memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for December, 2011

It Beggars Belief

A bowl of soup, a glass of wine

And thou beside me,

Ranting in the wilderness.


All the teachings of the Inspired Scriptures

Are dwarfed by the immensity

Of the star-crossed cosmos


Pascal’s wager need not apply.

Our vile bodies are consumed by fire

Urns of ashes towards sundown.


We therefore commit his body to the deep

In the certain hope that the sea will

Render him up on the Day of Judgment.


No sudden Epiphany brought me to this point,

Only the calm acceptance

That it beggars belief.


It beggars belief that we are all born

With the in-built virus of corruption,

Weighed down by some primordial guilt.


It beggars belief that our world,

Our wondrous awful world

Should blight our brief lives.


As flies to wanton boys

So are we to the gods;

They kill us for their sport.



The man who kills goldfish with his thoughts

There’s really much to write about this subject except that my physiotherapist has developed an idée fixe over the years that whenever I think about any goldfish, it dies.

I think that she is making a rather drastic confusion between cause and effect.

I dearly wish I had that mental power – there would no flies on me anymore. I wouldn’t restrict my zapping powers to mere goldfish; I would have other fish to fry. I would extend it other creatures; I would attend a Harry Potter-style academy and work my way up the food chain. I would achieve a BA (Black Arts) then an MBA (Master of the Black Arts) and finally a PhD (What’s it All About, Alfie?)

I would become a Prince of Darkness.

I would then change my identity and appearance, but I wouldn’t go for the George Clooney/Brad Pitt look, rather I’d choose that guy in Patrick Susskind’s novel Perfume (must reading, by the way) you know, the pervy little alchemist who could become invisible at will. (Oh, and while you’re at it, lop off a couple of decades from my age, will ya?)

Then I would sally forth and hire myself out to all the Presidents, Prime Ministers, Chancellors, Dictators, Czars, Sheiks, Kings, Absolute Monarchs, Autocrats and Nutters with cash to spare.

I would become all the rich and powerful megalomaniacs of the world’s worst enemies’ nightmare. I would become a millionaire, a billionaire, a trillionaire.

I would be taken up to a high place and shown all the Aston-Martins, Rolex waches, private yachts, trophy wives, (trophy mistresses), Armani suits, i-pads, i-phones, i-gots, i-think therefore i-am hand-me-down religions of the World and ask Him:

–          OK, now what’s the deal?

But all this is based on the hypothesis that I am the man who kills goldfish with his thoughts.

I’m not.

But I must confess to thinking of her wretched fish some years ago – long enough to write this little sketch.

Scene – A tank in the kitchen of Angela’s house.

1# goldfish – Ooh look! There’s Angela.

2# goldfish – Ooh look! She’s having her breakfast.

3# goldfish – Ooh look! Here Angela’s mum to say hurry up or you’ll be late for work!

Later, about mid-morning – and here comes the sad part – the fish, perhaps unable to bear the excitement of life in Angela’s kitchen or simply feeling unequal to the struggle for existence, gently and gracefully expire.

When Angela’s mum comes back from the shops she notices that the fish have died. Oh dear, she thinks, Angela will be a bit upset – I know, I’ll break it to her gently.

Later Angela comes home from work. Her mum says:

–              Hello dear, how was your day?

–              Not bad.

–              Listen, I’m afraid I’ve got a bit of bad news.

–              What?

–              Well, let’s put it this way, you don’t have to bother to feed the goldfish this evening.

–              Why not? Has Dad been feeding them again?

–              No, it’s because they’re dead.

Angela feels annoyed. Those damned fish keep on dying on me, she thinks. I know I’ll go this Saturday to the pet-shop to make a complaint.

Saturday, at the pet shop:

–              Good morning Madam, what can I do for you? Some piranha fish… a nice little shark… perhaps an albatross….?

–              I’ve come to make a complaint. Those goldfish that you sold me last weekend have already died!

–              No they’re not dead, they’re only sleeping.

–              Sleeping! They have not moved for days!

–              Yes these Oriental fish like to hibernate sometimes…

–              Look, they are dead! They’ve gone to that great fish-tank in the sky! They have shuffled off their mortal coil! They have kicked the bucket! They have cashed in their chips! They are deceased…. They are ex-fish… they are DEAD!

–              Well if you’re sure… would you like three more?

Angela goes next door to the café and has a soothing cup of coffee to calm down


(Those who can, do; those who can’t, blog)

Ghosts of Christmas Past

When I started out with this painting lark about three years ago, when the festive season came around, I attempted to do something «Chistmassy» but all my damaged sub-conscious managed to come up with was this troubled image:


That was three years ago. Today on Christmas Eve I feel well and content (though it’s still not ideal to spend Xmas in an institution).

It’s been a good year for me (and I value life per se so much more now)

I revel in the beautiful heaven-sent day & and have just spent an hour on my terrace.

Thank you for the day!



The Three Kings 2


As a special treat we used to eat our dinner in a restaurant, specializing in chicken roast on a revolving spit over a hot charcoal fire, in the cathedral square.

We always had the same – chicken und chips and guess what! There were no knives or forks, what fun! What a lark! (What a hoot!)

Cutlery-anarchy/ hunter-gatherers sitting round the fire tearing at the succulent, unctuous golden-skinned  meat with improbably white Hollywood teeth/ imagine Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan/ two days in an assault-landing-craft/ chundering and heaving his guts out all over the place/ followed by a hairy battle to wrest Omaha Beach from the unspeakable Hun /God is on our side/ catches up with his platoon for a much-needed spot of significant dialogues with the blokes and guess what, he opens his mouth to reveal gleaming white Northern Californian dental-work.

(The chips were to die for too; they tasted … just like real chips used to taste).

After the meal waiters brought round bowls of warm water with sliced lemon and warm-moistened hand-towels.

And across the square, the lit-up cathedral’s twin spires look down benevolently on us – all is forgiven. Gutten appetite

The Journey of the Magi

By T. S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,

    Just the worst time of the year

    For a journey, and such a long journey:

    The ways deep and the weather sharp,

    The very dead of winter.’

    And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

    Lying down in the melting snow.

    There were times we regretted

    The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

    And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

    Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

    And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

    And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

    And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

    And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

    A hard time we had of it.

    At the end we preferred to travel all night,

    Sleeping in snatches,

    With the voices singing in our ears, saying

    That this was all folly.


    Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

    Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

    With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

    And three trees on the low sky,

    And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

    Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

    Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

    And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

    But there was no information, and so we continued

    And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon

    Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.


    All this was a long time ago, I remember,

    And I would do it again, but set down

    This set down

    This: were we led all that way for

    Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

    We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

    But had thought they were different; this Birth was

    Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

    We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

    But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

    With an alien people clutching their gods.

    I should be glad of another death

The Three Kings 1

While I was still a child my family moved to Cologne in West Germany where they stayed for several years.

There is a legend that the final resting place of The Three Kings is in the cathedral of Cologne.


The Shrine of the Three Kings (Dreikönigsschrein) is a reliquary said to contain the bones of the Biblical Magi, also known as the Three Wise Men – Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar. The shrine is a large gilded and decorated triple sarcophagus placed above and behind the high altar of Cologne Cathedral. It is considered the high point of Mosan art and the largest reliquary in the western world.

Cologne Cathedral had been preserved during the horrific bombing-raid in 1944 (the first 1000-bombers raid in history), not necessarily by Divine Intervention but rather as a landmark for the allied pilots, (Americans by day and British by night, or the other way round)

The pathfinder squadrons would drop sticks of phosphorous bombs to light the way in

Splashing on peoples’ skins

Burning them,

Burning them.

In the runnels of the medieval city

The air caught fire.

The ruined city

(Unreal city)

Rose again after the war like a phoenix from the flames.

(Historically speaking, we are all complicit in this act against Humanity).

Anyhow, the past is another country, they do things differently there.

(To be continued)


My brother once sent me from London a postcard of a sculpture of a giant spider outside the Tate Modern called MAMAN.

I thought, wow, this is a seriously impressive piece of art.


I wikied it (wicked it) and read:

Maman (1999) is a sculpture by the artist Louise Bourgeois. The sculpture, which resembles a spider, is over 30ft high and over 33ft wide, with a sac containing 26 marble eggs. Its abdomen and thorax are made up of ribbed bronze. The title is the familiar French word for Mother.

Maman is amongst the world’s largest and most impressive sculptures. Bourgeois created “Maman ” as a part of her inaugural commission of The Unilever Series in 1999 for Tate Modern Museum’s vast Turbine Hall. Acquiring this magnificent sculpture is considered as one of the Tate Museum’s historical moments. Maman was first displayed outside the Tate Museum of London in 2000. It was received with the mixed reactions of amazement and amusement.

I bet it was.

I just bet it was; look upon it and be amazed.

Just Browsing!

When a shop opened in the little cobbled center of Cascais called «Just Browsing» I was delighted. During my first year in Portugal I’d had a few problems in shops owing to my ignorance of the Portuguese language and social habits.


The most embarrassing of these encounters was when one day, needing a tie for a Meeting, I entered a men’s clothing emporium in the Rua Augusta and, on being approached by a young plump sales-assistant with a tape-measure round his neck who asked if he could be of service, I replied that I was looking for a tie. So far so good; we moved to the tie-racks together and started to go through the ties one by one, (he’ll be asking what my favourite colour is next, I thought), what sort of colour did have do you in mind sir, he asked.  I think I’m capable of choosing a tie for myself thank you, I commented rather dryly and continued flicking through the rack. I noticed that they were all made of (nasty) polyester and said, yes very nice but do you have silk?  He stiffened with anger and gave me dirty look that combined hurt and offence in equal measure, turned on his heels and flounced off. I was rather nonplussed and drifted out of the shop and wandered along the pavement in the direction of the Rua d’Ouro.

Suddenly it occurred to me the enormity of the verbal gaffe I’d made to that poor man: instead of saying yes very nice but do you have silk, I’d actually said yes very nice but do you have AIDS? I hadn’t yet mastered the phonetic difference in Portuguese between seda (silk) and SIDA (AIDS).

But in general the concept of impulse-buying at lunch time had not yet reached Portugal in the early 1980s, (indeed most of the shops themselves were closed for lunch and reopened only at 2.30 or 3.00 when everyone was safely back at work). It seemed to reach the point when I only had to step into a shop to elicit the verbal pounce: can I help you sir?

I developed a complex about it – did I look particularly indecisive? (I couldn’t make up my mind about that one). I tried every response, from the muttered no I’m just looking, to the ironical not unless you happen to know which colour/pattern/kind of music/book I’m looking for today … good, we’ve got rid of another customer, soon it’s time to lock up the shop for lunch … I’ve been looking forward to those nice tasty pataniscas all morning, or, with a sniff and a roll of the eyes to the ceiling, these foreigners, go figure them.

Anyway let’s go back to the little shop in Cascais which proclaimed its name JUST BROWSING on a sign hanging from a piece of scrolled wrought-iron outside the door. One sleepy hot summer afternoon I entered the shop which was empty of other customers. A pleasant-looking middle-aged woman with henna-dyed hair and multi strings of beads round her neck looked up from her magazine and smiled brightly: hello, cin ah hilp you, she asked in strongly-accented South African English. No thanks, I replied pleasantly, just browsing, I added with a significant smile. As well as general tourist bric-a-brac – sun-glasses, T-shirts, ethnic necklaces and bangles, the shop specialized in Portuguese regional faience. I was attracted by a large colourful Alentejo plate and was studying the whole display when the voice chipped in: those look really nice on a white wall and they’re only 60 escudos each. Just browsing, I muttered as I moved to the T-shirt rack (what size are you?) then to sunglass stand (that pair suits you) She was sticking to me closer than a fly on shit, as my former pipeline colleagues would so elegantly put it. I just couldn’t shake the woman off.

Finally, in desperation, I beckoned her out of the shop and into the street, pointed up at the sign and said:  Just bloody browsing!


When the going was good



Still a sad glamour clung to Travel in those days,

The coal-fire in the cold-stone waiting-room

Of a draughty Yorkshire branch-line station,


The 8.00 pm boat-train from Victoria

Rocketing through the dark Kent fields

Arriving at gull-shrieking salt-air Dover.


Orly at dawn waiting in the transit-lounge

For the tense flight across the glittering sea

And on to the hot sands of Africa.


I took advantage of my freedom.

I went when the going was good

And arrived at a dry stony place.


My Nonesuch Shakespeare


Of all my beloved books my best-favoured is perhaps my Nonesuch Shakespeare. My father bought the seven elegant leather-bound volumes in 1940 for one hundred pounds and treasured them all his life.

They graced his book-shelves in London, Paris, Cologne and South Yorkshire. At present they have a home on my shelves here in Portugal. They are still in well-nigh perfect condition.


I recently checked out an identical set for sale on the net and read the following technical description:

Seven octavo volumes (24.3 x 16.5 cm). full limitation of 1,600 sets. Designed by Francis Meynell and printed by Walter Lewis, Printer to the University, at the Cambridge University Press in Monotype Fournier, with new capital letters made for this edition, on Pannekoek mould-made laid paper.

Bound in London by A.W. Bain in publisher’s full gilt tan niger morocco leather, spines in six compartments, top edges colored pale pink and gilt on the rough, other edges uncut.

The text is printed litteratim from the First Folio, except in the case of Pericles and the poems which were not included in the Folio and hence are reprinted from the Quartos…. The Shakespeare represents the chef d’œuvre of the Nonesuch Press and is a model of careful proof reading and imaginative setting. The best of ancient and modern conjectural emendations are unobtrusively set in the margin for the benefit of a glancing eye. This is the finest of all editions of our greatest poet. (Meynell, The Nonesuch Century, p. 69.)

About 40 years ago, on leave from the Algerian desert and with my pockets jingling & jangling with cash, I went to visit my brother in Norwich where he had been roosting for a couple of years after attending the university there (UEA). During my visit I haunted the inevitable second-hands bookshops with which such medieval cathedral-cities so richly abounded and came across the first public edition (1935) of T. E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom produced by Jonathan Cape in tan-coloured buckram; a big, heavy impressive object – I had to have it! I dithered, weighing the pros & cons (as one did) … it did have the Kennington Plates showing all the tribal sheiks … but on the other hand 5 quid bought a lot of pub-time in those days … I prevaricated, stepped out of the shop, stepped back in again; I think I’ll take this one, I remarked casually to the shop owner and carried off my prize. What was the point of that little vignette, I can hear you (who are still reading this) ask?

Simply this, what the opinion of a writer whose life and work I greatly admire (T. E. Lawrence) thought about the Nonesuch Shakespeare brought a warm glow of approbation in my heart. In a letter to David Garnet, Lawrence writes:

We turn over to the Nonesuch Shakespeare. There you have created a most marvellous pleasure…. It satisfies. It is final, like the Kelmscott Chaucer or the Ashendene Virgil. And it is a book which charms one to read slowly, an art which is almost gone from us in these times. Every word which Shakespeare uses stands out glowing. A really great edition.

I think that it is very fitting that the work of the towering genius of English literature … is not clothed in borrowed robes.


The King of the Rainy Country

The sea is not calm today

The horizontal slash grey

With foreboding

The swaying sobbing trees

The lightning flashes

The soundless arc-lights

Of distant strife.


A flock of small birds

Wheel in agitation

Against the dark sky.

A gust of wind

The hiss of rain

And the storm is upon us.


I snuggle deeper into my warm bed

And rejoice.

I am The King of the Rainy Country, I think;

Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux.

I exult that I have survived,

So far I have survived.


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