Hermione Eyre: Thought for the day: get us thinking, BBC

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The Independent Online

How much longer can "Thought for the Day" continue on Radio 4's Today programme? That little slot of sanctimony before the 8am news bulletin – only two minutes and 45 second in duration but always seeming so very much longer – is again being targeted by secularists, who politely suggest it should either widen its remit to include non-religious contributors, or shut up shop altogether.

What, no more hushed bulletins from our lady of social conservatism, Anne Atkins? No more painful rhetorical contortions as ancient mysticism is given a topical twist? No more chin-scratching from Rabbi Lionel Blue?

Actually I like Rabbi Blue's contributions, and the contemplative pace of the spot is often a welcome counterpoint to the adversarial, sometimes gladiatorial, tone of the rest of the programme. But it is increasingly unacceptable to disallow humanist and secularist thinking from this slot. This week, as the atheist buses trundled out round London, there was a Radio 4 first – Ariane Sherine, founder of the bus campaign, gave a humanist "Thought for the Afternoon" on PM.

The studio was not smote by lightning. The meditative, ethical function of the slot remained just as strong. Stronger, in fact. Atheist thinkers chosen to broadcast in the slot would likely be selected more for the quality of their material, rather than for their position within a religious hierarchy.

When I was a child getting ready for school, "Thought for the Day" coincided with my Ready Brek. While I munched, I listened if not with awe then certainly with attentiveness: the way it was presented, all pious hushed voice, made it sound important. The BBC is not giving children the whole picture – or anything like it – about morality and belief in this country if they do not include the non-religious point of view.

To keep the slot exclusively religious is to deny that humanism exists as a counter-argument: a ridiculous act of censorship. If we heard a bit more about how to be a good, scrupulous, thoughtful atheist it might save us from the other things that fill the post-religious vacuum: the apathy, credulousness, the cynicism. Besides, there is already "Prayer for the Day" at 5.45am, to which early-rising believers are very welcome.

In the face of 1,500 complaints lodged with the BBC in late December, Mark Damazer, the Radio 4 controller, announced his commitment to keeping the slot as it is. I read his open letter on the BBC website, but to be honest it was so bland it is not worth repeating, like quoting semolina. On the other hand, the atheist appeal for support was couched in entertainingly right-on terms. An email from The Brights (a California-based organisation supporting those with a "naturalistic worldview") pinged into my inbox, inviting me "as an individual, to take a timely action" but then reassuring me that there was, like, no pressure: "Whether to act... (and if so how) is something each Bright decides on his/her own..."

You've got to love it: the free-thinker's antipathy to being organised into a movement, struggling against the desire to effect change for the better. Here's hoping the BBC will respond and widen the remit of this unpopular slot (even John Humphrys has written against it).

At times like this, when our whole social and economic paradigm is shifting, we need time in which to think, not an interfaith snore slot.

Kate could learn a thing or two from Luise

Congratulations to the screen legend Luise Rainer, who turned 99 this week. A long-time resident of Belgravia, she was born in Düsseldorf but emigrated to Hollywood in the 1930s when MGM recruited her from Max Reinhardt's theatre company in Berlin. For her roles in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937) she won two consecutive Oscars for best actress but, disenchanted with Hollywood (where she said it was impossible to have an intellectual conversation) she moved to New York with her husband, the playwright Clifford Odets.

She is a figure of living history and I am always spellbound when I catch sight of her out and about in London, at galleries (I saw her scrutinising the mortal flesh of a Lucian Freud painting at the Tate the other year) and theatre events (she was at this year's Peter Brook awards, sporting an elegant sequin skullcap).

Often chaperoned by someone outrageously young and handsome, she retains both an imperious dignity and something of the coquette. As for her acceptance speech technique, she could have given La Winslet a piece of advice: in her day, she only felt the need to say two words: "thank you".

Mudlarks, myths and mobility

The 1911 census shows that David Beckham's great-great grandfather was employed by Walworth council as a "scavenger", which commentators have variously translated as "sweeper", "cleaner" or even a "mudlark" (which would have entailed collecting scrap metal from along the Thames foreshore at low tide).

The news is being presented as a heartwarming tale of social mobility through the generations, until you think it through – Beckham has 16 great-great grandparents to choose from, so clearly the press officers for yesterday's online publication of the census have picked out the one with the lowliest occupation, to make a more arresting rags-to-riches tale – which is just what we want when the Government's White Paper, published yesterday, has some unpalatable truths to tell about the recent slowdown in social mobility.

Still, at least we no longer have a scavenging industry – instead, the shore of the Thames accommodates illegal raves, occasional mad fishermen and amateur archaeologists waving metal detectors. Now that's progress.

I feel better by day - by night I still smoke

What they don't tell you about giving up smoking: six months on, I feel cleaner, clearer in mind, somehow, as well as body, and my lungs no longer sort of rustle when I stretch. If you are trying to quit with a new year's resolution, please allow me to shout encouragement from the sideline: it is great to be free from that poison crutch. As a smoker you think the next cigarette will satisfy you, but it never quite does. As a non-smoker you see the illusion for what it was. My conscious mind is now smoke-free, but the unconscious takes its own sweet time: in my dreams, I puff and puff.

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