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Singing the peace

Obituary: Audrey Smith 1921-2007

Just after Christmas, Audrey came by the Saturday morning peace vigil (where I sell PN) in Stroud High Street. It was the last time I saw her. As usual she was pushing her walker-shopper and immaculately turned- out: eyebrow pencil, a touch of lippy and clothes of indisputable style. As usual, she was apologetic about no longer being strong enough to stand in line with us and as usual, too, she appeared indomitable. In fact she was indomitable and her death was a shock to us vigilantes and her wider circles of friends alike.

Around seven years ago I wrote about Audrey in Nonviolent Action. My piece was inspired by Mark Steinhardt's splendid and moving paperback: Audrey Smith - a biography (Stone Books, 73A Great Park Street, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire NN8 4DP, £10 plus £1.50 postage) and everything I know of her past derives from it.

I first met her when we moved to Stroud in 1999 and I started to attend the Stroud Peace Group's meetings. Her vitality and attractive presence made an immediate and lasting impression on me. Here was someone to reckon with, I thought.

“Audrey Smith is not famous. She has made no outstanding contribution to art, science or society....yet the reader encounters a woman of unquenchable spirit and deep commitments, who has thought carefully about her responses to the world.” So says the cover blurb of Steinhardt's biography, but I disagree with its premise.

The clever girl from a white collar family in South London went against her family's grain and expectation in every respect. After grammar school she entered the colonial service and worked in Downing Street. By 1940, however, she'd joined the PPU, begun her lifelong commitment to pacifism, and burned the bridges to material success and career preferment which her life appeared to offer. She once said to me that she thought nothing she'd done in her life had made a “happorth of difference to anything”. In my experience, many who live similar lives to Audrey feel the same way, but I don't doubt she did make an outstanding - but immeasurable - contribution to society.

Somehow, she became an actress, singer, musician, songwriter, poet, and mother of three daughters while, at the same time, managing to be an active opponent of unfairness wherever and however it occurred. She was a conscientious objector in both the specific and general sense of the term and our paths must surely have crossed many times without our ever meeting. She sang in “Bungies” off Charing Cross Road (where I had my first cup of espresso coffee in a glass cup) and must have attended many of the same gigs, festivals and demos as I. It's a wonder we never met at Molesworth Peace camp, for example, but we were only ever acquaintances in Stroud and I admired her, as it were, from afar.

Audrey was what used to be known as a free spirit, with its proper connotations of bohemianism and sexual adventurousness. I suspect some of you reading this piece who knew her or remember her will feel a real sense of loss at her departure. People like Audrey should be written about and remembered because they give generously without regard to acknowledgement or reward. How unlike the celebrities of the hour who take everything and give nothing.

The chorus of her children's song, The Egg Song, goes:
All the same inside-O'
All the same inside-O'
Just kids that like to shout and play,
And all the same inside-O.

Would that more people were like Audrey inside-O.

Topics: Radical Lives