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.


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