Into battle over apathy

Harry Smith, a  91 yr-old Yorkshireman and RAF veteran who has written a book about his life.  Picture: Steve Riding
Harry Smith, a 91 yr-old Yorkshireman and RAF veteran who has written a book about his life. Picture: Steve Riding
  • Harry Smith is a 92-year-old Second World War veteran who is back in Yorkshire this week encouraging young people to get involved in politics. Chris Bond talked to him.
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YOU have to be a bit of a political junkie to get excited about party conferences.

Occasionally they have their moments, like Margaret Thatcher’s “the lady’s not for turning speech”, or the time when 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang was thrown out of Labour’s 2005 conference for heckling.

But let’s face it, for the average person on the street they are about as interesting as watching corn grow. Sometimes, though, amid the rhetoric, soundbites and regimented applause, you hear something worth listening to.

When Harry Smith took to the podium at last year’s Labour Party Conference in Manchester, a lot of those present didn’t know who he was, but by the time he finished speaking many in the audience, including Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham, had been reduced to tears.

In his speech the Barnsley-born pensioner spoke about his poverty-stricken past and warned this could be the future for others if the NHS didn’t survive. His appearance went down a storm making it on to the national TV news and attracting over 45,000 hits on YouTube.

“People started applauding while I was still talking and I kept thinking ‘no, no, I haven’t finished yet.’ I didn’t know what was happening but at the end Andy Burnham put his arms around me and said, ‘you b*****, you’ve made it difficult for me to follow you,’” he says.

“I had never worked from one of those screens before but when I was up there on the podium it felt quite natural, I wasn’t nervous. Now I know how all those big shots do those long speeches.”

The RAF veteran caused a bit of a stir a couple of years ago when he wrote a newspaper article in which he said he was wearing his poppy for the last time. He felt it had become a symbol of war, rather than peace and remembrance, and it sparked a debate about the whole issue.

I first interviewed him last summer, a couple of months before he gave his emotive conference speech, when he was in Yorkshire to talk about his latest book – Harry’s Last Stand – in which he makes an impassioned plea to young people to help ensure that the basic human rights for which his generation fought, and died, are not eroded.

Now he is back travelling around the UK encouraging them to get involved in political debate. He returned to his old Bradford stomping ground on Saturday and this week he is also due to speak at events in Halifax and Huddersfield.

It is not bad going for anyone never mind a 92 year-old. But Harry Smith isn’t your average nonagenarian. He has made it his mission to try and encourage the younger generation to vote and engage in politics, something the main party leaders have conspicuously failed to achieve.

“My whole aim from now on is to talk to as many young people as possible. They have become disillusioned so I have to put fire in their bellies and get them out there to vote.”

He understands the apathy that many young people living in Britain feel. “There’s been so much austerity that they start to think ‘what’s the point, nothing will change.’ But that’s not true, you have to make things change yourself.”

Harry uses his own story to illustrate the point. He was born in Barnsley in 1923, into a world of grinding poverty where he and other boys would rifle through skips looking for morsels of food. One of three children, his eldest sister died of tuberculosis in 1926 and had to be buried in a mass grave because the family could not afford a proper one.

His father, who worked in the South Yorkshire pits, then lost his job after being crippled following an injury. His parents split up and his mother wound up in an abusive relationship.

“It was a sad time,” he says. “I worked as a barrow boy when I was seven. There was no money, there was no work and there was no food.”

After leaving Barnsley, his family spent time in Bradford and Sowerby Bridge and the suffering he witnessed left a lasting impact on him.

The war offered something of a salvation and in 1941 he joined the Royal Air Force as a wireless operator. However, owing to the inanities of the training system it wasn’t until the final months of the conflict that he saw much action.

He was sent first to Belgium and Holland and then to Hamburg, which by 1945 was in ruins. It was while in Germany that he met his future wife, Friede.

They married in 1947 and she moved to the UK the following year, by which time Harry had left the Air Force. They settled in West Yorkshire where Harry worked as a weaver before moving to Canada in 1953.

Throughout his adult life he enrolled in night school and college courses to educate himself and went on to become a successful businessman.

Later on he started writing books about life in Britain during the 20th century and now spends as much time as he can meeting young people and talking to them – people like Joey Essex, star of TV reality show The Only Way Is Essex. They are due to meet in the next couple of weeks.

Unlike many people of his generation Harry has embraced the internet and social networking sites (he has more than 31,000 followers on Twitter).

“Social media, especially Twitter, has been a fantastic opportunity for me to engage with people who have diverse opinions and backgrounds and I really enjoy it,” he says. “I was trained to use Morse code and I had to learn about translators and generators so it’s nothing new to me. I’ve always been interested in the mechanics of things.”

Because he uses social media and is interested in the views of young people they, in turn, want to hear what he has got to say. “Wherever I have gone I seem to make an impression, which really gives me great hope.”

However, he is unimpressed by Russell Brand, who has urged people not to vote at all on May 7. “I don’t know what is to be gained by telling the public not to vote. It’s our right and we should take advantage of it, not deny it.

“I think he [Brand] is doing good work with his comedy routines; young people lean towards him because he makes them laugh at a time when there’s not much humour around. But the idea of a revolution is nonsense.”

Not that Harry isn’t radical himself in his own way. “As long as there is breath in my body I will keep for the rights of ordinary people,” he says.

“Humanity cannot evolve based around the profit and loss of the most affluent citizens. We have to make sure ordinary people have a voice because investment brokers, hedge fund managers and bankers aren’t the answer to the problems of the Western world.”

His message to the nation’s youth, whatever their political persuasion, is just as unequivocal.

“Go out and register to vote. If you don’t like any of the candidates they put forward then spoil your ballot paper. But send a message of intent that you won’t just sit back and do nothing.”