Max Nicholson

Sir Crispin Tickell's address at the memorial service on 27 June 2003

You may wonder why I of all people should have been asked to deliver this address. Many of you will have known Max Nicholson better than I did, and indeed for longer. He and I first met with Julian Huxley, certainly some time ago, but I could hardly have imagined then that I would be addressing you on this occasion. For me it is simply an honour, and I warmly thank those who invited me.

Max Nicholson was a giant in his time, with a compelling combination of idealism, imagination, energy, and managerial ability to put his ideas — as he once said, an ever turning Catherine Wheel — into practical effect. How appropriate that towards the end of his life this classic example of Renaissance man should have created the New Renaissance Group to drive forward thinking which he believed neglected by that sluggish and stumbling body politic which is our society.

I suppose that he will first be remembered for his work on conservatioh and the environment. As a child he kept notes on the birds, mammals, reptiles and plants he saw on walks. I like his observation, when aged 13, that “the starling often perches on the back of sheep”; and still more that “248 rabbits counted on walk”. Some walk! In my own childhood I remember counting rats on a rubbish dump on my way to school, but I could never manage more than a dozen.

As a young man Max explored both Greenland and the Amazonian rain forest and won recognition as an authority on birds. This was the passion of a lifetime, with books, chairmanships, and presidencies (not least that of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) to show for it. But he also helped create the World Wildlife Fund, the International Institute for Environment and Development, and Earthwatch Europe; and he participated in — if not dominated — most of the environmental organizations and movements of his time. The diversity of life, with our need to cherish it, was at the core of his being.

For this brief address I searched for some underlying theme of activity. It was not easy in someone of such variegated talent. I think perhaps it was mostly a challenge to the current conventional wisdom, or the Establishment as he called it, to which he joined creative ability to put forward alternative ideas, policies and actions. He himself thought that this tradition of dissent went pack to his Irish birthplace. Of course his views on the environment were revolutionary in their day. But even before the second world war, he was active in protest on a wider front. Through the Week End Review, at Political and Economic Planning, and in articles, broadsbeets and reports, he joined in what he called “a most comprehensive check up on the state of the nation and on many of its main industries, public services and supporting activities”, and found it seriously wanting.

During the war, he rose steadily in a hieracrchy of key administrative jobs, including in the Ministry of Shipping and War Transport, in which, as he wrote, “the manifest incompetence and partial disloyalty of the Establishment to the nation opened a vast vacuum for new principles, new methods and new leadership.” Unfortunately circumstances later enabled the Establishment to crawl back out of its war time bunkers and regain the levers of power”. But not completely, and not without a fight. Between 1945 and 1951 he became one of Herbert Morrison’s right-hand men, and was responsible for steering through the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, the 1949 Act which set up national parks and the Nature Conservancy (including Sites of Special Scientific Interest), and the organization of the Festival of Britain in 1951.

Thereafter he switched his formidable energies to more directly environmental causes, both national and international. His campaigning was conducted with an ex-civil servant’s skill and guile through the organizations he chaired or guided, and in such pioneering books as “The Misgovernment of Modem Britain” in 1970. He became directly involved in the promotion of the Silver lubilee of 1977, and its wide ranging success was partly his doing. He was not universally popular, especially not among the misgovernors. As he wrote “I entered the 1980s feeling once more that I had the great Beast in my sights”. No wonder the Beast did not like it. Sometimes the Beast managed to frustrate him, but often he outsmarted the Beast.

In no way was Max an arrongant man, who, like some other with a mission, ignored others. He was able to listen as well as to speak, and to dream as well as to think. The problem was that his mid worked more quickly than those of many other people who didn't enjoy being left behind. At root he had a deep humility about himself. He once wrote:
“1 feel myself as probably no more than an ephemeral vehicle, one of countless millions, responding clumsily and ineptly to inspirations and signals partiy from my fellows and partly from some disembodied source, committing between birth and death countless follies, misdeeds and errors, and also some remarkable creative acts, able to radiate influence and persisting ideas. We are children of this lovely and generous planet earth.. .As W H Auden put it, we “can live because we have lived.."

I add to this remarkable statement some words from Timothy Ferris in “Seeing in the Dark”
. . . . . . . . .when darkness is falling for good, it is well to have in mind, in addition to human love and loss, and of the natural splendours of this world — of birdsong at dawn, the roaring spray of the surf, the sweet smell of the air in the eye of a hurricane, the workings of bees in the throats of wildflowers — a few memories of the other worlds as well. If you have seen plasma arches rising off the edge of the Sun, yellow dust storms raging on Mars, angry red lo emerging from the shadow of Jupiter, the golden rings of Saturn, the green dot of Uranus and the blue of Neptune, the glittering star fields of Sagittarius, and the delicate tendrils connecting inter-acting galaxies, have watched auroras and meteors writing silent signatures in the sky — if in short you have seen not only this world but something of the other worlds too — well, then, you have lived.

So lived Max Nicholson whom we mourn today.