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
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
Smith at age 18, just after his basic training with the Royal Air Force.
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.
Harry Leslie Smith visits a refugee camp in Calais, France, to better understand the migrant crisis. He will write his next book on refugees.