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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Monday, March 19, 2018

Vale Peter Nicholls

My old friend Peter Nicholls died on 6 March 2018, just two days short of his 79th birthday, as a result of complications from Parkinson's disease. Although we all knew the end was coming, it ultimately happened quite suddenly, as these things often do. The funeral took place in Melbourne on 15 March, so Jenny Blackford and I flew down for a hit-and-run visit to the city where we lived for three decades.

We'd been close to Peter, especially during the late 1980s and through the 1990s, before he began to slow down and become more reclusive after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2000. Jenny was especially close to both Peter and his wife, the fine editor Clare Coney (who was employed by Gollancz, back when she and Peter lived in London, a generation ago now).

Peter and Clare were regular attendees at the (sometimes slightly crazy) parties Jenny and I used to host on special occasions - particularly each New Year's Eve - at our Port Melbourne house in the late 1980s, and subsequently at our big old Victorian terrace in Albert Park, where we moved toward the end of 1989. (We shifted interstate, to Newcastle, almost exactly 20 years later, at the end of 2009.) For their part, Peter and Clare were known for their generous hospitality, hosting many lavish gatherings, large and small, at their grand home, with its vast private library, in Surrey Hills.

I dedicated my most recent book (Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination; Springer, 2017) to Peter, knowing that it would at least be meaningful to Clare and the rest of Peter's family, even if Peter himself could not entirely comprehend it (by this point, he was at a very late stage of Parkinson's). In the book's Acknowledgments section, I state: "I have dedicated this book to Peter Nicholls, the great encyclopedist of science fiction. For four decades, no one has engaged meaningfully with the [science fiction] genre without benefiting from his scholarly work." This sums up one aspect of his life.

Peter wrote numerous books and other works about the SF genre, setting a particular style and standard - clear, straightforward, and accessible, but deeply scholarly - for his contemporaries and those of us who followed after him. In particular, he was the creator of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, editing its first edition and establishing the template for its subsequent editions for which he was co-editor and later editor emeritus.

Clare Coney bravely MC'ed the funeral service herself - very competently indeed - and she spoke movingly of Peter and their life together. Among others there from the Australian science fiction community, I should mention Janeen Webb and Jack Dann; Sean McMullen, Catherine Smyth-McMullen, and Trish Smyth; Carey Handfield; Paul Collins and Meredith Costain; and Justin Ackroyd. This is not meant to be a complete list, and apologies to anyone obvious whom I've overlooked here. Peter's close friend and collaborator, the author and scholar John Clute, did not make it from overseas, but Peter's son, Jack Nicholls, read a speech that John had sent for the occasion. Neil Gaiman, another of Peter's closest friends, sent a recorded speech that vividly told the story of their friendship.

The venue was full - standing room only for latecomers - with Peter's numerous relatives and old friends. All four of Peter's sons (Saul Cunningham, Tom Pollak, Jack Nicholls, and Luke Nicholls) gave generous and emotional speeches about their father. His daughter, Sophie Cunningham, was not able to make it back from the US, where she'd flown just days before Peter's death, but she sent an especially beautiful and moving speech, read by her wife, Virginia Murdoch.

Peter was proud of his five children, and he'd have been especially proud at their portraits of him and their expressions of love, and what he meant to them. Peter's sister, Meg L'Estrange, read a lovely tribute, and his old friend from his university days, the poet and literary academic Chris Wallace-Crabbe, read a poem that he'd composed.

Strangely, I learned things about Peter that I hadn't known when he was alive, including things that we'd had in common: both of us were very sickly as young children, forced to spend much time in our beds, which was one reason why we developed our immersion in books, and our love for them; and like me, Peter had recurrent nightmares about huge tidal waves. Who would have guessed?

Afterwards, Clare hosted a wake back at the Surrey Hills place. It was in the usual Nicholls/Coney manner, with no shortage of food or wine; it was easy to expect Peter to wander in at any moment, waving his wine glass and telling some anecdote in enthusiastic or scandalized tones.

Peter was a physically imposing man with a splendid girth, a magnificent voice, and a big personality. He lived with gusto, and on a large scale, with more than the usual number of wives, lovers, children, cigars, fast motor vehicles, and countries that he called home at one point or another (I've borrowed some of this wording from Sophie's Facebook page).

He has left behind an important legacy of scholarship and literary criticism, as well as his wonderful family.

The funeral service, organised and managed so well by Clare, painted a three-dimensional picture of the man, his personal style, and his contribution to the world of letters. He'll be much missed, as he would have wanted.

"Think where man's glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends" (W.B. Yeats). 

Vale!

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