A tribute to the late Harry Les­lie Smith – ac­tivist, writer and man they called world’s old­est rebel

The New European - - Agenda - BY BON­NIE GREER

Wed­nes­day’s child is full of woe,” the nurs­ery rhyme goes, and

Harry Les­lie Smith was born on a Wed­nes­day. What could be called his ‘first life’ be­gan in Barns­ley. He was born to a coal miner fa­ther who had no work and a mother who did the very best that she could.

The year after Harry was born, the king ap­pointed Ram­say Mac­don­ald prime min­is­ter, the first Labour MP to hold that po­si­tion. This gov­ern­ment lasted a year. Two years after that, the gen­eral strike hap­pened. There was a Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment in place to whom the king had to ask for le­niency to­wards the strik­ers. He had built up too much emo­tional cap­i­tal with the pop­u­la­tion to al­low mere politi­cians to de­stroy it.

On the very day in 1923 that Harry was born, bread in Berlin rose to 2,000 marks, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble for most peo­ple to eat. That Novem­ber, a rab­ble-rouser by the name of Adolf Hitler helped lead 2,000 of his fel­low Nazis in to the cen­tre of Mu­nich in an at­tempt to seize the gov­ern­ment.

The in­fancy of Harry Les­lie Smith, then, was one of ex­treme poverty and one that was full of world events. Both scarred his life and gave it its fi­nal mis­sion. The world he was born into was also one in which the at­tempt to find a so­lu­tion to war was para­mount. This at­tempt was given the hope­ful name of the League Of Na­tions. It was a fail­ure at its very in­cep­tion be­cause the most pow­er­ful na­tion on earth, in an ear­lier ver­sion of ‘Amer­ica First’, had re­fused to join it. What we have now is in many ways what there was then.

But if there were ever signs at the birth of a child, even the son of an un­em­ployed coal miner, there were signs for Harry. His sis­ter died of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. She had to be al­lowed to die and then buried in those graves for peo­ple too poor to die prop­erly. So she was not buried alone, but with oth­ers and Harry never for­got.

Harry worked as a bar­row boy to help feed his fam­ily be­cause his fa­ther had been se­verely in­jured in a min­ing ac­ci­dent. In 1941, Harry joined the Royal Air Force and be­came a wire­less op­er­a­tor. His jaunty photo, taken in uni­form, is full of the spirit of those who went into Bel­gium and France and, fi­nally, Ger­many.

In Ham­burg he re­called smelling death it­self and never for­get­ting it. He met his Ger­man wife while she was bar­ter­ing for food with al­lied sol­diers and, be­cause he was not al­lowed to as­so­ciate with her, he walked a few steps be­hind her. Per­haps to let the other sol­diers know that she was his.

He greeted the At­tlee elec­tion vic­tory like al­most ev­ery other per­son who had been in the war be­cause, after all, it was they who helped se­cure the Labour land­slide. He re­turned to York­shire in 1948 but em­i­grated to Canada with his wife be­cause life was bet­ter there.

After his wife died in 1999, he back­packed around Europe with one of his sons, trav­el­ling to the places he had been in the war. He be­gan to write and self­pub­lish his first four books, mem­oirs. One was re­pub­lished as Love Among The Ru­ins in 2015.

There it might all have ended. He was

92. But he de­cided to cre­ate some­thing that had never ex­isted be­fore: ‘Harry’s Last Stand’, the name of his Twit­ter pro­file and best­selling book.

His sec­ond life had be­gun.

In 2014, he was in­vited to the Labour Party con­fer­ence to make an ad­dress be­fore the then shadow health sec­re­tary Andy Burn­ham. It is pos­si­ble to watch the speech on­line, to see a rather small old man in clear tones and strong voice re­late the story of the death of his sis­ter and of his own life. The coali­tion gov­ern­ment had in­sti­tuted a pro­gramme that they called ‘aus­ter­ity’ whose real-life im­ple­men­ta­tion fit­ted bet­ter the French term for it: le rigueur.

Harry had seen the ef­fects of poverty be­fore, he had lived it and was back to warn the Labour con­fer­ence, and the UK, that he would not see their fu­ture echo his past. He took to Twit­ter with a vengeance, which is where I met him and knew him, in that cu­ri­ous world, where hu­mans con­nect with­out ever meet­ing face-to-face.

Dur­ing his last ill­ness, he urged his beloved son, John – who was by his side at the end – to keep tweet­ing, keep com­mu­ni­cat­ing.

So much for the no­tion that old peo­ple do not un­der­stand the power of this new on­line world. Harry broke a lot of norms. That was what he did.

He trav­elled to the refugee camp out­side Calais known as ‘the jun­gle’ and re­ported back what he had seen. This old man in his jaunty hat and glasses, walk­ing amidst that nar­ra­tive even older than he was: the one of mi­gra­tion, of the flight from war and dis­ease and poverty to­wards some­thing bet­ter.

There was still a great deal of fight left in him even at the end when he said that he would like a proper cuppa at the Cana­dian hospi­tal that worked to save his life. Be­cause he needed to tell us, be­cause he was a writer and wit­ness and in some ways our fa­ther and our grand­fa­ther, he kept the play-by-play go­ing of his last days.

His tweets were the ul­ti­mate ones: the me­mento mori of the su­perb fi­nale that was his nineties – a life long and well-lived.

When he died after 3am on Novem­ber

28, the third life of Harry Les­lie Smith be­gan. It is us. So those who must cry must. Those who must mourn must.

What ‘Harry’s Last Stand’ is about is not only de­fend­ing the NHS – the cause that brought him into pub­lic life and which will be threat­ened by Brexit – but also sheer hard work. Be­cause Harry worked. He never stopped.

W.H. Au­den wrote: “Ge­niuses are the luck­i­est of mor­tals be­cause what they must do is the same as what they most want to do.”

Harry Les­lie Smith was a ge­nius.

Rest in power.

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