BET­TER WITH RAGE

At age 94, Harry Les­lie Smith is us­ing tech­nol­ogy not in­vented in his first 80 years — in­clud­ing Twit­ter and pod­casts — to reach young peo­ple. His mes­sage: Fight for love and fair wages, and re­sist hate and Don­ald Trump. The young are lis­ten­ing

Toronto Star - - INSIGHT - PAUL HUNTER FEA­TURE WRITER

BELLEVILLE— His voice is reed-thin — best you lean in to hear it — and there is the oc­ca­sional preg­nant pause to re­cover his breath but not his thoughts; this is a man who knows ex­actly what he wants to say. Ninety-four years of life, with its joys, heart­break, tri­umphs and hard lessons, has im­bued him with wis­dom he feels com­pelled to share. Now Harry Les­lie Smith is im­plor­ing you, all of you, to lis­ten. So he writes books and newspaper col­umns, goes on univer­sity speak­ing tours, takes to Twit­ter (117,000 fol­low­ers) and, in hope his mes­sage touches to­day’s youth, records pas­sion­ate pod­casts.

On plat­forms that didn’t ex­ist dur­ing his first 80 years, Smith preaches about pre­serv­ing democ­racy and the wel­fare state, cre­at­ing a just so­ci­ety and liv­ing a life of com­pas­sion, all from an en­thu­si­as­ti­cally left­ist per­spec­tive. And he rails against Don­ald Trump, Brexit, in­equal­ity, cor­po­rate greed and what­ever else he finds loath­some, his pointed words de­liv­ered with an en­gag­ing, guyon-the-next-barstool folksi­ness.

In his 10th decade, Smith is try­ing to change the world, with the ur­gency of one who un­der­stands the time con­straints.

“As we get into our late years, surely we should all be en­deav­our­ing to give some­thing back to the coun­try, to make it a bet­ter place when we leave,” he says.

“Life is not per­ma­nent, al­though a lot of peo­ple look at me and say, you’re com­ing damn close to it.”

Smith, who di­vides his time be­tween Belleville and his na­tive Bri­tain, has lived through the rav­ages of war and he fears those storm clouds are build­ing again. He’s heard the cries of pain from those aban­doned to die in the days be­fore so­cial­ized medicine and is trou­bled those hard-earned ben­e­fits are be­ing eroded. He served in the Royal Air Force when the Al­lies pushed back the Nazi scourge and is chilled by the prospect of such evils ris­ing anew.

He sur­vived a de­pres­sion, world war and Cold War and be­lieves we can learn, per­haps more than we re­al­ize, by lis­ten­ing to him and oth­ers linked to the past.

So, with mind and mem­ory tack-sharp, he has made it his mis­sion in his fi­nal years to ed­u­cate.

Harry Les­lie Smith cares very deeply. He wants you to care, too.

“For me, old age has been a re­nais­sance de­spite the tragedies of los­ing my beloved wife and son. It’s why the great­est er­ror any­one can make is to as­sume that, be­cause an el­derly per­son is in a wheel­chair or speaks with quiet de­lib­er­a­tion, they have noth­ing im­por­tant to con­trib­ute to so­ci­ety. It is equally im­por­tant not to say to your­self if you are in the bloom of youth: ‘I’d rather be dead than live like that.’ As long as there is sen­tience and an abil­ity to love and show love, there is pur­pose to ex­is­tence.”

— Smith writ­ing in the Guardian, Feb. 24, 2017

On a warm sum­mer morn­ing, sun­light bathes the cozy sec­ond­floor apart­ment in a build­ing that is a short walk from the Bay of Quinte. Smith, one set of glasses on his nose, an­other dan­gling around his neck, has the air of a lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor as he holds court from a high-backed arm­chair near the win­dow.

A one-time im­porter of Ori­en­tal car­pets — Con­rad Black and the Re­ich­mann fam­ily were clients — he trades now in words and his tools are nearby. A lap­top for tweet­ing and writ­ing — though he com­poses his es­says long­hand and types them af­ter­ward — and a mi­cro­phone for record­ing his pod­casts.

There’s a cap­ti­vat­ing in­ti­macy to Smith’s on­line broad­casts, the premise be­ing that he and a stranger, the lis­tener, have both missed their trains on a rainy day and have taken refuge in a sta­tion pub. There is lit­tle to do but ex­change hon­est opin­ions over a pint and the pod­cast un­folds as a one-sided con­ver­sa­tion as Harry shares his views on the world and why he views his voice as a “weapon against the po­lit­i­cal tides that want to re­turn Bri­tain and the world to the dark­ness of my youth.”

Smith has recorded nine episodes, launch­ing the series as he turned 94 in Fe­bru­ary. He tapes them here but they are edited by an au­dio tech­ni­cian in Eng­land, where he spends half his year.

The nona­ge­nar­ian will soon be head­ing there to tour in pro­mo­tion of his lat­est book — Don’t Let My Past Be Your Fu­ture — and spend the win­ter at a rented cot­tage in York­shire, his home county in the north where he does much of his writ­ing. That book should be in Cana­dian book­stores by year’s end.

At the mo­ment, though, he is be­mused that a vis­i­tor finds it cu­ri­ous he has adopted so­cial me­dia to share his thoughts.

“Peo­ple al­ways ex­press sur­prise about these things,” he says. “But, re­ally, I joined the Royal Air Force in­1941and I went in as a wire­less op­er­a­tor. I had to learn about trans­mit­ters and re­ceivers and gen­er­a­tors and all sorts of things that I’d never heard of in my whole life but we learnt them; in­clud­ing Morse Code which was our only means of trans­fer­ring in­for­ma­tion. So we weren’t dumb bug­gers.”

Smith says he’s been politi­cized since the degra­da­tions of his youth. The youngest of his three sons — John, 53, who lives with him — re­calls hear­ing im­pas­sioned di­a­tribes at the kitchen ta­ble while grow­ing up in Scar­bor­ough. Canada’s push for free trade in the1980s and Smith’s be­lief it would de­stroy the work­ing class was al­ways worth a rant.

But it’s one thing to have out­rage roil­ing within. It’s an­other to broad­cast it to the world. That de­sire came af­ter a con­flu­ence of soul-crush­ing, late-life de­vel­op­ments.

In 1999, the love of Smith’s life, his wife Friede, died at home in his arms. Cancer claimed her. They’d been mar­ried 52 years and Smith was dev­as­tated. He has writ­ten that he stum­bled through his days af­ter­ward “anaes­thetized by tran­quil­liz­ers” lost in the wake of her pass­ing.

As a salve, he took lengthy trips through the States and Europe. It was com­fort­ing to be con­stantly mov­ing, of­ten re­vis­it­ing his past. At one point he re­turned to Ham­burg, where he and Ger­man-born Friede met, and stood across the road from her old apart­ment star­ing long­ingly at the door. “I could pic­ture her com­ing out.” Los­ing Friede, he says, took away his soft­ness.

What hard­ened him fur­ther was the eco­nomic col­lapse and mort­gage melt­down of 2007-’08 and how it was “the reg­u­lar tax­payer who had to re­cover this deficit.” There were lit­tle or no long-term reper­cus­sions for the wealthy.

The in­jus­tice and in­equal­ity en­raged Smith.

Then, in 2009, his mid­dle son Peter, al­ready bat­tling schizophre­nia, suc­cumbed to a lung dis­ease. He was 50.

“Harry was 87 at the time,” says John. “It’s not good for the young to lose their chil­dren or the old.”

That was the fi­nal trig­ger. Smith be­gan writ­ing his me­moirs.

Af­ter he self-pub­lished three au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal works, Smith was given the op­por­tu­nity to write a col­umn in the Guardian. His first, in May of 2013, ex­pressed out­rage at what the Western world had be­come com­pared to what Smith be­lieved had been ac­com­plished with a vic­tory in the war.

The es­say caught the eye of a book agent, who thought Smith evoked the spirit of a gen­er­a­tion. That led to a fourth book, Harry’s Last Stand pub­lished in 2014 by Icon Books in the U.K. and dis­trib­uted by Pen­guin Books in Canada. It was part bi­og­ra­phy, part lament for what was and part plea for the preser­va­tion of the wel­fare state. It was also, says Smith, “a block­buster.” Icon says it sold 20,000 copies world­wide.

At 91, the le­gend of Harry Les­lie Smith was born.

“It’s funny how the world works and some­thing you say projects you into lime­light that you never ex­pected,” he says. “You never know what life is go­ing to throw at us.” “Be­cause I am old, now 94, I rec­og­nize these omens of doom. Chill­ing signs are ev­ery­where, per­haps the big­gest be­ing that the U.S. al­lows it­self to be led by Don­ald Trump, a man deficient in hon­our, wis­dom and just sim­ple hu­man kind­ness. It is as fool­ish for Amer­i­cans to be­lieve that their gener­als will save them from Trump as it was for lib­eral Ger­mans to be­lieve the mil­i­tary would pro­tect the na­tion from Hitler’s ex­cesses.”

— Smith in the Guardian, Aug. 14, 2017

Smith’s re­lent­less ad­vo­cacy for so­cial democ­racy and his cham­pi­oning of the poor are very much a prod­uct of his his­tory. Born in 1923, he had a child­hood of ab­ject poverty in Eng­land.

He was the son of a coal miner, liv­ing first in the sickly slums of Barns­ley, York­shire. There was no heat and lit­tle food. Some­times, says Smith, it could be a week be­tween de­cent meals.

“I was so hun­gry I used to have to dig through garbage cans to see if I could get scraps that peo­ple had thrown away. It was a bru­tal life.”

One of his two older sis­ters, Mar­ion, con­tracted spinal tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in the foul liv­ing con­di­tions and, with no af­ford­able med­i­cal help, wasted away. One day, Harry’s par­ents pawned their best cloth­ing to hire a horse-drawn cart. On it, Mar­ion was taken, Harry re­calls, “like rub­bish they hauled away” to a work­house in­fir­mary to await death. At 10, she was buried in an un­marked pau­per’s grave.

Harry’s fa­ther lost his job due to in­jury and the fam­ily moved on to Brad­ford — flee­ing in the night, as it would of­ten do, to avoid the rent col­lec­tor — for crowded lodg­ing fa­cil­i­ties that were like rab­bit war­rens for the des­ti­tute. A room in a house would con­tain an en­tire fam­ily; dam­aged war vets and the men­tally ill mixed in to the squalor. When Harry was 8, Harry’s mother kicked his fa­ther out be­cause she couldn’t af­ford to pro­vide keep for him. His mother took up with other men for sur­vival as much as any­thing, he says. Those re­la­tion­ships gave Harry two half-broth­ers.

It was a mis­er­able ex­is­tence through the Great De­pres­sion and Smith re­calls that un­godly screams could be heard from neigh­bours’ homes, the dy­ing un­able to af­ford any type of painkiller. A visit to a doc­tor or hos­pi­tal might cost at least half a week’s worth of a sub­sis­tence-level wage.

“It hap­pened of­ten, peo­ple sim­ply died when they could’ve been saved,” he says.

When he was 7, Harry got a job af­ter school de­liv­er­ing ale. There was no wage pro­tec­tion for kids so many were hired ahead of adults. The money kept his fam­ily from star­va­tion. At10, he de­liv­ered coal. When he was 14, he be­gan work­ing in a gro­cery store full­time.

Young Harry would of­ten take refuge in the li­brary read­ing ev­ery­thing from Dick­ens to Shake­speare.

But there was no es­cap­ing the sense of fore­bod­ing Smith felt when, on the cin­ema news­reels, he’d watch the histri­on­ics of Hitler and other omi­nous im­ages un­fold­ing through Europe.

War erupted in 1939 and when Smith turned18 in1941, he joined the RAF. In his lat­est book he writes that he did it in the hopes a new eco­nomic or­der would arise from the ashes. Along with his clothes, he de­parted with a book of Wordsworth’s

PAUL HUNTER/TORONTO STAR

COURTESY OF MAX SMITH

Smith at age 18, just af­ter his ba­sic train­ing with the Royal Air Force.

PAUL HUNTER/TORONTO STAR

Au­thor and ac­tivist Harry Les­lie Smith in his Belleville apart­ment. He sur­vived a de­pres­sion, world war and Cold War and be­lieves we can learn from his ex­pe­ri­ence in life.

COURTESY SMITH FAM­ILY

Harry Les­lie Smith vis­its a refugee camp in Calais, France, to bet­ter un­der­stand the mi­grant cri­sis. He will write his next book on refugees.

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