Sunday, 4 September 2011

Damned fools in utopia

Or to give the new book of Nicolas Walter's essays its full title, Damned Fools in Utopia and Other Writings on Anarchism and War Resistance edited by David Goodway. Nicolas Walter died in 2000, having been one of the most consistent writers for Freedom and its offshoots Anarchy and The Raven, as well as the atheist/freethought press. He was famed as a fierce reviewer and a stickler for details (he was, after all, the chief sub-ed at the TLS for a period). He also wrote a stream of letters the broadsheet press. His published output beyond the many magazines he contributed to was, however, sadly limited. On his death it was widely assumed that Freedom Press would publish a selection of his essays but they had "moved on". Other attempts to secure a publisher in the mainstream of the anarchist movement failed. Five Leaves stepped in eventually and a book of his historic essays, The Anarchist Past, appeared in 2007, edited by David Goodway. Too late, sadly, as, perhaps, there had been something of a generational change in the anarchist movement and Nicolas - perhaps also because he had little book-published work - was no longer well known. How quickly people forget. There were always two volumes of essays planned by David Goodway. I cannot now remember why I did not simply announce the second volume to appear under Five Leaves, especially as the content of that volume held more interest for me personally. Perhaps there were some issues, perhaps I was just too busy. Checking past emails I find that the editor asked our friends at PM Press in the USA to bring out an edition there. We discussed a joint edition but when PM opened a London office using the same trade reps as Five Leaves it seemed easier to leave the field to them with one edition for both countries. We're not short of books to publish.
Now that Damned Fools in Utopia has finally appeared with PM I regret not doing the sensible thing which was to have brought it out in 2008 or 2009 and let PM have American rights. It is - as it was then - a very good selection of essays, the heart being about Nicolas' work within the peace movement, and in particular the Spies for Peace. There are also very good essays on libertarian individuals - Orwell, Alan Sillitoe (who was an occasional contributor to the anarchist press), Herbert Read, the largely forgotten Guy Aldred and the "crank" publisher CW Daniel, the UK publisher of Tolstoy and health books (whose imprint ended up being owned by Random House!).
The selection ends with the short essay by Nicolas, "Facing Death" which was first heard on the World Service. Nicolas was, by then, indeed facing death, knowing, as an atheist, that there was nothing beyond. A fine essay which deserves a wide circulation.
Had we published the book I'd have argued with David Goodway about the title - I never liked it - but would probably have accepted defeat. But though I hope the volume is widely read I do regret that PM has set the price at £16.99 and used a white cover which is, after a brief skim through, already grubby. I've read the essays before, some in their original form and all in David Goodway's selection but there are many I will return to again and again, by which time the cover will be as grubby as the content shines.

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