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
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