memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for June, 2011

Eat your heart out, Facebook

I have an old heavy green-bound book from 1860 called THE BIBLE OF EVERY LAND which is a history of the Sacred Scriptures in every language and dialect into which translations have been made. It contains the alphabets and descriptive natures and a specimen portion (of the Bible) of all the following languages … and I don’t know about anyone else but, as I read down the list, my mind is reeling. I feel tired already! There is enough ethnography in this one weighty and cumbersome volume to keep an army of be-jacketed-with-leather-patched-elbows academics occupied for years. I see Doctoral Theses galore here; I see Specialization and Niches, I see Tenures and Fellowships, Sinecures and Visiting Lectureships, I see recondite monographs in esoteric journals stretching far into the future. Look folks, it’s all here; all you have to do is read this mighty tome! So let’s start again, but more formally this time.

At the height of the Christian era (circa.1860) the Bible was wholly or partially translated into the following tongues:


Chinese, Burmese, Arakanese or Rukheng, Peguese, Talain or Mon, Siamese, Laos or Law, Cambojan, Anamite, Karen, Munipoora, Khassee, Tibetan, Lepcha.


Hebrew (Old Test.), Hebrew (New Test.), Samaritan, Chaldee, Syriac, Syro-Chaldaic, Modern Syriac, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Maltese, Mogrebin or W Arabic, Carshun, Ethiopic, Tigré, Amharic.


Medo-Persian Family

Persian, Judeo-Persian, Pushtoo or Affgan, Beloochee, Ancient Armenian, Modern Armenian, Ararat-Armenian, Kurdish, Armeno, Hakari and Ossitinian.

Sanscrit Family

Sanscrit, Pali, Hindustani or Urdu, Hinduwee, Bruj or Brij-bhasa, Canoj or Canyacubja, Kousulu or Koshala, Bhojepoora, Hurriana, Bundelcundee, Harrotee, Oojein or Oujjuyuneee, Oodeypoora, Marwar, Juyapoora, Shekawutty, Bikaneera, Buttaneer, Bengalee, Magadha, Tirhitiya or Mithili, Assamese, Uriya or Oriss, Cutchee or Cachee, Sindhee, Moultan, Wuch or Ooch, Punjabee or Sikh, Dogura or Jumboo, Cashmerian, Nepalese or Kaspoora, Palpa, Kumaon, Gurwhal or Schreenagur, Gujerattee, Mahratta, Kunkuna, Rommany or Gipsy, Tamul or Tamil, Telinga or Teloogoo, Karnata or Canarese, Tulu, Malayalim, Cingalese, Maldivian,

Celtic Family

Welsh, Gaelic, Irish, Manks, Cornish, Breton or Armorican.

Tuetonic Family

Gothic, Alemannic or Old High German, German, Jewish-German, Judeo-Polish, Old Saxon, Anglo-Saxon, English, Flemish, Dutch, Surinam Negro English, Creolese, Norse or Icelandic, Danish, Swedish, Faroese.

Greco-Latin Family

Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Indo-Portuguese, Italian, Daco-Romana or Wallachian, Provençal or Romaunt, Vaudois, Piedmontese, Romanese or Romansch,  Upper and Lower Enghadine, Catalan, Judeo-Spanish, Curaçao, Dialect of Toulouse.

Thraco-Illyrian Family


Slavonic Family

Slavonic, Russ, Polish, Bohemian, Servian, Croation or Dalmation-Servian, Carniolan, Bosnian, Slovakian, Bulgarian, Wendish-Upper, Wendish-Lower, Wendish Hungarian, Lettish or Livonian, Lithuanian, Samogitian.


Euskarrian Family

French Basque, Spanish Basque or Escuria.

Finnish Family

Finnish Proper, Lapponese, Quänian or Norwegian Laplandish, Hungarian, Karelian, Olonetzian, Dorpat Esthonian, Revel Esthonian, Tscheremission, Mordvivian or Morduin, Zirian or Sirenian, Wogulian, Ostiacan or Ostjakian, Wotagrian or Wotjakrian.

Tungusian Family

Mantchou, Tungusian Proper.

Mongolian Family

Mongolian Proper, Calmuc, Buriat.

Turkish Family

Turkish, Karass or Turkish Tartar, Orenburg-Tartar, Karait-Tartar, Tschuwaschian, Trans-Caucasian Tartar.

Caucasian Family


Samoiede Family


Dialects of the Islands of Eastern Asia, and of Corea

Japanese, Loochooan, Alentian, Corean.



Malayan, Low Malay, Formosan, Javanese, Dajak, Bima, Batta, Bugis, Macassar, Hawaiian, Tahitian, Rarotongan, Marquesan, Tongan, New Zealand or Maori, Malaguese, Samoan, Feejeean, Aneiteum, Lifu, Nengoné, Australian.


Coptic, Sahidic, Bashmuric, Berber, Ghadimsi, Mandigo, Jalloof, Susoo, Bullom, Sherbro-Bullum, Yarriba or Yoruba, Haussa, Timmanee, Bassa, Grebo, Accra, Fantee, Ashanti or Odjii, Dualla, Isubu, Fernandian , Impogwe, Sechuana, Sisuta, Caffre, Zulu, Namaqua, Galla, Kisuaheli, Kimbamba, Kinika.


Esquimaux, Greenlandish, Virginian, Massachuchusett Indian, Mohegan, Delaware, Cree, Chippeway, Ojibway, Ottawa, Pottawattomie, Micmac, Abenaqui, Shawanoe, Mohawk, Seneca, Cherokee, Chocktaw, Dacota or Sioux, Iowa, Pawnee, Mexican, Otomi, Terasco, Mistico, Zapoteca, Mayan, Mosquito, Peruvian or Quichua, Aimara, Guarani, Brazilian, Karif or Carib, Arawack.

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).


This year is especially unfortunate for me. Now check out these dates: Thursday 23rd June is a public holiday in Portugal – Corpus Christi (a movable feast dependent on an unusually late Easter); moreover it is 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) is 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 are 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 cower blenching here in my room on the second floor feeling the building vibrate. The next day (Saturday) is 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.

Fern Hill

The first time we learned to compartmentalize the various facets of our lives was at boarding school.  Very few of us would ever talk about our homes or families (or even think about them) as a sort of filter to protect ourselves from the almost unbearable sadness of being (there). In some of us the habit would persist into our twenties and become a breeding ground for schizophrenia.

You became like the man with no name riding into town, tethering his horse in front of the saloon and then entering into life of the place for a few years then exiting from the saloon, untying his horse and riding away to the next town.

One such life for me was the time I spent at Bretton Hall. Situated in wooded South Yorkshire parkland, this small elegant early 18th century mansion housed at that time a College of Education. I entered the, by now, familiar enclosed micro-society and became a (professional) student.

We were the last beneficiaries of The Welfare State; but already change was in the air and the new Education Minister (a certain M. Thatcher) was sharpening the blade of the scythe with a whet-stone and, like the fallow grazing deer in the park, we lifted our noses from the grass and sniffed the air and scented danger.

I joined a literary club, where almost every month there was a guest speaker – some minor post kitchen-sink novelist, in which the local district seemed to abound, some aggressive out-to-shock feminist writer who told us she would read Henry Miller while sitting on the loo (which was frankly way too much detail, dear) and some even more minor Leeds poet digging out his arrhythmic non-verse.

One evening we asked the College Principal if he wouldn’t mind popping by and giving a reading of one his favourite poems; being students we all had to sit cross-legged on the carpeted floor (although there were perfectly adequate chairs available). This person, an affable Welshman and a career academic, had chosen Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas.

He read well and I was moved.


Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

The night above the dingle starry,

Time let me hail and climb

Golden in the heydays of his eyes,

And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns

And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves

Trail with daisies and barley

Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns

About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,

In the sun that is young once only,

Time let me play and be

Golden in the mercy of his means,

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves

Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,

And the sabbath rang slowly

In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay

Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air

And playing, lovely and watery

And fire green as grass.

And nightly under the simple stars

As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,

All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars

Flying with the ricks, and the horses

Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white

With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all

Shining, it was Adam and maiden,

The sky gathered again

And the sun grew round that very day.

So it must have been after the birth of the simple light

In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm

Out of the whinnying green stable

On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house

Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,

In the sun born over and over,

I ran my heedless ways,

My wishes raced through the house high hay

And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows

In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs

Before the children green and golden

Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me

Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,

In the moon that is always rising,

Nor that riding to sleep

I should hear him fly with the high fields

And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

Oh, as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.


June is the cruellest month

Today is the 23rd June. The night of S. João takes me back to Porto 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 Sé 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 dolphin 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 indeed a cruel month for us sardines).




How to paint a meaningless picture.

First you take a piece of gummed A3 paper and a pencil and then (sticking firmly in 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; as it doesn’t have any meaning and doesn’t remind you of anything in particular, you decide to call it a daft meaningless word – Asymmetry.


Life in the Sahara (II)

One morning, stepping out from my cabin door I noticed three little Arab boys crouching intently in the sand each one holding a little stick. I drew nearer to see what they were up to and saw that they had captured and were tormenting with their sticks a small scorpion. Now I, like many people, was quite fascinated by these creatures. ­The North African scorpion has a fearsome reputation being, like the great white shark or the peregrine falcon, one of nature’s killing machines – a walking weapon. Its sting which is disproportionally large carries venom which can often be fatal, even to humans, unless treated quickly with an anti-serum. All the stations kept a stock of this. That’s why the steps to the cabin doors had a gap that you had to mind; that’s why the cabin doors were sealed with metal strips and finally that’s why every morning I would up-turn my scuffed and dusty leather boots before putting them on. Imagine that someone manages to capture a scorpion alive and then places it within a ring of fire – the creature sensing that it has no escape will arch its back and sting itself to death.


I told my two colleagues about the kids and the scorpion. One of them told me about a guy down on the site whose hobby was collecting bugs (an entomologist in fact), one of them a baby scorpion and then encapsulating them in transparent plastic moulds which then could be trimmed, riveted and worn as a pendant on a chain round the neck. I lost no time. First I arranged with the kids to get me a baby scorpion but with its sting still extended; then I got the guy to do the whole business for me, setting the scorpion in plastic, putting it onto a thin chain and so on. I then wore the thing round my neck from time to time. I planned to give it to a certain girl up in Algiers. I reckoned that as girl-puller it couldn’t really go wrong.  One day however the ring broke loose and I went to the machine-shop and asked the machinist, Taffy, a rather garrulous Welshman, if he could repair it for me:  sure, no problem, but it might take a bit of time, you see; I’ve got rather a lot on at the moment etc. etc. A few days later my neighbour said to me at lunch have you heard about Taffy? He’s just dragged up. He took a taxi out of here this morning … After lunch I hurried down to the machine-shop and hunted everywhere for it but it had gone. That bloody Taffy, I thought bitterly, the swine’s pinched my scorpion! (I have never completely trusted the Welsh since).


Life in the Sahara

Out there in the desert you knew you were in trouble when you started to listen to the beat of your own heart. I had nothing to do to occupy myself and began to consider my body as a ticking time-bomb. I procured a medical dictionary which fuelled my hypochondria and spent many hours perusing the list of potentially disastrous diseases, conditions, syndromes and malignities that I might contract. Eventually I went across the sandy compound to visit Doc. Hand, a tall white-haired man with a thin distinguished face and a remote deadpan air. He examined me thoroughly, listening carefully to my chest with his stethoscope and after his check-up he slowly and thoughtfully put his things away and, still without a word, he sat down beside me on the couch. He began to speak (or rather reminisce) in a considering tone:

–          You know, I have been working in these god-forsaken camps in deserts, jungles or tundra for nearly thirty years so you can imagine how much I have earned and put away; I have a big fat bank account in Switzerland which is getting compound interest every year … but I would give at least half of I have ever earned … (and he paused, gravely and I was dry-mouthed with worry and suspense) … to possess a heart like yours! What you do have is a touch of anxiety which is not uncommon with under-employed people like yourself. (He was a bit of a comedian, was the Doc).


Let me just mention some of the fauna that lived in and around the camp and station. There were the jackals that one could see at times loping along on the perimeter.  These dog/wolves in their desert camouflage used to hunt in packs, silent and predatory. The one and only time that I went jogging in the cool of the evening along the buried line to the first marker, four or five of these creatures gave me the scare of my life. After leaving the compound I settled into a sort of shambling jog along the track already regretting my undertaking, my only consolation being that there was no one to witness the ridiculous spectacle of a rather uncoordinated young man scurrying along the piste, exporting the habit of an under-exercised and flabby urban society to this spare, lean hard place; no one, that is, except for the silent jackals who were accompanying me from a distance. As I approached the brightly-painted marker, which was set into a little cairn of small rocks, it seemed to me that they were getting closer and bolder. I increased my pace and finally reached the marker, panting and dripping with sweat. The pack stopped also about twenty metres away and milled around indecisively. Although a confirmed coward, I gathered some rocks from the cairn with a beating heart and in desperation I decided to sell my life dearly. The stand-off lasted for about six minutes before those curs swung their noses away and slunk off into the sudden desert dusk.

Then there were various bugs, cockroaches, black sand-beetles, lizards, poisonous snakes and scorpions.

The cockroach and I were old acquaintances from the north. I had a theory that cockroaches were essentially urban creatures, specializing in hotel bedrooms. Certainly the largest cockroach that I had ever seen before in my life was in a hotel room in Constantine. This über-roach was marching insouciantly along the edge of a wall. I gave it a long steady blast of spray, the sort of blast that would wipe out an average ant-colony, but it only served to slow the creature down; this was no time to be squeamish so I stunned it with an empty beer bottle and then squashed it under the heel of my boot and put it outside the door to be collected with the rest of the rubbish.

I personally never caught a glimpse of the small deadly desert adders but I’d come across their delicate tracks in the sand, side-winding up the face of a dune. Lizards would nest under our cabins in the shade as would scorpions.

(To be continued)

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