Standing up for the future

Harry Smith  has written a book about his lifeHarry Smith  has written a book about his life
Harry Smith has written a book about his life
Harry Smith is a 91-year-old Second World War veteran who has written a new book explaining why he fears the world his generation fought for is disappearing. He talked to Chris Bond.

HARRY Smith gazes out the lounge window of the smart Bradford hotel and sips his latte.

His accent might have a gentle North American lilt, but his roots are firmly wedded to Yorkshire, the county he was born in 91 years ago. He’s back in the city where he lived for four years as a child and tells me he’s just visited the street that he and his family once called home, which is now the site of a mosque.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It’s the kind of change that many people fear, but not Harry Smith.

Although he’s been living in Canada for almost 60 years he visits England each year and is back this month to talk about his new book – Harry’s Last Stand. It’s not a call to arms but rather an impassioned plea to the next generation to help ensure the pillars of society for which his generation fought, and died, aren’t dismantled.

“I was disturbed by the way we’re going and it’s been frightening me for some time,” says the softly-spoken pensioner. But rather than just complain about NHS cutbacks, food poverty, benefits policy and political apathy, he decided to put his thoughts into print.

“It isn’t a memoir or a self-help book, it’s my rallying call to a younger generation to tell them that our society must include a social safety network that allows every citizen the right to decent housing, advanced education and proper healthcare. People need a living wage and a dignified old age.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The RAF veteran caused a bit of a stir last year when he wrote a newspaper article in which he said he was wearing his poppy for the last time. “I was fed up with people always using it as an example to have more conflicts rather than less, and it seemed to me that a lot of the people who went to the Cenotaph, the politicians, didn’t seem to believe what they were saying,” he says.

It sparked a national debate and he hopes his new book will have a similar effect. It harks back to the postwar era but this isn’t just one man’s reactionary rail against a modern world he no longer understands. Harry may be in his 90s but he has embraced social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook in order to stay in touch with what’s happening in the world.

“I didn’t become computer knowledgeable until about five years ago. I decided if I was going to do anything then I needed to master it, but I’m no genius on the computer and I’m sure some young kids would look at me and think ‘what the hell are you doing?’ But I think it’s important. I know there’s a lot of nonsense but you get to read about different views and opinions.”

Behind the polite, softly-spoken veneer is a man who refuses to be bowed by old age. “I never accepted the fact that I was getting old. When I was 80 and still living in my own house I ordered 15 tons of gravel and I spread it myself with a wheelbarrow and a shovel,” he says, laughing.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“My son came to help me and he pushed one wheelbarrow load and that was it, he couldn’t do any more – but I could. You just have to beat the odds.”

However, if his later life has been 
a success, his childhood was a harrowing one.

Harold Leslie Smith 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 couldn’t afford a proper one.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The following year his father, who worked in the South Yorkshire pits, lost his job after being crippled following an injury. His parents split up and his mother wound up in an abusive relationship and even now, after all these years, the tears well up as he recalls the misery she endured.

“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 as soon as he reached his 18th birthday he applied to join the RAF. “I’d had no education to speak of but I took some tests. One of them involved putting together some oddly shaped blocks. It was a real conundrum but somehow or other I managed to do it.”

He also passed the Morse Code tests and in 1941 joined the 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.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He was sent first to Belgium and Holland and then to Hamburg which by 1945 was just the skeletal remains of a city. “It was absolute devastation, I’d never seen anything like it. There was 20 miles of the city just completely eliminated.”

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 Harry enrolled in night school and college courses to educate himself and went on to become a successful businessman. A father and grandfather, he also wrote books about life in Britain during the 20th Century.

Back in 1945 when he voted for the first time there was a sense of optimism after nearly six, long years of war. But while he’s proud of the achievements of Clement Attlee’s government, he has less time for today’s politicians. “I have no faith in any of them. They’re not for the people, by the people,” he says.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Nevertheless, having lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War he’s seen how ordinary people can rebuild a shattered nation and his message to today’s youth is that they can make a difference. “It is absolutely necessary that we all get out to vote at elections, even if it is only to spoil the ballot paper,” he says.

He remains a passionate advocate of democracy and plans to return to the UK next year to vote and hopes to move back here permanently.

“There has to be a complete sea-change in society’s attitudes, wages have to be increased so that people feel more secure,” he says.

“We had this challenge after the Second World War and we faced up to it and for 30 or 40 years life got better for most people. There is hope that things will get better again but it doesn’t just happen, it needs people to make them happen.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Even at his ripe old age he still talks about the future and the importance of learning from the past. “It’s been a long journey. I’ve been lucky because for someone who didn’t have much of an education I’ve had a good life. As I like to say – I am not a historian but, at 91, I am history.”

• Harry’s Last Stand, published by Icon Books, is out now priced £12.99.