self-curbing effect), so that we only reach the one-billion mark at the beginning of the 19th century.

Sixty years ago, when I was born, the world population was around 2.4 billion, by year the year 2000 it had shot up to 6 billion and now, a mere eleven years later, the official figure is 7 billion. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the future – it gives new meaning to word exponential.


Let’s face folks we messed up; we have over-stayed our welcome, fouled up our own backyard and are up defecation creek without a paddle.

And to think to that there are still some morons across the Atlantic that think that global-warming is only a rumour. (Mind you, these are the same people that reckon the creation of America was one of God’s miracles, so I would take their opinions with extreme caution, if I were you).


IRONY is bit like a delicious local wine: it doesn’t travel well. Ever tried translating do turkeys get nervous in November into any foreign language? Don’t.

No, IRONY should take its summer holidays at home, in Bournemouth or up in Whitby where the sharp air will improve it.



Universal Magazine 1786

The eighteenth century in England (and indeed elsewhere) was an age of supreme aesthetic elegance. Even the magazines of the period were elegant (even their tat was classy)

I have here a book – a bound copy of The Universal Magazine for the year 1768.

A combination, I suppose, of the Daily Mail, Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement, National Geographic, Wikipedia and Hello Magazine, The Universal Magazine for 1768 has something for everyone.

For the apiarists we can read in the July edition a lengthy treatise about Hives and Bee-Boxes, in double columns of minute dense print which runs for four pages.

If you want to go from London to Norwich, a fold-out map shows you how in the June edition.

If you are interested in Natural History we have in the February edition:

… a description from M. Daubenton, of the French Academy, of most sorts of BATS that are known, both foreign and domestic, and to render the subject more agreeable and intelligible, we have illustrated with an elegantly engraved Quarto Copper-plate, representing the HEADS of seven different species of that Animal.

The description goes on for six pages; after reading that little lot there’s not much about BATS that you don’t know;  boy, you’ve certainly got BATS nailed (you can cross BATS off your list).

If you have a reverence for families of ancient lineage, then you can enjoy an exhaustive and wordy account of the Talbot family.

This was the age of reading and ingesting ideas and knowledge at leisure, don’t forget (among those predisposed by education to do so), not the age of the sound-byte, not the age of the 5-minute-attention-span, not the age the synopsis, the résumé, the summation, the ball-park figure, the fiddled stats and the bottom-line, to be regurgitated later under the guise of knowledge.

The acceleration of technology has rendered peoples’ lives frenetic; we are mentally restless and confused and need to calm down – might one suggest Buddhism?

There was a row of these battered volumes in a back corridor with a double row of shelving containing the spill-over from my father’s small library. Dilapidated and scruffy books rubbing shoulders with the obscure and esoteric ones, piles of tiny dusty old volumes together large folios and a huge wreck of an early 18th century family Bible, laying its own lateral shelf, spine-less revealing the cords used to hold together the wooden front and back boards. (Take it away, take away, my father said to me, with the bibliophile’s despair, burn it, do what you want it’s a monstrous thing; only be careful to cut out and preserve the first two pages containing a record of the family births and deaths).

So I lugged it back to Portugal … I had to pay excess baggage-weight (it had a small suitcase to itself) what’s all this? asked the customs officer, aghast; believe it or not, I replied, it’s an old Christian Bible and Psalter; and we both contemplated the Thing in silence; (he must have thought that I was a religious nutcase – one of those creepy Christian Fundamentalists one is always reading about, Creationists or, scariest of all, the Domnionists).

Back to the row of magazines: I think the volumes covered in sequence the years between about 1765 and 1780. I certainly remember presenting 1776 to an American friend on his 60th birthday; he was blown away. I think you will agree with me that it was a pretty cool gift – the subtext being: during the year when Your country was being born, We were up this kind of stuff.

Even the book plate (of an obscure Yorkshire family) at the front of these volumes has a certain elegant 18th century cool.

My Tomato

One day in early September I noticed a couple of green seeds sprouting from a plant pot of off-season orchids in the corner of what I like to think of as my terrace – wrongly in fact, it belongs to everyone in the Home; it’s just that I am the only one to use it. All the plant pots on this terrace belong to a buff cheery old fellow called Sr. Antonio.

And so day by day the tomatoes (for so they turn out to be) grow firm and green and determined but of disparate size – the seed that made it surging plumply ahead leaving its shrinking little green runt-brother lagging behind in its shadow and so, for literary expediency and also the fact that in Portuguese it sounds a bit rude to refer to tomatoes as a pair, so to speak, hereinafter (or hereunto) there will be only one tomato.

One day Sr. Antonio says to me, he says, you know that tomato that you’ve been keeping your eye on? When it comes to harvest, do help yourself my dear fellow, just help yourself.

The golden September turns into a golden October … and I watch my green tomato start to blush pink like a girl guarding her secret and finally a ripe red.

These days in late October at 6.30 the sun is low in sky and already admiring its reflection in the darkening sea; the still autumn evening has a bite and the smoke-scented air drifts among the houses of the village.

Time to do the deed and hasten to the kitchen and enter it through the swing doors flourishing my tomato: what’s that for? asks a po-faced cook; I bite off the obvious answer to that one – this district is not exactly renowned for its Swiftian irony or satire – and ask someone if I could have it for dinner, sliced with light dressing and so on.


The result is, one might say, satisfactory; no, more than that actually, it tastes delicate and delicious. (And besides, it’s organic, innit?)

Important Spelling Mistake!


During the middle-ages a young monk arrives at the monastery. He is assigned to helping the other monks in copying the old canons and laws of the Church by hand.

He notices, however, that all of the monks are copying from copies, not from the original manuscript. So the new monk goes to the head abbot to question this, pointing out that if anyone made even a small error in the first copy, it would never be picked up! In fact, that error would be continued in all of the subsequent copies.

The head monk says, ‘We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son.’

He goes down into the dark caves underneath the monastery where the original manuscripts are held as archives in a locked vault that hasn’t been opened for hundreds of years.

Hours go by and nobody sees the old abbot ….

So, the young monk gets worried and goes down to look for him. He sees him banging his head against the wall and wailing.

‘We missed the R !  We missed the R !

We missed the R !’

His forehead is all bloody and bruised and he is crying  uncontrollably.

The young monk asks the old abbot, ‘What’s wrong, father?’

With a choking voice, the old abbot replies, ‘The word was…


The Umbrella II

Being an umbrella represents a serious demotion – I must have blotted my copy-book quite disastrously in my previous existence. I’m being held high in the right hand of a young woman, my owner, who’s using me presumably to protect her face from the sun.

(Why pick on me, I’d whined to the President of the Immortals. He ignored my question. As an umbrella, he instructed me, your function will be to open and close, sheltering your owner from the rain or the sun: it’s hardly rocket science; think you can handle it?)

Back to the young woman, she’s strolling along a promenade in the company of her mother. It’s a sunny but windy day, late afternoon judging by the long shadows and probably somewhere by the sea. In my previous existence I would have judged her to be attractive, but now I am just an umbrella devoid of all such cognitive values. I am like one those cute little mechanical androids in a kids’ cartoon, jerking and chirping, comical and essentially lovable; or better like one of those super-computers guiding the spaceship to a distant star, to whom the human crew, assuming an intellectual superiority which they don’t really possess, based on having emotions and the ability to act illogically, give terse instructions, check out the navigation system K4 or fancy a game of chess K4 … until K4 sinisterly starts straying from its program, demonstrating first resentment then rage and finally self- destructs, the ship imploding in space …. I listen in on the conversation:

–              Where to next? I’m dying to sit down somewhere for a coffee; we’ve been shopping all afternoon and we still haven’t found a wedding present for Luisa …

–               As for the present for your half-sister’s wedding, it’s tricky isn’t it, I mean they’re already living together; now there’s someone whose creepy, her husband-to-be, that Pete!

–              It’s not his fault he’s lost his job. Anyway he’s just joining the other three million or so who will unemployed by the end of the year. Luisa says he’s thinking of applying to be retrained as a teacher, of Social Communications for example …

–              A teacher! A teacher of How-to-Cheat-People-out-of-their Life-Savings, more like.

–              Oh, let’s stop arguing and go in here; I’m going to have a coffee and one of those delicious cakes, what about you mum, after all we are on holiday aren’t we … I wonder how dad is getting on with his fishing; he probably hasn’t caught a single trout yet.

–              Don’t be so mean. Now, how about this resolution to limit yourself to only one coffee a day?

Laughing, mother and daughter enter the café and, folding me up, Chrissie dumps me in the bin by the door adding me to two other rather dubious-looking umbrellas.

As I am unable to hear the rest of their conversation, I continue my reveries. Chrissie’s mum’s comment about coffee reminded of an incident in my previous existence. As a young man teaching English in Portugal I met a Columbian girl called Ana with whom I struck up a friendship. We used to meet about once a week after work in a bar at the bottom of the Avenida. She invariably drank a small strong coffee, (she was running along comfortably on about six or seven of these a day).  One day I casually mentioned that if I drank coffee at that hour I’d be unable to get to sleep. Anyway the next time that I saw her, she had smudges under her eyes and confessed that she’d been having difficulties in sleeping since we last met. Now the power of suggestion …

But I see Chrissie and her mum threading their way towards me: she plucks me from the bin without stopping and emerges from the café, not opening me but dangling me loosely from her wrist. (They’re still discussing the wedding):

–              One thing I am concerned about is what they are going to live on. Luisa has her job as a nurse at the hospital, but when the baby comes along and she’s on maternity benefit and Pete is going to get some form of social welfare …

–              Anyway they’ve made their bed so they’ll just have to lay on it … you just concentrate on your finals Chrissie … look; we’ve got to make a decision about their present. There was an art shop back there, let’s check it out; Luisa likes that kind of thing doesn’t she? 

They enter the shop. It’s the usual eclectic mix of paintings, some unassuming, some pretentious and some veering towards local artisan work, but most moderately priced – people don’t go on holiday to invest in art.

–              I’ve an idea for them – something modern but discreet … hey mum, how about this one? (This one is a large framed print signed by Bridget Riley – a simple abstract with rectangular blocks of colour – greens and yellows: good choice, I think – but then what do I know? I’m only the umbrella). I think they might like this one; it’s a limited series and would look good in their living room … 120 Euros, seems reasonable … (go for it, I think, it’s a good investment) … what do think mum? Would it do as a suitable wedding present?

–              Yes I suppose so, I don’t know much about it – could we have it gift-wrapped, please – of course your father and I are giving them money …

They leave the shop, the picture under Chrissie’s arm (she having handed me to her mother) and stroll back to their hotel. They enter the lobby and approach the desk for their keys. They go upstairs to wash and wait for dad to come back from his fishing trip.

Chrissie collapses me, neatly folding me again and puts me to sleep in my plastic cover.

I dream again. I dream that I am a wind-hover riding effortlessly on the thermals. I am the heroic dog vigorously shaking myself dry scattering drops in all directions after rescuing the drowning child. I am the monstrous and deformed crustacean lurking on the deep sea-floor. I am one the Norwegian banners flouting the sky and fanning our people cold. I am the fox-driven fire devouring the wheat-lands…

But I am only an umbrella protecting a girl from the sun and rain … could be worse I suppose.



The Umbrella

I am an umbrella: just my luck.

Reincarnation dictates a continuance of consciousness – the eternal «I» threading through time from the creation of the universe – that primal explosion of gas hurtling exponentially outward into the black vacuum of space. I am an atom, a child of Chaos, inhabiting now a wisp of gas, now a chip of matter, travelling for countless billions of years, riding the star-crowded waves of the cosmos. I have witnessed extraordinary things: I have seen the birth of wondrous worlds and their demise, flicked casually aside – the butt-ends of space. Thus I voyaged through the universe until I reached this place.

I worked my way up through the various life-forms. I was a tiny worm wriggling deep in the mud of the restless ocean. I was a clam crouching on the seabed, refusing to give up my secret. I was one of the first marsupials to heave myself out the water onto the newly-formed land and waddle with my fins up the primordial sands. l loped and crouched semi-sapient and half-erect through the dark forests. I was eyeless in Gaza toiling blindly with slaves. I was one of the drunken Frankish knights who entered Jerusalem wading waist-high in blood. I flew point in a V formation of wild geese flying across the Canadian uplands. I was an eagle quartering the dizzy sky scanning the earth with my piercing eyes before diving onto my terrified prey. I was a pearl diver, plunging down with my weight-stone into the murky green depths, forever searching for that glittering prize. l was killed on the Western Front, one of the fifty thousand fallen on that murderous first morning of the Somme Offensive, shot decorously through the forehead as I emerged from my trench.

In my last existence, being a bookish sort of chap, I read a story by Franz Kafka in which the hero wakes up one morning to find that he’s been morphed into a centipede: (mum, I can’t go in to work today, I’ve turned into a bug). I feel a bit like that now: (mum, I can’t go in to work today, I’ve turned into an umbrella). It must be some kind of cosmic glitch – you see, I’d read a Taoist astrological chart indicating that in my next life I was due to be married to a princess.

(To be continued)


My moment of Zen

My first day as Director of Studies of our school in Porto.

… By 6.00 o’clock I was feeling rather weary and the confident, alert but friendly expression I’d been wearing all day was beginning to slip out of place as though gravity was trying to pull it down.

I asked one of the secretaries where I could find somewhere nearby to get something to eat. She indicated a café a couple of streets away from the school and recommended a typical spicy sandwich called a francesinha. I made my way down to the Café Majestic and sat down at a table on a long leather bench. I relaxed and admired the 19th century ornate but faded décor.

(Over the years I was to spend a lot of time there, on that green leather bench under the speckled mirror).


A waiter came up and I ordered one of those francesinha things and a glass of beer. When the sandwich arrived I examined it dubiously; I couldn’t actually see the contents of the thing because it was covered in a small mountain of yellowish sauce; after prodding the liquid gingerly with my fork I discovered various bits of meat, sausage and whatever. I struggled with it manfully before giving up and pushing it aside. Beside me on the bench at the next table sat a small elderly lady, respectably (but oddly) dressed in a little brown suit trimmed with pieces of rabbit. This person had been watching me trying to eat the sticky sandwich and, when I moved it aside, she leaned forward and asked me if I had finished with it; on my dumbly nodding, she whipped out a napkin from her handbag and in one smooth practiced movement she scraped the ruins from my plate, wrapped it up in the napkin, popped it into the bag which she then clicked shut with a snap. Then the mad old bat got up and walked out into the street, leaving me open-mouthed.

I had arrived in a city of magic; it was my moment of Zen.

Aunt Rachel

My memories of our aunt Rachel are somewhat blurred by time; but her spirit, her spirit lives on in me. My brother Jim, who still lives in Thurlstone, was closer to her and I couldn’t do better than to quote from one of his mails to some newly-discovered cousins of ours who live in Canada:

Mary’s sister, my aunt Rachel, was a devout Protestant all her life.  She was very gentle, slightly timid, a little delicate in health, prone to hypochondria and immensely kind.  After WW2, Rachel worked in Malaya helping a missionary to run an orphanage in the jungle.  One day, when Rachel was away visiting a neighbouring rubber plantation, bandits raided the orphanage and murdered the missionary.  When Rachel returned to find her murdered friend, she took over the running of the orphanage single-handed until help arrived some weeks later.  I think the experience fairly traumatised her and she returned to England soon after.  Rachel never talked to me about the experience even though we were close. Aunt Mary told me about it.  Rachel was awarded two medals for bravery by the Union International de Protection de L’Enfance, Geneva.  I have them by me as I write.




In her old age, Rachel had a cleaning lady called Tracy to help her with the housework.  Trace and her husband got into arrears paying their mortgage and the bank was threatening to repossess the house.  When Rachel heard of this, she immediately gave Tracy a cheque for £1,000.  Rachel never mentioned this to me, Tracy told me about it after Rachel’s death.  Rachel was not a rich woman; she lived on the state old age pension, a small amount of savings and the small rent from about twenty acres of farmland that she had inherited.

She did ask my advice about selling her Armada Chest – a large iron bound chest which was thought to have come from one of the destroyed Spanish Armada ships and was quite valuable.  She said “Thurlstone Church is appealing for funds to install central heating and I want to do my bit.  I want to sell the chest and a few other bits and pieces and give the money to the Church, but I’m worried about what the rest of the family will think about selling these family heirlooms?”  I advised her to sell them and that no-one would think the worst of her for it, and that it was not as if she were selling family portraits or anything associated with the family; I should think she would have asked my father’s advice too – she respected him greatly.

When I used to live in Thurlstone I would pop up and visit her in her room on the top floor of one of weaver’s cottages she had shared with her mother and her aunt before they died. It was a tranquil room decorated in pale greens and greys with a fine view of the bridge at the bottom of the steep and narrow valley.


She was tall and thin and always well-groomed – pale silk blouse with a little broach fastening at the neck, Jaeger cardigan, tweed skirt and patent leather shoes. She smiled a lot. She had the social knack of always seeming to be interested in our affairs; (a skill not that common in this self-centred age). She spoke clipped clear English (at times cryptic in a Wodehousian manner); she would lean forward to tap one lightly on the knee and say: the Atlas Mountains, interesting, very; or: Vietnamese cuisine, interesting, very. One day we were talking about Buddhism (interesting, very) and she casually mentioned that she had seen the Buddha’s Tooth at a shrine in Kandy in Ceylon.

I have a little book of hers which must date from this period; Malayan Pantums or verse quatrains, with the Malayan on one side and the English translation on the other. The volume was printed in Kuala Lumpur in 1938.

Rachel Milner – Nice Lady (very)


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