memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for February, 2012

The History of the World (2)

Oh god, I hope they don’t see me! I’d seen two men, not even acquaintances – I’d only ever spoken to them once before in The Beefeater Bar in Cascais,


push their way through the glass doors and look around the crowded room for a table, spot me and thread their way towards my table. Reluctantly I closed my book and assumed a welcoming expression (just my luck, I thought).

They were an ill-assorted couple. The elder man, who did most of the talking, was a thick-set Irishman, a Dubliner, with a rich accent and a fluent confident delivery. He was accompanied by a young pasty-faced apprentice, sweating in a hopelessly unsuitable suit – thick, dark, cheap and English. His slack defeated posture seemed to be saying to his boss, look I know that I’m not really cut out for this job and I already regret leaving Stoke Newington.

They started dithering their way through the menu, laboriously trying to decipher the unfamiliar terminology of Portuguese cuisine (oh for God’s sake, I thought, get a grip; it’s only a cheap little taska):

–              You’ll notice that the Portuguese for turkey is peru

I remarked, just to keep the conversation going while they continued to worry what this word meant or what that dish was in English,

whereas in French turkey is dindon – des Indes; I wonder what it’s called in Turkey? As a matter of fact I suppose the animal is indigenous to the American continent …

–              I guess you Brits have got yourselves into a bit of trouble down there in the South Atlantic.

 (It was the time of the Falklands crisis; he spoke with the Irish relish for the discomfort of its larger neighbour).

–              Yes it’s a bit of a mess, isn’t it? Talk about gunboat diplomacy, it’s positively 19th century; of course it’s all about Mrs. Thatcher winning the next election; there’s nothing like a war with a weaker enemy to bring out the worst in the voting public … as Dr. Samuel Johnson put it Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel etc. etc.

–              Listen to this fellow, Mike, he’s making some interesting points, he instructed his side-kick (as though this was a continuation of some kind of training-course).

–              Anyway, I said to change the subject, what brings you down here?

–              Well, Tom, we represent a Dublin-based International Express Delivery Company; we’re looking to expand our markets in southern Europe …

At this point my attention drifted away as a tidal wave of business-speak washed over us. I felt sympathy for Mike, as he wretchedly poked around in his rabbit stew searching for the edible bits.

After the meal, as they got up to leave, the older man tapped the cover of my book The History of the World significantly, what do you think of this by the way? I’m quite enjoying it actually, I replied, why, have you read it?

– No, but I’ve seen the movie.

(This enigmatic answer still plagues me now almost thirty years later; what on earth could he have meant, I wonder).



The History of the World (1)

One day I picked up from the table in the staff-room a thick paper-back book with the grand title of The History of the World. I looked at the back to check that it wasn’t the fancy title of some kind of novel, but no it really was an attempt, by a team of authors, to trace the history of the world! What breath-taking ambition, what presumption to undertake such a task! What a cheek, I thought, as I slipped the book into my bag; I’m going check this out later.

(I suppose it’s mainly a question of balance, I continued to myself – how much space to give to the age of the Enlightenment, for example, or the early Chinese dynasties; all this I was thinking as I drifted along the corridor and entered my classroom).

On the way to work I used to sometimes get off the train from Cascais at Cais de Sodré and have lunch down there, armed with the tools of my trade – a novel, a file of the students’ homework to mark and a pair of sun-glasses –  before crossing the square to catch the tram (or rather funicular) up the steep hill past the Chiado,


with that incredibly gauche statue of Eça de Quiroz,


to the top of the ride at the Bairro Alto and then walking along the promenade for five minutes enjoying the fine view of the castle opposite,


before plunging down again, threading my way down the steep little streets, past the botanical garden with its exotic trees, down and down to the back of the school on the Avenida.


I did this the following day. I took The History of the World out to lunch.

Slightly contemptuously at first and then with a growing fascination, I read the first chapter – The early hominids … homo sapiens … Palaeolithic/Mesolithic/Neolithic … the sites that claim to be the cradles of civilizations … Mesopotamia – land between two rivers – Tigris and Euphrates, along the Indus river valley, on the banks of the Nile and along the great rivers of China … the Sumerians began farming in 9500 BCE … the earliest traces of written language

I was transported from this small Lisbon restaurant with its noisy clatter, to human prehistory. This should be required reading, I though enthusiastically. Then I saw them; oh no, not them, I thought.


No Country for Old People

With more than 1,000,000 old people, Portugal has one of the largest (proportionate) ageing populations on an ageing continent.

I live with about 35 of them.


There is a tradition in most of Asia of reverence of and respect for the old. Here in the West however, owing the urbanization of society, the disintegration of the extended family-unit and the frenetic nature of people’s life-styles, we stick our old people into Care-Homes where they are sometimes neglected and disrespected.

I am not in such a Home, but even so dining downstairs can be a depressing experience indeed – the atmosphere muted, senescent and crepuscular. The three carers, who are nearing the end of their working day, are impatient to get home and who can blame them.

After the meal, which is rushed through at record-breaking speed, the walking wounded stagger off to their rooms while the wheel-chair brigade are briskly lined in the hall up in front of the elevator; one or two of them are dribbling slightly from the corners of their mouths.

They are patient, silent and exhausted.

Painting entitled 'flight attendant' by Thomas Milner

Painting - Flight Attendant - by Thomas Milner

And what am I (also a wheel-chair job) doing? I have stayed at my table near the double doors of the dining-room and am writing this.

There’s quite a crowd of them, by now, waiting for the 8.00 take-off; the queue is tailing back into the dining room, the last two old dears are sitting here beside my table; they are both wearing black; one of them is telling off the beads of her rosary and the other pulls a tired smile at me. I smile back. The others are all in serried ranks now, as though on a tired and murky Gatwick evening, waiting waiting waiting.

Oh, ye daughters of Jerusalem, cry out, cry out!

And the band played on

Let us anticipate by a couple of months all the brouhaha when the various mediums of communication remind us one morning with our breakfast that the night 14/15 April is the centenary of the sinking of the TITANIC.


And the band played on.

If Jesus and his twelve apostles had been on the Titanic on that fateful, misty evening of the 14th April 1912 in the North Atlantic, when that great ship and that great iceberg converged and conjoined in a cold ritualistic embrace and began their last frozen waltz, they would no doubt have travelled First Class, (a suite for Himself and shared cabins for His 12 followers).

They might well have eaten something from the following menu.


Hors D’ouvres Variès – Oysters

Consummé Olga – Cream of Barley

Salmon, Mousseline Sauce, Cucumber

Filet Mignon Lili – Sauté of Chicken, Lyonnaise – Vegetable Marrow Farcie

Lamb, Mint Sauce – Roast Duckling, Apple Sauce – Sirloin of Beef, Chateâu Potatoes

Green Peas – Creamed Carrots – Boiled Rice – Parmientier & New Potatoes

Punch Romaine

Roast Squab & Cress – Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette – Pâté de Foie Gras – Celery

Waldorf Pudding – Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly – Chocolate & Vanila Eclairs – French Ice Cream


And the band played on.

Because I do not hope to turn again

Today is Ash Wednesday.

Yesterday was Carnival, which, being a good Englishman, I resolutely ignored.

Today is the first day of Lent, which I shall likewise ignore as being a complete irrelevance in today’s social context.

But every year on this day I make a point of reading T. S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday.  I know that sounds a tad pretentious but there it is, (why would I make that up at this late stage) and I also know you will become even more irritated when I add that I read it in an edition of the poem that my father bought when it was first published in April 1930 (not one of the first 600 signed and numbered copies at the beginning the month but one of the ordinary run of 2000 copies that appeared towards the end of the same month).

 (pass the sick-bag Alice).



I settle down in my wheelchair and, holding the slim, light 82-year book in my hands, begin to read:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Quote of the day

A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84)


Smuggling book out of the Papal States

One of my favourite forebears is my great-great-great-uncle William Milner who died tragically young in 1813 of tuberculosis.
He, like both his elder brothers, was educated at the Hipperholme School, (a famous contemporary was Lawrence Sterne, author of that literary anomaly Tristram Shandy)  near Bradford and took up an interest in modern languages – German and Italian. In his youth he travelled extensively on the Continent, and spent some time in Germany where, according to his cousin Thomas Asline Ward, he lived upwards of a year in Brunswick where he entered into all the gaieties of that dissipated place, and visited at the court of the Duke.

I have a small, fat, old, calfskin-bound, 17th century Italian book of his –IL Correiro Svaligliato, publicato da Ginifaccio Spironcini. MDCXLIV (1644), obviously acquired on the same occasion, because he first signed his name (in German script), then read it and was either rather scandalized by the its contents or more likely perhaps worried that he would be detained at the frontier of one the Papal States with the book in his possession.
Be that as it may, he carefully scraped away his surname from the title page, though it can still be made out (just) two centuries later.

What was it all about? My father describes the book thus:
It is indeed a curiosity – a collection of squibs or pasquinades violently attacking the Barberini pope Urban VIII, his rapacious family and the corruptions of the papal court. They are associated with the name of Ferrante Pallavicino and one (section) vividly records his betrayal by an agent provocateur, his trial and execution by the papal forces. After three and a half centuries the binding is sound and good – a tribute to the magnificent material.

I can see the young man, bent over the page, gently scraping away with a razor, his face absorbed in the candle-light.

In 1811 he was diagnosed with the disease that was to kill him and transferred to the Isle of Wight for a cure. We have a letter from there to his father:
… he then hoped he was recovering and he would be soon back in Town. He thinks he has benefitted from the use of a kind of tobacco, Strabonum Herb Tobacco, which he smokes in a pipe. It has done (him) more good (sic) than fresh air or any other medicine.

(Over two centuries, does one detect the whiff of cannabis?)
Staying in his boarding house is a Mrs. Campbell, widow of General Campbell who died lately in Portugal in consequence of his too great fatigue and exertions in disciplining the Portuguese Levies.
William died two years after the date of this letter and was buried at Attercliffe in Yorkshire.

A Murder of Crows

A murder of crows,
A barren of mules,
A bundle of rags and
A desert of lapwing.

A bench of bishops,
A pontifation of priests,
A coven of witches and
A parliament of rooks.

A cete of badgers,
A business of ferrets,
A sege of herons and
A walk of snipe.

A murmuration of starlings,
An exultation of larks,
A chattering of choughs and
A muster of peacocks.

A herd of curlews,
A covey of ptarmigan,
A sounder of wild boar and
A fall of woodcock.

A malapertness of pedlars,
A glozing of taverners,
A wilderness of monkeys and
A drunkship of cobblers.

Oh, what a wondrous, sprawling generosity our English language has, that can afford these nouns of assemblage!
Here is richness indeed.
What a glorious, tumbling stream of words.
What joy!



I first fell in love with the plumbago bush whilst on holiday in the Algarve more years ago than I care to consider

One minute I was innocent of plumbago, insouciantly minding my own business without a care in the world and then suddenly I discovered plumbagoa combination of the resonance of the name and the delicate beauty of the pale blue flowers proved too much for me.

From then on the final assessment of any garden was reduced to that reference viz. did it or did it not contain a plumbago bush.


Many horticultural avenues fanned out at my feet.

Now I could join in conversations about gardens and gently them steer in the direction of shrubs and bushes, coyly circling the word plumpago like someone shy of mentioning a loved one’s name but nevertheless wanting someone else to bring it up. Or I could cultivate plumbagos and become an elderly eccentric, alone in a garden comprising only of plumbago bushes, my family long since fled from of this obsession.

And finally, like Orson Wells at the end of Citizen Kane breathing his last word «rose-bud», I would breathe mine – «plumbago»

The Beggar on the Train

It’s five past ten at night, lessons are over and a group of us are standing outside the school looking for the taxis which are cruising down the feed-road of the wide Avenida. In a couple of minutes we manage to flag one down and start the exhilarating ten-minute ride down to Cais do Sodré station; the lights are with us as we race through Rossio Square, rattling down the tram-lines of the Rua Augusta  and finally running along the river to be finally deposited outside the station. There is just time for a quick coffee and brandy at the stand-up station-bar before catching the 10.30 train.
I choose a carriage towards the end of the train and get a corner seat. It’s dark outside now of course, so I’m not distracted by the view as I am on the journey into Lisbon.

(The line from Cascais follows the coast, first on the open sea then the southern shore of the great estuary about five miles across and finally on the river itself – the Tagus, one the great rivers of Europe, which rises in the Sierra de Albarracín in eastern Spain and flows westward across the peninsular for about a thousand km until it empties itself into the Atlantic ocean).

Soon I’m absorbed in my book – I’ve just discovered Italo Calvino and frankly he’s boggling my mind – this story is called The Baron in the Trees –  it’s about a recalcitrant and stubborn boy in 18th century northern Italy, who climbs up a tree in the garden one evening and, on being called down by the cook to eat his dinner, simply refuses to climb down, declaring that if necessary he would spend the rest of his life up a tree … I study the back of the book; the writer is described as a post-modern fabulist; I mentally add this new word to my vocabulary and turn back to the text.
Suddenly the sound of a loud, unpleasant and whining voice in the central corridor, invoking the name of Our Lady of the Sorrows and Miracles to please give alms for a wretched man crippled in the war overseas, breaks in on my concentration.

It is the Beggar. What he does is to work the length of the train: starting at the top at Cais de Sodré, hopping into the second carriage at Alcântara-Mar, the third at Caxias and so on. By the time he reaches my carriage we are between Oeiras and Carcavelos. He is unshaven, on crutches and is wearing a long dirty brown coat; he seems to have sprayed himself with people-repellent.

Not for the first time I study his technique; he staggers lurching down the aisle, constantly wailing his mantra and bumping into people. He is a thoroughly objectionable, obnoxious and obstreperous individual and most of the passengers shrink away in distaste; a few feel sorry for his plight and give him money; others give him a coin as if to say: now leave me alone, get the hell out of my face! Past Parede, where one can still hear him in the next carriage, imploring Our Lady of the Assumption and of the Conception to give alms … and so to my stop, São João do Estoril, where I get off.

As the lighted train pulls away I stand on the platform breathing in the sea-air; it is cooler here than in the city and I turn away to walk the few leafy streets home. I notice someone in front of me, also from the train. He has straightened up and is striding briskly away, the coat and crutches tucked under his arm. It is the Beggar. He stops in front of a neat, well-maintained little house, fishes out a key from his pocket and lets himself in.

I walk the remaining distance to my house, bemused. You just couldn’t make that kind of thing up, I think, you really couldn’t. My friends won’t believe me when I tell them; they’ll just think I’m being a fabulist.


%d bloggers like this: