Anarchist with attitude: Laurie Taylor interviews Linda Smith
Comedian Linda Smith, who died in 2006, was the president of the British Humanist Association. In this interview from 2004 she talks to Laurie Taylor about atheism, authority and her passion for pricking pomposity
This may strike some readers of New Humanist as outrageous, but I have to report that the new president of the British Humanist Association, comedian and writer Linda Smith, does not appear to know the precise difference between the British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society and the Rationalist Association. I only discovered this disturbing news when we met to talk about her new position. We'd chosen the bar at the top of the St George's hotel next to Broadcasting House because Linda had been on 'official' duty during the afternoon talking about faith schools to Libby Purves on Radio 4's Learning Curve. Had it gone well? "Yes, it was all right." "You got a chance to say what you wanted?" "Yes, it was all right."
I'd decided in advance that Linda wouldn't be the easiest person to interview. We'd met before at a couple of jazz concerts (Linda is a passionate modern jazz fan and an acerbic critic of some of its more esoteric developments) and I knew that socially she was a very funny and easygoing person. But she has such an eye for pomposity of any kind that I was rather dreading the formal necessity of asking a series of set questions. So, to make matters easier, I thought I'd begin by making common cause.
"Well," I said cheerily, "there's now a real link between us. You are the president of the British Humanist Association and I write for the New Humanist." Yes, she told me, she'd heard about New Humanist but didn't quite understand its links to the BHA. "It's fairly straightforward," I told her. "Although the magazine was once distributed free of charge to all members of the British Humanist Association, it was always a product of a separate organisation, the Rationalist Press Association [now the Rationalist Association]. Now that we're a free-standing magazine entirely reliant on subscription that link has probably become a little less strong, but we have representatives of the BHA on our editorial board and exchange news and ideas. And, then, of course, we both have links to the National Secular Society."
I shouldn't have bothered. The further I got into the subtle historical and contemporary differences between the BHA and the RPA and the NSS, the more Linda looked as though she was about to take out pen and paper and start making notes for a new sitcom about nutty non-believers. Perhaps it was time to forget common cause and go back to the list of stock questions. Right. Did she have any ideas about the direction she'd like the BHA to take in the future?
"I have the feeling that humanism needs waking up. It needs a much younger profile. It's a bit stuck in history, isn't it? I was speaking at a BHA meeting the other day and there were people in the audience who looked as though they'd stepped straight out of the past. I noticed one man sitting half way back who looked exactly like George Bernard Shaw. Exactly like him. Very, very strange. And I'd just got used to that when I looked along the row and saw a man sitting almost next to him who looked exactly like Bertrand Russell. It was just extraordinary. When I talked to Armando Iannucci (the writer and comedian) about my new job, he got fascinated by the idea of the small differences between the various humanist organisations. He had this idea about the British Humanist Association battling it out against the evil forces of the National Secular Society."
I admitted that there was more than a grain of truth in Armando's fantasy. I'd never seen the BHA and the NSS actually engaged in armed combat but I'd attended one meeting of the RPA which had practically broken up because of a row about the difference between humanism and rationalism. Could one be a humanist without being a rationalist? Or a rationalist without being a humanist? It was, I told Linda, not unlike being back at one of those Socialist Workers Party meetings in the 70s when the revolution had to be put on hold because of the theoretical necessity of deciding whether the Soviet Union was 'state capitalist'.
"I know all that. That's why I've never been a joiner. Never have joined anything. I don't belong to any organisation. Sorry, I tell a lie. I do now belong to the Royal Horticultural Society and the National Trust. But they don't really count, do they?" So what had persuaded her to accept the presidency of the BHA? "You want to know how it came about? I did this programme on Radio 4 called Devout Sceptics with Bel Mooney. I was just getting over flu at the time and I felt tired. Really tired. I talked about the whole business of the Holocaust and how if God was going to show his face that might have been quite a good time for him to have done it. I mean, was he waiting for something worse to happen before he stepped in? I remember Bel saying that religious people would reply by asking where man had been at the time. But, as I said, at least some humans did help. God did nothing at all. Missed his big chance. And then I went on to say that I thought of God in much the same way that I think of the royal family. If we didn't live in this toytown with princes and kings and so on then we might make a better stab at being citizens.
"Afterwards I thought to myself, 'Oh no, I must have been talking complete nonsense.' But it turned out that there was a really big postbag following the programme. So many people writing in to say that it was so good to hear a non-religious view on the radio. Of course, there were one or two who said that I was a sinner and that unless I repented I would burn in hell. The ones that were signed 'Yours in the love of Christ'. Then I got a letter from Hanne at the British Humanist Association which took me totally by surprise. She said she'd heard the programme and was pleased to hear my humanist views. Until that moment I'd never thought of categorising my views as humanism. But I came and met Hanne and chatted and realised that was a fair description."
I suggested that there was still quite a long way to go from that point to accepting the role of president. "Yes. When I came to the BHA it was exactly as I expected. A little office with a bust of Bertrand Russell. But after we'd talked I began to realise that I was interested in this little world if I could help to make it part of a bigger world. I didn't want to write off the past. I was pleased that there was a whole history of rational thought. I just wanted to make it more relevant to the modern world. And then there was the example of Claire Rayner (the previous president of the BHA). I don't know her personally but I really admire her. She is a good woman. A good, good woman. I admire all her campaigning. And I would be taking over from her. Another reason was all this talk about faith schools. I feel very uneasy about that, as do lots of others. It somehow seemed time for people who don't like these sinister changes to stand up and say so. And finally there was Mark Steel (the comedian and New Humanist contributor). I had a long chat with him about it all and he said, go ahead and do it. It will be a huge laugh. And so I agreed."
Anyone who knows Linda Smith from her many appearances on such Radio 4 panel programmes as the News Quiz and Just a Minute, or from her sitcom A Brief History of Timewasting, or indeed from her very successful stand-up performances, will know that her comedy depends a great deal upon puncturing big portentous ideas and people with shafts of ordinary observation. She is not given to large statements. I suggest to her that there is almost a contradiction between being the president of the BHA and her comic antipathy to anything that smacks of authority.
"That's true. I like to come at big subjects from a very personal angle. I'm aware that someone like Jeremy Hardy (a frequent R4 co-panellist) has so much knowledge and so much information at his finger tips. His satire is informed satire. I don't have that sort of knowledge. I'm not ignorant but I'm not like Jeremy. But I do have an attitude and I know what my attitude is. I'm left wing but again not in an organised way. I'm personally left wing. And there's also something of the working-class anarchist about me. I like to throw a little spanner in the works."
But how did she develop this very certain attitude? Were her parents left wing?
"The first thing you need to know about them is that they were elderly. I had old parents. They were older than all my friends' parents. Noticeably older. When my friends' parents dropped them off at the school bus they would say 'ciao'. I always wanted my mum to say 'ciao' but she would always say 'Thank you, driver'. And they were strange politically. My dad would veer from communist to blackshirt propaganda in the course of a conversation. He was a classic, tragic working-class figure really. He was very bright but his dad died and he had to go and support the family. He resented that all his life. And it ruined his life. He was bright and strange and eccentric. A damaged person."
And her mother? Did she have political or religious views? "On no. She was lovely but I wouldn't say she had any views. She would be watching the weather and it would be the middle of summer and the weatherman would be saying, 'If you think it is scorching in London, well, the hottest place today was Riyadh where it was one hundred and ten degrees.' And my mum would look up and say: 'Too hot for me.' That would then provoke my dad to say, 'Well, that settles that then. I'll ring up Mr Mohammed and cancel that fortnight in August.' And then they would be well on the way to one of their many rows.
"Dad had a very quirky sense of humour. When he worked for British Rail and had to check for some fault or other, he'd quite illegally take me with him. If he came across something that was damaged by vandals like a broken fence, he would cross out 'vandals' on the form and put down 'visigoths'."
Was there any religion in the family? "No, not really. My dad had been brought up a Catholic and lapsed. I went to Sunday school and there was a time round about the age of eight or nine when I was very taken with the romance of it all, with the idea of Jesus and Easter and rising from the dead, but that faded and pop stars and actors took its place. But even then I always went against the herd. I liked David Bowie and not David Cassidy. But it was secondary school, Bexleyheath Comprehensive, that really put me off God. I suddenly thought in assembly that this was all rubbish, all these stupid old gits like the headmaster and the deputy headmaster reading out this piffle and all these sulky kids moving their mouths to these hymns. I do remember enquiring whether or not you could be removed from assembly on the grounds of being an atheist, but I was told that it didn't count. You could only be excluded if you were Jewish, Catholic or Muslim. But not believing in God was not a valid reason."
I was beginning to realise what Linda meant when she said that she has an attitude. Her selection as President of the BHA might have seemed a little idiosyncratic to those who only knew her comic persona, but the more we talked about humanism and religion the clearer it became that she is an inspired choice. It may be an honorary title – "not a real job" as she describes it – but that hasn't stopped her making plans.
"I know that there is only so much that one can do to an organisation but I want to begin by finding ways of publicising the BHA. At the moment people know about it from funerals and possibly from weddings and non-christenings. But it's not so well known for its campaigning work on issues like faith schools and fundamentalism. I am going to mention all that whenever I can. Whenever I can get that side into the newspapers. And I also want to organise a big West End or perhaps Hackney Empire benefit night; a very high profile event for the BHA that would bring in people who weren't neccessarily its normal audience – young people who could be interested in humanism and have a bit of fun as well.
"I want to have a go at the Blairs. Him with his God bothering and her with her crystals. That's the trouble. When people stop believing in God they start believing in anything, in any nonsense. It would be nice if some of the people who stopped believing in God started to believe in humanism."
Stirring stuff. One almost wonders if Bertrand Russell or his close companion at Linda's last BHA address, George Bernard Shaw, could have put it any more succinctly.