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A Humanist Childhood

Kate Levey is a retired primary teacher, and the daughter of Brigid Brophy and Michael Levey. She is dedicated to perpetuating Brophy’s legacy and occasionally writes about her mother.
Brigid Brophy (1929-1995) was a writer, activist, vegan, and humanist. She was a member of the Advisory Council of the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK) from 1965, and an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association from 1984. As a leading figure in the Writers’ Action Group, Brophy successfully campaigned for authors’ rights, helping to bring about the Public Lending Right in 1979.

I know it sounds like an elocution exercise, but being brought up by Brigid Brophy was, on balance, brilliant.

Both my parents were humanists and they determined that my upbringing should be solidly rational. That bedrock gave me stability and my mother, specifically, steered me from the kind of emotional jumble she had grown up with. Matters were explained to me from the earliest, in terms I could comprehend; that included my own interior feelings, so in a sense I was inducted into Freudian theory, which Brigid had studied and found compelling. But it was always stressed that not everyone held the same views. I was not force-fed intellectual ideas. Rather, I imbibed a pragmatic, rather comforting knack of cool appraisal, and eventually the skill of reasoned scepticism. None of that, though, conveys the gloriously imaginative, affectionate, colourful and secure childhood I experienced; one full of interesting activity, material indulgence and fun.

Having repudiated her own devout upbringing, my mother was particularly keen that I should not be subject to religious indoctrination, so I was exempted from collective worship at my nursery school. However, as a shy child I didn’t like being different, and I remember how self-conscious I felt when my school friends trouped off to assembly and I had to stay behind with a teacher. That was one of the downsides of Brigid Brophy’s stringent application of her atheist and humanist principles.

While still fairly young, I stood out from my contemporaries in having been told the rudiments of human procreation: Brigid eschewed the convention of all-knowing parent and unknowing child; fortunately, being realistically attuned to the blinkered adult norm, she also took care to introduce me to the need for tact. That some of my friends still swallowed the nonsensical story of Father Christmas astounded me. Even at the time I suspected I was pitied by other parents because I wasn’t ‘allowed to enjoy’ the customary juvenile myths in which they colluded; however, they need not have worried because I had memorable, magical Christmases.

In all, it was a great privilege to have such an enlightened start in life; only in retrospect did I recognise how rare that was and how fortunate I had been.

Gradually, as I grew up, I realised that Brigid, who was never solemn or self-important at home- indeed was self-effacing and gentle- was actually quite often in the public eye and that her opinions were virulent. In our family she was hugely admired as well as loved, but I gathered that publicly she was somewhat controversial; I was stung a couple of times at primary school by remarks my classmates made. When I reported this to her, my mother was mortified that my feelings had been hurt on her account.

But as I matured towards adulthood, I really relished Brigid’s crusading spirit; I even tried taking on some of her fights. At secondary school I vehemently opposed compulsory worship, yet I lacked the ability to articulate a view or marshal an argument. (That year my R.E teacher gave me the remarkably succinct two-word report: ‘Kate thinks’).

In later teenage times I demonstrated my freedom from the usual parental hypocrisy about sex; although, while free of guilt and fear, I still trammelled myself in a Gordian knot of adolescent woes.

Brigid’s toughness of mind was a notable quality which others either revered or reviled, yet it wasn’t particularly apparent domestically, unless I had sought debate or discussion. Of course, I was aware, for instance, of her unshakeable rejection of both gods and ghosts. One time, as we sat down to play Liar Dice, I announced, ‘I am going to throw five aces.’  And, terrifyingly, I threw exactly that hand. I was petrified; with suppressed hysteria I awaited a thunderbolt, a sequence of Mozartian chords, the arrival of the devil, as I stared at my five dark dice. Brigid smiled, calmly remarked the coincidence of timing, reassured me it was just that, and suggested we start the game. She was an extremely impressive person.

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Brigid Brophy | A site created by Kate Levey

Brigid Brophy and Michael Levey | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

All photographs reproduced courtesy of Kate Levey.

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