‘I’ve been bombed and it’s bloody frightening’
A look back at Claire Rayner’s wise words to spiked about war, freedom and modern-day buffoonery.
On Sunday, Claire Rayner – campaigner, writer, broadcaster and, above all, humanist – died aged 79 at her home in north London.
The sceptical, freethinking woman she was to become was evident in childhood. Known to her parents as a ‘problem child’ – an accusation not helped by her rejection of her parents’ Jewish faith – she ran away from four separate families when she was an evacuee during the Second World War. ‘I had a rotten childhood’, she told the Independent in 2006: ‘I used to feel so miserable and hated everyone and I was stroppy.’
Stroppy but compassionate, it seems. Her determination to leave home led to her getting a nursing job at Epsom Cottage hospital aged just 14 – her employers thought she was 17 – before she began training as a nurse proper at the Royal Northern Hospital, London, and won a gold medal for outstanding achievement in 1954. Having married Des Rayner, her husband of 53 years, in 1957 she left nursing in 1960 to have the first of her three children. It was at this point that Rayner’s other, more high-profile, life began:
‘When I came out, to have my own baby, I still missed it. Which was why I started writing really, much of what I was writing was what I knew – it was nursing stuff, it was childcare, teaching – I’d been teaching people as part of my job for donkey’s years. So writing was a good substitute, and then when the agony column turned up of course, it was a total substitute.’
Despite authoring over 60 books, Rayner is perhaps best remembered as an agony aunt at the Sun and the Sunday Mirror and on TV and radio. Whether it was offering candid advice on masturbation or demonstrating how to put on a condom, the urge to help people out, to offer reassurance, always trumped any embarrassment she might have felt.
Rayner was not afraid to challenge orthodoxies. Ever the autodidact, she had immersed herself from an early age in the writers of that inspiring phase of libertarian thinking, reading people like Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft. People’s freedom – to think and act for themselves – shaped her outlook. As she explained to Humanist News in 2000: ‘You think for yourself, and work out your own morality… I’m fascinated by the idea of trying to find your own way through the world with your own maps rather than someone else’s.’
This was reflected by Rayner’s commitment to free speech, a commitment exemplified by her battle to abolish the blasphemy laws. It was also manifest in her views on immigration. Angry with New Labour’s obsession with ‘illegal’ immigrants, she told spiked in 2001: ‘Whether you’re an economic migrant or an asylum seeker you should be free to go anywhere around the world you want to go. The way they’re treated makes me so angry I could spit – and this is bloody government policy.’ She wasn’t interested in technical fudging or making a cowardly distinction between legal and illegal migrants.
This was evident once more in her attitude to the Iraq War. Like many Labour supporters, her disillusionment with Tony Blair’s government was at breaking point. As she said to spiked at the time: ‘Tony Blair is not old enough to know what a bloody war is like. And those of us who are old enough know that there’s a bit more to it than running around like a shadow of Winston Churchill with a shadow of Churchill’s cigar between your teeth – not a real cigar for Blair, obviously – putting on a flak jacket, chatting to troops, and switching on the “I’m a great statesman” act. There’s more to war than gloss.’
But for Rayner, there was no umming and ahhing, typical of many of the Not In My Namers, about whether the war was legally justified or not. She was simply opposed to it, as she explained to spiked: ‘Firstly, it’s unwinnable: it is so stupid to throw a lot of money that we need for other things at bombing impossible landscapes and tents – the lunacy of it. Secondly, these wars rarely do anything to the people at the top – they only kill the population and the people at the bottom. I’ve been bombed and it’s bloody frightening; Blair’s never been bombed so maybe he just doesn’t get it… Blair and Bush are warmongers for sure – but they’re buffoons, too.’
Later in her life, unfortunately, her committed humanism – she was vice-president of the British Humanist Association – suffered from tendencies antithetical to her freedom-supporting impulse. Her rather intemperate attacks on Pope Benedict XVI, for instance, seemed marked less by secularism than by its opposite, intolerance: ‘I have no language with which to adequately describe Joseph Alois Ratzinger, AKA the pope. In all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature. His views are so disgusting, so repellent and so hugely damaging to the rest of us, that the only thing to do is to get rid of him.’
This was a snapshot, perhaps, of the humanism to which she remained wedded in the process of its inversion. Her life, however, is testament to something altogether brighter than what humanism has unfortunately become today.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.