I first heard Harry Leslie Smith speak in Vancouver in 2014, to an audience packed with people who were 60 or 70 years his junior. He walked out on stage slowly, and I remember thinking that he looked frail, which was not unexpected, considering that he was 91 years old.
Then he began to speak, and – to use the kind of cliché he would never sink to – the years fell away. He spoke about the unimaginable poverty of his childhood in northern England as if he’d just woken up that morning in the grotty miner’s hovel in Barnsley. He spoke about the beer cart he pulled as a child to make money, the hunger pangs that were never far away and the death of his sister Marion from tuberculosis at the age of 10.
Marion died in a workhouse, where the poor were relegated at the ends of their lives. Her body was cast into an unmarked pauper’s grave, as Harry’s father’s would later be as well. The young people in that audience sat rapt, although we were in Vancouver, with some of the world’s best health care (alternative and traditional) just blocks away. Harry’s message was that the monuments of progress – the hospitals and schools and social safety net – were not permanent and inevitable. They’d been fought for and built by men and women, in living memory, and they were under threat.
This is what had roused him from comfortable retirement in his 90s to become a one-man living history tour, an author and advocate railing against corporate greed, cynical politics and voter apathy. I interviewed him for the first time shortly after I heard him speak, and asked him if he wasn’t just a tiny bit tired of waging this endless battle. He laughed (although “laugh-wheezed” might be a better way of putting it.) “Oh no,” he said. “I’m going out of this world fighting.”
This brings us today. As I write this, Harry (everyone calls him Harry) is in hospital in Belleville, Ont., having suffered a bad fall. His son John is with him, and is posting updates on his dad’s Twitter account, which has nearly 250,000 followers. Harry’s Twitter feed is a marvellous thing – feisty, funny, combative, engaged. Seriously, he’s pretty much the Ariana Grande of nonagenarian political activists.
That online engagement was not an accident. Harry became a social-media sensation after he delivered a speech about the threats to Britain’s National Health Service at the annual conference of the Labour Party in 2014. It was his personal experience that made his voice so compelling. He had lived in a world with no public health-care system, enduring the brutal poverty of the interwar years. He witnessed the rise of fascism and fought against it in the Second World War, as a radio operator in the RAF. He met his wife, Friede, in postwar Hamburg; they were married for 54 years, much of that time in Canada, their adopted homeland.
What bothered Harry was that postwar ideals of equality and justice were falling apart. He told me, when I interviewed him for a second and third time, that he was worried that fascism was on the rise again, that the politics of austerity in Canada, the United States and Britain was stripping working people of their futures and dignity. He was anxious that young people didn’t see this calamity in front of them, although he’d tried to warn them in a book called Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future. When he came to Canada in the 1950s, he said, “You could find a job, and get paid – maybe not an exorbitant wage, but enough to buy a little house. Young people can’t even think about that any more.”
So what was a war veteran to do, faced with such despairing prospects? Last year, at the age of 94, he started a podcast called Harry’s Last Stand and launched a GoFundMe campaign to finance his tour of international refugee camps (he’d been interested in refugee issues since witnessing the misery of Germans in postwar Hamburg.)
In his podcast, Harry lays out in pungent and unsparing detail what exactly it was like to be poor and hopeless when those things were considered ineradicable conditions or moral faults, not social failures that could be improved. Young listeners, walking along with a smoothie in one hand, probably couldn’t imagine such things he spoke about: the “piss-stained” mattresses he had to lie on, the coal that his father couldn’t afford to buy even though he laboured underground pulling it out of the earth, the gin-loving midwife who delivered him. Listening to Harry speak is like walking through a living gate to the past, a gate that carries a warning above it. What happens when the gate closes?
Now, as Harry lies ill in hospital, good wishes are arriving in waves from people around the world – from prime ministers and proles alike. It must be heartening to feel so beloved. At the same time, though, he’s in a province, Ontario, that has just frozen the minimum wage and is skewering workers’ rights. His home country is suffering through the crippling political fallout of Brexit and eight years of Conservative austerity policies. Just last week, the United Nations issued a shame-inducing report about the levels of poverty in Britain, especially among children.
It’s not the 1920s, not yet, but it’s alarming and infuriating all the same. When I spoke to Harry last year, as he prepared to launch his podcast, he said: "I don’t want to leave the Earth until I feel my work has been heard, and I can see a turn in people and they’re standing up for their rights.” Many people have heard Harry’s message. Acting on it, and honouring those memories – that’s something else.