Review: Talk by Barbara Smoker

In March, Barbara Smoker visited the Bromley Humanist Group to talk about her life and recent Autobiography.

Barbara was introduced to the meeting by Asad Abas who concluded his introductory remarks by quoting Steven Evans, CEO of the National Secular Society, in his lead article in the Spring 2019 issue of the society’s journal Bulletin when, referencing Barbara’s struggles and campaigns for a secular state, he wrote  of her “bloody-mindedness in challenging the accepted and wrong wisdom of her day…”

Asad went on to say that Barry Duke , the Editor of the Freethinker , had recommended to the Ugandan Humanist Society that a classroom in their Humanist School be named after Barbara and they had gladly accepted the suggestion.

Barbara began her talk by saying that it was Asad’s fault that she had written her autobiography, entitled My Godforsaken Life: The Memoirs of a Heretic, because he had constantly nagged her to do so and that it was her good fortune that a nephew had started a publishing company and had agreed to publish the book. Barbara’s talk was largely composed of readings from her autobiography.

From this we learnt that Barbara was born into a fairly large Catholic Family, who took their faith very seriously, a faith into which Barbara was baptised and which she also took very seriously, to the point where she considered becoming a Nun in a contemplative order. It was only in 1949, after war service in the WRNS, that Barbara, after growing doubts, supported by reading books by atheists and visits to the Ethical Church, embraced apostacy. Embraced is the right word to describe her conversion for it was nothing but whole-hearted.

Barbara was elected President of the National Secular Society at the AGM in 1972 and remained in post for 25 years until 1997.

Barbara told of her involvement in political campaigns both before and during her Presidency. These were many and varied and included the campaigns for assisted dying and dying with dignity, introducing Humanist funerals into the National Secular Society, the Greenham Common protest against cruise missiles (what Barbara called, “the American nuclear occupation of Britain”) though in truth this had probably happened much earlier, defeating Enoch Powell’s Bill of 1985, the campaign in defence of Salman Rushdie, the fight against segregation in schools on religious lines and the introduction of Faith Schools.

Barbara concluded her talk with the hope that she would have enough time and energy to bring out a second edition of her Autobiography.

Following her talk there were lots of questions and further discussions and anecdotes all answered with erudition and humour.

Review by Ken MacGowen

You can read more about Barbara’s autobiography here