memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for March, 2012

Quote of the day

To possess another language is to possess another soul.



I have a first edition of Little Dorrit

I have a first (completed) edition of Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens dated London 1857.

I must confess that I haven’t read it (nor have any intention of reading the blighter).


To be honest my heart doesn’t miss a beat when I hear the name Charles Dicken … he was the literary Big Mac of the 19th century in my opinion – quantity rather than quality, if you catch my drift … just waiting for TV to be invented … the Bee Bee Cee would certainly have had him on the payroll as scriptwriter-in-chief.

I read a couple like everyone else, dutifully waded through Great Expectations, doggedly ploughed through Oliver Twist but couldn’t be doing with it myself, too many words … oh for gawd’s sake get to the point, will ya!

Mind you, he wrote a couple of decent ones A Tale of Two Cities, though in my humble abode he was drifting slightly out of genre with that one (historical novel, innit) … punchy opening though It was the best of times, it was the worst of times goes with a swing I mean, but your Christmas Carols, your Dombeys And Sons, your Little Dorrits, your Mutual Friendsoh please, do me a favour!

But Bleak House was a cracking good TV series, wasn’t it?

Don’t know what I shall do with this unreadable book, any ideas?

Ah, zut alors! I’ve just noticed that the spine has cracked …


What the Dickens is going on?

The Fragment of Porcelain

The painter Tanaka stood back and studied his work. He was quite satisfied. The painting encapsulated all the delicacy and grace of Japanese art. The composition was perfectly balanced with the juxtaposition of the girl, the tree and the carpet of blossom.

The geisha was wearing a beautiful white kimono edged in red, with her slender waist bound by the obi and a shawl draped loosely about her shoulders. The eye followed the line of her right arm holding out her kimono to the branch of the cherry tree symbolically leaning over her and finally down the trunk of the tree to the ellipse of cherry blossom under her feet. He painted his signature at the bottom right-hand corner.

Tanaka came from a long line of artists and had at first trained with porcelain, going through every stage of fabrication from the modelling of the clay, the first glazing and firing in the oven, to the design and painting and then the second glazing and firing process. These days he specialized in painting stylized figures in a landscape.

Noriko, the model, timidly asked Tanaka if she could see the finished painting. She tiptoed round the easel and caught her breath in admiration. It was perfect. How well her mother’s kimono looked!

She had known Master Tanaka all her life, as her mother was one of his favourite clients and he always treated her with great courtesy, addressing her as «Noriko-San». He was very generous to them both, always bringing them little presents such as pieces of silk, little elaborately carved boxes and sugared apricots and chestnuts – in fact the kimono that she was wearing in the painting came from him.

Noriko hurried from the formal water-garden into the house, with its light timber-frame and paper-thin walls, its sliding windows which allowed a beautiful light to permeate every room, suffusing them with a white softness. She helped her mother prepare the tea ceremony for the Master, singing quietly in her high voice. She was happy on that early August morning in such a tranquil spot, set as it was in the centre of such a large city.

Across the world, the Enola Gay trundled out of her hangar in the Arizona desert and started to taxi to her take-off position. The huge lumbering B29 Super Fortress had a crew of twelve – these included the captain, the co-pilot, the navigator, the bombardier, a special weaponry officer, the flight engineer, radio operator and the two gunners – only one of whom, the captain, was over thirty. They all knew the historical significance of the mission but had only just found out the name of the target city. The Enola Gay reached the beginning of the runway and paused, before accelerating smoothly down the strip and at last taking wing with a long, slow curve towards the west. She settled in for her long flight across the Pacific.

Noriko’s mother and Tanaka knelt facing each other over the low table and bowed, each one holding a bowl of steaming fragrant tea. Noriko served them with delicate little appetizers and coughed politely her pretty little hand covering her mouth:

–              Noriko, honey, have you caught a chill?

–              Yes mother dear, I think I may have caught something while I was posing under the cherry tree for honoured Master’s painting …

–              I’ll make you some special tea then.

–              By the way mother dear can we discuss the final plans for my acceptance into the Guild?

 As mother and daughter chatted away in their high fluting voices, Tanaka studied them and thought what a charming picture they made; automatically he started to compose them into a design, the daughter leaning in towards the mother, the frame of a window sketched in as a backdrop and the low table with its cushions tapering down to a point could provide the foreground.

The Enola Gay was flying at maximum altitude over the outskirts of the Japanese city. Visibility was good. The pilot set his controls for the heart of Hiroshima, the plane riding the sky, the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse, high above the doomed city. As soon as the bombardier released the Bomb the captain wrenched the plane away, her engines frantically clawing at the thin air desperately trying to gain as much height and distance as possible before the shock waves hit.

At the moment of detonation, the fusion created a great white light stronger than a thousand suns, radiating out at light-speed illuminating the thousands of people, houses, gardens and factories in a ghastly tableaux before the explosion blasted everyone and everything into oblivion.

Two weeks after the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, a young American soldier making his way cautiously through the stricken city, bent and picked up a little miracle of survival – a small, charred ceramic bowl, fired again by the intense heat of the explosion, on which could still just be discerned the design under the blackened glaze of a girl under a tree.

The atomic bomb dropped in anger on Hiroshima on that 6th of August of 1945, followed by a second one on Nagasaki a few days later, brought the Second World War to an abrupt end.

A sort of collective innocence went out of Humanity. The world had been changed forever.

Loss Of knowledge

The Great Library of Alexandria was one of the Wonders of the Ancient World.

Its destruction by fire, begun by accident in 48 BC by the Roman general Julius Caesar when tactics forced him to set fire to his own fleet, moored in the harbour of Alexandria, and the blaze spread first to the docks and then to the Library itself, and completed by the Caliph Omar – he who entered Jerusalem on a white camel –  nearly seven centuries later in 642 AD, (during the first frenzied and seemingly irresistible flames of the Islamic Faith rampaged through the Arab world), was a severe setback for Western Civilization.


The Library had contained about seven thousand scrolls written by Greek, Persian and Egyptian poets, writers and philosophers.

The Caliph Omar is said to have commented: If they are to be found in the Koran then they are not needed. If they are not to be found in the Koran then they are harmful.

How much of the fruit of that wise age was lost?

Not all of the most powerful search-engines in the world can discover that because it became unknown or non-knowledge.


Afterglow wonderful word, isn’t it?

Today I’ve started a new book, the second volume of Robert Harris’ highly readable life of the great Roman orator Cicero, which was brought out to me by my brother Gam. It’s a big black book with the title LUSTRUM printed in white letters across the gleaming, black dust-cover. I opened it with pleasurable anticipation (I do love the smell of a well-printed hardback, don’t you) and read, before the Preface, the following:

«We look on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us … but what if we’re only an afterglow of them».

J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur

Now there’s a thought.

The Twilight Zone

Sometimes I feel as though I were living in the twilight zone.

Guess what the three old buffers at my table are talking about? They are actually telling each other that it rained last night. Each of the three is trying to outdo the other two in his descriptions of the weather in a bizarre kind of one-upmanship:

–              It certainly rained well last night and they gave more for the rest of the …

–              Where I was, it rained so much that the cabbages were all flattened and all the other vegetables were spoilt in the back yard …

–              Well where I was, it rained so much and wind was so strong that some of our roof-tiles were ripped off …

–              Well you had it easy! Where I was, there was such storm that the whole village was flooded …

–              You were lucky! Where I was, I woke up and my bed was floating down the street …

–              You had a street! Luxury! Where I was, when I woke up my bed was floating out to sea

–              You had a bed! What luxury, I woke up at the bottom of the sea and my tea had to be fetched by a huge fish etc., etc.

But then I remember that they have their Faith and thus have the advantage of me. What’s the point of all my reading and ideas if I can’t even manage to construct a decent ?belief system.

Drink deep or not all from Hyperion spring

A little learning is a dangerous thing

Alexander Pope advises us.


Psst or Shuss


The letter S represents the voiceless alveolar sibilant /s/ in most languages and the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).

It also commonly represents the voiced alveolar fricative /z/, as in the Portuguese mesa or the English does. It may also represent the voiceless palato-alveolar fricative [ ʃ ], as in Portuguese, Hungarian, and German (before p, t). The letter S is the seventh most common letter in English and the third-most common consonant (after t and n).

In English, final ⟨s⟩ is the usual mark of plural nouns, and of third person present tense verbs.

(Or in other words)

She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore


What the caterpillar thinks of as the end of existence, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.


Fatima (2)

Pilgrims to holy shrines have always been ripped off – that’s a given. I mean, who will not pay through the nose for the sake of their immortal souls?

During the Middle-Ages there was a brisk trade in  simony – the sale of plenary indulgences for sins ranging from coveting thy neighbour’s ass to rape and murder. Penitent kings and dukes, always partial to a spot of rape and pillage, lavished large sums in building chapels and chantrys and endowed monasteries with gold to pray for their souls in perpetuity.

From the simple Pardoners selling their wares by the roadside up to the Princes of the Church, the web of corruption spread out from Rome and Avignon to every corner of the Christian world. Papal fortunes were enormous and organised religion was one gigantic scam. The victims were the poor people (as usual) who credulously forked out their hard-earned coins to ensure for themselves a place in Heaven.


I imagine myself joining the expedition to Fatima.

I can visualize the hot drive down the motorway in the hired coach, the confusion in the hot car-park with everyone unloading themselves and searching for their sticks, (with me being levered into my wheel-chair), the cumbersome move towards the tourist shop selling religious bric-a-brac – a supermarket with long aisles full of shelves groaning with blessed rosaries, statuettes of Our Lady of Fatima, framed prints of Christ on the Cross and so on.

I wheel myself down to the section which sells wax body-parts – organs, limbs and even babies to offer up to the hot flames of mercy. What I’m looking for is a whole leg … um, a bit pricey but what the heck it’s worth it!

With three legs now, one good, one poorly and one made of disturbingly realistic wax, I wheel myself eagerly in the direction of the fiery banks of flaming candles and grilling members and organs and sit in my wheelchair watching with fascination as my wax leg slowly melts and am struck by the beauty of this particular scheme. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a nice little earner. The wax models, bombarded by intense prayer and supplication, melt slowly, drip by drip and the melted wax is collected in a huge metal tray and then is recycled. So my leg might be morphed into say, a heart with enough wax left over for a hand or a spleen or something.

And everyone is happy. The pilgrims are happy, the shop-keepers are happy, the wax-modellers are happy and the Church is laughing all the way to the bank. Now I can just sit back and wait for my leg to get better.

But it doesn’t quite work like that unfortunately, does it? My leg won’t get better because I have not invested sufficient belief and fervour into the belief-system. Still it’s comforting to know that in a para-world (the wax-world, a sort of cosmic Madame Tussauds) everything slowly melts and then is refashioned, melts again and is reformed  ad infinitum.

Fatima (1)

When August comes it’s time for the Old Peoples’ annual outing to Fatima.

I used to know a girl called Fatima once. She was a secretary working with us on the site at Annaba in Algeria. She wore western clothes at work and helped me with the drawing-office archives. She was a well-built girl with a hawkish profile and the characteristically beautiful Arabic eyes which sometimes flashed with a sullen anger, as though she’d just been reading a book about recent events in her country. However we got on pretty well together.

Once she remarked casually that she had seen me at the weekend in some shop in town: really Fatima? I didn’t see you: yes Monsieur Tom, in fact I was standing right next to you in the queue; you see I was wearing my burkha. She explained to me that, far from being a religious constraint, the burkha and yashmak (the white cotton veil covering the face up to the eyes) could be a liberating feature in the lives of some Islamic women. The burkhas were kept on pegs in the entrance hall of their homes, and whenever they were slopping around the house still in pyjamas, hair a mess, face without its slap, and needed to pop out to the shops to get some milk, they just donned their burkha and flip-flops and went out into the street. Moreover, she added, the robe was cool, comfortable and discreet.


Fatima is a quintessential Islamic girl’s name, its popularity being derived from Fatima, one of the daughters of the Prophet Muhammad.

A couple of centuries later the Fatimid Caliphate held sway over the Maghreb, with a power-base originally in Mahdia in Tunisia but later transferred to Cairo when Egypt was conquered. At its height in the 11th century the Fatimid hegemony spread from the Atlantic to the Nile and beyond into Syria – a sizeable wedge of the Maghreb and the Near East. The Caliphs claimed descent from the Prophet through his daughter Fatima as-Zarah and her first husband Ali ibn-Abi-Talib, the first Shi’a Imam. The last of the Fatimids, Adid, died in 1171 and power was transferred to his Vizier the great general Saladin, a Seljuk Turk, who was granted the title of Sultan as long as he recognised the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad.

So the Muslims spread through Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco and from there crossed (Homer’s) Dire Straits into the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula, which they conquered and invested with their influence and culture.

The Moorish influence can still be seen in the architecture of the south of Spain and Portugal, the languages – the Portuguese expression, for example, oxala que sim (I certainly hope so) is derived from the Arabic Insha’Allah and above all in the place-names – Alcobaça, Algarve, Alhambra etc. (the prefix Al or El simply means The), which brings us to a little village in central Portugal which the Moors had named Fatima, where at the beginning of the 20th century (in 1917 to be precise) Our Lady, the Mother of Jesus Christ, appeared before three shepherd children on the same day (13th) for several months in succession and, rather surprisingly, made three (political and topical) predictions, the implications of which were evidently grasped by these innocent and unlettered children who had almost certainly never travelled beyond their little valley in their lives. After thorough examination of the children’s story by several senior priests and bishops (there were no child psychologists in those days to suggest religious hysteria) the miracle was pronounced authentic and the children guarded (for the rest of their lives).

It was officially declared «worthy of belief» by the Church in Rome. Thus the Marian cult of Fatima was born. From that moment on business was brisk and for the next seventy or eighty years Fatima became a favourite girl’s name in Portugal.

(To be continued)


The Flooded Plain

Annaba, Eastern Algeria.   January 1972

I stayed at the Paradise Hotel for about a month before the Company managed to arrange a furnished flat for me.

It was my very first flat – two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen and I was not yet 21 years old. I bought a Telefunken sound-system – tuner/amplifier, turntable and two speakers, which I artfully placed at the requisite height and distance apart, angled for maximum effect for the sofa at the centre of the living room. I was fussy, I was finicky, I fiddled with them and adjusted them until they were just so. (It was all new to us in those days – creating sound-stages, woofers and tweeters and so on).

The living room window had a tiny balcony which overlooked the dusty parched football stadium which proved useful in January as an emergency landing pad for helicopters from the American 6th Fleet during the crisis caused the flash floods from the mountains which inundated much of the coastal plain. The previous evening the road between the site and the town was under about two feet of water in some places and it had been quite a little drama for us to get home.

The Company’s small fleet of cars consisted mostly of identical little Renault R8s, which were unequal to driving through the water and were stranded on the small islands along the road. I however, not having yet been allocated a Company car, hitched a lift with two others in a VW Beetle driven by a visiting fireman from Head Office in Sheffield called Earnest, a field accountant (the first I’d met of the breed). He was a slow-talking, patient, pedantic and dogged Yorkshire man. He wore a rumpled dark suit and a white drip-dry shirt with a dark tie; a pork-pie hat and a pipe clamped between his teeth completed the effect.

While we expressed our doubts about the viability of the expedition he remained firm. What-yer-have-to-do-is-to-keep-the-vehicle-in-low-gear-and-keep-yer-foot-on-the-gas-pedal-so-as-avoid-stalling, he explained sternly, pointing the stem of his pipe at my chest.

So we set off though the darkness and driving rain and soon got to where the road disappeared in a large lake of dark grey water. Earnest crouched forward slightly at the wheel, pipe clenched between his teeth and drove the little car into the water. The level of water rose until it was an inch above the door-sills and started to leak into the cabin, but the gallant engine continued to turn over and the car didn’t stop its progress (although the exhaust-pipe was under water).

Thus we glugged and gurgled our way across the flooded plain, phutting and farting sedately past the stranded R8s until we reached terra firma once again. There was the smell of tobacco smoke in the little cabin – it was Earnest puffing away triumphantly at his pipe.

%d bloggers like this: