Last year I had the pleasure of interviewing Harry Leslie Smith on a couple of occasions – once for print, once for video. If you’re not aware of Harry, he wrote the fantastic polemic, Harry’s Last Stand, which was released on Icon Books last year. At 91, it was his first published work and is a rousing read. It’s a call to arms for all of those who feel they’re being marginalised by the Coalition government’s policies and urges young people to vote in the next election.
The interviews were both done for the International Business Times and you can read / watch them below…
Harry’s Last Stand
1923 was the year the Yankee Stadium first opened its doors. Louis Armstrong made his first recording and Mount Etna erupted in Italy, making 60,000 people homeless. That September, the British government created the protectorates of Palestine as a homeland for the Jewish people, while two months later, a 34-year old Adolf Hitler was arrested for leading the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich.
In Britain, people were still reeling from the effects of World War I and the subsequent Spanish flu pandemic, which between them took more than one million British lives. By 1919, Britain’s national debt had risen to 135% of GDP. The government’s answer was then as it is now: austerity. Most historians agree that the experiment failed and that it wasn’t until the expansionary policies of 1945 that things started to turn around.
It was into that world, 91 years ago, that Harry Leslie Smith was born. In some ways the world is a radically different place. In others, it remains sadly the same. The polarisation can be viewed in microcosm by viewing Smith’s social media channel of choice: Twitter.
His feed is regularly updated with articles from a range of sources around the world in a manner that would’ve been beyond the wildest of imaginations in 1923. But the stories often have a familiar ring to them. War in the Middle East, austerity in the UK, world powers spying on each other and throwing their weight around.
“It’s frightening. I would like to grab somebody by the neck and shake them ’til they realise what they’re doing to the world,” he says, his voice cracking slightly down the telephone line, the only tell-tale sign that this indignant rabble-rouser has recently entered the tenth decade of his life.
Smith’s fourth book, Harry’s Last Stand, has just been published by Icon Books, having released the previous books himself.
“I almost gave up,” he says. But he didn’t. And here he is: a nonagenarian conducting press interviews about his professional debut.
Harry’s Last Stand is, at times, heart-breaking. It tracks his life from growing up, the impoverished son of an unemployed miner in the sooty towns of Yorkshire, to the Great Depression and his service in the Royal Air Force during World War II, right through to the global financial crisis of 2008, which inspired him to take his “last stand”.
“I want what might be my very last vote to count,” he says. “I want to use my time and whatever influence I have from the book to get the young in Britain to vote the only way we can: to save our social democratic institutions. I want us to make our last stand at the ballot box.”
A World Without Security
Smith recalls his early years, when he would huddle up in the bed with his sister to keep warm, with no heating in their home nor food in their bellies.
“It’s a miracle to me that my sister and I lasted as long as we did. It wasn’t just one day when you wouldn’t eat properly. It could have been a week before you had a decent meal. In the meantime it was bread and dripping and whatever you could scrounge or find in other people’s garbage.”
His other sister, Marion, was not strong enough to make it. She died of tuberculosis when Harry was three years old and in his book, he records the harrowing scene when his parents pawned their best clothes and sent for a dray horse to take Marion to the workhouse infirmary to die.
With his father unable to find work and his mother caring for a young and hungry brood, Smith was sent to work as a barrow-boy for a beer bottler in Bradford. At the age of seven, he was supporting his entire family.
“When I was in England not long ago, I went to where I came from in Bradford, where I was a barrow boy,” he says. “When I visited the building where all of this occurred, I just broke down in tears at the thought and memory of it. That’s where my father left us. It was all very tragic.”
His childhood was spent moving around, as his mother took up with various suitors, having shown his father the door, after he was unable to find work. The scene as he recalls it is almost Dickensian.
The workhouses he slept in were full of WWI veterans, missing limbs and mentally ill.
“It was really frightening that someone could fight for their country and then they’re thrown on the rubbish heap. The same thing is happening today. I’m sure lots of soldiers come back needing mental and physical help, but have to fight for every bit they get,” he says, a palpable note of anger in his voice.
His early education was sporadic. He was never in one place long enough to keep up with the workload and left school without being functionally literate. “I really was absolutely ignorant as far as language is concerned. That was then, this is now. At least at the end I got the better of it,” he says with a throaty laugh.
Smith worked in grocers’ until WWII, when he served with the RAF in Germany. It was there that he met his German wife Friede and when they returned to Britain, experienced the sort of treatment often reserved for Romanians and Bulgarians nowadays.
“The talk was the same,” he says. “It’s the fault of the immigrants… those people. That’s what government’s love to hear though because it’s taking the blame from them and putting it on someone who is looking for a job. After WWII, there were 200,000 Polish in Britain who had fought against Hitler. A lot of people were saying: ‘Bloody Poles, coming over here and taking these houses, putting 40 people in there’.”
Having grown up without the safety net of a welfare state or a health service, it wasn’t until after he’d served his country in a war that Harry first visited a hospital. The post-war period brought opportunities and a living standard to millions who had never known either. Homes were built, tuition fees lowered and healthcare was free.
The message in his book is clear: the system built to protect the poorest in society after WWII is being dismantled. The message isn’t necessarily new, but the manner in which it’s delivered is almost certainly unique. It’s a first-hand account of two markedly different eras which are bound by distinct similarities.
“I’m an eye witness to history,” Smith tells me. “I’m not a politician, a philosopher, or a historian or economist. But the times we’re living in have the same gritty texture as my youth. Housing and medical services may be better, but for many of us, for how long?”
His daughter-in-law works in HR for a Canadian hospital and earns more than $250,000 a year. “I don’t think anyone in that position is worth that sort of money. She doesn’t like it when I tell her this,” he says.
He speaks yearningly for those post-WWII years, when “the upper classes didn’t mind paying their fair share for whatever it was needed for” and some modicum of equality was installed in the system. It clearly pains him to see governments use what he considers to be the timeworn tactics of the 1920s and 30s to deal with a mess “created by banks”.
“I should be able to look back and see social progress since I was born. But I don’t see any. Today it’s starting to have the same divisions as those which polarised the 20th century: those that have and those that have not,” he says.
As someone who has watched loved ones die because they had no healthcare and watched his family crumble because there was no welfare, Harry wants to take a stand.
He says it’s his last stand, but judging by the zeal in his voice, I’m not so sure.