Max Nicholson

Max interviewed by Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs in 1995

Our castaway this week is a conservationist. In a life which spans our century - he is now 91. Bird-watching has been his passion, it was with him at school where he preferred it to sport and in his work where he rose to be one of the most influential advisers to the post war Labour Government.

He was a Director General of the Nature Conservancy and he helped found the WWF. Mysteriously though, he has no knighthood, no peerage but few doubt his stature. "Gongs", he says "mean very little to me. All my life is about improving, learning and understanding and then applying that understanding to correcting the many horrible things in the world." He is Max Nicholson

I think I have quoted you correctly to yourself Max. What are the horrible things in the world that come to your mind?

There are so many it is hard to know where to start but I think what I would call malign technology. Technology has been used in a malign way, its been used to destroy a lot of the environment, it has been used to destroy a lot of people's lives.

What kind of technology have you seen come through during the course of the twentieth century which you believe to have led to these horrible things?

Well almost all of it there is the military technology, the transport technology, the enormous number of things which are made by means of processes involving pollution. We churn out an enormous number of horrible things and we in the environmental movement have been able to stop some of the worst of them but only the most specific ones. The trouble is that the people who control political power centres and the industrial power centres and so on don't know and don't want to know about this. Most of the people around the world are getting the message, but the people at the top aren't.

So the people with power are not listening to the message?

Well I wouldn't quite say that, they are listening to it but they are paying lip-service to it, they sign documents, they make speeches and so on but they don't do anything, so we have broken away from the principles of nature and we have got to get back to them very soon if we don't want to become an endangered species ourselves.

Well more nature and some politics to come, but let's get down to musical business tell me about the first record that you would play on your desert island?

I'm playing "Red Sails in the Sunset". Because I am a very bad sailor but in the course of my life about the environment. I have had to go a long way about the world and I have had to cross seas and so on and this I think gets the feeling that we of us in this little island are really only a very small part of the natural world, and we have to think of ourselves as wanderers enjoying the sources of a planet which is pretty small by most standards but which is big enough for us if we use it properly.

Red Sails in the Sunset sung by George Berkeley with Charlie Kuntz and the Casani Club Orchestra.

You were bitten by the bird watching bug Max Nicholson at a very early age. is there a moment when you recall it happening.

Yes I recall it very vividly, it was a wet day and my parents were passing the Natural History Museum and they said lets take him in there and we went into the Bird Gallery and in the Bird Gallery there were the most wonderful habitat groups of eagles on their rock ledges and so on. There and then I thought this what I want to do, I want to watch these birds and I want to learn more about them.

But you lived and you were born and bought up in County Wicklow in Ireland and that presumably was good bird watching territory.

I left Ireland when I was five my father was doing a job in Dublin and he came back to England when I was five.

So where did you do your birdwatching as a boy

I did some of it round the London reservoirs and then we moved to Portsmouth and I did quite a bit in Spithead and the Isle of Wight and so on I got so hooked on the birds I wanted to know why they did everything, what they did, how they did it, what their perceptions were what they could see how they got the signals and so on I wanted to ...

Its a very lonely pursuit for a young boy

Well it didn't seem lonely to me because I was with the birds.

And you did it instead of sport at school I understand

Well when I went to public school they put me down on the first day of the summer to play cricket and having watched me for half an hour play cricket they said I understand you're a bird watcher - if you will undertake always to go birdwatching five miles at least from the school every day cricket is being played you will never be put down for cricket in your career.

But you have gone as far as to say that birdwatching taught you as much as your years at Oxford. Can that be the truth.

Yes I think it is because you see if you really watch birds as intently as I did when you are so young and pick up so much I think that my birdwatching has made me throughout my life rather quicker in picking things up, I pick up signals all over the place when I ... and so

What from humans beings

Yes from human beings as well, yes. A finch is a little bird which would go into a glass, can then migrate 6,000 miles to Africa and come back here and within 48 hours it comes to a wood and its at that part of that wood is the place which will have what I need to bring up 5 young successfully and if it guesses wrong of course, that bird is finally going to become extinct and I often say to politicians if birds took as long to make up their minds as you do and got it wrong as often, they would be extinct think of that.

Tell me about Record No. Two.

I came to live in Portsmouth at the beginning of World War I and I had the scene then of the Expeditionary Force, the Old Contemptibles, marching through the streets of Portsmouth - so many of them never came back and so my second song is Tipperary, which they were singing.

Its a Long Way to Tipperary, played and sung by the concert band and chorus of the RAAF.

You would have been ten years old I think Max when the War broke out, what was your reaction as a young boy because one has heard time and again that a lot of young boys at the time really wanted to go and fight in that War, they thought it the heroic thing to do

Oh they did and of course for two years the War was run entirely by volunteers it was only in the middle of the War that conscription was bought in but nobody had any idea what carnage there would be I can't speak without a mention of the incompetence of the generals we had in the First World War in sharp contrast to the ones in the Second?

And at what stage did you realise that, as a young man did you realise that there had been a terrible slaughter?

Well - You couldn't open a newspaper, column after column, name after name and all those people alive last week and dead now - horrible, horrible

And that's obviously something that has stayed with you throughout your life.

Yes I feel that those of us who lived on had an obligation to do something to make up.

How obvious was it in the circles you moved in that there were fewer men around in their twenties. There were greater gaps.

Oh it was painfully obvious and it was even more painfully obvious that there were a lot of what we called the old gang who would have be retired who were still occupying posts of responsibility ten years after they should have been retired.

Tell me about Record No. 3

When I was at Oxford I had a double life because I was not only doing a degree in history but I was continuing my ecological and ornothological work and I was very keen to go out to distant parts of an expedition. I then founded an Oxford University Exploration Club which first of all went to Greenland under Dr. Longstaff and then we said this is an awful place with hardly a tree in site lets go somewhere with trees. So the next place we went to was a tropical rain forest. And that was in Demerara and that is why I would like to play next the song I am rather fond of - Down in Demerara.

I like that particularly because I was 40 metres up, 130 feet up in the top of the canopy in Demerara and nobody had ever done an all night session at the top of the canopy. I saw the monkeys coming through just by me and so it is a special song for me.

Stuart Robinson singing it - Down in Demerara

Now perhaps not least because of your views on the First World War you became rather political, you became something of a journalist, you started to write ...... you wrote for the Weekend Review which eventually became the New Statesman I think didn't you - yes - and like columnists today you liked telling politicians what they should be doing. Did they take any notice.

Well they did because some of the younger ones like Walter Elliott and Harold MacMillan who was afterwards of course Prime Minister, they read us with great attention and they came to the Editor and said this is all very well but we have to do things in Parliament and say where we stand, you just tell us where we're wrong, you come along and you never have to say what y0u would do. So my Editor turned to me and said they're quite right we must tell them, we must get out a national plan for Great Britain. So I was put on to do this and it came out in February 1931, it had a considerable impact.

You would have been about 27 at the time so it was quite precocious of you really?

Well I was told to do it

But did they take any notice - the politicians?

Yes they did, they did - Harold Macmillan started a thing called The Next Ten Years Group which was modelled on what we had put. I think having been born under the SugarLoaf, the air I absorbed as a baby was the air which makes one agin the government and I have always been agin the government even when I've been in it

So you remain agin the government - whatever colour do you?

Yes I'm still agin the government

Do you vote, you exercise your democratic right do you?

Oh yes, I do, yes, with some misgiving

But you are a true floating voter by the sound of it

Yes very much so I am what the Americans call a Mugwump - a mugwump has his mug one side of the fence and his wump the other side

Record No. 4

Curiously enough I have always found time to pursue all these public affairs things and to pursue my ornithology and when Hitler started making real trouble for the Jews he had on his list one Ludwig Koch who was a singer and also eminent in the gramophone world and he had to get out of Germany at 48 hours notice and he came to England and he had a curious line in making records of bird songs. He didn't really know much about birds and so I had to go to a little hotel in Woking with Ludwig and we went out on Chobham Common we were going out very early because we had to record the Curlew at about 4 o'clock in the morning but Ludwig was very nervous that I wouldn't wake up in time and he got the number of my room wrong. So he burst in through the door to a room which he thought was mine and said in his German accent "come, it is time" and unfortunately in the bed in this room there was a young woman who might easily have misunderstood him but very luckily for Ludwig it was Derby Day and she had just won a sum on the Derby so she took a better kind of a view of him. I would like on my desert island to remember Ludwig and all the lovely times we had together and this was his favourite music. Der Vogel Wenger ban ish Jahr.

Part of Mozart's Der Vogel Wenger ban ish Jahr sang by Ervalt Bermer with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra conducted by Clement Schmalstig and that was recorded in 1947.

That's interesting that was the very year that we recorded this Curlew which ran for a long time as the signature of the Natural History Museum

So we are in the late thirties now and you Max were in no doubt that there would be another War - what made you so sure. I mean you couldn't stand the appeasers could you. What made you so sure you were right, the war was going to happen?

Oh because I had very good contacts in Germany especially in this group of people who knew and were told things that were top secret with Hitler and came through to us very quickly and so we had no illusion about that. In fact we formed an Air Raid Defence League about 1936 and we formed a Post War Aims Group, we thought we couldn't fight the war without knowing what we were fighting it for. Everybody must know what we were fighting it for and so that first meeting of our Post War Aims Group took place in Chelsea at the beginning of August 1939. War was declared at the beginning of September.

You spent the first half of the War I think in the Ministry of Shipping so you got to go to all the big conferences. You went to Cairo and Yalta and Pottsdam

And Quebec - yes

So you saw a lot of the key players in the war at close quarters. Who did you find the most impressive, which of them.

Oh I would say undoubtedly the Chief of General Staff, General Allenbrook, Sir Allenbrook as he was at the beginning of the War. He was the most wonderful calm and collected man a first class soldier and a very long term staticist and he sometimes had to stay up to 2 o'clock in the morning arguing against some madcap scheme. If Allenbrook stuck to his guns Churchill always gave in in the end but he was a wonderful man and we all owe a great deal to Allenbrook.

And he was a fellow birdwatrcher wasn't he?

Yes he was also a birdwatcher yes

Has birdwatching got you on in your career - do you suddenly find very distinguished chaps suddenly turn out to have this hobby in common

Well sometimes, but it would be wrong to say that its ever given me a leg up in my career.

Our Headquarters was in Berkeley Square House and it so happened that almost at the time when the popular hit A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square was loosed on the world, we were having a very difficult meeting with about 20 people which was deadlocked on some shipping problem and suddenly there was a slight pause in the meeting and Herkum who was is the chair and I both got up and left the meeting hurriedly and went over to the window and listened to one of the first black red starts to sing and it wasn't a nightingale it was a black redstart and we listened to it just made sure of it and we came back to the table and everybody was dumbfounded and this difficult argument had immediately come to an end and everybody had agreed with in two minutes so never underestimate the power of a bird.

That was Turner Leighton and A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.

But the man who really impressed you, Max Nicholson, on the domestic front was Herbert Morrison wasn't it? He was Lord President of the Council in the Attlee administration. Why was he so special in your view?

He was a wonderful man because he was a doer, he was an activist, he was very easy to talk to and if you convinced him that something that he passionately wanted wouldn't work he would immediately drop it and, unlike almost any other minister that I have ever met, he would never bring it up afterwards.

So we get to 1952 and you were still of course in your forties then, you had worked at the heart of Government, you had travelled the world, you had met and knew some of the most influential people of your age but as far as I can see you quit you turned your back on all of this rather exciting life and you became Director General of Nature Conservancy - now why?

Well I was a Charter Member, I was a Council Member and we appointed another man as the first Director General but he couldn't cope with it and he left very early and then the Chairman came to me, the Vice Chairman came to me and he said well we've got a very simple decision to make either we pack the thing up or you come in and run it, which shall it be. So -

blackmail was it?

Well it wasn't blackmail because in a curious way I had already made up my mind that with a Tory Government on a rather do nothing programme it was too much of a change. I was an activist so I was happy to build up this new thing and nobody ever knew what conservation meant, nobody had ever heard of the environment. Everything was new, we had to train our people from scratch. Everything was done from the start.

So it was quite exciting, but nevertheless you have also said that the feelings in some Whitehall Offices, and I am quoting you, must have been damaged by the force of the sighs of relief that went up when you left, they were so relieved to see the back of you. Why were they so relieved to see the back of you? Were you .....

Well because I was a permanent civil servant aged in my middle forties. I had a long way to go, they couldn't get rid of me from the civil service, there was no way they could get rid of me and they were terrified, they knew what an activist I was and all the civil servants took a very contrary view to me and they were wondering how on earth they could possibly get me out of the Civil Service. Suddenly overnight this mad fellow got out himself you see. They were so grateful.

Next piece of music

It so happened that when I went to the Nature Conservancy I was so fed up with Whitehall that I wanted to make my headquarters not in Whitehall, but in Edinburgh. I found I couldn't do this because I couldn't trust what some of my ex-colleagues in Whitehall were going to get up to while they were out of my sight. But a great deal of our work was in Scotland and one of the first reserves we got was in what was now called the Road to the Isles so I have chosen for my next record - The Road to the Isles.

That's very dear to me I must tell you that every time I go to Scotland I feel at least 20% better than when I am in England.

That was Stuart Robertson singing The Road to the Isle.

Now apart from your work at Nature Conservancy, you also as I said at the outset helped to set up the World Wildlife Fund which always seems to have attracted support from royalty, Prince Phillip, the King of Spain and Queen of the Netherlands to name but three, very good PR - why do you think it has always been able to do that. What's the trick of it.

In April 1961 I drafted what is now the Constitution of the WWF and I devised the scenery and I managed to persuade Prince Phillip who was then rather at a loss for what he should be doing and this just suited him to be able to travel the world and to do things that really were close to his heart.

But presumably before then he didn't know much particularly about wildlife and ecology.

No, he was - he had some interest it, but he never does anything by halves and he really mastered everything about it in a remarkable short time.

Now your other connection with royalty is the Silver Jubilee Walkway. Tell me first of all what it is?

I was made Chairman of the Environmental Committee for the Queen's Jubilee so we thought for a bit and we'd been making walkways, nature walks through the woods. So we said why not make a town walkway which would take people to all the historic sights along the Thames. Now the walkway not only extends 12 miles through London but it has various spurs and so on.

But it took seventeen years, eighteen years I think in the end to complete, it was only completed at the end of last year wasn't it?


And it is said that it is one of London's best kept secrets, that few people know about it. Do you feel that is it rather unexploited?

No I don't regret that it isn't more trodden, many many thousands of people do use it.

But its what 12 miles long the whole walkway. Have you trodden it?

Not all in one go, no because unfortunately when I came back from leading this UN party in Baluchistan, I got polio so my walking is rather limited but I have got round the world and indeed I have even got to the South Pole since I had polio. And of course the South Pole is a very curious point in the environment. There's not an awful lot to see when you get there but nobody told me that at that time women were not admitted to the Antartic continent at all and that there were a lot of American Servicemen herded in this canteen, this living quarters at the South Pole and it was out of this force that the South Pole had, I don't know whether it still has, the largest collection of nude pin-ups in the world. A very fine collection if ever one is taken to see it.

Record No. 7

I am not a musical person but this was the waltz from Offenbach's Helen and Helen of Troy, of course, was a great person who started quite a lot of things and I somehow got very attached to this melody and I would like to hear it now.

Well now Max, describe this Desert Island of yours to me. How do you imagine it to be in an ideal world?

Well, its one of the outer small islands of the New Hebrides in the Pacific. This is of course a tropical island and it has the usual palm trees and so on. The usual sandy beach but it also has a lot of migratory birds and it has a lot of fishes round it. Its got a coral reef. So I think I shall be quite happy there and I don't mind that I am marooned on this coral island for as many years as you like. I am perfectly happy by myself. A very odd person that way probably but so much goes on in my head and so on that I don't feel lonely, so I think I would have not too much difficulty in knocking up shelter in this very good climate and there would be plenty of food and so what more can you want.

Will there be the birds, you couldn't do without the birds.

Oh yes, there are some very fine waders and seabirds coming down off the rocks and so on.

So you are not entirely self sufficient - you couldn't manage without the birds could you?

Oh no I take that for granted.

And are you going to see a bird there that you have never seen and always wanted to see?

I haven't thought of that I probably will, but I haven't thought of that. I shall have to find out.

Tell me about your last record.

My last record of course that very great composer Beethoven who was obviously a bird lover but the last record that I want is the Pastoral Symphony and I want the part of it where he actually as a composer of music, he goes to learn from the quail and cuckoo and so on and you hear the birds in the Beethoven music. So what could be better for me.

Part of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in F Major The Pastoral, played by the Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Otto Klemperer.

Now if you could only take one of those records Max, which one?

Well if you let me take the whole of it I would take The Pastoral.

Right, Pastoral Symphony - now what about your book have you got it there.

Yes, I am very keen on this book by a curious man who was both a Jesuit priest and a very good scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who wrote a book about fifty years ago called The Phenomenon of Man. Julian Huxley introduced me to this and Julian Huxley thought and I agree with him, this was perhaps the most important book written this century and far more people ought to read it because we don't know who we are as a human animal unless we understand the evolution, understand how life has gone on and Teilhard describes all this in the Phenomenon of Man and you can read it. It makes you think. Every page starts you thinking so I can turn over this book as often as I like and there will always be some new thought.

What about your luxury.

Well my luxury obviously I want to see the birds passing so my luxury is obviously binoculars.

Max Nicholson thank you very much indeed for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs.