Harry Leslie Smith, writer and activist

Harry Leslie Smith
Harry Leslie Smith
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Harry Leslie Smith, who has died at 95, was a social justice activist and RAF veteran whom the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hailed as “one of the giants whose shoulders we stand on”.

Born in Barnsley in the 1920s, the son of a miner, he survived the Great Depression and – unlike his older sister Marion, who succumbed to tuberculosis and was buried in a pauper’s grave – the grinding poverty of the time.

At seven, he went to work as a barrow boy for a brewery in Bradford, to help support his family.

It was in his last years that he rose to prominence. In 2013, he wrote an article declaring that even as an ex-serviceman, he would no longer wear a poppy. The solemnity of remembrance, he said, had been twisted into a justification for conflict.

He threw himself, in what he called the “eventide” of his life, into championing human rights and the welfare state, and appeared at the Labour Conference to speak about life in Britain before the NHS.

He spoke of the “barbarous” and “bleak” time of growing up in 1920s Barnsley, before warning that “we must never ever let the NHS free from our grasp because if we do your future will be my past”.

The same year, 2014, he wrote that old age was a “lonely race towards death” but that he hoped to have “time for a few more laps around the track”.

His world view had been shaped by his experiences during the war.

He had left his job with a grocer and gone into the RAF, and spent time in Germany, towards the end of the conflict.

There, he remembered seeing thousands of “absolutely pitiful, hungry, starving” men, women and children.

“The way the Germans had tried to starve the Dutch people was absolutely horrific, so when I finally got to Germany I felt nothing but hatred for the Germans quite frankly,” he said. “I thought, how could any nation treat people the way they did?

“It was only when I’d been in Germany that I realised they were suffering too.”

Not even the slums of Bradford and Barnsley, he said, had prepared him for the horror of post-war Hamburg.

“It was absolute devastation, I’d never seen anything like it. There was 20 miles of the city just completely eliminated and a lot of the working class areas were worst hit.

“People were starving and there were rows of refugees in the streets, all heading west to escape from the Soviet Army. People were reduced to living like animals, it was almost like an atomic bomb had been dropped on them.”

It was also in Germany that he met his future wife, Friede. They emigrated from Yorkshire to Canada, where he worked in the oriental carpet trade.

Their love affair lasted for more than 50 years, but her death in 1999 saw him console himself with writing. The global financial crisis of 2008 convinced him to take a “last stand” against what he saw as the excesses of capitalism and erosion of public services.

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

Last year, he wrote that 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”.

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 nonexistence.”