THE ETHICAL SOCIETY (SPES)
Nicolas Walter: Journalist and philosopher devoted to the unflinching pursuit of atheism and anarchism
by Donald Rooum, Monday March 13, 2000
The last document from the hand of Nicolas Walter is headed "Curriculum Vitae (Mortisque)" [course of life (and death)] - a bare but accurate summary of his existence. Walter, who has died aged 65, was a writer and lecturer of deep secular humanist and anarchist convictions - his book About Anarchism is known round the world - and factual accuracy was one of his passions.
His insistence on getting the facts right, together with his skill in rhetoric and ready wit, made him a wonderfully entertaining controversialist, either in a set-piece debate or in questions after a lecture, especially when his opponent was clever and pompous.
Sometimes, Walter anticipated points that would be raised, and came prepared with copies of historical documents showing that the opponent had got the facts wrong.
Accused in a published letter of supposing that history consisted of nothing more than getting the facts right, he replied: "Getting the facts right is not history, but it is a necessary preliminary." He went on to list the factual errors in the letter he was answering. By profession a journalist, Walter was deputy editor of Which? (1963-65), press officer for the British Standards Institution (1965-67), chief sub-editor of the Times Literary Supplement (1968-74), and editor of New Humanist, followed by various directorial posts for the Rationalist Press Association (1975-99). Many of his letters putting the rationalist point of view were published in the Guardian and elsewhere, over his own name and a variety of pseudonyms including "A Freeman" and "Mary Lewis". He continued writing after retirement: his last published article appeared in the anarchist paper Freedom, on February 26.
For various publishers, he compiled and edited texts on atheism and anarchism by figures both political and literary, including Michael Bakunin, Edward Carpenter, Denis Diderot, EM Forster, Peter Kropotkin, George Bernard Shaw, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Oscar Wilde. His book about Charlotte Wilson, a leading late 19th-century anarchist writer and and founder of Freedom, is to be published later this year.
Among his own books, About Anarchism (1969) has been translated into many languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Greek and Serbo-Croat. Other books include Nonviolent Resistance: Men Against War (1963); Blasphemy Ancient and Modern (1990) and Humanism: What's in the Word (1997). Walter was a founding member of the anti-nuclear Committee of 100 and of Spies for Peace, the group which exposed the notorious "regional seats of government" (underground bunkers designed to give government members a chance of surviving nuclear war), and an energetic demonstrator for peace and freedom until crippled by the side effects of radiotherapy in the 1980s. In 1966, he was imprisoned for two months for interrupting a Labour Party church service in Brighton.
Born in south London, Walter studied at Rendcomb College, Cirencester, and read modern history at Exeter College, Oxford. One of his grandfathers was SK Radcliffe, a radical atheist who wrote a history of the South Place Ethical Society, London: Walter was the society's chairman during its bicentenary celebration in 1993. His other grandfather was Karl Walter, an anarchist who reported the international anarchist conference of 1897 for the Times. His father was W Grey Walter, the neurophysiologist famous for the robot tortoises" at the Festival of Britain exhibition in 1951, and now on show again in the millennium dome.
In a letter to the Guardian, replying to an article about dying without the comfort of religion, he wrote: "Raging against the dying of the light may be good art, but it is bad advice. 'Why me?' may be a natural question, but it prompts a natural answer, 'Why not?'.
Religion may promise life everlasting, but we should grow up, and accept that life has an end as weli as a beginning ... Mortality is inevitable, but morbidity is not."
The last line of his final CV reads "Recreation: Living". Nicolas Walter was a warm and enthusiastic family man. He is survived by his first wife Ruth, their two daughters, two grandsons and a granddaughter; and by his second wife Christine and their two stepsons and stepdaughter.
Nicolas Walter, writer and lecturer, born November 22 1934; died March 7 2000
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000
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