In bed with Susan De Muth: Barbara Smoker / Stranglers in the night

Susan de Muth
Tuesday 13 September 1994 23:02

Barbara Smoker, 71, has been president of the National Secular Society for 24 years. She lives in south London.

I AM afraid of sleeping. During the Second World War I was a wireless telegraphist for the Navy in Ceylon. We had long night watches, during which I was always terrified of dropping off and missing some vital code groups. I knew that could cost thousands of lives. I've been an insomniac ever since.

For several years I suffered from hypnagogic hallucinations, on the verge of sleep. I would hear screaming, for example, and go to the window and see a man strangling a woman in the garden. Then they would disappear and I'd wake in a panic. A psychiatrist said, 'You are phobic about sleep and must take valium for the rest of your life.' Luckily I hardly ever do as I am told or I'd be a zombie by now.

I sleep for a quarter of an hour at a time, then awake with a very active mind. I don't particularly care unless I'm lecturing or broadcasting the following day and need to be sharp. My bed is not, I admit, very comfortable - there are springs poking out of the mattress - but that makes no difference. It's just the same if I'm in a hotel.

I officiate at about two funerals a week and I write texts for them in the early hours, between sleeps. It takes me about five hours to compose a funeral because they are individually tailored. I write an obituary, having interviewed the deceased's friends and relatives, which I read out at the service. I always concentrate on their positive attributes and end with the Epicurean epitaph, 'I was not, I have been, I am no more.'

I also spend ages lying in bed polishing up slogans because I like to do competitions. I've won quite a few. The only drawback is that you have to buy all these products that you don't particularly want, which adds to the general litter around the place. My flat is a terrible mess with clothes and papers and books in piles everywhere. My tenant downstairs calls it 'thought compost'.

My tenant is an insomniac too. One night I woke at 3.30am and could hear someone creeping around in my living-room. I thought it was a burglar and, armed with a stick, went to check. It was my tenant looking something up in one of my encyclopaedias with a torch.

I'm glad I live alone. I've always liked my privacy and I couldn't stand someone else's mess. I did have several love affairs when I was younger but I'm glad to be free of that now. I always thought sex was such a messy sort of thing. I've realised as I've got older that actually my main orientation has always been lesbian, though I was never a practising one.

My first love was Jesus. I was so bloody religious. I was going to be a nun - several books have been written in the past few years revealing that most nuns are lesbian in orientation. I used to get up in the night to pray. When you're that emotionally involved, prayer is a form of sexual release. In my twenties I started reading, discovering other ways of thinking, and on 5 November 1949 at midday, I suddenly realised I no longer believed. It was the most dramatic experience of relief - like an orgasm. I have never had a second of doubt since.

I think a lot about death when I'm lying awake at night. I can remember thinking that 10 was very old. Old for me now is 90 - I don't want to live into my nineties. I'm not afraid of death but I fear a long illness. I have a supply of pills and I will decide when I die. The best time to go is winter - you take your pills, lie on the bed with no covers and open the window. Hypothermia hastens your death and it's an easy way to go.

I wake up for the last time at 6am and get out of bed. I feel very positive in the mornings. The few problems I do have - such as how I'm going to pay my gambling debts - have somehow been sorted out during the night and I start pottering about, whistling and thinking how lucky I am in so many respects.

(Photograph omitted)

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