The death in January of Neil Collins has left a gap in my own and many other people’s lives.
Neil Collins was one of those individuals who, though involved in many campaigning groups and organisations over the years, was not someone who wrote all that much.
He was very knowledgeable about many aspects of the early history of the anarchist movement and the peace movement. I learnt a lot about this history and honed much of my radical political thinking while having long chats with him. Neil knew or had met many of the people involved in Freedom Press and pacifist circles.
At one time, he told me about meeting Lilian Wolfe who had been a suffragist, involved in Freedom, and who street-sold Peace News right up to her death at 96. He also met Fermin Rocker who was the son of Rudolf Rocker.
I first met Neil in 1969 as we were both involved in the Peace Pledge Union (PPU). At one stage shortly afterwards I shared a house with him, his wife Tania, and others in Leytonstone in East London. We were also involved in the E10 & E11 PPU group.
It was also though Neil that I first learnt about aspects of a vegetarian lifestyle, and what it was to be an anti-Zionist Jew.
It was in the company of Neil, Tania, and the late John Hyatt, that I decided to become vegetarian some 53 years ago.
It was only by chance that Neil became involved in the peace movement. It was during 1962 that he happened to be passing by the US embassy in Grosvenor Square in Central London where a regular demonstration was taking place about nuclear bomb tests. Having taken a leaflet, he went back the next week, stated that he agreed with what was in it, and joined the protest – and many subsequent ones.
Following on from this, Neil became actively involved in the London branch of the direct action group, the Committee of 100, for example in protests outside of the chemical and biological warfare establishment at Porton Down in Wiltshire.
In the early 1960s, Neil was an accountant, but he gave it up to train for social work. Between the two, he spent a while working on the accounts at Housmans Bookshop. He then spent the rest of his life undertaking social work in one form or another.
He was also on the board of Peace News for a while.
Amongst the campaigns Neil was active in were: the Jewish Socialist Group, MERAG (the Middle East Research and Action Group), Operation Namibia (where he was part of the London support group of the project), and PARTIZANS (People Against RTZ ANd Its Subsidiaries), with which he took part in shareholder actions.
Perhaps the most impact he had on society came from his interest in social issues and via his involvement in the local community. His particular interests included both mental health and ‘mixed race’ adoption. He also co-ran a local branch of the Woodcraft Folk, the co-operative youth group.
Neil was the first individual to win the London Compact Award because of his involvement in Voluntary Action Waltham Forest. The Compact is a set of principles agreed between the UK government and the voluntary sector and the different Compact awards recognise the contribution of individual community workers at the local and national levels. Neil said at the time: ‘I am thrilled to win this award, it the first award I have won since I was at school.’
Albert Beale adds:
Neil was already a stalwart of the movement when I first got involved with Peace News and Housmans, at the start of the 1970s. I first worked with him especially in MERAG, which was based in the PN building. Neil’s anarchist analysis of anti-racism, and his Jewish background, meant that his anti-racist (and hence anti-Zionist) approach to the conflict in the Middle East was important – along with what I learnt from other members of MERAG – in informing my understanding of the conflict.
Indeed, Neil – and MERAG in general – had a crucial educative role in improving the coverage of the issue in Peace News, and in helping War Resisters’ International’s analysis too.
Neil was also involved in Operation Nambia – also run from 5 Caledonian Road, by former PN staffer Roger Moody – which tried to sail banned books into Namibia, the former German colony of South-West Africa which was then under apartheid South African occupation.
And we worked together again for a long period in later years, in Partizans, campaigning (including via shareholder interventions at company AGMs) against the rapacious and destructive policies of the British-based mining company Rio Tinto Zinc, now known just as Rio Tinto.
Neil was always a warm and humorous presence at meetings, and a good comrade.