memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

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The Stone Baby

Some little stories rise up by chance and demand to be told, however ineptly. Here is a rather fascinating medical case which was recently recounted to me by my elder son, who studies (and works) at the University Hospital of Coimbra.


One day last year an elderly woman in her 70s was admitted to the hospital complaining of stomach pains and cramps. She was from a remote village of Beiras and had had limited access to medical care.


Apparently, about 60 years ago when she was fifteen, she became pregnant – father unknown. Month after month the baby grew silently in her womb with her scarcely being aware of it until it neared full term and time to be born.

But it wasn’t born. It had a stranger destiny. Over the years the (dead) foetus gradually calcified inside the womb, spinning its own white tomb. Sixty summers and sixty winters passed in the tiny mountain community with the timeless rhythms of the seasons.


Until last year at Coimbra Hospital where it was scanned, diagnosed and surgically extracted and caused amazement! Such a case hadn’t occurred for over two hundred years. It created quite a stir amongst the medical fraternity. James was helping in the radiology department at the time and actually saw the radio-imaging – it was a perfectly-formed embryonic fossil.

And now presumably it forms the chief attraction some Museum of Forensic Pathology somewhere … surreal, definitely surreal.


But let us turn our attention to this picture of a very different baby, alive and well, with her mother and father; a joyous sight, surely? But hold up there! Why are Baby, Mum and Dad in separate bubbles and what are those fish-like things sticking into Baby’s head? It all looks a bit weird to me, yes definitely weird.


The assasins

The origins of the Assassins trace back to just before the First Crusade around 1080. They belonged to a cult founded by Sheik Hasan-i-Sabbah. A passionate believer of the Isma’ili beliefs, Hasan-i-Sabbah was well liked throughout Syria and most of the Middle East by other Isma’ili, which led to a number of people becoming his followers. Using his fame and popularity Sabbah founded the Order of the Assassins.

After creating the Order, Sabbah searched for a location that would be fit for a sturdy headquarters and decided on the mountain-top fortress at Alamut in what is now northwestern Iran. Sabbah adapted the fortress to suit his needs of not only defense from hostile forces but also indoctrination of his followers.

Spending most of his days at Alamut working on religious works and doctrines for his Order, Sabbah was never to leave his fortress again in his lifetime. He had established a secret society of deadly assassins, one which was built in a hierarchical format. Below Sabbah, the Grandmaster, were those known as Greater Propagandists, followed by the normal Propagandists, the Rafiqs Companions, and the Lasiqs Adherents. It was the Lasiqs who were trained to become some of the most feared assassins, or as they were called, Fida’i (self-sacrificing agent), in the known world.

Marco Polo describes how the Old Man of the Mountain (Sabbah) would drug his young followers with hashish (hence the word assassin), lead them to a paradise and then claim that only he had the means to allow for their return. Perceiving that Sabbah was either a prophet or some kind of magic man, his disciples, believing that only he had the key to paradise, became fanatics to his cause, willing to carry out his every request.

With his new weapons, Sabbah began to order multiple assassinations. Such was his fearsome reputation that he could «warn-off» Crusader-lords such as Richard 1st of England and generals such as the great Saladin himself simply by leaving a couple of (hashish) cakes in their sleeping tents (under their pillows).

Over ten centuries later, exactly ten years ago today, another old man of the mountain, Osama bin Laden, lurking in a cave deep in the tribal uplands of the Afghanistan/Pakistan borderlands, launched his own fanatical Fida’i, brainwashed by the hideous, twisted and hate-filled ideology of religious extremism, to attack the heart of America. On this infamous day the soldiers of Al Qaida high-jacked four airliners two of which they slammed into the Twin Towers of New York.

Up to three thousand innocent men, women and children perished.

May their souls rest in eternal peace.


O Table

When the young Winston Churchill first went away to school, his mother rather vaguely took him there in the middle of the term. As her grand car disappeared down the drive, the headmaster took Churchill into his office, gave him a Latin Primer and told him to study the first page, then left the room. Page one, in the time-honoured way of such primers, dealt with a declension of the substantive feminine noun: Mensa (table): nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative: (a table, o table, table, of a table, to a table and by/with/from a table). The young boy studied this in silence and, on the master’s return, he was sitting looking slightly bemused at this new information. The headmaster asked:

–          Well, young man, any problems?

–          No sir, I don’t think so sir, but I am rather puzzled by the vocative case …

–          Well the vocative is used when one addresses the object directly, for example «o table» … but you still don’t look convinced.

–          No I understand, sir; it’s just that in our house, we don’t generally speak to our furniture.


How I Wish I Loved the Human Race

How I wish I loved the human race

how I wish I loved its silly face

and when was introduced to one

how I wish I thought – what fun!

(It’s not one of mine, Your Majesty; it’s one of Ogdon’s).

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