memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

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The Flooded Plain

Annaba, Eastern Algeria.   January 1972

algeria

I stayed at the Paradise Hotel for about a month before the Company managed to arrange a furnished flat for me.

It was my very first flat – two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen and I was not yet 21 years old.

I bought a Telefunken sound-system – tuner/amplifier, turntable and two speakers, which I artfully placed at the requisite height and distance apart, angled for maximum effect for the sofa at the centre of the living room. I was fussy, I was finicky, I fiddled with them and adjusted them until they were just so.

(It was all new to us in those days – creating sound-stages, woofers and tweeters and so on).

The living room window had a tiny balcony which overlooked the dusty parched football stadium which proved useful in January as an emergency landing pad for helicopters from the American 6th Fleet during the extreme weather conditions which caused the flash floods from the mountains which inundated much of the coastal plain.

THE FLOODED PLAIN

THE FLOODED PLAIN

The previous evening the road between the site and the town was under about two feet of water in some places and it had been quite a little drama for us to get home.

The Company’s small fleet of cars consisted mostly of identical little Renault R8s, which were unequal to driving through the water and were stranded on the small islands along the road.

I however, not having yet been allocated a Company car, hitched a lift with two others in a VW Beetle driven by a visiting fireman from Head Office in Sheffield called Earnest, a field accountant (the first I’d met of the breed). He was a slow-talking, patient, pedantic and dogged Yorkshire man. He wore a rumpled dark suit and a white drip-dry shirt with a dark tie; a pork-pie hat and a pipe clamped between his teeth completed the effect.

While we expressed our doubts about the viability of the expedition he remained firm. What-yer-have-to-do-is-to-keep-the-vehicle-in-low-gear-and-keep-yer-foot-on-the-gas-pedal-so-as-avoid-stalling, he explained sternly, pointing the stem of his pipe at my chest.

So we set off though the darkness and driving rain and soon got to where the road disappeared in a large lake of dark grey water. Earnest crouched forward slightly at the wheel, pipe clenched between his teeth and drove the little car into the water. The level of water rose until it was an inch above the door-sills and started to leak into the cabin, but the gallant engine continued to turn over and the car didn’t stop its progress (although the exhaust-pipe was under water).

Thus we glugged and gurgled our way across the flooded plain, phutting and farting sedately past the stranded R8s until we reached terra firma once again. There was the smell of tobacco smoke in the little cabin – it was Earnest puffing away triumphantly at his pipe.

Dover Beach & Rugby

During the early sixties the Port of Dover still had medium-priced respectable hotels with names like The White Cliffs with potted plants in the lounge and middle-aged bow-tied pianists playing sub-Cole Porter numbers with rolling eyes and a sort of louche panache. The town itself, with its tangy sea-air, its cries of sea-gulls and its dazzling white cliffs seemed to offer shelter and solace from the long and confusing journey through childhood.

WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER

WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER

And later, as the ship edged out of stone harbour of my boyhood to meet the butting pitching sea, I would linger in the stern watching the shoreline of England – those famous gleaming white cliffs – receding to the horizon and feel an unfamiliar ache in my heart.

(I have since discovered that the Portuguese language, that melancholy vehicle, encapsulates that emotion in one single word – saudades).

Be that as it may, I should now like to share with you another of my favourite poems.

MATHEW ARNOLD

MATHEW ARNOLD

Written by Mathew Arnold (poet-son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, the charismatic and pioneering headmaster of Rugby School,

RUGBY SCHOOL

RUGBY SCHOOL

who features memorably in the novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays

in 1869, it is called Dover Beach:

The sea is calm to-night.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits; on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.

 

Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Agaean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery; we

Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

 

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

My Nonesuch Shakespeare

THE NONESUCH PRESS. SHAKESPEARE, William.

Of all my beloved books, my most cherished is, perhaps, my Nonesuch Shakespeare.

My father bought the seven elegant leather-bound volumes in 1940 for one hundred pounds and treasured them all his life. They graced his book-shelves in London, Paris, Cologne and South Yorkshire. At present they have a home on my shelves here in Portugal. They are still in well-nigh perfect condition.

I recently checked out an identical set for sale on the net and read the following technical description:

Nonesuch shakespeare

Seven octavo volumes (24.3 x 16.5 cm). full limitation of 1,600 sets. Designed by Francis Meynell and printed by Walter Lewis, Printer to the University, at the Cambridge University Press in Monotype Fournier, with new capital letters made for this edition, on Pannekoek mould-made laid paper.

Bound in London by A.W. Bain in publisher’s full gilt tan niger morocco leather, spines in six compartments, top edges colored pale pink and gilt on the rough, other edges uncut.

The text is printed litteratim from the First Folio, except in the case of Pericles and the poems which were not included in the Folio and hence are reprinted from the Quartos…. The Shakespeare represents the chef d’œuvre of the Nonesuch Press and is a model of careful proof reading and imaginative setting. The best of ancient and modern conjectural emendations are unobtrusively set in the margin for the benefit of a glancing eye. This is the finest of all editions of our greatest poet. (Meynell, The Nonesuch Century, p. 69.)

About 40 years ago, on leave from the Algerian desert and with my pockets jingling & jangling with cash, I went to visit my brother in Norwich where he had been roosting for a couple of years after attending the university there (UEA). During my visit I haunted the inevitable second-hands bookshops with which such medieval cathedral-cities so richly abounded and came across the first public edition (1935) of T. E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom produced by Jonathan Cape in tan-coloured buckram.

A big, heavy impressive object – I had to have it! I dithered, weighing up the pros & cons (as one does) … it did have the Kennington Plates showing all the tribal sheiks … but on the other hand 5 quid bought a lot of pub-time in those days … I prevaricated, stepped out of the shop, stepped back in again. I think I’ll take this one, I remarked casually to the shop owner and carried off my prize. What was the point of that little vignette, I can hear you (who are still reading this) ask?

Simply this. What the opinion of a writer whose life and work I greatly admire (T. E. Lawrence) thought about the Nonesuch Shakespeare brought a warm glow of approbation in my heart. In a letter to David Garnet, Lawrence writes:

We turn over to the Nonesuch Shakespeare. There you have created a most marvelous pleasure…. It satisfies. It is final, like the Kelmscott Chaucer or the Ashendene Virgil. And it is a book which charms one to read slowly, an art which is almost gone from us in these times. Every word which Shakespeare uses stands out glowing. A really great edition.

I think that it is very fitting that the work of the towering genius of English literature … is not clothed in borrowed robes.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

Father to son

It was thirteen years ago today

That first you saw the light of day

And we came to think of names

No better appeared than James

 

(Later on came a boy in a million

Whom we decided to call William

Bit naughty at times but a nice kid

With funny English & a hat like a lid)

 

Now you take size 40 shoes

And show interest in the News

You’re starting to show your gifts

And no longer play around in lifts

You go to bed too late at night

Trying to create a new web-site

 

Here’s another present apart from the bike

Hope you get something you really like

Just wrote these silly words to say

Hope you have a really lovely day

WHEN YOU WERE FIVE

WHEN YOU WERE FIVE

 

The salt of the earth

Salt, also known as table salt, or rock salt, is a crystalline mineral that is composed primarily of sodium chloride NaCl, a chemical compound belonging to the larger class of ionic salts.

The time that I spent in the Sahara desert in the late seventies was during the hottest part of the year, between April and September.

Every morning the sun rose suddenly over the rim of the eastern desert. By midday it was implacable, shining fiercely down on all our endeavours. We used to move slowly from place to place like zombies, with our Ray-Bans and our low-brimmed caps. Only twice did I see to the south the rolling clouds of a sand-storm, driven by the fearsome winds of the Sirocco. Sometimes the sun was obscured by a slight haze but usually it was a great white ball of light burning from a clear sky.

At least that was our assumption; the truth is that one never really looked. There’s usually a sort of literary convention in descriptions of the sun in the desert. One of my favourites is from The Seven Pillars of Wisdomand the sun rose to greet us like a drawn sword.

THE SUN ROSE TO GREET US LIKE A DRAWN SWORD

Salt is not only an essential mineral, a sine qua non for the body’s survival but it also forms part of our linguistic heritage, serving as a metaphor for something fundamental – he’s just not worth his salt or she’s the salt of the earth.

During the Middle-Ages noblemen used to carry a small pouch of salt at their belts to feed to their falcons.

Thousands of years ago merchants and traders, tracking through the deserted wastes of Africa and Asia, would be paid in salt (hence the word salary).

At times our bodies would dehydrate to the point where we were urinating only once a day – time for some salt pills!

The camp medic would issue them on demand and anyone with an ounce of common sense would drink a commensurate amount of water to absorb the extra minerals.These salt pills were really heavy-duty, the sort that would give your average horse severe cholesterol problems, and yet some of the men would recklessly gulp them down (presumably guided by the precept that you can’t have too much of a good thing).

Sometimes there were dire consequences:

–          Station C calling Algiers, Station C calling Algiers, over.

–          Go ahead Station C, over.

–          We have a man down, suspected jagged kidney/gall stone, over.

–          We’re onto it Station C. tell the man to just hold on to his britches, help is on the way, over and out.

What happened next was impressive.

About six hours after the radio-signal to Algiers about the pill-guzzzler who’d been found behind the sanitation cabin (shit-house) lying in agony in the sand clutching his stomach, a neat little air-ambulance, a Swiss Red-Cross Lear jet, landed delicately at our landing-strip (in a cloud of dust) and disgorged the pilot, a doctor, a blond nurse and a stretcher and, while we were gaping at the nurse, transfer-documents were signed and exchanged and lucky, lucky, thicko Joe was stretchered onto the little aircraft which then took off, turning back north, it’s lights winking in the sudden desert dusk and whisked Jammy Joe into an operating theatre in a private clinic in Switzerland (all covered by the expensive Company insurance plan).

The texture of memory

THE CAT AND THE BOOK - PHOTO by THOMAS MILNER

THE CAT AND THE BOOK – PHOTO by THOMAS MILNER

The cat and the book

Bask together

On an old railway sleeper

In the warm sun

I feel the warm splinters

I smell the hot tang of the wood

I hear the cat purr

This is the sensual

Texture of memory

Mr, Eliot’s peaceful Xmas

I woke one morning last month with the memory that I was in possession of a Christmas card from T.S. Eliot, in his capacity as director of the Publishing house of Faber & Faber, to my aunt Mary G. Milner as a published Faber author.

It is a rather stylish document with the cover and back designed by Barnett Freedman, the noted lithographer, illustrator and book designer, who did a lot of work for Faber.

It was the first Christmas of peace after the war – a time of paper shortage for publishers – and I suppose that Faber had decided to splash out a little.

Let’s trace the journey of this particular copy (which by the way is still in its original brown envelope – dated 15th Dec. 1945 and a little blue George XI tuppeny-happney postage stamp ).

Firstly T.S. Eliot (the great seminal modernist poet of the 20th century) conscientiously signs it and on the envelope writes out my aunt’s name & address and adds it pile of cards for the post.

On its arrival in South Yorkshire it is redirected back to London by my grandfather where he happens to know that his daughter is spending the first Christmas of peace at my parents’ gaff in Hampstead.

(Cool address, isn’t?

We had no money in those days, my mother used to say airily.

Well, I asked her once, what did you used to eat, then?

Oh, you know, just omelettes and things …)

Now let’s go back to the card: beautiful art & craft design by Barnett Freedman – very period

And on the back too.

You open it up the A3 size and best quality Faber paper and voilà, the poet’s signature (or autograph perhaps I should say).

I handle it with reverence.

And that’s it, I say to myself as I’m about to publish this onto Word Press, a nice neat little blog, of rather narrow interest admittedly but not totally without interest … but I then pause and continue my musings … what shall I do now with this piece of literary/family memorabilia? If is merely found among his things after my death, my successors might not appreciate it so much i.e. they might know/care diddly squat about early 20th century English modernist poetry.

But it’s marketable.

I might sell it on e-bay and buy one those George-Clooney-type espresso coffee machines with the proceedings.

or there again, I might not. E-bay is rather vulgar, isn’t it?

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