Bonnie Greer’s touching tribute to the Second World War pilot who became an iconic social justice campaigner.
‘Wednesday’s child is full of woe,’ the nursery rhyme goes, and Harry Leslie Smith was born on a Wednesday. What could be called his ‘first life’ began in Barnsley. He was born to a coal miner father who had no work and a mother who did the very best that she could.
The year after Harry was born, the king appointed Ramsay MacDonald prime minister, the first Labour MP to hold that position. This government lasted a year. Two years after that, the general strike happened. There was a Conservative government in place to whom the king had to ask for leniency towards the strikers. He had built up too much emotional capital with the population to allow mere politicians to destroy it.
On the very day in 1923 that Harry was born, bread in Berlin rose to 2,000 marks, making it impossible for most people to eat. That November, a rabble-rouser by the name of Adolf Hitler helped lead 2,000 of his fellow Nazis in to the centre of Munich in an attempt to seize the government.
The infancy of Harry Leslie Smith, then, was one of extreme poverty and one that was full of world events. Both scarred his life and gave it its final mission. The world he was born into was also one in which the attempt to find a solution to war was paramount. This attempt was given the hopeful name of the League Of Nations. It was a failure at its very inception because the most powerful nation on earth, in an earlier version of ‘America First’, had refused to join it. What we have now is in many ways what there was then.
But if there were ever signs at the birth of a child, even the son of an unemployed coal miner, there were signs for Harry. His sister died of tuberculosis. She had to be allowed to die and then buried in those graves for people too poor to die properly. So she was not buried alone, but with others and Harry never forgot.
Harry worked as a barrow boy to help feed his family because his father had been severely injured in a mining accident. In 1941, Harry joined the Royal Air Force and became a wireless operator. His jaunty photo, taken in uniform, is full of the spirit of those who went into Belgium and France and, finally, Germany.
In Hamburg he recalled smelling death itself and never forgetting it. He met his German wife while she was bartering for food with allied soldiers and, because he was not allowed to associate with her, he walked a few steps behind her. Perhaps to let the other soldiers know that she was his.
He greeted the Attlee election victory like almost every other person who had been in the war because, after all, it was they who helped secure the Labour landslide. He returned to Yorkshire in 1948 but emigrated to Canada with his wife because life was better there.
After his wife died in 1999, he backpacked around Europe with one of his sons, travelling to the places he had been in the war. He began to write and self-publish his first four books, memoirs. One was republished as Love Among The Ruins in 2015.
There it might all have ended. He was 92. But he decided to create something that had never existed before: ‘Harry’s Last Stand’, the name of his Twitter profile and bestselling book.
His second life had begun.
In 2014, he was invited to the Labour Party conference to make an address before the then shadow health secretary Andy Burnham. It is possible to watch the speech online, to see a rather small old man in clear tones and strong voice relate the story of the death of his sister and of his own life. The coalition government had instituted a programme that they called ‘austerity’ whose real-life implementation fitted better the French term for it: le rigueur.
Harry had seen the effects of poverty before, he had lived it and was back to warn the Labour conference, and the UK, that he would not see their future echo his past. He took to Twitter with a vengeance, which is where I met him and knew him, in that curious world, where humans connect without ever meeting face-to-face.
During his last illness, he urged his beloved son, John – who was by his side at the end – to keep tweeting, keep communicating.
So much for the notion that old people do not understand the power of this new online world. Harry broke a lot of norms. That was what he did.
He travelled to the refugee camp outside Calais known as ‘the jungle’ and reported back what he had seen. This old man in his jaunty hat and glasses, walking amidst that narrative even older than he was: the one of migration, of the flight from war and disease and poverty towards something better.
There was still a great deal of fight left in him even at the end when he said that he would like a proper cuppa at the Canadian hospital that worked to save his life. Because he needed to tell us, because he was a writer and witness and in some ways our father and our grandfather, he kept the play-by-play going of his last days.
His tweets were the ultimate ones: the memento mori of the superb finale that was his nineties – a life long and well-lived.
When he died after 3am on November 28, the third life of Harry Leslie Smith began. It is us. So those who must cry must. Those who must mourn must.
What ‘Harry’s Last Stand’ is about is not only defending the NHS – the cause that brought him into public life and which will be threatened by Brexit – but also sheer hard work. Because Harry worked. He never stopped.
W.H. Auden wrote: ‘Geniuses are the luckiest of mortals because what they must do is the same as what they most want to do.’
Harry Leslie Smith was a genius.
Rest in power.