memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for November, 2011

The Shout

Robert Graves, that admirable poet and novelist, once wrote a short story called The Shout in which the Greek god Pan utters a shout so loud and terrible that it makes the listener go mad. E.M. Forster, I recall, wrote a story on a similar theme called The Story of a Panic (it was the first time I’d connected the two words).

But the most powerful image of all must come from Eduard Münch’s series of lithographs and paintings entitled THE SCREAM.


It is a primal scream which goes on and on forever reverberating and echoing around the crowded squares of the world in protest against such a cruel and unjust system.

«As flies to wanton boys so are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport»

The Circus comes to town

Little Natasha skipped down the Rue de Marais as fast as her eight-year-old legs could carry her and turned into the gate of No. 18 nearly knocking into the cook, Madame Boulanger, in her hurry and excitement.

–          Madame Boulanger, Madame Boulanger! Have you heard the news? A circus is coming next week to our quartier … imagine, with real lions and tigers and clowns and things … could you please, please talk to Maman and ask her for you to take me! I‘ve never been to a real circus; Papa promised to take me to one but he keeps putting it off because he’s so busy … it’s called Le Cirque Du Soleil.

Later Madame Boulanger took a tray upstairs to Mme. Ostrakova.

–     Thank you, Madame Boulanger; what was little Natasha talking about?

–    Natushka was mentioning the circus that’s arriving next week in the quartier, Madame; she’s very anxious to go and see them.

         Well obviously I can’t take her and my husband is rather busy at the office at the moment … Madame Boulanger, I wonder if you could possibly take her yourself? I would be so grateful; life here in Paris must still be a little strange for her after Petersburg.

       It would be a pleasure to take the little mite, Madame.

So little Natasha finally got to go to the circus.

Meanwhile, about seven hundred kilometres to the south, a slow winding convoy of trucks were heading out of Marseille towards Angouleme; it was the circus. On the sides of every truck there was painted the legend, Cirque Du Soleil in front a big yellow sun. From Angouleme the convoy would pick up the Autoroute du Sud straight to Paris. This journey of normally only a few hours, would take the cumbersome convoy the best part of a day, with its frequent stops to water and tend to the animals. These animals, the horses and the dogs, the elephant and the monkey, the lions and the tigers were, on the whole, calm and sedated – only the pair of tigers prowled restlessly round their cages, their yellow burning eyes glaring furiously at the keepers.

In the second truck of the convoy, Vladimir, the part owner of the circus, was seated beside his seventeen-year-old daughter, Mia who was one of the trapeze artists. They sat in silence, mile after mile, Vladimir baffled and annoyed at the stubborn attitude of his teenage daughter. Mia stared unseeing out of the window as the beautiful country-side of central France rolled past. She saw only Anton’s face with his funny crooked smile, reaching out to grab her hands, his feet hooked on the swinging bar.

–   Look Mia, I just think that you’re too young to be thinking of getting married. I’ve known Anton since the old days, back in Canada and while he has pleasant, winning ways, he has a bit of a reputation … And besides he’s quite a lot older than you …

–   Listen Dad, he’s told me all about the other women; we’re in love …! And anyway in a few weeks’ time I’ll be eighteen and then you won’t be able to stop us!

The convoy rolled on towards Paris.

I was in the last truck. I am the Clown. My name is Gustav Kohl. I was born in Hamburg and when I was ten years old the family emigrated to Montreal, Canada, where they still live to this day. I grew up shy and introverted and looked like a skinny little shrimp. To avoid being bullied at school I turned into a joker, at first for survival and then out of habit. After leaving school I joined my father in his shop, serving the customers and still cracking one-liners:

–          Here you are Mrs. Fowler! Sure I can’t interest you in something for the weekend? something for your husband, perhaps … know what I mean … nudge nudge wink wink … as the actress said the Bishop …

In my thirties I got to hear about a circus up in Quebec which was creating a bit of a stir. Apparently they would hire anyone regardless of race, gender or age, as long as he or she had something to contribute to their philosophy which was to spread around more joy in the world. I went up and signed on as a Clown.

Things went wrong in Paris from the start. The tigers were still fractious; one of the horses went lame; the owner was hardly speaking to his daughter and that rogue Anton went around the place looking like the cat who had eaten the cream.

As the audience was filing into the big top, I nipped round the back of the tent for a quick smoke and overheard the following exchange:

 –   Listen Mia, is everything set for tonight?

–   I’m not sure honey, supposing my father calls the Police when he finds out we’re gone?

–  We’ll be well away by then! I’ve got a friend in Montmartre who can hide us for few days ‘till      the hunt dies down …

–  Oh, I don’t know, I really don’t know …

Later back in the big top little Natasha was having the time of her life; she kept tugging at Mme. Boulanger’s hand to point everything out. Then the lights dimmed and a spot-light came on and picked out the Clown, with his antics and comic capers being chased around the ring by a small dog, much to the delight of the children. Natushka was quite breathless with excitement. Exit the Clown, in confusion – applause from the crowd – then a hush of anticipation – everyone looked up into the darkness.

Suddenly two spot-lights stab upwards and play on the two trapeze acrobats standing on their bars, balancing effortlessly high above the ring.

The Master Of Ceremonies announces:

–          Ladies and Gentlemen! The Cirque Du Soleil is proud to present on the trapeze, Anton and Mia! Mia will be attempting the world famous triple somersault through the air and will be caught by Anton!!

Each on their different trapezes start to swing through the air with Anton locking his legs around the bar and Mia bracing to launch herself into space; just at the point of no return, Mia, as she starts her jump, notices that Anton has slightly mistimed his swing; she arches through the air, her body rolling and spinning out of the triple jump, her arms are outstretched to Anton … who isn’t there to receive her.

And Mia falls.

Mia falls down and down, as the crowd gasps, then bounces into the safety net managing to recover her posture and bowing to the now applauding audience, while I scampered in front of the children with my red painted smile on my white painted face. The children, thinking that it is all part of the act, laugh and cheer.

Later, on their way home, Natasha, still bubbling with excitement, skipped alongside Mme. Boulanger; she couldn’t wait to tell Maman all about it!

As a result of the accident Mia broke up with Anton. She had spotted a basic flaw in his character – he wasn’t reliable, he could not be trusted.

She later met a nice-steady-young-man whom she eventually, with her father’s approval, married. They now have two kids, four dogs, a cat and a goldfish and live in a suburb of Quebec.

I, the clown, soldier on at the circus.

The children’s joy is my joy.

Natasha is now in her third year at the Sorbonne and is causing her parents some anxiety although at heart they are very proud of her.

As for the tigers, they still prowl restlessly round their cages, their fierce spirits roaming eternally through the forests of the night.

I remember it well

All our notions and ideas,

All our fears and desires,

They pursue us down ever-narrowing rivers,

Down ever-decreasing fields of choice,

Ever-frailer bifurcations

Until we are left clutching at leaves,

Autumnal leaves ghostly and dream-like,

Fading and evanescent in the misty dusk.

I remember it well – driving along snow-driven moorland road, my headlights illuminating white diagonal swathes in the silence of that dark white night.

I remember the jakes at school, wet, cold and clammy and the four-hundred-year-old cedar tree on the ancient grass, propped-up by poles.

Poles Convent girls dancing with the pure-at-heart and that brown-eyed lady of the lowlands,

I remember her well.



I visit my flat

On Sunday I visited my apartment; big deal? Well, actually yes.

To visit my apartment I need are the following:

  • Two kind and patient friends from Funchal, Madeira, Adam and Jane, who are taking an extended weekend on the mainland driving around visiting places and friends;
  • Their car;
  • My collapsible walking frame;
  • A light medium-sized suit-case (for the loot);
  • My digital camera;
  • Keys of the apartment;
  • Remote-control thingy for the garage door;
  • Sun glasses and cap;
  • And a lot of energy.

What happens is this; in the morning, instead going down on my number one walker, (light, high and almost up to my height – only dwarfish creatures seem to need Zimmer-frames in this region, rather like, I imagine, living a remote Welch valley), I use my number two walker (lower, heavier, sturdier but collapsible). Meanwhile my wheelchair is waiting me at my table. After lunch (rice with roast unspecified pig meat) at about two-ish my friends show up and we’re all ready for the off – they know the routine as well as me – first they push me in reverse out of the door (this Home, for all its spacious amenities inside, is not particularly wheelchair-user-friendly when it comes to exiting – there is a small oh-so-near-but-oh-so-far gap in the lintel), to the strategically-parked car where I hoist myself up onto my feet and, holding on the opened door, swivel my backside onto the front seat while lowering my head to avoid cracking it on the door-jamb, a bit like a duck about to give birth – not a dignified manoeuvre.

Leaving the wheelchair behind, we drive along the sunny road for about five minutes down to the sunlit sea where my flat is situated.


And eventually, after a stressful tussle with the too-high step connecting the floor of the underground garage with the lift door, I step into the hall of my humble abode. Back in my comfort zone.  I peer into my kitchen,


then pass through into the living room where I sit resting and looking around appreciatively at all my books; my feelings are bitter-sweet.


Memories come flooding back … I could have been perfectly happy here were it not for illness and affliction; I remember the silence and the fresh sea-air; I remember the pine trees outside the window:

I look at more of my books.

But enough wool gathering, we have work to do stuff to sort out. We pass through the hall again to a small inner-hall off which there is a bathroom (all in black marble tiles!) and two bedrooms; there should three technically but the people I bought the flat from chose one large master bedroom with bathroom – I’m glad they did. This is my bedroom.

The inner-hall is lined with book-shelves and decorated with the piece of faience and bric-a-brac.

This a Quimper St. Anne with Portuguese tiles in the background

And this a Quimper bowl on an early Victorian maple-wood card-table

Here is a closer view of the bowl

And finally here is a plate of Dante.

After two hours the suitcase is bulging, Adam and Jane have chosen two books each and I am all flatted out, I’ve run out of steam but I’m pleased with myself.

(I’m all blogged out too)

Alexander Pope & Co.

Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) is generally considered as the greatest English poet of the eighteenth century. He is chiefly celebrated for his satires and translations of the ancient Greek poet Homer.

Physically he did not have much going for him (Fate had dealt him an unkind hand) having been sickly from childhood – a list of his various ailments makes woeful reading: from the age of twelve he suffered from Pott’s disease, a form of tuberculosis which affects the bone which deformed his body and stunted his growth leaving him with a severe hunchback. His tuberculosis infection caused him other health problems including respiratory difficulties, high fevers, inflamed eyes and abdominal pain. He never grew beyond 1.37 meters tall.

He was handicapped socially as well for his family were Catholics – there was a good deal of anti-Catholic sentiment in England at that time to the point where there was a statute prohibiting Catholics from living within a radius of 10 miles of London and Westminster.

So Pope was already marginalized from society and his poor health alienated him further. However, like many other short ill-favoured but clever men, he had many female friends with whom he carried on a witty correspondence and at least one lover, his life-long friend Martha Blount.


I have in my possession a book: The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Mr. Pope. Vol III. London 1720.

Like almost all of my old books, this volume came down to me from my father Robert Hugh Milner, who was something of a bibliophile and had attempted to catalogue some of the more interesting of his collection of family books. He was already quite old when he started it in 1998 and sadly it was unfinished when he died. It would have been (and indeed is) a notable document in its own right, being couched in the elegantly erudite style of a man who simply does not know how to write a badly balanced English sentence. Unfortunately a certain level of knowledge is subsumed which subsequent generations of the family will neither have nor want to have. In Some of our Books he writes of this one thus:

28. The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Mr. Pope. Vol III. London 1720

For anyone who cares for English poetry this little old volume has a tale to tell, or at least hint at.

In 1720 Pope, still a young man completed the publication of his Iliad. Its success was already so great that a pirated edition, in small format, was already appearing on the continent. To protect his profit Pope’s publisher, Lintott, hastily brought out a rival one, alongside the stately folios. This is the third volume with copious notes by Wm. Broome.

Pope died in 1744, and a young Cambridge man William Mason, who revered his memory, wrote a «monody» on his death, which was published 1747. This volume is inscribed: MASON: St. JOHN’S and bears a nice heraldic bookplate engraved W. MASON with the two-headed lion of the Yorkshire family. I consider the identification as certain.


At Cambridge, Mason formed a close friendship with the second great poet of the age, Thomas Gray. A year two later Gray, who had made Peterhouse too hot to hold him, migrated to Pembroke, where Mason obtained a fellowship in 1749. Mason was Gray’s life-long companion and literary executor. A minor poet himself he was later in life rector of Aston near Sheffield and corresponded with many eminent men. He died in 1797.

So this battered volume is a tiny memorial of three poets, two of them the most illustrious of their time. It has been oddly treated; the thin label on the spine has been removed though the indentations of Pope’s Homer are clearly visible and over them has been printed a large gilded III. The owner clearly wanted no reminder what work it was, only a note of the volume number, although an Arabic 3 is clearly printed just below. This presumably is Mason’s doing.

Two generations of Milners lived at Attercliffe, a few miles from Aston during Mason’s long incumbency, but I have no idea how this book can have come to them. Pope’s amazing achievement has often been denigrated and even derided, but it seems to me that the words come alive off the page, something I do not feel of any other version.

(Those distant generations, these dying generations, we follow them up rivers, back up the misty streams of time, back into the murk of history, back into the darkness of unknowing).

Rosie at Hundred


Congratulations Rosie!

You’ve made it! You’ve scored your century! Good for you, you have defied all the odds – medical, social and biblical (three-score years and ten was your life-span).

You were born in 1911 in the Islands – another age, another time, another continent, another century. You were born on Granada of parents, who themselves had literally been born into slavery, toiling in the cane fields on one of Governor Horsley’s estates. (W.H. Horsley, the Colonial Secretary of Granada, who was a few years later, profitably ruined by the emancipation of the slaves – serve him right!)

When you were twenty, your family was among the first wave of immigrants to Britain, settling in the east end of London near the docks in a small damp terraced house. How you hated it at first, the cold damp climate, the chilly indifference of the people. But you soon got used to it and got a job in a local sewing factory making up uniforms and blankets for the military. Later, at a Saturday night bash at the local community hall, you met Lucas, a fellow Grenadian, who lived in the next street. He was shy and so you had to make all the running and finally got married in 1938. The next year a baby girl was born – Shirley. How you and Lucas cherished the little mite, marvelling at her tiny hands clutching yours and, like all parents, how you gloated over her first drooling utterances.

When war broke out in 1939 Lucas surprised everyone by going down to the nearest depot and enlisting in the London Yeomanry. In vain did you beg him not to, but he had a stubborn streak, did Lucas, arguing that it would validate the citizenship of their adoptive country. You weren’t convinced, were you Rosie, and the telegram that you had been dreading came in 1942: Trooper Lucas Johnson had been killed in action in courageous defence of his country.

(What you never found out was the grim reality of Lucas’ death on the sands of  El Alamein, trapped in his burning tank screaming with fear and panic before being engulfed and carbonized by the flames).

After the war you carried on with your life, still working at the same factory and still living in the same bomb-damaged street. The years went by, difficult years, years of privation for the neighbourhood (and indeed for the whole country). Then your dad suddenly died followed, a few years later, by your mum who had been crippled by arthritis and a broken hip.

Those were sad days for you Rosie, losing first your husband in the war then both your parents like that, but your warm and irrepressible nature pulled you through and the fifties saw you (and the country) start to flourish again. Shirley, as strong-willed as her mother, was now in her late teens and was running around with a rough crowd, first generation British, torn between two cultures and fitting into neither. In due course (just as you predicted) she became pregnant with the gang-leader’s child – he just didn’t want to know and left her.

Thus Shirley became an unmarried mother at a time when it was still quite a social stigma but you supported her and brought up the baby (little Amy) virtually as your own daughter.

Your unhappy Shirley fell victim to drug addiction during the sixties and, during the Notting Hill Riots, she died of an overdose of heroin. This was the lowest point of your life, this was the absolute pits, wasn’t it?

After that things slowly improved. In your early fifties, you met Gary and lived happily with him until the rest of his life. (That’s the trouble with getting so old, your loved ones keep on dying on you!)

Amy flourished at school, went to university, married, had twin boys, one of whom has a little baby.

So here they all are today, your granddaughter, your great grandsons and your great great granddaughter, as well as all the carers and staff nurses of the Home. You received your telegram from the Palace this morning and now they are all standing round your table singing Happy Birthday.

Once again congratulations, Rosie!

(Oh, and by the way, watch those cigarettes, one day they’re going to kill you).

I win a prize

Some of you may recall my post of 8th October entitled Rehabilitation through Art where I describe how, for the third year in succession, I was going to send an entry to the art competition (of the same name) down at Albufeira in the Algarve. I was wondering which p-p-p-picture to select and finally p-p-p-plumped for this p-p-p-painting.


And guess what … it came in first place (in the painting category).

Not a bad result, eh?

I’m rather chuffed.

The Water Hole

One morning, just to vary things, I suggested that that the three of us go out to the centre of the compound in the full sun with our French-Impressionist straw-hats that the camp-boss had bought for us in the market on one of his weekly shopping trips to Biskra, to discuss the meaning of life and stuff while we waited for the plane from Algiers to arrive.

What Dan would do was to pass low over the camp and dip his wings as a signal of arrival before landing the little seven-seat Cessna at the landing strip which was about half a kilometre away. As he passed over we turned in his direction, took off our hats and bowed gravely.

Meanwhile someone would grab a jeep and speed out there in a cloud of sand to meet it. This time the plane carried, as well as the usual inter-office mail and equipment, my boss in company with a vice-president of the company and his wife. This VIP from America was making a tour of inspection of the stations in the company of his wife. Oops.

My boss took me to one side:

–          Tom, uh, what’s the status on the layoff of these, uh, nationals?

–          Well Walt, as you know, the local Labour Unions are digging in their heels a bit on this one; they’re insisting that ex-freedom fighters be the last to go …

–          Yah, well Tom, just try to convince them that as, uh, the Commissioning date is approaching, we’ll be needing fewer workers etc. etc…. meanwhile,  Tom, while I take Mr. Davis down to the station to meet with the Chief Site Engineer why don’t you take Mrs. Davis in the jeep and kinda show her around the place.

So there I was sitting in the jeep with this pleasant middle-aged matron, showing her around the place. The high-lights of the tour, the mess hall, the electricity generator and the warehouse took approximately 10 minutes to cover.

Then I had a brain-wave – why not show her the water-hole. About three hundred metres from the camp, the track dipped slightly to reveal a rectangular stone-lined pool of dark water in the shade of some small palm trees.

There had been water in that place since time immemorial, but when the company planned to construct a compressor-station in this location, one of the first things they did was to drill down deep into the sand to re-bore and enlarge the spring so that it could supply water for the station and the camp. In the fullness of time water was piped from the nearest town to supply the site and the houses of the future operators of the station after it was commissioned and handed over to SONATRACH.

Anyway we edged quietly forward and parked under the trees. What we had come to see was this: a large crowd of men were waiting, mostly in silence, for their turn to fill up at the water hole. Local Arabs from the surrounding villages were mixed with tribesmen from the Desert. A few villagers had old battered pickups, but most had their mules or camels. What most of them used for containers were the inner-tubes of old truck tires, cut in half, then tied at each end like huge black sausages and finally loaded across the backs of the hapless donkeys or the patient camels. We watched them in silence for five minutes; I glanced at her to see whether or not she was impressed – she was. Then out came one of the most inane questions that I had ever heard in my life:

Gee, Tom, whatever do these people do all day?

I struggled to conceal my irritation and replied:

they are sitting waiting patiently to fill up with water – that’s what they do all day. The big question is what are we doing here, watching them?

Dan the Man


One evening in the bar a newcomer was lounging at a table, a bottle of vodka in front of him with three other hairy pipe-liners playing five-card stud poker. It was the Company pilot, Dan. He was an American in his early forties with a youthful face, prematurely white hair and cold eyes. He was a bit of a hard case and there was a rumour that he had flown helicopters in Vietnam; an old leather combat flying-jacket on the back of his chair testified to this. I knew why he was here: he’d brought a senior engineer down from Algiers and then in the morning he was flying down to Station A to collect another engineer to return to Algiers.

As it happened I needed to go down there myself and drifted diffidently across to the table (where I usually played myself) Tom, said one of H.P-Ls, do you know Dan and he said pull up a chair and let’s play cards. As a matter of fact is it OK if I hitch a ride with you down to A tomorrow? Sure, no sweat old sport. Then he proceeded to efficiently relieve us of our easily earned Dinard allowance.

The next morning we rode to out the air-strip where the little twin-prop aircraft had been tethered, guarded by a handful of nationals seated round their fire. Dan didn’t look so boyish in the cruel sunlight, (neither did I for that matter – eyes like piss-holes in the snow). The mechanic fiddled with the engines while Dan settled into his pilot’s seat. I was the only passenger and he waved me forward to the co-pilot’s place: ready to rock and roll, sport? He took a swig from his half-bottle of vodka and then, without even bothering to taxi, just took off and climbed to about five hundred feet before levelling out and taking another comfortable swig he passed the bottle over to me and, though it was only 10.00 in the morning, I also took a shot. I was getting a buzz off the experience; you know the scene in all those movies of the small plane flying over the desert, its shadow sliding beneath you? Well, I’ve actually done-that-been there-bought the T-shirt. Dan produced a ready-rolled smoke from his vest pocket, lit it and took a couple of hissing gulping drags before handing it over to me. The dope made him talkative. He told me of his time in the ‘Nam; he flew choppers during the Tet Offensive, ferrying in fresh meat and taking out dead meat to and from the combat-zone.

There was a caravan of loaded camels plodding along in their swaying majestic way beneath us … let’s go check out those rag-heads down there, said Dan, and he banked his wings and went into a shallow dive over them – the stately Berbers took no notice.

Next he offered me a half share in a worm-farm in his native Missouri. It’s a sound business, he urged, my uncle already has the half-field we would need. We throw in $500 each for start-up equipment (six large tin boxes with gauze lids, two dozen prime worms and a few lumps of cheese) and they just reproduce themselves in the dark; my uncle would harvest the worms once a month and sell them from his farm-shop. I reckon that in a year we could get a return on our investment, and then … (he carried on with his ramble) … I also drifted away in my thoughts as we flew over the sand. It came to me that in the olden days in the southern provinces of China people would do the following: they would take a small carved wooden box with a lid, throw in a dozen maggots and a lump of cheese, close the lid and then put it aside on a shelf and wait for about a week. Upon opening up the box there was a single giant maggot, the champion of champions – a great fat über-maggot measuring six inches long – cook’s delight. Hasten to the kitchen, slice it finely into little roundels, lightly fry in butter, season with salt, pepper and a touch of garlic, a sprig of parsley and voila ... caravans … caravanserai was a lodging on the silk road

Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai

Whose portals are alternate Night and Day,                                                                            

 How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp

 Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.

We came down to earth at Station A with a bump – Station A, what a dump! It made Station C seem as though it was set in a Swiss valley. It was situated in a totally flat and featureless place and on that particular day a vicious little wind whipped up miniature twisters in the dusty compound.

I am an Idiot


My brother and I like trading etymologies; eg. glamour comes from grammar; silly from holy etc. He always held that the word idiot originally meant non-conformist. I thought before going further with that one I should check it out on good old Wiki and sure enough learn that the word idiot does indeed come from the ancient Greek idiotes, which refers to a person disinterested in participating in democracy and public life.  These people were viewed as selfish, contemptible and stupid as they were more concerned with their daily personal affairs than they were of the good of the society.

Later in the middle-ages the word took on additional connotations associated with being stupid or mentally incapable.

Mark Twain.  Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.

Blackadder and Baldrick

Baldrick: I nearly won the village-idiot-of-Wimbledon contest but I was disqualified at the last minute.

Blackadder: Really? What happened?

Baldrick: I showed up.

Sometimes I feel a bit of an idiot

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