OBITUARY: Margot Leigh Milner

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The Independent Online
If generous hospitality is a form of saintliness, then Margot Leigh Milner would have been beatified years ago. Her parties, organised on the slenderest of means, brought an effervescence to innumerable gatherings: at the headquarters of the BBC's English by Radio department in Bush House in the 1960s, and at the journal Early Music at Ely House, in the late 1970s and 1980s. She had a rare gift for bringing compatible people together, especially in the arts. She was an entrepreneur with an individual style and a born campaigner.

As the first wife of Ian Milner, a translator and scholar who became Professor of English at Charles University in Prague, she suffered from the allegations of espionage levelled against him by the Australian authorities in the Petrov case in 1954, when Vladimir Petrov defected to Australia, claiming to be a KGB agent. She had urged her husband to return to face the charges, but he declined and instead submitted a defence through the British Embassy in Prague which has never been properly considered from that day to this.

Richard Hall's book The Rhodes Scholar Spy, which regarded the case as proven, distressed her. The posthumous publication of Ian Milner's autobiography, Intersecting Lines (1993), edited by Professor Vincent O'Sullivan, has highlighted the basic injustice of the means whereby the charges were levelled, whatever the eventual outcome. Margot Milner showed unceasing loyalty to her husband, although the defection of Kim Philby and the way in which he had deceived his wife caused her heart-searching reflections.

She probably inherited her independence of mind from her parents. Her mother, the daughter of an Auckland shipbuilder and a great supporter of music and musicians, rebelled against the attitudes to women at the time. Her father, born in India, the son of a judge, was left partially blind as the result of an operation in his youth; he persuaded his father to finance him in learning to farm in New Zealand, an unsuccessful venture. He eventually became a professional masseur.

Margot inherited a tradition of thrift. As a teenager she was already giving piano lessons and she raised Aylesbury ducks to help the family finances, delivering these handsome creatures in her bicycle basket.

She graduated from Auckland University College in 1934, also with a Diploma of Music in Harmony, Counterpoint and Instrumentation. Her fellow students included a group of intellectuals who became leading figures in New Zealand cultural life - Blackwood Paul, a distinguished bookseller and publisher; James Bertram, author, and Times correspondent in the Far East until imprisoned by the Japanese; and Ian Milner.

After teaching in the New Zealand towns of Masterton and Hamilton, she became in 1937 senior French mistress at a private school for girls in Adelaide, Australia. Her strong social conscience led her to join Adelaide activists in raising funds for the Chinese victims of Japanese bombing and in boycotting Japanese goods. She joined the Communist Party and trained as an ambulance driver.

In 1940 she married Ian Milner, and as his career took him to various positions in Melbourne she campaigned for the clearance of slums and, after the Japanese entry into the Second World War, became Secretary of the Civilian Air Raid Defence Committee to speed up the digging of trenches. She left the Communist Party at this time but remained good friends with associates still in it.

Following work in the External Affairs Department in Canberra in 1944, the Milners moved to New York where Ian had been appointed to a position in Security Council Affairs at the United Nations. Meanwhile, Margot had developed considerably as a pianist but severe osteoarthritis began to affect her fingers. Her husband recommended treatment in the famed Czech spas, and so they left for Prague.

After successful therapy, Margot began working as a translator and writer on music; Ian taught English at Charles University. A decision was taken to remain in Prague and Ian resigned from the UN. Margot built up close relationships with musicians such as the harpsichordist Zuzana Ruzickova, the pianist Eva Bernathova and the Smetana Quartet, as well as Geraldine Mucha, wife of the writer Jiri Mucha, then serving a sentence in the coal- mines on a charge of so-called espionage.

In his autobiography Ian Milner reveals that his principal reason for going to Prague was his relationship with Jarmila Fruhaufova, whom he had first met at the UN. This led to his divorce. In 1960 Margot left Prague for London, where in the English by Radio department she found a milieu which corresponded with her own interests in language teaching.

She retired from the BBC in the early 1970s to look after her cousin Jack Trafford in Jersey. After his death she returned to London to work on "Special Projects" for Early Music.

Margot Milner was indomitable. For her the world resembled a stage on which some cosmic battle was being fought, akin to the struggle of good against evil. She was a fearless spirit, a unique friend and a lover of what is most valuable and enduring.

Margot Leigh Trafford, teacher: born Auckland, New Zealand 11 December 1911; married 1940 Ian Milner (died 1991; marriage dissolved); died London 11 August 1995.