Jayne Dowle: Farewell Harry Smith, the voice of many a lost generation

FOR a place so often derided and misunderstood, my home town of Barnsley has produced some remarkable individuals.

Social justice campaigner Harry Smith died last week aged 95.

Off the top of my head, I’ll single out the best TV interviewer ever, Sir Michael Parkinson, the broadcaster Jenni Murray who says important things that people don’t always want to hear and Oliver Yonchev, one of my former students who, at the age of 29, is off to New York to become US managing director of Social Chain, a world-leading marketing agency.

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Some quirk of the gene pool perhaps, but for a smallish town in South Yorkshire we do seem to have more than our fair share of gifted communicators and storytellers. We must add this newspaper’s columnist and poet Ian McMillan to the list too.

However, I don’t think that any of the above can tell a tale as remarkable as that of writer Harry Leslie Smith who has died at the age of 95.

If you haven’t heard of him, you should get hold of his books which include Harry’s Last Stand, Love Among the Ruins and Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future. In them you will learn about the early years which shaped his trenchant views on austerity.

Born into poverty in Barnsley in the 1920s, he spent his days playing in the same grimy streets which George Orwell was to investigate in his own 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier. When Smith lost a sister, Marion, to tuberculosis in the workhouse, his family were so poor they couldn’t afford a funeral.

His father, a miner, was injured in the pit and the family moved to Bradford and then Halifax in search of work. I won’t spoil it for you by revealing too many details of Harry’s remarkable personal narrative, but I will say that his life represented the story, not just of a deprived lad from Barnsley, but of millions devastated by the Great Depression years in the north of England.

And this gave this RAF veteran and Canadian émigré, who moved across the Atlantic after the Second World War with his German-born wife, Friede, a unique perspective on the way we live almost a century later.

When she died, he began writing as a way to deal with the pain of loss. Smith’s pieces on social injustice started to be published in various newspapers.

He wrote about children forced to live in squalor in towns and cities which had supposedly benefitted from “regeneration”. He spoke of the return of diseases such as rickets. People began to listen.

Then his moment dawned. This remarkable elderly gentleman in his customary flat cap became an unlikely poster boy for a generation failing to find an authentic voice in the clamour of global, national and local politics.

At the Labour conference in 2014, Smith took the platform to rail against cuts to the NHS and the plight of junior doctors. He also took to social media; his Twitter presence was legendary and a video he made on the refugee crisis was shared more than one million times on Facebook. In his later years, a relative term, his focus turned outwards to those suffering in other countries too.

As a young man, he had witnessed his own country in crisis with access to free healthcare extremely limited, no support for the poor except the workhouse, and a huge economic gulf between the North and South. Now he wandered through the streets of his youth and wondered whether anything had really changed.

At the age of 90-odd and with the perspective of one who had spent much of his adult life abroad, he brought a fresh perspective to the problems of the country of his birth. How many other writers could do this?

Speaking after the news of his death, Jeremy Corbyn said Smith was “one of the giants whose shoulders we stand on”. Yet his polemic cut across established political lines and went straight to the heart of the matter. His stance was identity politics in its rawest, most unspun form. In the roll-out of Universal Credit, for example, he saw direct parallels with the means-testing of what was known as “National Assistance” in his youth.

Smith sent a message to politicians, but he also gave us all a personal wake-up call. Defying the stereotype of what might be suitable occupation for a retired businessman – he had made his living as a rug importer – he criss-crossed the Atlantic, splitting his time between his family in Canada and prowling the alleyways in search of information.

This old chap did not go gently into that good night, but railed against the failure of the welfare state and the disregard with which ordinary people are treated by those who are supposed to represent their interests.

The title of his final book, Don’t Let My Past Become Your Future, was meant to be a warning. It now serves as a fitting title for his obituary. It should also be an incentive to each and every one of us to speak out.