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I know I am not a historian, but I am history and I fear its repetition. Perhaps this is the price or curse of advanced age – to witness a timid present unfit to face either its future, or its past mistakes.

Long ago, I experienced the same crisis of ideas and faith that we face today. You see, I was born in the shadow of the first Great War, during a decade that roared with innovation, social injustice, debt and revolution. A midwife delivered me into the tired arms of my mother and the backward world of a coal-mining town in the north of England divided by class, education and wealth that was held by too few families.

My memories stretch back to a time when lamp lighters trolled dusky, teatime streets and lit the way home for my sister and me. I was 5 and I was the colour of night because I had spent a frozen afternoon foraging for coal on top of a slag heap at the edge of town. Our bounty was to be used to heat the rooms our parents rented in a flophouse, whose tenants were the unemployed, the infirm and the unwanted. They were victims of changing economies, national debt and plain indifference by those with a better roof over their heads.

Many a night I went to bed hungry, and many a morning I foraged for breakfast in the dumpsters along my route to school. I was not alone. Other children shared my hunger and kept me company while I dug through garbage looking for discarded fruit. We were a whole generation of men, women and helpless children, tossed into the gutter after the world’s economies collapsed.

My family fell sooner, quicker and harder than most because my father was considered redundant labour after injuring himself at work. For my family’s survival, I was added into the workaday world of adults at the age of 7.

I became a barrow boy and plied a cart filled with beer bottles down despair-filled cobbled streets. I delivered ale to those looking for a short respite from their diminished lives, which were being suffocated by the Depression.

Today, as I reach the end of my time, I find that we are returning to the blackness of the thirties. The evening streets may be awash in an electric afterglow, but children still go to bed hungry and hopeless.

Too many of us look to economists, bankers, investment brokers as if they alone were the answer to our problems in the Western world.

But the problem is not just debt and economic malaise. All of us must work together – the middle class, the poor, the rich – to make a society that can reward entrepreneurs and protect the vulnerable. Instead, like in the thirties, we are divided by class and money.

Many historians have said that the people of my epoch were tested and found true. I don’t know if that is true or not because I am not a historian. But I do wonder, what will tomorrow’s generation say of us today?

Adapted from an essay by Harry Leslie Smith in The Globe and Mail on March 7, 2012.

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