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Walter was born in London; his father was the neurophysiologist and pioneer of cybernetics, William Grey Walter. After serving his National Service in the RAF (where he learned Russian at the Joint Services School for Linguists, and was engaged in SIGINT), Walter studied history at Exeter College, Oxford, 1954–1957, afterwards becoming a journalist. He was deputy editor of Which? (1963–1965); press officer for the British Standards Institution (1965–1967); and chief sub-editor of the Times Literary Supplement (1968–1974). He was also a staff writer for the Good Food Guide.
Walter was editor of New Humanist, published by the Rationalist Press Association, for a decade, and he was to continue to work in the humanist, rationalist and secularist movement until his retirement from it in 1999.
In 1973, Walter was diagnosed with testicular cancer. As a result of the consequent treatment Walter had eventually to use a wheelchair. The cancer was found to have returned shortly after Walter's retirement, and he died very soon afterwards.
Walter was a prolific letter writer to newspapers and magazines, estimating towards the end of his life that he had had over 2,000 published under his own name as well as under pseudonyms such as 'Jean Raison', 'Arthur Freeman' and 'Mary Lewis'.
Walter was a regular user of the British Library, and was not only the first person through the doors of the British Library's Euston Road site when it was opened in 1997, but also the first person to complain about it.
Walter also had a reputation for pedantry, and when Charles Moore stepped down as editor of The Spectator, he described Walter as one of the bores he would not miss. But Walter rejected the accusation in a column in New Humanist (Vol 112 (4) Dec 1997 p20):
I sometimes feel that I have become the Gradgrind of the Humanist movement. 'Now, what I want is Facts', says Mr Gradgrind at the beginning of Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times. 'Facts alone are wanted in life.' As a matter of fact, I don't think facts alone are wanted, but I do think they are a good start to any discussion.
Walter in the peace movement
Walter was a member of Spies for Peace—the only member to be publicly identified, and only after his death—who in March 1963 broke into Regional Seat of Government No. 6 (RSG-6), copied documents relating to the Government's plans in the event of nuclear war, and subsequently distributed 3,000 leaflets revealing their contents. The impact was enormous.
In 1966 Walter was imprisoned for two months under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Act 1860, after a protest against British support for the Vietnam War. As Prime Minister Harold Wilson read the lesson (on the subject of beating swords into ploughshares) at a Labour Party service at the Methodist Church in Brighton, Walter and friends interrupted by shouting "Hypocrite!"
In 1987 Walter played a controversial role in the identification of Michael Randle and Pat Pottle as the people who helped George Blake to escape from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966, five years into a 42-year sentence. Walter had told the story of how the escape was organised by Committee of 100 activists to the former MI6 officer H. Montgomery Hyde, an honorary associate of the Rationalist Press Association, who was writing a biography of Blake. Walter asked Hyde not to reveal the identities of those involved, but The Sunday Times worked it out from clues in Hyde's book and revealed the names. Randle and Pottle eventually wrote their own book, The Blake Escape: How We Freed George Blake and Why (1989). They were subsequently arrested and tried in 1991, after 110 MPs signed a motion calling for their prosecution and the right-wing Freedom Association threatened to bring a private prosecution. Although Randle and Pottle's guilt was not in doubt, the jury acquitted them. Even though Walter himself had not revealed their names, critics regarded his actions as unacceptable. Albert Meltzer later commented: "on the whole it was safer to be Walter's enemy than his friend."
Walter the anarchist
Walter's book About Anarchism was first published in 1969. It went through many editions and has been translated into many languages. A revised edition was published in 2002, with a foreword by his daughter, the journalist and feminist writer Natasha Walter.
A collection of his writings from Freedom and elsewhere was published in 2007 as The Anarchist Past and other essays, edited by David Goodway.
Walter the rationalist, humanist and secularist
Walter was appointed Managing Editor of the Rationalist Press Association in 1975, but his progressive disability and the fact he was not, as Bill Cooke puts it, "a born administrator" led to difficulties.
He was a prominent member of the South Place Ethical Society and became one of its Appointed Lecturers in 1978. He resigned from this position in 1979 following a special meeting of the Society to consider a paper by Albert Lovecy and vote on the motion "that the Society has no theistic creed and does not practise worship". Peter Cadogan managed to have the motion amended to "does not practise worship of a deity" and it was passed. Walter remarked "many people ... have joined the society as part of their rejection of religion".
In 1989, in the aftermath of the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and his book The Satanic Verses, Walter (along with William McIlroy) re-formed The Committee Against Blasphemy Law. It issued a Statement Against Blasphemy Law, signed by more than 200 public figures. Walter and Barbara Smoker were attacked while counter-demonstrating during a Muslim protest against the book in May 1989. Walter's book "Blasphemy Ancient and Modern" put the Rushdie controversy into historical context.
- All of us will die, and most of us will suffer before we do so. "The last act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play may be," said Pascal. Raging against the dying of the light may be good art, but 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 well as a beginning.
- Humanism: what's in the word (1997). London: Rationalist Press Association. ISBN 0-301-97001-7 (also published as Humanism: finding meaning in the word by Prometheus Books, 1998, ISBN 1-57392-209-9)
- Blasphemy, ancient and modern (1990). London: Rationalist Press Association. ISBN 0-301-90001-9
- About Anarchism (1969). London: Freedom Press. (Updated edition published by Freedom Press in 2002, ISBN 0-900384-90-5)
- Nonviolent Resistance: Men Against War (1963).
- Natasha Walter (13 April 2013). "Protest in an age of optimism: the 60s anarchists who spilled nuclear secrets". The Guardian.
- Meltzer, Albert, I Couldn't Paint Golden Angels. AK Press, 1996
- Cooke, Bill (2003), Blasphemy depot: a hundred years of the Rationalist Press Association. London: Rationalist Press Association. ISBN 0-301-00302-5. Published in the United States as The gathering of infidels: a hundred years of the Rationalist Press Association. New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-59102-196-0
- MacKillop, I. D. (1986) The British Ethical Societies, Cambridge University Press, [online] Available from: http://books.google.com/books?id=mqgsFS_MN9UC&pgis=1 (Accessed 13 May 2014).
- Guardian obituary by Donald Rooum
- 'How My Father Spied For Peace', Natasha Walter on her father's involvement in the exposure of the secret 'Regional Seats of Government'.
- The Right to Be Wrong. Essay by Nicolas Walter. Libertarian Alliance Political Notes No. 43, 1989
- Nicolas Walter: an appreciation of his contribution to secular humanism. Sheffield Humanist Society, 2000
- Nicolas Walter papers at the International Institute of Social History