memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for May, 2012

The Moslem Calendar

The Moslem new year

The Moslem calendar is different from our Gregorian one. For a start the years are lunar-based and therefore 10 or 11 days shorter than our (solar-based) Western system. Then, where we count back to the year of the birth of Christ, the Moslem year one is predicated on the Hegira (Mohammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina).

Thus in 1978 the current Islamic year was 1398.

Actually I remember reading somewhere that modern science has demonstrated that our (Julian) calendar, established during the reign of Pope Gregory in the 6th century, was computed erroneously (by six years) and that Jesus Christ was born in 6 B.C, or in other words, He was born six years before He was born.

(This makes nonsense, by the way, of the well-meaning literalists who attempt to impugn significance in the dispersion of the various astrological bodies in the night skies eg. the twinkle twinkle little star that three wise men were following).

The lunar month has 29 and a half days and thus Moslem months are not tied to the seasons as in our calendar. Religious days and holidays are rotative and therefore have no fixed date; (only our Easter is a moveable feast, being based on lunar calculations).

Days begin at sunset rather than at midnight – the night of a day therefore precedes the day rather than following it, i.e. Monday night is the evening before Monday.

Some Algerian calendars were printed with both the Gregorian and the Islamic dates. They were read from right to left. While the Gregorian calendar had been officially adopted, the Islamic one was still used and dictated the holy days (or holidays).

Meanwhile my guitar gently weeps

The girl on the steps

The little girl sitting on the steps

While her dad is communing with the Lord Buddha

Is wondering what comes next.

Last year a school friend whom I hadn’t seen for over 40 years sent me this mail:

I’ve now been practicing Nichiren Buddhism since 1991.

I’m part of a lay organization called Soka Gakkai International (SGI) which has members in 195 countries throughout the world and is dedicated to establishing the principles of human dignity and human rights throughout society. I see it as the ultimate revolution but this time the revolution starts within the individual and spreads peacefully throughout society and throughout the world.

 We don’t meditate but we chant NAM-MYOHO-RENGE-KYO. You may have come across it. Basically it raises your life-state and with practice one develops great strength to overcome anything life can throw at you.

I like this idea – that peace and harmony starts within oneself and spreads outwards (rather than being indoctrinated with, thrust at or dumped on by Priests or Imans, Bishops or Mulhas).

Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.

John 8:32

A spark to move my heart

A spark to move my heart

Catches fire

Incandescent flames burning

Flames of red liquid

Pumping central vermillion

Bloody, bold and resolute

Nerves jingling and jangling

My arrhythmic heart

Misses a beat

Galloping pulse

Stiffens, jerks and collapses.

Attack, fatal to my life’s beating core,

Is my undoing and the hard floor

Rises up to greet me with it’s

Cold unyielding embrace.


In Parenthesis

At the beginning the 1990s, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq National Guard invaded its tiny oil-rich neighbour, Kuwait.

The United States and her allies, the so-called coalition of the willing, enthusiastically started to mass troops, tanks and other military hardware into Saudi Arabia. The American 6th Fleet moved up to the eastern Mediterranean, nuclear submarines prowled at the head of the Persian Gulf and the politicians and journalists ramped up the rhetoric.

I was reminded of Shakespeare’s manipulative Octavian, whipping up the Roman Senate into frenzy and then declaiming: Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war.

Later when the 1st Gulf War was unfolding every evening on TV like some grotesque soap opera and the military pundits were enthusiastically explaining about surgical strikes with smart bombs blithely ignoring the fact that the bombs, intelligent or otherwise, were dropping onto children’s hospitals and mosques thus sewing new seeds of ethnic hatred that would  last a generation.

Hello you two, lovely to see you again, come on in, let me take your coats, do sit down and have a drink; for dinner we’re having plovers’ eggs and roast partridge followed by a cheese soufflé; then I thought we could take our coffee into the drawing room and watch The Gulf war, such a bore I know, but Justin’s completely hooked …

As I watched on the television George Bush and his crew of hawkish associates propagating this conflict, I jotted down the title of a poem – In Parenthesis, by David Jones, as a mnemonic … and in the baized chamber the lord Agravaine counsels us, urging with repulsive lips, he nets us into expeditionary war … David Jones had served in the trenches on the western front, as a private soldier in the Royal Welsh Regiment. Steeped in Celtic medieval history, Jones is a difficult but rewarding poet and In Parenthesis is his masterpiece. T.S. Eliot, one of the seminal modernist poets of the century, called it a work of genius.


The salt of the earth

Salt, also known as table salt, or rock salt, is a crystalline mineral that is composed primarily of sodium chloride NaCl, a chemical compound belonging to the larger class of ionic salts.

The time that I spent in the Sahara desert in the late seventies was during the hottest part of the year, between April and September.

Every morning the sun rose suddenly over the rim of the eastern desert. By midday it was implacable, shining fiercely down on all our endeavours. We used to move slowly from place to place like zombies, with our Ray-Bans and our low-brimmed caps. Only twice did I see to the south the rolling clouds of a sand-storm, driven by the fearsome winds of the Sirocco. Sometimes the sun was obscured by a slight haze but usually it was a great white ball of light burning from a clear sky.

At least that was our assumption; the truth is that one never really looked. There’s usually a sort of literary convention in descriptions of the sun in the desert. One of my favourites is from The Seven Pillars of Wisdomand the sun rose to greet us like a drawn sword.


Salt is not only an essential mineral, a sine qua non for the body’s survival but it also forms part of our linguistic heritage, serving as a metaphor for something fundamental – he’s just not worth his salt or she’s the salt of the earth.

During the Middle-Ages noblemen used to carry a small pouch of salt at their belts to feed to their falcons.

Thousands of years ago merchants and traders, tracking through the deserted wastes of Africa and Asia, would be paid in salt (hence the word salary).

At times our bodies would dehydrate to the point where we were pissing only once a day – time for some salt pills! The camp medic would issue them on demand and anyone with an ounce of common sense would drink a commensurate amount of water to absorb the extra minirals.

These salt pills were really heavy-duty, the sort that would give your average horse severe cholesterol problems, and yet some of the men would recklessly gulp them down (presumably guided by the precept that you can’t have too much of a good thing).

Sometimes there were dire consequences:

–          Station C calling Algiers, Station C calling Algiers, over.

–          Go ahead Station C, over.

–          We have a man down, suspected jagged kidney/gall stone, over.

–          We’re onto it Station C. tell the man to just hold on to his britches, help is on the way, over and out.

What happened next was impressive.

About six hours after the radio-signal to Algiers about the pill-guzzzler who’d been found behind the sanitation cabin (shit-house) lying in agony in the sand clutching his stomach, a neat little air-ambulance, a Swiss Red-Cross Lear jet, landed delicately at our landing-strip (in a cloud of dust) and disgorged the pilot, a doctor, a blond nurse and a stretcher and, while we were gaping at the nurse, transfer-documents were signed and exchanged and lucky, lucky, thicko Joe was stretchered onto the little aircraft which then took off, turning back north, it’s lights winking in the sudden desert dusk and whisked jammy Joe into an operating theatre in a private clinic in Switzerland (all covered by the expensive Company insurance plan).

A catholic boyhood


St. Edmund’s College, Ware, is the oldest post-Reformation Catholic school in England, being a continuation on English soil of the English College founded by Cardinal William Allen at Douay in Flanders in 1568. It is an independent school in the British public school tradition set in 440 acres near Ware in Hertfordshire.

I followed my brother into Talbot house; the other two houses were Challoner (sporty) and Douglas (church boys). Instead of calling the forms 2nd 3rd 4th 5th and 6th like any  normal school, we had to be different, defining them by the stages of classical education – Rudiments, Grammar, Syntax, Poetry and Rhetoric; (presumably the next step would be Logic followed by Philosophy).

I went into Syntax where I languished in adolescent inertia, trading on and using up my academic credit, (I’d gained a minor scholarship in the Common Entrance exam), until, by the end of Poetry, it was all spent. My school reports reflected this decline: Thomas is a bright boy but he must be careful to maintain his concentration and later Thomas’ results were not as good as they could have been or simply could do better … could do better; once, to vary the style, one the teachers wrote is fond of reading of novels in class … I did ok in my O Levels but I only got about seven of them.

During my last two years at the school in Rhetoric I felt more at ease with the place (and with myself). Still fond of reading novels I gravitated towards like-minded friends who were interested in music, art and literature. I discovered T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats and Gainsborough and Van Dyke and Utrillo and Sisley and Beethoven and Bach and Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. My life-long journey through the world of language, ideas, images, music and the senses had begun.


The world was young and there was the smell of cut grass as we sauntered along the far boundary of the sacred turf of the first-eleven cricket ground –  I remember it well, over there under the trees. There was a match in progress and every now and then came the proverbial sound of bat against leather, the clip of a late cut, the crack of a hook to the boundary or the faint click of the ball being edged into the waiting hands of the third slip – the white-clad figures leisurely enacting the day-long ritual, drama in slow motion. We were discussing The Duchess of Malfi and the composition we were to write about the Elizabethan playwright John Webster. Occasionally we would study the game and clap ironically whenever there was any action – oh well played that man, jolly good off-drive.

It occurred to me that then, that at the age of seventeen I was as clear-headed and bursting with ideas as I ever would be. I felt I could live forever. (I was wrong).  Ah, the confidence of youth (yoof) si la jeunesse savait.

A few weeks later I emerged from that enclosed hot-house into the confusing, messy but more realistic outside-world.


Bardic runes

Today is a beautiful sunny mid-May day – the warmth of the afternoon lifts me up and places me on a balmy plane.

I turn to my blue copy of The School Bag and start flicking, skimming and scanning until my fancy alights on this little 10th century verse in Old English which once again shows the expressive poetic power of old English bards.


Weland that famous swordsmith

Endured the gull and the wave.

He blew his fists in winter,

He looked for a foreign grave.

He trudged about the headlands,

A cripple and a slave.

That sorrow withered, so may this


Beadohild wept when death

Cold on her brothers was snowing.

And sorrow grew. No gown

Could hide from public showing

The glebe of her body rich

From Weland´s reckless sowing.

That sorrow withered, so may this


The stranger paused, He marvelled

At a heart-rooted pain.

The thorn ran deep, the bud

Spread a crimson stain.

He would pluck it, for fear

The rose scattered like rain.

That sorrow withered, so may this


Earmonric the tyrant

Sat like a wolf by the wall.

Secret mouths round the board

Drank to the beast’s fall.

He licked long lazy chops.

The ale grew bitter as gall.

That sorrow withered, so may this


Deor the poet’s my name.

I enchanted the leaves of June

Till Heorrend Honeythroat came

And warbled me out of tune,

And sang my fields away,

And shaped a purer rune.

All sorrows wither, so may this

Translated by George Mackay Brown






Here is a fable about eels. Imagine that all the eels in the western hemisphere are born in the same place – that still heart of the Atlantic currents known as the Bermuda Triangle, the floating seaweed islands of the dark Saragossa sea.

Nature is full of such curiosities. All north American bats, for example, every year answer the call and congregate in their tens of thousands above Manhattan, dark clouds of bats swooping above the plains, momentarily obscuring the Florida sun, all heading for the same giant caves in Montana, Texas or Ontario, there to cling precariously to the roofs in their millions and produce their young, who in turn cling desperately to their parents, trying to evade the various predators crawling far below them in their own white alkaline excrement. From time to time a baby bat loses its grip on its parent and plummets to the floor of the cave – splat!

Back to the eels – they spawn their young silently in the misty floating islands and then wait, brooding.

The holocaust of the eels is about to begin. It all hinges on which direction they take to launch out on their odyssey: to the left lies life – to the right lies ARBEIT MACHT FREI and ultimate death. Let’s follow the fortunes of the latter – the European eels.

They swim, wriggling and gliding on the friendly currents of the Atlantic gulf-stream until they arrive at the coasts of Europe and penetrate the rivers and lakes, marshes and fenlands of the western sea-board. From the marshes of Friesland to the lagoons of Portugal, they burrow into the mud, transforming from sea-water to fresh-water creatures.

Some of the eels succumb to the toxicity of the waters, others fall foul of fishermen’s nets, yet others form the fish-course in restaurants for aficionados. But most of the eels survive the summer and emerge from their muddy ponds to make their way down-stream and congregate at the mouths of rivers all along the Atlantic coast. They brace themselves for the great swim back to the ancestral breeding grounds in the Saragossa Sea.

None of eels will make it!

The Atlantic currents, so favourable for the outward migration, are too hostile for the return journey. There are few things in nature as poignant as the thought of those eels valiantly swimming homewards and one by one, overcome by exhaustion, dying silently in the cold dark waters of the ungenerous ocean.



How to restore order out of mental chaos and paint a meaningless picture at the same time.

I have a theory that painting symmetrical shapes randomly is both soothing and therapeutic.

First you take a piece of gummed A3 paper and a pencil and then (sticking firmly inside your comfort-zone) you play around for about an hour and come up with this:


The next day you start to colour it in. you are unsure about the colours but are vaguely thinking yellow and green. You use a water-colour wash and by the end of the hour your uncertainty is showing.


On the following day you decide to deploy the acrilics.



And finally after doing the fine brush work and just generally fiddling around with it and tidying it up you consciously decide to stop before you spoil it any further.

You sign it and then pause to give it a name –  asymmetry


Something wrong with our bloody ships today

Algeria 1971

After driving south from Annaba for about an hour we reached Tebessa, at the foot of the Tellian Atlas Mountains. From there we started to climb. The road wound steeply up through the shady forest, round and up, round and up we went until we eventually came out on to a high plateau which we then traversed.

To the west the rocky mountain ridges bore down on us menacingly,

In a brutish way,

On a Jutish day,

Like a squadron of grey battleships steaming in line during the battle of Jutland in 1916, where the British Grand Fleet under admiral Sir John Jellicoe met the German High Seas Fleet under the command of admiral Scheer.

These two enormous fleets straddled practically the whole of the North Sea although only the forward squadrons of each side actually met – Beatty’s heavy battle-cruisers made contact with the German heavy cruisers under admiral Hipper.

The German gunnery was extremely accurate – something wrong with our bloody ships today Beatty remarked on the deck of his famous flagship H.M.S. Lion with superb panache, as three of his battle-ships, the Indefatigable, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth blew up and sank in quick succession.



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