Review: Barbara Smoker’s 95th birthday celebration

Barbara Smoker 95th Birthday Celebration on Saturday, 2nd June.  

The party to celebrate Barbara’s birthday was held jointly by Bromley Humanist Group and the South East London Humanist Group at local café Berdie Num Nums, in New Cross. We began the festivities by giving gifts and cards. To the delight of Barbara one of these was a large box of chocolates! The leisurely lunch that followed was accompanied by lots of hot tea and fruit smoothies.

As former President of the National Secular Society, with a 25 year tenure, Barbara was honoured by several of the past and the present presidents of the Society.

Norman Bacrac (former editor of the ‘Ethical Record’ at Conway Hall) led the formal birthday salutations, giving an affectionate overview of some of Barbara’s achievements describing some of her early unique works such as Good God! – a string of verses to tie up the deity (1977); Atheism on a Soap-Box (1985); and Blackham’s Best (2007, 3rd edition, which was edited by Barbara). He ended by talking about Barbara’s bestseller, Humanism (an introduction to Humanism for secondary education), which is now in it’s seventh edition.

Keith Porteous Wood (current NSS President) spoke next, highlighting the depth and duration of Barbara’s contribution to secular life, her courage and the unique application of her intellect to secular campaigns and secular philosophy.  Remarking on her bravery, together with Nicholas Walter, in opposing the censure of Salman Rushdie in 1989 beside the route of the big Muslim march that demanded the death of author.

Finally, Terry Sanderson spoke eloquently about how Barbara’s writing and campaigning has been inspirational. Barbara’s perspicacity, perseverance and thick skin being positive qualities which have been instrumental in the success of her campaigning work. In particular, Barbara was resolute in her inclusion of LGBT members in the South East London Humanist Group. Her resolve to change the status quo was genuinely ground breaking at a time when attitudes, even in the secular community, were a barrier to equal treatment.  In addition to Barbara’s stoicism, her ability to marshal complex arguments into easy to understand terms has helped her be a trail blazer, campaigning on subjects such as abortion, contraception, and assisted dying.

Barbara herself made a short reply. Commenting on her picketing of the march in 1989 against Salman Rushdie, Barbara was quick to clarify that she met Nicholas Walter by chance and had originally gone along alone with her homemade banner proclaiming “Free Speech” coincidentally mirroring the one held by Nicholas. She also highlighted the success of some of her parliamentary contributions.  Her pamphlet Eggs Are Not People was distributed to all MPs in 1985 to dissuade them from voting for a ban on embryo research. There had been a preliminary vote in favour of a ban whereas, after the pamphlet had gone out, the final vote was in favour of embryo research.  Barbara also appears on other occasions in Hansard, having given evidence advocating for the inclusion of humanism in religious education.

After the birthday tributes in the cafe, the group attended the Radical Book Fair at Goldsmiths’ College. This was followed by viewing a film, about Wild Cat strip cartoons, by Adam Lewis Jacob.  The film is a portrait of writer and cartoonist Donald Roum (born 1928 in Bradford, UK), The 2017 film ‘Wildcat’ re-animates Roum’s long-running anarchist comic strip of the same name. The name ‘Wildcat’ refers to the comic’s eponymous lead, the revolting Pussycat (named after a wildcat strike, action taken by unionized workers without their union leadership’s approval). The film is not simply a 3D version of the cartoons. It rises above and outside of that constraint, into the real world in various dimensional forms.  It is a reflective tool provoking thoughts about the quest for social justice and is a talking point about performance, the politics of music and the place of anarchism in contemporary society.  Some of these elements were touched on in the subsequent discussion between Donald and Adam.

Barbara Smoker is currently President of both The Bromley Humanist Group and the South East London Humanist Group. She is holder of the International Humanist and Ethical Union award for distinguished services.