As Harry Leslie Smith likes to say, "I am not a historian, I am history." Much of that history was brutal beyond imagining. His father and sister both lie in unmarked paupers' graves in northern England, where he was raised in utter poverty. He began his working life at age seven, pulling a beer cart. He can still remember walking to school and trying to shut out his hunger pains with thoughts of the free glass of milk that would be waiting there for poor children.
Now 92, an RAF veteran of the Second World War who was present at the liberation of the Netherlands, he has earned the right to a pair of slippers and other pleasures of a gentle retirement. Perhaps that's what he would be doing, if he weren't so furious about the state of the world. If he didn't see it slipping perilously toward a past that isn't just a scene from a grainy newsreel, but a part of his living memory.
"The last years of my life should be devoted to at least trying to make a change in the world, and reminding people of the way it was," Mr. Smith says over the phone from Victoria. "The way it shouldn't be again."
Mr. Smith was in Victoria as part of his Stand Up For Progress National Tour, sponsored by the Broadbent Institute. (He moved to Toronto with his late wife, Friede, in 1953, and now splits his time between Ontario and England.) A similar tour, railing against fiscal austerity and income inequality, drew adoring crowds in the U.K., and he brought jaded Labour Party members to their feet last September with a speech in defence of the National Health Service. He has nearly 40,000 followers on Twitter. In his tenth decade on this earth, Harry Leslie Smith has become a sudden sensation.
A sensation with a slightly despairing message, but still. "As I have grown older," he writes in his new book, Harry's Last Stand, "I am no longer certain that the sacrifice my generation paid with their blood was worth the cost." Politicians and business elites "have reversed my generation's struggle to close the gap between the richest and the poorest. They have helped betray our dream of an equitable society with medical care, housing and education for all. They have allowed it to be taken to pieces, and sold off to the lowest bidder. …"
Canada gave him a good life (as a carpet salesman) and a place to raise three boys, but now, he's having trouble recognizing the country he moved to more than 60 years ago: "People used to be concerned about each other. … When I came here, 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."
What Mr. Smith wants to do with his newfound fame is to stir those young people to political action, to remind them of the economic misery that existed within living memory. "It's up to them to change things, if they just put some skin in the game and vote," says the man who cast his first vote in 1945, for the Labour government of Clement Attlee, which created the NHS.
If anyone has the moral authority to create a bridge between generations, it might be a Second World War veteran who uses phrases like "skin in the game" and references zero-hours contracts, but also cites the wisdom of his beaten-down mother: "Lad, there are no happy days for our lot, because the lord mucks have got us in the palm of their hands. One squeeze and we're done for."
I went to hear Mr. Smith speak to a rapt audience in Vancouver, a city of yoga studios and teeny million-dollar houses. He talked about his ten-year-old sister dying of tuberculosis in a workhouse infirmary because there was not enough money for a doctor, and the memory seemed as fresh to him as if it had happened yesterday. Don't be fooled by outward appearances, he said; crushing poverty was still with us, if better hidden.
Given that the memories were clearly painful, I asked if he wasn't getting a bit tired of this fight. He laughed. "Oh no," he said. "I'm going out of this world fighting."