Robert Waller

Poet, BBC producer and editor of 'Mother Earth'
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The Independent Online

Robert Ferns Waller, poet, writer, editor and environmentalist: born Manchester 30 April 1913; married 1939 Janet Truman (died 1970; one daughter, and one son deceased), 1970 Helen Stenhouse-Simpson (one adopted daughter; marriage dissolved), 1979 Susan Dowdall (died 2000); died Exeter 3 November 2005.

Robert Waller was once described by his friend Victor Bonham-Carter as "an amalgam of artist and thinker, of an unusual kind". A lifelong poet, Waller was also a student of philosophy who became increasingly concerned with the connection between a civilisation's philosophical basis and its environmental impact. His work as a BBC talks producer and editor of the Soil Association journal provided him with a platform for advancing a set of ideas which he termed "human ecology".

Waller spent his boyhood in south-east London; his father, a clothing manufacturer, was unhappily married, a situation made worse by a period of bankruptcy. In his teens, Robert Waller contracted rheumatic fever and consequent heart problems, spending nine months as an isolated invalid. This period offered escape from the domestic tensions and strengthened his inner life. Then, in 1930, he heard a controversial series of radio talks given by Professor John Macmurray, which inspired him to seek personal freedom through cultivating his emotional nature. Around this time, during an operation, he underwent a vivid out-of-body experience which made him sceptical about materialist philosophies.

Illness ended his schooling, but poetry provided an alternative way forward. He sent some poems to the Editor of The Bookman, Hugh Ross Williamson, who became a mentor, putting him in touch with T.S. Eliot and persuading University College London to accept Waller on its journalism course. An incidental benefit of this move was attending Macmurray's lectures there; Waller missed only one between 1932 and 1935.

Another piece of good fortune occurred when he saw an Old Vic production of Hamlet. So intense was the play's effect on Waller that he wrote a long essay and sent it to Eliot, who passed it to the critic Desmond MacCarthy. Waller became MacCarthy's secretary for two years, reviewed for the New Statesman and was one of the four selected for Hogarth Press's first Poets of Tomorrow, in 1939. Either side of his period with MacCarthy, Waller lived a Bohemian life: first in London, mixing with the Euston Road school of painters, and afterwards in Paris, where he met Henry Miller.

He returned to England in August 1939 and served in the Army as a private throughout the Second World War, taking part in the D-Day landings. By 1945 he was a husband and father, anxious about supporting his family. He found a niche in Forces Educational Broadcasting and was soon appointed one of the Third Programme's first producers, specialising in philosophy and poetry. Tired of London, he persuaded the BBC to transfer him to Bristol; he later fictionalised this period in his satirical novel Shadow of Authority (1956).

From 1949 until 1957 he was employed by the West of England Home Service, producing the arts programme Apollo in the West and fostering the careers of writers such as Charles Causley. His own collection of poems The Two Natures (1951), published by Hand and Flower Press, was well received. More significant for his future, though, was his work producing agricultural programmes, which led him to develop an ecological perspective. In this he was influenced by the agronomist Sir George Stapledon, whose biography he wrote under the title Prophet of the New Age (1962).

Waller went freelance as a radio and television producer in the late 1950s, but the Stapledon biography led to a more settled position as editor of the Soil Association journal Mother Earth from 1964. With Michael Allaby he set about broadening the association's focus in response to the growing environmental awareness of the time. Their efforts were not entirely appreciated by the association's older guard, and by the early 1970s both had left, preferring to work for The Ecologist.

In Be Human or Die (1973), Waller expounded his philosophy of "ecological humanism". The book was published by Charles Knight, for whom he also worked as environment editor. Further editorial work followed in the 1980s, for the journal of the Commonwealth Human Ecology Council.

Waller suffered tragedies in his family life. His teenage son Billy died in a road accident in 1963 and his wife Janet died of cancer in 1970, aged 51. There was a short-lived second marriage soon after this, but his marriage to the actress Susan Dowdall in 1979 brought him two decades of happiness. She was the former wife of Frank Shelley, a friend of Waller's since university days who became director of the Oxford Playhouse.

Describing himself as an "undogmatic Christian", Waller was little inclined towards institutional religion. But his writings brim with his conviction that environmental damage stems from a hubris born of materialism and greed, which must be replaced by acceptance of human limits and a spiritual attitude of reverence for God's creation.

Robert Waller demonstrated his own love of that creation through his enthusiasm and generosity, and in the poetry which continued to flow from him until the end. He was a great encourager and a prolific correspondent, always interested in the latest news from the environmental front. His fiery temperament mellowed in later life to a humorous acceptance of people's foibles, which he would illustrate from a wealth of anecdotes about the BBC and the Soil Association.

Philip Conford

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