Obituary: Will Howard (1951-2008)

Will Howard setting off on his cycle ride to Brussels in 2007 to promote Cap and Share.

Will was born in Cambridge on 14th December 1951. His father, Dr Harold Howard, was Deputy Director at the Plant Breeding Institute there, and bred potatoes to be resilient to various insects. The story goes that he was working on two varieties of potatoes and came home and asked his family for names.

Will was born in Cambridge on 14th December 1951. His father, Dr Harold Howard, was Deputy Director at the Plant Breeding Institute there, and bred potatoes to be resilient to various insects. The story goes that he was working on two varieties of potatoes and came home and asked his family for names. The first part of the name for each potato had to be “Maris” because that was the name of the road the Institute was on. Will said, “Why don’t you call one ‘Piper’, the Scots would like that”. The name had to go through the Scottish board first, and they did like it and the name stuck. The potato of course was Maris Piper. The other potato was Maris Peer. Maris Piper is probably one of the most widely used potatoes we have now.

Will was a very keen bird watcher who, disillusioned with school and family life, would forge letters from his parents to claim sickness, go off bird watching and then shin up drainpipes to get back into the family home. His lifelong friend Rob Jarman remembers them sleeping everywhere, from barns to bus shelters on their adventures to bird watch. These two and two others then took an old Dormobile van out to places you would have a job to travel through easily now, including Iran, Afghanistan, Punjab Pass, and so much more. He would send news of his travels home to his old grandmother, who tracked his progress on a map. His last letter was sent back to Will as she had died.

He became involved with Friends of the Earth after becoming angry at picking up dead birds covered in oil off a Cornish beach after the Torrey Canyon disaster in 1967.

While working on a pig farm at the age of 23 he wondered what on earth he was doing with his life, and sat three A levels in six months using the local library to study. He passed them and went to Newcastle upon Tyne University to study soil science. There he got his BSc and PhD in peat soils. Much later, this led to his becoming very interested in biochar and he wished he had continued in soil science so he could have furthered the biochar route now. “But that was Will all over. He wanted to do everything” his wife, Lyn says.

At university he became very involved in student politics. He became a card-carrying Communist, much to his father’s annoyance, and read many books, including Marx and Gramsci.

But campaigning was always the area he felt most at home in and was best at. Whilst still at university he would work at CND in London at the weekends, sleeping on the floor over night, then travelling back to Newcastle for lectures. So, on leaving university, he went to work for CND full-time. He became its chief fundraiser at the height of the Cold War. He organised rallies such as that on 11 October 1981 when 2 million people marched through London, but the media did not report what was going on to the extent they did later for the Iraq march.

CND decided not to campaign for a freeze policy that would call on both superpowers to stop producing any more nuclear weapons as a first step to disarmament by just three votes. Unable to cope with the CND unilateral policy any longer he was head hunted to be the National Co-ordinator of a new campaign called FREEZE based in Bristol. Will always worked extremely hard at whatever campaign he was involved with, and threw himself into FREEZE with the same vigour as he had for CND.

There he met his wife Lyn, whom he spent the next 24 years with until his death. They had two sons – Sam now 18 and Doug 16. She came to work for FREEZE and brought her experience of administration and secretarial work to help them. FREEZE had cross-party support – from four political parties in those days. It had some 200 eminent patrons supporting it. An American campaign which preceded it had more support than the civil rights movement.

In 1989, Will left to run his own company on the Gower, South Wales, intended to generate enough money to become a publishing house for campaigning ideas. This proved to be very hard, but Will succeeded and opened a self-built studio with 16 full time staff and a turnover of a million a year, doing various printing and media contracts. Ahead of the game as always, he tried to sell people the internet and the idea of having a web site long before it all took off.

He worked tirelessly on an eco-village project in Shropshire that never came to be as the project was in the wrong hands. He was very involved with Fair Trade in Machynlleth, which achieved its Fair Trade Valley status in 2004. He worked on projects for Centre for Alternative Technology including a carbon calculator with a lot of fun called The Carbon Gym, putting it all together in five weeks. He also worked for the University of Wales on the Visual Culture of Wales project, involving a pictorial history of Wales.

Very interested in psychology, he worked with Lyn on many ideas and texts. These were being edited for publication at his time of death.

He was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in June 2004. Thjs could have been picked up 10 years before if only the NHS had had early screening. He was very brave and refused to despair. On coming out of the Feasta meeting in Machynlleth in September 2006 he was convinced that Cap and Share was the only way to go to combat climate change. He worked on it tirelessly to the end of his life. Also very interested in carbon capturing and biochar, he felt the two needed to be undertaken and so proposed the Climate Threads idea under which various ideas would come to combat climate change.

Lyn Howard writes: “Everyone who met him, whether for a day, or for decades, all kept coming up with the same analysis of him. He was so enthusiastic, inspirational, encouraging, good natured, and loved this life. All he ever wanted to do was to do some good before he went, when ever that was. Those that loved him feel that huge hole left that was Will, that driving engine full of hope, political knowledge and diplomacy. I wanted to save him. This memorial lecture in his name is doing just that.”

Read a tribute to Will Howard by Brian Davey

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