memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for February, 2012

A Murder of Crows

A murder of crows,
A barren of mules,
A bundle of rags and
A desert of lapwing.

A bench of bishops,
A pontifation of priests,
A coven of witches and
A parliament of rooks.

A cete of badgers,
A business of ferrets,
A sege of herons and
A walk of snipe.

A murmuration of starlings,
An exultation of larks,
A chattering of choughs and
A muster of peacocks.

A herd of curlews,
A covey of ptarmigan,
A sounder of wild boar and
A fall of woodcock.

A malapertness of pedlars,
A glozing of taverners,
A wilderness of monkeys and
A drunkship of cobblers.

Oh, what a wondrous, sprawling generosity our English language has, that can afford these nouns of assemblage!
Here is richness indeed.
What a glorious, tumbling stream of words.
What joy!



I first fell in love with the plumbago bush whilst on holiday in the Algarve more years ago than I care to consider

One minute I was innocent of plumbago, insouciantly minding my own business without a care in the world and then suddenly I discovered plumbagoa combination of the resonance of the name and the delicate beauty of the pale blue flowers proved too much for me.

From then on the final assessment of any garden was reduced to that reference viz. did it or did it not contain a plumbago bush.


Many horticultural avenues fanned out at my feet.

Now I could join in conversations about gardens and gently them steer in the direction of shrubs and bushes, coyly circling the word plumpago like someone shy of mentioning a loved one’s name but nevertheless wanting someone else to bring it up. Or I could cultivate plumbagos and become an elderly eccentric, alone in a garden comprising only of plumbago bushes, my family long since fled from of this obsession.

And finally, like Orson Wells at the end of Citizen Kane breathing his last word «rose-bud», I would breathe mine – «plumbago»

The Beggar on the Train

It’s five past ten at night, lessons are over and a group of us are standing outside the school looking for the taxis which are cruising down the feed-road of the wide Avenida. In a couple of minutes we manage to flag one down and start the exhilarating ten-minute ride down to Cais do Sodré station; the lights are with us as we race through Rossio Square, rattling down the tram-lines of the Rua Augusta  and finally running along the river to be finally deposited outside the station. There is just time for a quick coffee and brandy at the stand-up station-bar before catching the 10.30 train.
I choose a carriage towards the end of the train and get a corner seat. It’s dark outside now of course, so I’m not distracted by the view as I am on the journey into Lisbon.

(The line from Cascais follows the coast, first on the open sea then the southern shore of the great estuary about five miles across and finally on the river itself – the Tagus, one the great rivers of Europe, which rises in the Sierra de Albarracín in eastern Spain and flows westward across the peninsular for about a thousand km until it empties itself into the Atlantic ocean).

Soon I’m absorbed in my book – I’ve just discovered Italo Calvino and frankly he’s boggling my mind – this story is called The Baron in the Trees –  it’s about a recalcitrant and stubborn boy in 18th century northern Italy, who climbs up a tree in the garden one evening and, on being called down by the cook to eat his dinner, simply refuses to climb down, declaring that if necessary he would spend the rest of his life up a tree … I study the back of the book; the writer is described as a post-modern fabulist; I mentally add this new word to my vocabulary and turn back to the text.
Suddenly the sound of a loud, unpleasant and whining voice in the central corridor, invoking the name of Our Lady of the Sorrows and Miracles to please give alms for a wretched man crippled in the war overseas, breaks in on my concentration.

It is the Beggar. What he does is to work the length of the train: starting at the top at Cais de Sodré, hopping into the second carriage at Alcântara-Mar, the third at Caxias and so on. By the time he reaches my carriage we are between Oeiras and Carcavelos. He is unshaven, on crutches and is wearing a long dirty brown coat; he seems to have sprayed himself with people-repellent.

Not for the first time I study his technique; he staggers lurching down the aisle, constantly wailing his mantra and bumping into people. He is a thoroughly objectionable, obnoxious and obstreperous individual and most of the passengers shrink away in distaste; a few feel sorry for his plight and give him money; others give him a coin as if to say: now leave me alone, get the hell out of my face! Past Parede, where one can still hear him in the next carriage, imploring Our Lady of the Assumption and of the Conception to give alms … and so to my stop, São João do Estoril, where I get off.

As the lighted train pulls away I stand on the platform breathing in the sea-air; it is cooler here than in the city and I turn away to walk the few leafy streets home. I notice someone in front of me, also from the train. He has straightened up and is striding briskly away, the coat and crutches tucked under his arm. It is the Beggar. He stops in front of a neat, well-maintained little house, fishes out a key from his pocket and lets himself in.

I walk the remaining distance to my house, bemused. You just couldn’t make that kind of thing up, I think, you really couldn’t. My friends won’t believe me when I tell them; they’ll just think I’m being a fabulist.


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

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