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From the archive: From would-be nun to atheist

FOR the summer 2001 edition of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist, BARBARA SMOKER, now 94, penned an article entitled ‘From Would-be Nun to Atheist

Oh, yes – I once had an orthodox creed. I was brought up in a devout Roman Catholic family, and had an old-style convent education – and throughout my childhood and adolescence I was a steadfast believer. That was in the days (before the Second Vatican Council) when the Catholic Church was still Catholic and the Pope was infallible – so I was given absolute certitude about God and the universe and my place in it. But in the end – and it took me a very long while – I grew up.

At home I was regarded as the pious one of the family – which is saying a great deal – and the nuns at my first convent school seem to have cast me in the role of a future saint.

As my sexual urges developed, I got all my sexual kicks out of contemplating the sufferings of Jesus and out of the masochism engendered by Christianity. Of course, I would have been horrified had I realised that this had anything to do with feelings associated with parts of the body that one was supposed not to notice. At that time, never having experienced orgasm in any context other than prayer and religious meditation, I interpreted it as one of the “consolations of religion” – a phrase that I had often come across in the lives of the saints. Indeed, I still think that that is precisely what most of them meant by it.

Nowadays it is commonplace to say that religious emotions are akin to sexual feelings. But they are not just akin to them: in my experience, they are indistinguishable.

At my secondary school – also a convent – the other pupils laughingly referred to me as “the saint”, but I was fortunate in that somehow my piety did not make me unpopular.
By the time I was fourteen, I had no wish to be anything but a nun – not in a teaching order, but in the Carmelite (enclosed) order. I was already saving up half my pocket money towards my dowry – and I would gladly have entered at fifteen, as St Thérèse did. But my mother said I must wait until the age of nineteen, and then see if I felt the same.

I was sixteen when I left school and went out first into the world of work and then into the Women’s Royal Naval Service. By the age of twenty, I was in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where I served king and country for the next eighteen months. There I not only mixed with non-Catholic Christians, with some of whom I used to discuss moral theology, but I also visited Hindu temples and Buddhist shrines, and so widened my perspective on religion. Consequently, by the time I returned home after the war, I was no longer sure I wanted to be a nun, though I was still a staunch believer. However, my theological doubts now began to build up, and became more and more insistent.

At school, we had been taught that there is no such thing as an atheist – and to some extent I think the nuns were right in this, because they took the word “atheist” to mean someone who categorically denies the existence of any kind of god. Obviously, it must depend on the definition of the word “god”, which can mean anything from the very human and immoral Old Testament god, Jehovah, to some sort of abstract god, such as Bernard Shaw’s Life Force, or even something as indisputable as the whole of existence.

The only objection one can make to that last god-concept is to the confusing use of the word “god” as a synonym for everything.

As for the idea that the universe was deliberately created, which is intended to explain existence, it manifestly fails to do so – for one is still left with the question of God’s existence. It is less complicated to suppose that particles of matter and waves of energy have always existed than to suppose they were made out of nothing by a being who had always existed.

Besides, the idea of deliberate creation raises the moral problem of all the suffering there is in life – for so many people, and also for animals. I am ashamed, in retrospect, that I ever found it possible to worship the supposed creator of over-reproduction, sentient food, disease and natural disasters.

In the late 1940s, however, I was still trying to reconcile belief in his existence with the nature of the world around me. I read book after book – mainly books written by Catholic apologists, but also some by atheist philosophers. And the more I read, the less I could believe.

Finally, one Saturday morning in November 1949, actually standing by the philosophy shelves of my local public library, I suddenly said to myself, with a tremendous flood of relief, “I am no longer a Catholic.”

And that, for me, meant I was no longer a Christian or a theist of any kind.

After so much mental turmoil, I did not imagine at first that I had really come to the end of it: I expected to go on having doubts – doubts now about my disbelief. But in fact this never happened. I have never for one moment found any reason to suppose that my decision that morning almost 52 years ago was a mistake.

That is not to say that I have not sometimes hankered after my old childhood comforter – but it is no more possible for me to go back to believing in a god and a heaven than it is to go back to the belief that an old red-coated gentleman climbs down chimneys with presents on Christmas Eve.

In Benidorm, Pride events are fully inclusive

STILL bathing in the afterglow of Benidorm’s Pink Weekend in May, on June 10 I hooked up with Sammy Kruz, a member of the team that organises Pride and other related events in Benidorm. I needed some information from him to complete an article I was writing about the event for The Pink Humanist.

All involved in the Pink Weekend were elated over its success, and I was in an upbeat mood as I discussed the main points I intended highlighting in the piece. The most important, I thought, was the fact that it turned out to be an amazingly inclusive event. The crowds that gathered on the picturesque Mirador in Benidorm’s Old Town were made up of all nationalities, old and young, gay and straight, and they danced and sang and enthusiastically applauded the acts performing on a large stage.

Sammy told me that he wanted to emphasise that the sole aim of the organisers, and Benidorm Council which supported them, was to bring the community together and create a special event that could be enjoyed by all “in our beautiful town”, and that both the Spanish and international press had praised them for achieving a wonderfully inclusive atmosphere.

Spanish folk clamoured to be photographed with drag artist Roxie Corazon, who co-hosted Pink Weekend with Sammy Kruz

Then he totally wrecked my evening.

“There’s something you should be aware of,” he said, and showed me a copy of an article written by John Smith in Euro Weekly News, headed “Does Spain need to consider whether it is now too liberal?”

The very first line of that article, since removed from the paper's website, had me gritting my teeth: “There is little doubt that during the Franco regime, some things could be considered better than they are today, in as much as the country was kept under a tight rein and there were less problems with hooliganism imported or home grown . . .”

Was this a wind-up, or the ravings of some neo-fascist dinosaur yearning to return to the slime of an epoch presided over by a murderous fascist tyrant whose cruel, iron-fisted control over the Spanish people had the full support of the Roman Catholic Church?

Reading on, it became clear it was the latter. Smith was in deadly earnest when he lamented the fact that Spanish women, in the years that followed Franco’s death in 1975, had become too assertive, too mouthy, too bossy.

He didn’t write that they should be bundled back into the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, but the following sentence suggests he sure as hell would like to see that happen:

"Like so many other nations, Spain has also entertained a certain amount of ‘political correctness’ which has to some extent seen a reduction in the machismo of the younger Spanish male and an ability for women to not just be vocal at home but to have a voice which can be heard across the country."

Women using their voices? How very, very dare they! The idea clearly fills Herr Smith with horror.

Worse, there are now homosexuals with voices, voices so shrill that they can force local authorities into coughing up dosh to fund parades and fiestas at which perverts can flaunt their filthy lifestyles.

“Should local councils be promoting Gay Pride with large numbers of members of the LGBT factions parading around the streets shouting ‘We’re here. We’re queer! Get used to it!’?” the hatemonger asks.

I have no doubt that, were Smith to meet Svein Sellanraa, a Norwegian blogger who describes himself as a “reactionary”, he would shower him with kisses, for Sellanraa, author of a piece entitled “In defence of Francisco Franco”, wrote: “The real key to Left’s animosity towards Franco is not to be found in the Civil War, but in the peace which came after it . . .

“While the post-Vatican II Catholic Church was losing both disciples and principles by the boatload, the nacionalcatolicismo of Franco ensured the continued place of the pious and sacred in the lives of ordinary Spaniards; while the rest of the world felt trapped between the destructive avarice of American capitalism and the totalitarian attrition of Soviet Communism, the ‘Spanish Miracle’ proved that any nation willing to disregard the false dichotomy between these two economistic and materialistic ideologies could have its proverbial cake and eat it too; while atheism, androgynism, and multiculturalism cruelly beset most of Western Europe, Spain, along with Salazar’s Portugal, remained a lone outpost of decency in a seemingly infinite sea of muck . . .”


What did that “decency”mean for gays in Spain?

From 1954, the Franco regime imprisoned, tortured and often killed gays for violating the Ley de Vagos y Maleantes, or Vagrancy Act.

The Act was established in 1933 to deal with people considered anti-social or a threat to society. Its primal objective was to control beggars, pimps, thugs and others who did not actively contribute to society. The Act was later modified to include the suppression of homosexuality.

Because homosexuality was listed as a criminal offence, gays were unable to work or contribute to pensions.

As homosexuality slowly transitioned from a crime to a mental illness, homosexuals were arrested and sent to “correction camps” in an attempt to cure them by means of electric-shock therapy – not unlike the voluntary ex-gay camps of today. The victims were also forced to watch heterosexual pornography as images of “normal” sexual behavior.

One of the most famous early victims of the regime was playwright Federico García Lorca, who wrote Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba. He was killed by firing squad in Grenada in 1936.

Homosexuality was illegal in Spain up until 1979.

In 2001, the country expunged the “criminal” from its law concerning homosexuality and in 2005 the country became the third in the world to legalise gay marriage. These big and fast changes for equality happened under the government of Spanish Prime Minister José Zapatero. Zapatero was one of the main champions for LGBT Rights in Spain during his two-term of office (2004 – 2011).

The Euro Weekly News article, not surprising caused a firestorm of biblical proportions, and understandably so. People know the nationally-distributed free paper is not a fascist rag, so seeing Smith’s hateful article in it came as a shock to many, myself included, and our fury could barely be contained.

But I’m now willing to put this down to an unfortunate error of judgment by EWN and forgive and forget and move on. Life’s too short to allow venomous old fools to sour it.

• To its credit, Euro Weekly News published an abridged version of this article in its June 16 edition.

Gay screenwriter, novelist and actor Victor Pemberton is off to the Arctic, by Barry Duke

Victor Pemberton. Photo: Barry Duke


LET me tell you about something about the sonic screwdriver. Of all the contraptions conceived in 20th century science fiction, Doctor Who’s gizmo was the one single object that ignited in me a lifelong passion for all manner of technological doohickeys.

To prove my point to the fellow sitting opposite me in my favourite restaurant in Benidorm, Spain, I burrow into my manbag to extract something called a tactical pen. At one end is a blinding bright flashlight. At the other a sharp metal point that could remove all of an assailant’s teeth … and both eyes if a murderous streak happens to run through one’s veins. Between the two are a concealed razor-sharp blade – and an innocuous ballpoint pen.

I also take out my iPhone, encased in a gadget that serves both as a battery pack and an electronic cigarette. People walk into lampposts and trees when they see me smoking my phone.

A look of delight crosses Victor Pemberton’s face, for he is the man who came up with the idea of equipping the Doctor with a sonic screwdriver in 1968 when he wrote the script for Fury from the Deep which he later novelised. The multifunctional tool was then given form by Victor’s colleague, set designer Michael Lindsay.

Incidentally, June 17 saw the launch on Amazon of a replica of “the 12th Doctor’s 2nd trusty Sonic Screwdriver”. It will set you back a mere $29.98. Will Victor earn any royalties from the sale of this replica? “No,” he ruefully says. “That thing has never earned me a cent. But that’s the BBC for you.”

But we’re not in Italian Twist to discuss sonic screwdrivers, tactical pens and other contrivances, fascinating as the subject might be. We’re here because I had just learned that Victor – due to celebrate his 85th birthday in October – is preparing to drive on his own from his home on the Costa Blanca to the Arctic at the end of July.

A few days earlier I had seen a small poster in the window of the restaurant, headed “Victor Pemberton’s Arctic Adventure”. Below it were the words: “Victor Pemberton, former writer, actor and script editor for the BBC’s iconic Doctor Who TV series and author of over 20 popular World War Two novels, is, whilst defying advanced age, making an epic solo journey by car to raise funds for our injured ex-servicemen.

“His 10,000 km journey will take him from the Costa Blanca in Spain, across central Europe, though Denmark to the Arctic region of Norway.

“Yes, he is stark raving mad.”

I had, in fact, met Victor a few weeks before in one on my favourite local watering holes, Bar Destiny, and guessed that he might be a very youthful 60-something-year-old. He was tattooed, trendily dressed and fashionably coiffed, and was having a quick drink before moving on to a gay dance club. It was on that occasion that I learned of his Doctor Who credentials, that he worked on the UK version of Fraggle Rock and was a prolific novelist.

I saw him again later in May, energetically dancing close to the main stage set up in Benidorm’s Old Town to mark the town’s annual Pink Weekend.

Being the party animal he is, Victor has decided to officially launch his fundraiser with two fiestas: the first at the Italian bistro and the second at Bar Destiny on July 23. “And after that’s we’ll probably move on to several other venues,” said the indefatigable octogenarian.

The moment I learned of his madcap scheme, I contacted him to find out what on earth possessed him to embark on such a venture.

He explained that his concern for the plight of injured service personnel goes all the way back to the First World War. His father had lost a leg in the Battle of the Somme, and afterwards had to get by on a pitifully small pension.

Decades later, injured soldiers still face many hardships, and an organisation called Help for Heroes was established in 2007. Its mission is “to deliver an enduring national network of support for our wounded and their families. We will inspire and enable those who have made sacrifices on our behalf to achieve their full potential.

“In the 12 months leading up to March 2015 we have helped over 4,000 Veterans and military personnel – and their families – through our network of Recovery Centres.

“The war in Afghanistan may be over, but for those who have suffered life-changing injuries, their battles are just beginning.

“We’ve estimated that, of the 220,560 individuals deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2014, up to 75,000 servicemen and women (and their families) may need our support in the future. We will not let them fight these battles alone.”

Victor contacted Help the Heroes, who were “gobsmacked” when he told them of his plan . . . and his age. But they promised to help administer his scheme by setting up an official Just Giving fundraising page called The Arctic Adventure.

Victor, who has been driving for over 50 years (his first car was a Ford Anglia) will be making the journey in a two-year-old Volkswagen and will be using a GoPro camera to film every stage of his journey. He plans to post clips on his website and on YouTube.

This amazing journey, Victor tells me, marks the start of a new phase in his life. Currently, he is living on his own in a “soulless” conurbation in Murla, a village on the Costa Blanca which is a 40-minute drive from bustling Benidorm. He and his partner of over 50 years – David Spenser – bought a villa there when they moved from their home in Islington, London, a decade ago.

Sadly, David died in at the age of 79 in 2013 – seven years after the couple were married in a ceremony attended by 80 guests and performed by a Spanish judge. Victor recalls a touching moment when a large contingent of villagers gathered in the street to applaud them as they left the village hall in which their marriage took place.

A little teary-eyed, he said: “That’s how far we’ve come from the days when David and I first met. Life was a struggle then. It was illegal to be gay and we had to live very discreet lives. Young gay people nowadays have no concept of how hard life was for homosexuals then.”

And he applauded the stance taken by the then Spanish socialist Prime Minister, José Zapatero, who made it crystal clear to the Vatican that Spain was a secular country that would brook no interference in its affairs by the Catholic Church.

When the deeply homophobic Pope Benedict XVI visited Barcelona in 2010, Zapatero refused to attend a mass conducted by the pontiff, who was confronted by Spanish gays who staged a widely-publicised “kiss-in”.

During his six-year tenure Zapatero infuriated the Church hierarchy by legalising gay marriage, simplifying divorce proceedings and allowing first-trimester abortion on demand.

Victor imagined that he would be fine living on his own and able to see from his villa the spot where David is buried. But, despite having two delightful dogs for company – a pair of Lhasa Apsos, a breed that originated in Tibet – he decided that he could no longer deal with the solitude, and on his return plans to move to Benidorm.

The dogs – Bubble and Squeak – were Victor’s 50th-anniversary gift to David, a child radio star of the 1940s and 50s. David will be best remembered for his portrayal on air of Just William. The author Richmal Crompton cast him in the role, in a series of dramatisations of her novels about the raucous but endearing 11-year-old outlaw.

This was in 1948, when David turned 14 and was already a seasoned radio actor – performing more than one play a week. He had come into acting through a ruse set up by his ambitious mother and a BBC friend.

He was lured into Broadcasting House and found himself in a studio being auditioned by the Children’s Hour producer Josephine Plummer. For playing the lead in Just William he received the standard juvenile fee of four guineas.

On his website, Victor wrote: “In the years before he died, David made a valiant attempt to write his autobiography. Sadly he only completed two-thirds of it. However, he did ask me to promise that I would finish the book for him, which meant that the final third of his story would be a biography. That book is now awaiting publication.”
The book is entitled Just David, and Victor anticipates that it will be available by the end of the year.

Following David’s death, a tribute celebration was hosted by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in London. Organised and produced by Victor, with the help of their friends Duncan Kenworthy, Vice President of BAFTA, and Victor’s literary agent Diana Tyler, over a hundred friends, including many well-known personalities, attended the event.

Said Victor: “It was not a memorial service, but a programme devoted to David’s career, radio, film and television clips of his work, readings from his unfinished autobiography, and live piano music from one of his favourite popular composers. It was, for many, quite a revealing evening, but most of all, what David would have wanted more than anything else, lots of laughs!”

When I called Victor the day after our interview to arrange a photoshoot, he sounded amazingly chipper for a man who had left a dance club just a few hours before – at 4.30 am!

The many friends he has made in Benidorm won’t be in the least surprised if the extraordinary Victor Pemberton were to return to Spain from his Arctic adventure with a polar bear in tow.

Click on this link if you would like to support Victor's Arctic Challenge.

Farewell Marco Pannella

MUCH to the fury of the Catholic Church, Italy voted to allow civil unions on May 11. This prompted Archbishop Michele Pennisi, a member of the Italian Bishops’ Conference to say “there is a large part of the country that did not want this law passed”. The new law was “unjust” and had been introduced for “ideological” reasons, he said. Forcing it through with a confidence vote was “creeping fascism”, he added. “It seems to me that behind the law is a culture that is specifically contrary to the natural family.”

Sadly, flamboyant bi-sexual politician Marco Pannella was not alive to celebrate the historic vote: he died just two days earlier. Had he still been alive, he would no doubt been dancing in the street along with members of the LGBT community who were delighted that the Catholic Church has suffered another grievous blow.

Pannella had been a thorn in the Church’s side for decades, and there can be no doubt that his libertarian campaigning had played a key part in the vote. After all, he had been successful in many of his other campaigns.

Marco Pannella had nothing but contempt for the Catholic Church

His aggressive campaigning against the Church is detailed in depth in a post headed “Marco Pannella – The Man Who Changed Italy for the Worse” on the Catholic blog, The Eponymous Flower. Reporting on Pannella’s death, the anonymous author wrote: “His name is inextricably linked to the legalisation of divorce and abortion, the fight for the legalisation of euthanasia and ‘gay marriage’, for drug liberalisation, the abolition of conscription and . . . above all with an insatiable antipathy against the Catholic Church.”

Pannella was leader of the Italian libertarian Radical Party (PR), originally founded in 1955 by the left wing of the Italian Liberal Party, but was refounded in 1963 by Pannella. Exasperated with what they saw as the vice-like grip in which the Catholic Church and its political allies held the country, the PR campaigned for all manner of causes that the Church found objectionable.

According to an obituary in the Telegraph, the PR won its greatest victories, in 1974 and 1978, with votes that legalised civil divorce and abortion, both pieces of legislation passed after Pannella had staged hunger strikes.

In 1970 he had subsisted for 78 days on three cups of coffee a day, losing more than four stone.

This was just one of many publicity stunts pulled by Pannella over the years. In 1979 he almost managed to upstage Pope John Paul II’s Easter benediction by staging a “reverential march of nonbelievers” to St Peter’s Square. In 2000 he was given a two-month suspended sentence after dressing up as Santa Claus and handing out free hashish to the crowds in Rome’s Piazza Navona.

When, in 1997, the PR was successful in promoting six referendums, held on the same day, on issues ranging from hunting to the abolition of the Federation of Journalists, Pannella took to dressing up as a ghost, parading in a white sheet to protest at what he claimed was a plot by mainstream parties to turn people off voting. As it transpired, the referendums were invalidated by a low turnout, at a cost to the Italian taxpayer of 840 billion lire (about £340 million).

The PR attained political success in 1976 when it entered Parliament with four deputies, including Pannella. The party lost its edge from 1987 when Pannella allowed Ilona Staller, otherwise known as the pornography actress La Cicciolina, to run under its colours. Although she was placed way down the list of candidates, she received enough personal preferences – 20,000 – to be elected. She then proceeded to embarrass everyone by stripping in public at every opportunity and offering to sleep with Saddam Hussein to promote peace in the Middle East.

Giacinto Pannella, always known as Marco, was born on May 2, 1930, at Teramo, in the Abruzzo region, to a Swiss mother and an Italian father who was an engineer.

The Eponymous Flower reveals that he was named after a great-uncle who was “a Catholic priest and respected intellectual”. He studied law at Urbino University, where he became involved in Liberal student politics and later became president of the Italian union of students.

He joined the Radical Party at its formation and became the party’s leader in 1963.

Pannella never married, but lived for many years with Mirella Parachini, a gynaecologist, who survives him. He also claimed to have had some 400 lovers, including several men.