memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for February, 2012

Thought of the day

Daytime TV is rather fatuous, is it not, and seems to be produced by, with and for the simple-minded.
Daytime TV – one of the last stages of mental collapse.


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!

painting of eggs by Thomas Milner

Painting - Eggs - by Thomas Milner

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.


In 1500 BC the first record of formal composition-writing appeared: a collection of sacred Hindu hymns in Sanskrit – verses known as Vedas.

Nearly three and a half thousand years later, the great Indian philosopher and Father of the Nation Mahatma Ghandi was being interviewed by an American magazine:

when asked what he thought about Western Civilisation, Ghandi replied: I think it would be a good idea.

Painting of a butterfly figure by Thomas Milner

Painting - Butterfly - by Thomas Milner

Daffodils that come before the swallows dare

When our great great-grandfather moved to Thurlstone his elder brother, William Pashley Milner, stayed on at Attercliffe Hall in Sheffield. He married in 1852 Susannah Aldam, a descendant of several distinguished Quaker families. He moved later to Meersbrook Park, a house which later became the Ruskin Museum, and finally acquired Totley Hall, a fine Elizabethan mansion on the Derbyshire side of Sheffield (now a Teachers Training College, I believe)

He was an enthusiastic gardener and a small graceful daffodil preserves his name to this day.

(I tried to grow some on the terrace of our flat in Porto; for a couple a years the little delicate flowers seemed to timidly flourish but I fear that I killed them with love)

His son William Aldam Milner was a gentleman of wealth and distinction, active in public works; he was appointed High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1911. He carried on his father’s horticultural interests, and opened his lovely gardens to the public. His wife was the sister of the notable Sheffield Cutler (or mayor) sir Samuel Roberts.

Their son Roy Denzil Milner was killed in action in 1914, a young lieutenant in the Sherwood Forresters; and the male line of this branch of the Milner family became extinct on the death of his brother William Alfred Milner.


Daffodils that come before the swallows dare,

And take the winds of March with beauty

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

Flying to Lisbon (2)

I decided not to join the in-crowd on the line but stay in the city and settled to share a flat in the then rather neglected area of the city called Alcántara down by the river. I still felt dreamy – my hunter-seeker antennae retracted and deactivated, comfortably numb. The searing and vivid images of the Sahara rendering the quaint unstated old streets of Lisbon vague and undefined (like punching into cotton-wool).

I would leave my more conscientious flat-mate to his lesson preparations and marking and walk along the street to the river and stroll along the old quays in the direction of Belém. This walk along the melancholy old docks was atmospheric and perfect. To my left ran the stately grey river, with the occasional rusting freighter moored to the great iron rings embedded in the concrete.

 Sweet Tagus run softly ‘till I end my song; to my right stood a monumental orange-brick factory abandoned and forlorn, in front of which lay a paved forecourt the size a football pitch, with grass growing between the cracks of the paved stones – like most fascist architecture it was rather exaggerated and overdone. Sometimes I saw a dead rat – I think we are in rat’s alley/Where the dead men lost their bones. Seagulls wheeled over the grey waters and my relaxed mind roamed freely. My turning point was the Discoverers’ Monument. As I turned back I could see way across the railway line, the road and some symmetrical formal gardens, the pink toy palace of the president

and beyond that the long graceful abbey church of the monastery in which, I would later learn, were the tombs of Luis de Camões and his distant kinsman Vasco de Gama.  



flying to Lisbon (1)

So there I was, waiting in the transit lounge at Manchester Airport that last Thursday of September 1980. I think I must have been still a bit sand-happy from the desert, for I felt curiously numb with no sense of expectation or anticipation whatsoever.

I had bought a pocket Portuguese phrase-book at a stall in the airport and during the flight to Lisbon I was flicking through it. My neighbour, a pleasant-looking round-faced man, saw me consulting the book and asked me in decent English if this was my first visit to Portugal. I said yes actually it was and made some general enquiries about restaurants, (the subtext being: like, what’s your country like?) He gave me some useful advice about taxis, restaurants, the house-wine being OK, tipping and so forth and then he shyly revealed that he was the curator of the military museum at Buçaco near Coimbra.

Now I had little idea about Portuguese society in general but one of the few things I did know about was the British army’s involvement, under lord Wellington, in the Peninsular Campaign, so I did some serious showing off and went into a spiel about the French Marshal Massena’s right flank attacking uphill through the forest of Buçaco with the British troops entrenched along the ridge and so on and so forth and indeed in one of those rare moments of perfect aptness,  as the pilot announced that we were flying over Corunna in Northern Spain, I managed to get in a quote from the first line of Charles Wolfe’s famous poem, The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna: Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note … (Moore had been the commander of British army in the peninsular before Wellington).
The curator looked bemused and gratified and invited me to visit the museum if ever I was in the neighbourhood.

I looked out of the window as we gradually descended the narrow strip of land that was Portugal … as we gradually sank into my future.

Thought of the day

Show me someone who is speaking in a monotone and I will show you someone who is using language, rather than intonation, to convey meaning.


Clea, Justine,
Mountolive and Balthasar
Antigua, penny, puce
The chair she sat on
The fields of praise
A jug of wine and thou
A dawn chorus under the fig-tree
History of the world out to lunch
The Fauves

Old man in a dry month waiting for rain

Food for the Gods

Does anyone else agree with me that, while Portuguese cooking can be wholesome, healthy and indeed delicious, it lacks a certain (dare I say it) subtlety, a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain finesse? (Probably not: such an opening is doubtless a culinary solecism of the first order and a lesson in how to offend about ten million people with just one sentence).

Butchering in this region is merely a skill (if that), not a science or even an art. Where I live, descriptions of dishes are pared down to a fine minimalism:

–          Excuse me, what’s this?

–          It’s fish.

–          Yes, I can see that, but what kind of fish?

–          It’s Rabinho de Peixe (fish’s bum).

Well, I mean to say! In Portuguese it doesn’t so bad, it sounds like the fish had a kinda cute little butt, but in English it just sounds gross. I mean it’s hardly likely to titivate the taste-buds or get the juices flowing, is it?

With meat it’s much the same. As I sadly contemplate the (savagely hacked) chunk of meat, tubes, bone and muscle, placed in front of me, I ask:

–          I know that this is meat but what I’d like to know is what kind of meat it is.

–          It’s roast meat.

But let us escape from this mundane world and take refuge in literature and film. Let us recollect in tranquility the descriptions of food in Proust, in Joseph Heller’s As Good as Gold or in Tomaso de Lampadusa’s The Leopard. Above all, let us dwell on the foodies’ favourite film Babette’s Feast:

The scene is a remote little village on the coast of Jutland during the last part of the 19th century. The small community is comprised of mostly elderly, simple, plainly-spoken and religious folk who see the good in everything and patiently eek out a living on this cold, bleak, grey shore. Their diet appears to consist of ground dried cod.

The story centers on two middle-aged sisters, the daughters of the pastor who founded this Christian sect. The sisters had hired a French house-keeper some years previously – Babette (played by Stephane Audran, who almost but not quite succeeds in disguising her Parisian chic).One day Babette receives a telegraph from Paris to inform her that she has won 10,000 Francs on the state lottery. She decides to give the villagers a lavish dinner à la Française to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Founder’s death.

The last and most relevant part of the film is the preparation and the serving (by Babette) of an extraordinary feast of royal dimensions, lavishly deployed in the unpainted austerity of the sisters’ rustic home. The film, previously showing mainly winterly whites and grays, gradually picks up more and more colours, focusing on the various and delectable dishes, a feast for the spectator as well.

Although the other celebrants do their best to reject the earthly pleasures of the food and drink, Babette’s extraordinary gifts as a chef de cuisine and a true connoisseur so characteristically French, breaks down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them not only physically but spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table — thanks to the general elation nurtured by the consumption of so many fine culinary delicacies and spirits.

The menu responsible for their pleasure features Potage à la Tortue (turtle soup); Blini Demidoff au Caviar (buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream); Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine (quail in a puff-pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce); la Salade features Belgian endives and walnuts in vinaigrette, and Les Fromages features Blue Cheese, papaya, figs, grapes and pineapple. The grand finale dessert is Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacée (rum sponge cake with figs and glacéed fruits). Numerous rare wines, including  Clos de Vougeot, along with various champagnes and spirits, complete the menu. Babette’s purchase of the finest china, flatware, crystal and linens with which to set the table ensures that the luxurious food and drink is served in a style worthy of Babette, who is none other than the famous former Chef of the Café Anglais in Paris. Babette’s previous occupation has been unknown to the sisters until she confides in them after the meal…


But it’s time to return to the present and today’s lunch. First it was customary thick yellow soup, OK, then blow me down if it insn’t followed by more soup, this time grey in colour and with a slightly fishy odour; oh good, exclaim my two table-companions, it’s Farinha do Pau!

To me it resembled nothing so much as grey frog-spawn vomited up by a giant Bloater. (No thanks!)

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