A friend­ship forged in the war years

One of the chance en­coun­ters thrown up by World War II was when a refugee writer – who be­came a No­bel win­ner – be­came friends with a head­mas­ter who swept street. Lo­cal Bea­cons­field his­to­rian Don­ald Stan­ley finds out about Canetti and Mil­burn

Buckinghamshire Advertiser - - PEOPLE AND PLACES -

THE wartime bomb­ing of Lon­don brought to­gether two very dif­fer­ent men. One, Robert Gor­don Mil­burn, lived in a quiet back­wa­ter of Che­sham Bois un­til he died in 1973 aged 103 years.

The other, Elias Canetti, fled Aus­tria fol­low­ing its an­nex­a­tion by Ger­many in 1938.

Af­ter or­di­na­tion, Mil­burn served in Lon­don parishes be­fore spend­ing 13 years in Cal­cutta at Bishop’s Col­lege be­com­ing vice prin­ci­pal in ad­di­tion to be­ing head­mas­ter of Bishop’s Col­lege School.

Canetti was one of many refugees from Europe who found shel­ter in the Chilterns dur­ing the Sec­ond World War to es­cape the bomb­ing of Lon­don.

In 1951 he wrote to an­other refugee, Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, that although he had be­come an English­man with a good con­science he was some­what am­biva­lent, as de­spite living here from 1938 un­til the 1970s he wrote solely in Ger­man for which, in 1981, he re­ceived the No­bel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture.

Marie-Louise, a ma­jor Aus­trian painter, was one of sev­eral women in­clud­ing the au­thoress Iris Mur­doch, with whom Canetti’s name be­came linked.

Dur­ing the war she had a stu­dio in Amer­sham and, at her sug­ges­tion, Canetti and his wife moved to nearby Che­sham Bois.

He wrote that the Mil­burns were both deeply in­ter­ested in prophecy and were fre­quently vis­ited by a prophet­ess whose gen­uine­ness Canetti doubted.

She would go into a fit or trance dur­ing which she would proph­esy to the Mil­burns on the ba­sis of the lengthy dis­cus­sion of cur­rent af­fairs she had had be­fore­hand with Canetti.

Canetti wrote that the wartime vil­lage store, be­ing the place from which peo­ple bought their food ra­tions,i was al­sol a meetingi place.l

One per­son he got to know was the el­derly street sweeper who he found to be widely read, well in­formed about the events of the day and asked in­tel­li­gent ques­tions which of­ten he was un­able to an­swer.

Of the sweeper’s death Canetti wrote: “There are only four or five peo­ple in my life whom I mourned as I mourned him.”

Ac­cord­ing to Canetti, Mil­burn – the sweeper – had come to doubt the doc­tri­nal po­si­tion of the Church of Eng­land, re­nounced his post in In­dia and spent his life ex­plor­ing var­i­ous sects.

Hin­duism is based on mythol­ogy and phi­los­o­phy rather than the­ol­ogy and one of Mil­burn’s ear­li­est books con­cerned the re­li­gious mys­ti­cism of its sa­cred texts.

His pub­lished works in­cluded the books The The­ol­ogy of The Real and The Re­li­gious Mys­ti­cism of the Upan­ishads.

Af­ter his death his pa­pers were given to the Bodleian Li­brary in Ox­ford and a Re­search Fel­low­ship was es­tab­lished in his mem­ory.

Elias Canetti who lived in Che­sham Bois was linked with sev­eral women in­clud­ing the au­thor Iris Mur­doch and be­low, the Bodleian Li­brary, Ox­ford, where Canetti’s pa­pers are now kept

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