Barbara Smoker's EGOTISTICAL ANNUAL NEWSLETTER, XMAS 2012
Now halfway through my ninetieth year, I have yet to decide what I want to be when I grow up.
In my early teens I knew: I was going to be a nun -- not a "half-nun", as one of my Catholic aunts called the sisters who were responsible for my education, but a member of a proper contemplative order. Fast forward to my wartime late teens, when, serving king and country as a wireless telegraphist with the Eastern fleet, I was not so sure. I thought I would be a great writer; then, in my early twenties, flattered by rave notices for acting in amateur dramatics, I became stage-struck. I got a job with a touring company, but backed out on realising what a hard life it would be.
In my mid-twenties I began writing polemical articles, especially on religion - but they hardly qualified as great writing. I joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and then Bertrand Russell's Committee of a Hundred, dedicated to direct action. I often found myself in criminal courts, and took part in a memorable adventure in Jugoslavia. I made a corner in transcribing Bernard Shaw's shorthand drafts for scholars, manuscript dealers, and others, and am still active in the Shaw Society - but that hardly constitutes a career. For 25 years I was elected president of the National Secular Society, which opened a lot of doors to me, including radio, TV, and speaking tours of America and India.
In 1970 I began officiating at religious funerals and I must have done some two thousand in the next forty years. (Nowadays, at a three-figure fee each I would have made a small fortune - but at first, following HJ Blackham's example, I charged only £5!) Then the British Humanist Association got me to train aspiring funeral officiants (as the first humanist ceremonies tutor), but how could I (unaccredited!) have charged a fee for that?
In 1972 Ward Lock Educational Ltd. commissioned me to write a paperback book on Humanism for , secondary schools. Being still in print, in its fifth edition; this must be my most successful endeavour, along with my series of irreverent greeting cards, which for the past forty-odd years have at least made people laugh - and possibly think. In 1981 I was elected chairman of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (now euphemistically re-named Dignity in Dying, with, sadly, weakened aims), and I held that office five years. But I have yet to embark on my life's work.
So what of the past twelve months? I have won prizes in a few magazine literary competitions, adding The Oldie to my list. More seriously, towards the end of last year I began writing an article for the Freethinker, under the celebrated cribbed title "Life, the Universe and Everything", in which I built on an idea in my article "The God Hypothesis", which had appeared in the Ethical Record six months earlier - the idea that nothing basically divides the theist from the atheist (at least with regard to the cosmological argument) apart from the former's irrationally attributing consciousness, will, and purpose to a quite probable eternal “uncaused first cause".
I was drafting that article when, on 13 December, physicists working in Geneva on the collision of sub-atomic particles in the Large Hadron Collider announced that they were on the verge of locating "the God particle" - more technically called the Higgs boson. So I wove this information into the article, and it comprised the central spread of February's Freethinker.
The summer issue of The Shavian included an article I wrote on having transcribed Shaw's shorthand for decades. And when The Spectator ran a competition for verses that anticipated the Olympic Games, I happened to unearth an entry that had won me a prize in a similar competition in 1956, which, with the venue changed from Helbourne to London, won me another prize! (Is it immoral to plagiarise from one's younger self?) Other prize¬winning competition entries during the year have appeared in the New Statesman, Spectator, Oldie, and Literary Review.
A gift I received last Xmas was a copy of "The Atheist's Guide to Christmas", which, though published a couple of years earlier, had somehow passed me by. One of its 42 contributors was Richard Dawkins - whose piece is a clever take on the Wooster/Jeeves stories. It had me laughing aloud. As a Wodehouse devotee (not so much for his plots or humour as for his superb mastery of the English language), I thought Dawkins got the tone just right. I have always admired his more serious work, but this departure boosted him in my estimation.
Later I came across another most interesting book, “Through the Language Glass” by Guy Deutscher,on linguistics and the way that different languages affect their native speakers' view of the natural world. It is written in very amusing (as well as very readable) English, and I highly recommend it.
Following the NSS's judicial victory early this year banning pubic prayers dur1ng local council meetings the Government (in the Portly person of Eric Pickles) actually attempted to nul11fy it by incit1ng councils to persist with the now illegal prayers and to plead the new Localisation Act in justification.
At the end of April the inland postage rose astronomically -. Especially the price of a a stamp for sending by second-class ma1l ~ minimum size-and-weight letter or postcard. Now 50p that is a pre-decimal ten shillings! In fact, six decades ag0 the printed-rate postage was only a ha’penny - just one-240th the new iniquitous cost, exceeding the inflation rate many times over. It is a tax on us oldies with no access to e-mail.
I am promised not one, but two, 90th-birthday lunch parties (presumably because a 100th is deemed unlikely) - one to be give~ by the South Place Ethical Society at Conway Hall on the day itself. (Sunday 2nd June at lpm - please note), the other the preceding day, arranged by my sister Janet, for members of our large extended family. So I've got to survive till then.
All the best - and God be-less!
51 Farmfield Road, Bromley Kent BRl 4NF - Website: www.barbara.smoker.freeuk.com