memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for June, 2012

The Lombard Reflex

I get to considering local common characteristics of the village people.

They do love a good noise, don’t they? Last year I read about the Lombard Reflex, the theory developed by the French physicist Etienne Lombard (specialist subject – Stating the Bleeding Obvious) that in a noisy crowded room people will raise their voices to give weight to their opinions, thus adding incrementally to the ambient noise pollution.

That theory doesn’t apply to some of these people though – they start off loud and work their way up through the decibels to just plain deafening.
They do love a good noise don’t they, bless them. They presumably equate noise with having a good time, the pleasure principle, as exemplified by the village feast. Saint’s days, municipal holidays, football victories, none of these events goes unmarked.

It’s time for a village feast.
First the PA system is strung up among the pollarded trees of the square in front of the church and stalls of tat and seriously unhealthy snacks – egg-mixture dipped in batter, deep-fried in boiling fat and then sprinkled with sugar (a riddle inside a mystery wrapped up in an enigma) are deployed. Then comes the booming voice of the DJ testing for sound – what the system lacks in quality it certainly makes up for in quantity. Then we’re off!

The banshee wailing of some local chanteuse (with impressive tubes) is belting out folklore favourites, repetitive and relentless. The people drift contentedly among the trees in the warm summer night. (They are music-illiterate – this is the only music they know).

For me It’s a bit like living, I imagine, in a normally quiet sector of the Western Front where, every now and then, there’s a small (and pointless) battle with the whoosh and crash of in-coming shells and the bang and boom of out-going ones with the distant dull thudding crump of explosions in the next sector of the line – It seemed that out of battle I escaped/down some profound dull tunnel … Then at midnight the thunderous BOOM of the celebratory fireworks, (when I first came here to this room some years ago, I nearly jumped out my skin; I thought we were being invaded from the sea – the Greek navy’s opening straddling salvo perhaps, testing the range to strike at the air-force base down in the pine forest).


Last year was especially unfortunate for me. Now check out these dates: Thursday 23rd June was a public holiday in Portugal – Corpus Christi (a movable feast dependent on an unusually late Easter); moreover it was the night of S. João and so warrants municipal noise about 30 meters from my window as the deaf crow flies until the early hours. The next day (Friday) was the feast of S. João (there are two St. Johns on the A-list – the Apostle/ Evangelist and, the saint in question, the Baptist). This time the party comes right here to the Home.

The bad news is that per cubic litre of space these old dears were being are subjected to more decibels than at the Glastonbury Festival but the good news is that most of them, to a greater or lesser extent, have faulty hearing; meanwhile I cowered blenching here in my room on the second floor feeling the building vibrate.

The next day (Saturday) was the feast of S. Pedro, the village patron saint, so it’s time to party the night away again. The next morning (Sunday) a couple of warning guns go off at 8.30 am to remind people to wake up for the procession. Le tous Maceda has turned out to line the streets; even the wheel-chairs are shoved into a line beside the road to watch the proceedings; all that is except for one misanthropic Englishman and a couple of inmates whose minds are completely lost in the maze of forgetfulness; and finally to round off the festivities (and ram the message home) more boom-bada-bada-boom from the square at night.
Such thoughts are unseemly in someone whose life is nearing its sell-by date.

I should be more tolerant.

I should take the broader view.

I should finish up my pastimes of reading, writing and painting, close my laptop, log off my mind and join the others in concentrating on doing some serious full-time waiting.

Colour of eyes: hazel

Only a doting and fanciful mother could fill in a passport application for her son: Colour of eyes – hazel. One can understand what her thinking was: colour of eyes, well they’re not blue, not green nor are they grey or brown, I know – hazel. (i.e. mud)

My first passport was to go away to school in England when I was nine years old.

How vulnerable young Master Thomas looks with his unknowing eyes (colour: hazel)

Little does he know what lies in store for him …

We next find our hero embarking on his African adventure. Note the de rigueur well-thumbed look

And the Beatles haircut

The Algerian Immigration Authorities in those days had a neat system: entry to the country was free but you had to pay to get the hell out!

All that bureaucracy just to go on a couple of weeks leave.

Getting this work permit cost an arm and a leg too. It was the classic Catch 22 situation – you had to have une Carte de Residence to get your Permit de Travail but you couldn’t get a job until your were a resident in the country (or something like that).

Not an Arabic reader? All is explained when you open it up.

Notice how they had to rubber-stamp each page Take that! And that! And that! (And when they went home at the end of the day and their wives said to them after dinner: um … I’m tired … think I’ll get an early night … how about you, honey? they go no, you go on up, hon, I’ve still got a bit of rubber-stamping to get through … and wife flounces out of the room thinking wish he’d come up and rubber-stamp me for a change!

While I was flicking through this passport a bunch of Algerian banknotes fell out:

I like the gazelle

The desert dude is cool and I like the pink but the design is a tad tasteless, don’t you think?

Now this green one with the herd of goats trotting along has a certain retro-chic

and the back of it with that rather bizzare couple on that tractor thingy was one of the designer’s less happy attempts. So to sum up; quaint – yes, De La Roux – no.

I must gone through fairly hazy phase in my life because I failed to renew that passport, so the next one has a make-shift temporary air, a gotta-get-it-together-because-I-just-remembered-I-gonna-go-abroad-next-vacation look about it:

note the hippy look.

Next ‘ole hazel eyes finds himself in Lisbon:

I remember that photo; we were all advised to get about a dozen taken for work permits, metro passes etc; it was taken in a small booth half-way up the Rua d’Ouro on hot afternoon in October.

Then the new look, the EU look, the cheap and nasty look:

Welcome the age of cheap plastic, of easy money, welcome to the Euro-Zone.


After three enjoyable and carefree years in Lisbon, Portugal,

I was promoted and sent up to take over our school in Porto.

Underserved, unmerited and unearned,

The jigsaw pieces of my life seemed to click into place.


Porto was the high summer, the apex of my life.

I finally got married to a nice attractive and intelligent Portuguese girl some ten years younger than myself, settled down and started to raise a family.

I entered the unfamiliar territory of domestic felicity.

I grew comfortable.

I became middle-aged and middle-class. The aspirations of these two groups became my aspirations.

We were very happy together and bought the top-floor apartment of a little walk-up building in a quiet, narrow street in the town-center just off the Rua de Constituição.

Over the years I began to take my marriage and my position at work for granted.

Well you do, don’t you?

I became complacent.

I didn’t see it coming.

Galileo Galilei (2)

Among the copious foot-notes of one the volumes was a full account of the trial of Galileo in front of the holy inquisition in 1633, which were to be found in the records of the British Library. I quote from the actual accusation:


We, Carpar Borgia, Saint Croix de Jerusalem,

Friar Felix Centino d’Ascoli, of St. Anastatia,

Guido Bentivoglio, of St. Mary del Populo,

Friar Desiderius seaglia di Cremona, of St. Charles,

Friar Anthony Barberini, called Mesroy,

Lewis Zachia, of St. Austin,

Fabritius Verospius, called Prespiter, of St. Lawrence, of in pane perna,

Franciscus Barberini of St. Lawrence in Damaso, and

Martius Ginetus, St. Mary Nuova, deacons, by the mercy of God, Cardinals of the holy  Roman church, and specially deputed, by the holy apostolic see, to be inquisitors against heretical wickedness throughout the whole Christian republic.

Whereas, you Galileus, son of the late Vincentius Galileus, of Florence, aged seventy, were informed against in the year 1615, in this holy office, for maintaining as true, a certain false doctrine held by many, viz. that the sun is in the centre of the world, and immoveable, and the earth moves round it with a daily motion. Likewise, that you have had certain scholars to whom you have taught the same doctrine. Likewise, that you have kept up a correspondence with certain German mathematicians concerning the same. Likewise, that you have published certain letters concerning the solar spots, in which you have explained the same doctrine as true, and that you have answered the objections which in several places were made against you, from the authority of the holy scriptures, by construing or glossing over the said scriptures, according to your own opinions. And finally, whereas the copy of a writing under the form of a letter, reported to been written by you to him who was formerly your scholar, has been shown to us, in which you have followed the hypothesis of Copernicus, which contains certain propositions contrary to the true sense and authority of the holy scriptures.

There follows a point by point refutation, by the inquisitors, of Galileo’s heresy and his attempt to teach it to others, but that he should be absolved:

 Provided that you do first, with sincere heart, and with true faith, abjure, curse, and detest before us the aforesaid errors and heresies, and every other error and heresy contrary to the catholic and apostolic Roman church, in the form which will be prescribed to you by us.

                But that your grievous and pernicious errors and transgressions may not pass altogether unpunished, that you yourself may be rendered more cautious for the future, and that your example may induce others to abstain from similar crimes, we decree that the book of dialogues by Galileus Galilei, shall be prohibited by a public edict, and we formally condemn you to be imprisoned in this holy office for a time determinable by our pleasure; and we enjoin you, as a salutary penance, that, for the  three years next ensuing, you repeat, once a week, the seven penitential psalms, with the reservation, nevertheless, to ourselves with the power to modify, alter, or remove, either wholly, or in part, the aforesaid penalties and penances.

And so this man, who has been called the Father of modern observational astronomy and the Father of modern physics and even, according to Stephen Hawking, Galileo, perhaps more than any single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science, this man, I repeat, had to eat dirt and to grovel in front of a tribunal of fanatical and reactionary bigots.

The abjuration of Galileus

I, Galileus, son of the late Vincentius Galileus, a Florentine, aged 70, being personally upon my trial, and on my knees before you, the most eminent and reverend the Lords Cardinals, inquisitors-general of the Universal Christian Commonwealth, against heretical wickedness, and having before my eyes the most holy gospels, I touch with my proper hand, do swear that I always have believed, and do now believe, and by the aid of God I will in future believe everything which the holy and apostolic Roman church doth hold, preach and teach. But whereas, notwithstanding, after I had been legally enjoined and commanded by this holy office, to abandon wholly that false opinion, which maintains that the sun is the centre of the universe and immoveable, and I should not hold, defend, or in any way, either by word or writing, teach the aforesaid false doctrine; and whereas also, after it had been notified to me, that the aforesaid doctrine was contrary to the holy scriptures, I wrote and published a book, in which I treated of the doctrine that had been condemned, and produced reasons of great force in favour of it, without giving any answers to them, for which I have been judged by the holy office to have incurred a strong suspicion of heresy, viz. that the sun is the centre of the world, and that the earth is not the centre, but moves…

I, the above-mentioned Galileus Galilei, have abjured, sworn, promised, and bound myself as above, and in testimony of these things I have subscribed, with my own proper hand, this instrument of my abjuration, and repeated word by word at Rome, in the convent of Minerva, this 22nd day of July, anno 1633. I, Galileus Galilei, have abjured, as above, with my own proper hand.

According to popular legend, after recanting his theory that the Earth moved round the Sun, Galileo allegedly muttered the rebellious phrase … and yet it moves.

All these words, all those ideas – geocentric doctrine versus heliocentric heresy, are reduced to almost irrelevance by the images brought to us by the HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE in orbit around the earth, peering into each sector of the universe and affording us a glimpse of the wonders of the cosmos in all its glory.

Amazing images of nebulae, thousands of light-years away, fantastic explosions of light and colour, a fabulous chaos of cosmic energy; symmetrical and asymmetrical shapes of galaxies and constellations, bubbling oceans of hydrogen, oxygen and other elements – the cradles of stars.


Towards the end of July 2010 we learnt on the news that astronomers in Britain had discovered the largest star in the universe to date, situated in the system next to ours, the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Consider this: our sun is twice the size of the average star – this new star is a staggering 320 times the size of the sun and burns a million times more brightly. This monster star, dubbed VY Canis Majoris (Red Hypergiant) has a diameter of about 2.800.000.000 km and yet it is only a tiny dot among the several hundred billion stars that form our galaxy.

And there are a hundred billion galaxies out there!

Could all of this have been a single deliberate act of creation? (I’m with Stephen Hawking on this one – I somehow doubt it).


Oh, and by the way here is a message for that medieval Inquisitionno, we are not the centre of the universe.


Out there on the perimeter there are no stars … out there we is stoned … immaculate.

Jim Morrison of The Doors

Galileo Galilei (1)


I used to take an hour off every day after lunch to go for long walks, prowling round the Baixa section of Porto. At the limit of my range, allowing me only ten minutes over the target, was the old second-hand-book shop at the bottom of the Rua Mouzinho da Silva, which descends from São Bento station to the Ribeira. At the back of the narrow dark shop there was an English section that I used to check out in case there was anything new. I once came across a French book of poems by Baudelaire, lavishly bound in pale blue leather with fin-de-siècle designs in gold tooled onto the spine – divine decadence I thought as I opened it. I immediately noticed the price, really cheap, 200 escudos, then the book fell open at Les Fleurs du Mal – someone had gouged out a hole with fierce slashes of a sharp knife in the next thirty-odd pages as though in a frenzy of self-loathing. Someone doesn’t appreciate Baudelaire, I remarked to the owner of the shop drily. I know, it’s a crime to do that to such a fine book, he replied, I’m hoping that someone will buy it just to decorate his book-case.

Anyway on one particular afternoon I came across, in two half-leather bound volumes dated London 1811,




A native of Colonia-do-Sacramento, on the river La Plata:


To which are added,




For 500 escudos the pair, I snapped them up and hurried back to work. At the weekend I examined the volumes and read the first paragraph:

Three or four days had elapsed, after my arrival in Lisbon, from London, in the latter end of July, 1803, when a magistrate entered my apartments, and telling me who he was ,informed me, likewise, he had orders to seize all my papers , and to conduct me to prison, where I was to be rigorously kept aloof from all communication…

Hang on a minute I thought I didn’t realize that the Inquisition had lasted to the beginning of the 19th century. I turned back to the preface where I read:

From my earliest infancy I had accustomed myself to consider the existence of an inquisition in Europe as a system formed by ignorance and superstition, and therefore I had always viewed it with horror: but little did I ever dream of becoming a victim of its persecution. It is scarcely credible that, in the nineteenth century, a tribunal should exist, that, without any apparent cause, or without any violation of the laws of the country, should feel empowered to seize individuals and try them for offences which must considered imaginary, if they are not to be found, which is the case in the criminal code of the country.  

I skimmed through the two volumes: The narrative of the persecution was not without human interest and I earmarked it as a project for another occasion, maybe a non-judgmental treatment of Freemasonry versus the Catholic Church.

The bye-laws of the (Portuguese) Inquisition I found more fascinating – a list of laws and codes calculated to induce fear and bigotry and fervent anti-Semitism.

To be continued

Message in a bottle

Candy shoes

Running down the stairs

To greet the morning glory

Cherries are in season.

An old romance

Flickers in my memory

As I sit at my table

Waiting for the next course.

My eyes wearily sweep the room

Change and decay I see all around me.

Seeking solace I loose off a text into the void,

A cyber- message in a bottle,

Dipping sizzling

Over the rim of the World.




Florence in the rain

A friend of mine went to Florence to see Bruce Springsteen in the rain.

She got wet, soaked to the skin, drenched, sodden, sopping, and doused out.

But she felt up-lifted, inspired, stirred, stimulated, moved and motivated.

Bruce was a blast

And looking fit

Though he couldn’t last

Without his hit.

She visited some sights

Of that fair city

The Duomo was closed

Which was a pity.

However she was able

To traverse the river Arno

On a bridge, old but stable

That’s as much as I know.


June is the cruellest month

Sardine city

The night of S. João in Porto – sardine city

In the old days when we used to sally forth and mingle with the throng in the narrow old streets of the Ribeira region of the city. Le tous Porto was abroad that night. Bank directors and their families rubbed shoulders with the denizens of the quarter down at Fontainhas and the fragrant stench of grilling sardines pervaded the whole city.

June, not April, is the cruellest month for us sardines. Our dad Sid is the union rep. for the shoal and makes a public address:

Brothers and sisters, fellow fish, as you all know June is here again which means Red Alert for us in-shore shoals off the Portuguese coast. You all may remember the success of our Save Our Babies campaign, with Brussels changing the EU regulations regarding net-size. Unfortunately the Portuguese fishermen continue to use the (illegal) tight nets and I’ve just been informed by a reliable source that this year they are deploying a new weapon – depth-charges, which is in direct contravention of The Atlantis Convention. (Let me just remind you of the details of this deadly weapon: a 4 Kg. bomb is detonated at a depth of 9 meters; within a radius of up to 20 meters all piscine life is obliterated, from 20 to 50 meters we suffer severe internal injuries and are thus uneatable, but from 50 meters outwards we are disoriented and swim towards the surface and become prey to the enemies’ nets; so none of us is safe. Remember our motto: stick together for shark attack but spread out for human attack – they can’t catch us all.

This is probably my last speech to you as I’m joining the suicide-shoal to lure the fishing fleets away from the main body. May Neptune guide you safely through the waters.

 (Our dad joined the tens of thousands of his fellow fish to be caught, grilled on a charcoal fire then balanced onto a nice slice of seeded rye bread.

Yes June is not a particularly easy month for us sardines).

A day trip to Oran


We had been having problems with securing exit visas for our people in the Field from the obdurate local authorities who seemed determined to frustrate all our efforts with a pedantic and tortuous insistence on a bureaucratic system inherited from the French. In desperation my boss chose the time-honoured method of cutting corners with judicious payments of money: so many Algerian Dinards for such and such a number of passports.

He called me into his office one morning in late spring and instructed me in his soft drawl to fly to Oran the following day with all our US and UK passports and a considerable wedge of cash in my briefcase. Once there I was to rendezvous with an ex-official of the Oranese administration, who would smooth the progress of the whole situation. I soon perceived that I was being set up to be the fall guy.

So there I was the next morning at the airport all psyched up and waiting for the eight-thirty Air-Inter flight to Oran, nervously trying to convince myself that this was all in a day’s work. On board the aircraft all was disorder and confusion as people scrambled their way to their seats. I was sitting beside the only other foreigner, an American engineer with glasses and a baseball cap who, during the short flight, explained to me that the Air-Inter pilots were usually trainees for the Algerian air force completing their training by flying airliners around the country. The sky had been clear in Algiers but Oran was shrouded in thick fog and, as we descended into it, I noticed that none of the other passengers seemed at all concerned, no doubt fatalistically putting their faith into the hands of Allah. Not so me or my companion – we strapped ourselves in and gazed intently out of the window as the big plane, going too fast, bounced on the tarmac and then finally slammed down, the plane bouncing and swaying and the wings dipping from side to side, before the retro-thrust brought the shuddering aircraft back under control. Yes, I thought, those Air-Inter boys could certainly do with some more training. The American, who had also been mesmerized by the dipping wings, hoped that I would have a nice day.

I arrived at the arranged meeting place, a large café in the city centre in front of a sort of mini Place de la Concorde with traffic frenziedly swirling round a little monument. I sat at a table outside and ordered a coffee, paying for it in advance and nervously trying to concentrate on my copy of Newsweek. After a while I noticed a tiny little Fiat detach itself from the surrounding traffic, mount the pavement and, to my horror, head towards my table. The driver who was flamboyantly dressed in a brown leather jacket and long white scarf called out: Monsieur Tom … Monsieur Tom … allez, montez montez! Well so much for discretion I thought as I clambered into the small car beside him. Ali, as I shall call him, was a jovial friendly little chap with grey hair who seemed to know the score. He suggested going to his house for lunch, which was served rather eerily by his wife from behind a lattice screen; every now and then a slim brown arm, covered with bangles, would extend to the table with a new dish of food. Ali chatted away merrily, with me answering in monosyllables. It seemed that he had often done this kind of thing before, always for foreign companies. Apparently some of the scenes of Lawrence of Arabia had been shot here in the desert and he’d done a similar service for the film crew. He proudly showed me a much-creased letter, which he kept in his wallet, signed by the director of the film David Lean thanking him for his cooperation and so on and so forth.

After lunch we went into his office to do the business. I produced the passports and he produced his rubber-stamp and an ink-pad. With a flourish he stamped the precious visas firmly into each passport, one by one, and in less than five minutes voila all our expatriates were authorized to leave the country – nice work if you can get it. He then smoothly spirited away the wad of cash into his desk and I snapped shut my briefcase. We both stood up and shook hands. He offered me a lift to the airport which I politely declined, saying that I’d take a cab back to the city centre to do some sightseeing.

In the cab however I changed my mind and asked the driver to go straight to the airport. There, having time to kill before my evening flight back to Algiers, I headed for the bar to sink a couple of beers and read the little volume of Under the Greenwood Tree that I had in my briefcase. I noticed that the only other inhabitants of the bar were the very same crew, pilots and air hostesses, of the plane that morning; they were evidently crewing the flight back that evening. Oh well, I thought, if you can’t beat them, join them and ordered the first of a couple of whiskeys. Hours later as I was nodding off on the flight back I was thinking of my impending leave which I was going to spend in Paris. I landed at Algiers with my flaps well down and took a cab straight to the hotel. I heard voices from Jonathon’s apartment and went in.

Hi Tom they said how was your day-trip to Oran?

(I thought of the near crash that morning, of lunch at Ali’s house, of his wife’s arm extending from behind the screen, of David Lean’s letter).

Rather unreal, I replied.

An acre of grass

We all stood around our father’s body,

Laid out like an ancient Patriarch

Unseeing eyes tilted towards Heaven,


I felt overwhelmed

Carried away by events

Drifting down a turbid stream

With massy clouds already gathering

In my brain.


Later at the funeral I read out a short poem by one his favourite poets, W. B. Yeats.


Picture and book remain,

An acre of green grass

For air and exercise,

Now strength of body goes;

Midnight, an old house

Where nothing stirs but a mouse.

My temptation is quiet.

Here at life’s end

Neither loose imagination

Nor mill of the mind

Consuming its rag and bone,

Can make the truth known.

Grant me an old man’s frenzy,

Myself must I remake

Till I am Timon and Lear

Or that William Blake

Who beat upon the wall

Till Truth obeyed his call.

A mind that Michael Angelo knew

That can pierce the clouds

Or inspired by frenzy

Shake the dead in their shrouds;

Forgotten else by mankind,

An old man’s eagle mind.


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