Anarchist Gadfly Nicolas Walter

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:53

    With Dr. Strangelove, released on Jan. 30, 1964, Kubrick was merrily riffing on reality with the mine-shaft scheme. The previous April, during the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament's annual four-day Eastertime protest march to London, the shadowy British antinuke group Spies for Peace had circulated 3000 copies of a 12-page pamphlet detailing classified UK government nuclear-attack contingencies. These called for a string of top-secret Regional Seats of Government (RSGs), command bunkers from which "catastrophe administrators" would maintain the ship of state as nuclear winter set in. The pamphlets?which included maps, photos, addresses and phone numbers of RSGs, plus the names/occupations of their administrators?were seized by Scotland Yard, which threatened prosecution of those responsible for their publication under Britain's Official Secrets Act.

    But the cops never ascertained the identities of the Spies for Peace, a wily collective of antiwar activists who methodically erased all incriminating clues after distributing the pamphlets to protesters, London newspapers, members of Parliament and outspoken critics such as the philosopher Bertrand Russell. To elude detection, Spies for Peace wore gloves as they stuffed the typewritten pamphlets into envelopes, which they mailed out in dribs and drabs from boxes all over London; then they pitched their typewriter into a river. The group had secured hush-hush documents about the RSGs when, weeks earlier, they had broken into one such facility, about 30 miles west of London, frantically photographing and copying as much as possible. Given the prevailing Cold War hysteria, speculation about them centered on foreign infiltrators and government moles.

    They were neither. One core "spy" was Nicolas Walter, a then-28-year-old anarchist and writer who, over the ensuing 37 years, evolved into an eminent gadfly as director of the Rationalist Press Association (a publisher); author of books such as 1969's About Anarchism and 1997's Humanism: What's in the Word; tireless writer of prickly letters to the editor; and engaging lecturer, debater and tv/radio broadcaster of his unrepentant atheist, secular humanist, pacifist and rationalist viewpoints. "In Britain, we were probably happier in the Middle Ages," he noted in a pre-Christmas 1994 profile in London's The Independent. "We couldn't cure as many illnesses, but we were not oppressed by television and deprived of real experiences. People now survive on soap operas or the Royal Family, which is the same thing. I think there should be a Campaign for Real Life."

    Walter acquired his freethinking ways naturally: his paternal grandfather was a noted anarchist, his maternal grandfather a celebrated atheist, while his father, an esteemed neurophysiologist, passed along atheist and socialist notions to young Nick, who was born in London on Nov. 22, 1934. After studying modern history at Oxford, he assumed a series of journalism posts in the 60s and 70s while also contributing articles to mainstream publications and leftist journals, editing the work of prominent atheists and anarchists (Oscar Wilde, G.B. Shaw, Denis Diderot, Michael Bakunin, E.M. Forster) and, in 1975, signing on with the Rationalist Press, first as editor of its magazine, The New Humanist, then as its director. Throughout, his political activism never flagged: arrested on numerous occasions, he did prison time only once, for two months, in 1966, after he and several colleagues disrupted a pro-Vietnam War speech by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in a Brighton church. "They couldn't get us for violent behavior," he told The Independent, "as we didn't hit anyone, or even riotous behavior, as we tried to argue logically, so they got us for indecent behavior."

    And he wrote letters to the editor?thousands of them appearing in London's newspapers, most under his own name, some coyly signed "Arthur Freeman" or "Jean Raison." Like this one, from The Observer, March 1998: "The Church of England complains that the Millennium Dome may become a 'multi-faith mish-mash.' So what? So is the Church of England; so is Christianity. And so is the Millennium itself, from the confusion over its origin and date to the controversy over its point and cost. In this context, the banality of the Dome, far from being a bad thing, will be exactly right."

    Stricken with testicular cancer in 1973, Walter underwent chemotherapy treatments that caused painful intestinal and spinal side effects, ultimately confining him to a wheelchair. Although he retired from the Rationalist Press last year, he maintained his epistolary barrage until he died from squamous cell carcinoma on March 7 at the age of 65 in the town of Milton Keynes. Not surprisingly, he harbored a take on funerals, stated in an August 1997 letter to The Independent:

    My own preference is for cremation or burial to be a private matter for only the closest friends and relations, and for any public tribute to a dead person to take place at another time and place altogether; my suspicion is that this is a growing sentiment, and that funerals could decline along with weddings and christenings. We are often told that man is a ritualistic animal, just as we used to be told that man is a religious animal; but the fact is that many men and women are neither, and we need no formal process to part with the dead any more than to join lovers or to greet children.

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