Max Nicholson

Memories of Max at Earthwatch by Dr. Robert Barrington

Max Nicholson was a dominant figure when I started working at Earthwatch in early 1993. He was spoken of in awed terms. My role in fundraising brought me into frequent contact with him, particularly as a high fundraising priority was to sustain the research at S'Albufera. I have no doubt that Max thought I was an rather dim, but he was benignly tolerant of me. Shortly after I started at Earthwatch, I visited the S'Albufera project, and Max was also there. I was, and remain, very ignorant of birds, but knew that the prize ornithological sighting would be an Osprey. One day in a hide, I was sure I had seen one and turned to Max to share my excitement and verify my sighting.

"Max, I think I've seen an Osprey - over there. Is it an Osprey?' His own fierce concentration interrupted, he turned to me with a withering stare and whispered in his slightly metallic voice: 'It's a seagull.'

On another occasion, back at the office, Max was due to come on one of his quarterly state visits and, despite my junior status I was the most senior person around and so was delegated to take Max to lunch. Since he did not walk very quickly and we were some distance from the good restaurants, I decided to take him to the Horse & Jockey next door to the office. Brian Walker seemed slightly surprised when I told him that I had taken our eminent Chairman to the pub, but Max and I both enjoyed large plates of sausage and chips.

Max was so lively in mind that it was always a slight shock to realise quite how old he was. He had been a direct contemporary of Evelyn Waugh at Oxford, and they had both been at Hertford College - 'not a very nice man', Max observed. I recall filling in endless EU forms to raise funds for S'Albufera, citing Max as one of the project leaders. They required the dates of birth of those involved and Max was always the oldest on the form by a good thirty years. This sense of age was reinforced when Max appeared on the BBC programme, Desert Island Discs, and spoke about watching the generation immediately senior to him marching off to the First World War.

Two features of Max's communication stick in my mind. The first is that his 'phone calls always ended very abruptly - Max would normally rattle off an instruction and ring off without saying goodbye, leaving me holding the receiver and sometimes slightly uncertain as to whether the conversation had ended. But most notable was his typing. He lived in a world before computers, let alone e-mail, and would send letters on an old-fashioned typewriter with a faded ribbon and would always repeat the same typing errors. He would periodically send me documents and papers through the post, addressed to "Dr Bobert Barringtop".

When Max retired as Chairman, and later from the Board, he retained a strong involvement through the S'Albufera project. I was occasionally summoned to his house in Chelsea and gently berated for not raising enough money to support the project. He would get particularly cross when he felt someone was being unnecessarily obstructive or bureaucratic, and at those times would remark caustically that his generation had been much better at just getting on with things. My abiding memory of Max is therefore a constant feeling that I had not done enough. But that is not a bad legacy for him to have left: unless Max had had such high expectations of himself and others, many great things would not have come to pass - including WWF and Earthwatch Europe. His single-mindedness, persistence, and energy were an enduring example of how to get things done.

(Reproduced from a contribution made by Dr. Barrington to the history of Earthwatch in 2010)