‘World’s old­est rebel’ cham­pi­oned the NHS

Western Daily Press (Saturday) - - Obituaries -

HARRY Leslie Smith wrote in 2014 that old age was a “lonely race to­wards death” but that he hoped to have “time for a few more laps around the track”.

And in the four years be­tween those words and the death of “the world’s old­est rebel”, he vis­ited the Jun­gle camp in Calais as part of a tour of refugee hotspots around the world, and fer­vently cam­paigned for mi­grant rights and the wel­fare state in per­son and on­line.

Mr Smith, a sur­vivor of the Great De­pres­sion and Sec­ond World War, rose to promi­nence in 2013 af­ter pen­ning an ar­ti­cle for the Guardian declar­ing that he would no longer wear a poppy, say­ing “the solem­nity of re­mem­brance” has been twisted into a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for con­flict.

From there, he spent the “even­tide” of his life cham­pi­oning hu­man rights and the wel­fare state, ap­pear­ing at the Labour Party Con­fer­ence in 2014 to speak about life in Bri­tain be­fore the NHS. The coal miner’s son spoke of the “bar­barous” and “bleak” time of grow­ing up in 1920s Barns­ley, say­ing “it was an un­civilised time be­cause pub­lic health­care didn’t ex­ist”, be­fore warn­ing that “we must never ever let the NHS free from our grasp be­cause if we do your fu­ture will be my past”.

York­shire-born Smith suf­fered the loss of his sis­ter Marion at the age of three from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and would go on to sup­port his fam­ily aged seven when he took up work as a bar­row boy in Brad­ford.

Fol­low­ing a spo­radic ed­u­ca­tion, he worked for a gro­cer un­til the out­break of the war, when he signed up to the Royal Air Force in 1941 and spent time in Ger­many, where he met his fu­ture wife, Friede, with the cou­ple later em­i­grat­ing to Canada, where he worked in the ori­en­tal car­pet trade.

Past ex­pe­ri­ences shaped Mr Smith’s world view, with rec­ol­lec­tions of see­ing thou­sands of “ab­so­lutely piti­ful, hun­gry, starv­ing” men, women and chil­dren fol­low­ing the ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties in the Sec­ond World War lead­ing to a sym­pa­thetic view of refugees.

It was the death of his wife in 1999 which led Mr Smith to con­sole him­self with writ­ing, and the fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008 prompted him to take a “last stand” against what he saw as ex­cesses of cap­i­tal­ism and ero­sion of pub­lic ser­vices.

He be­came a sought-af­ter com­men­ta­tor, writ­ing for na­tional news­pa­pers from his left-wing per­spec­tive and his book, Harry’s Last Stand, was re­leased to crit­i­cal ac­claim in 2014.

His later years saw him move to more mod­ern meth­ods of con­vey­ing his mes­sage, as he be­came an avid user of Twit­ter and would reg­u­larly share his views on so­cial jus­tice to more than 200,000 fol­low­ers.

Writ­ing in 2014, he said: “It shouldn’t be con­sid­ered odd that some­one from my era is us­ing Twit­ter, be­cause it was my gen­er­a­tion that in­vented radar and rocket sci­ence.”

Mr Smith wrote in a Guardian col­umn in 2017 of feel­ing as if he had been liv­ing on “bor­rowed time” since birth, but said there was “wis­dom and beauty that could be mined from the me­mories of those in the sun­set of life”.

Writ­ing that old age should not be “de­rided, dis­re­spected or feared”, he said: “I sur­vived both the De­pres­sion and the Sec­ond World War. Even in ad­vanced old age, be­cause I walked free of those two events, I feel like a man who beat all the odds in a high-stakes casino. It’s why I’ve em­braced each sea­son of my life with both joy and won­der­ment be­cause I know our time on Earth is a brief in­ter­lude be­tween non-ex­is­tence.”

Harry Leslie Smith leaves the stage at the LabourParty con­fer­ence to a stand­ing ova­tion in 2014

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