By Kelly Grehan
In 2013 Harry Leslie Smith was an unassuming 91 year old Yorkshireman when he wrote an article for the Guardian called ‘This Year I Shall Wear A Poppy For The Last Time.’ This was shared 60,000 times. He was then asked to speak at the Labour Party Conference and wrote two books: ‘Harry’s Last Stand’ and ‘Love Among The Ruins’. He now has a massive twitter following and runs a weekly podcast and speaks at events all over the country.
Now age 95 Harry has published his third book, described as a ‘call to arms’ called ‘Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future.’
The book starts with Harry reflecting upon his feelings of disappointment and fear of what lay ahead on the night of the Conservative election victory in 2015. It then compares Harry’s miserable experiences growing up in absolute poverty with those in similar positions today.
Throughout, Harry uses facts and statistics to make his point, for example when discussing his brutal experiences of a childhood spent in transit from one set of poor accommodation to another even poorer one he points out that the use of private rental accommodation has risen by 50% since 2002 and that this, along with rent rises has doomed many children to repeating his own fate. He expresses his pain at the fate of old age being to see ‘society gravitate back to the past.’
Harry shows great shrewdness in recognising the causes that allowed fascism to spread during his youth and how some many of the same courses have led to a climate where Brexit and Donald Trump have gained power and that these, in turn are a threat to our core belief systems, with ‘compassion and decency’ now at risk.
He (controversially) makes the point that ‘perhaps it is the young today that have wisdom because they are learning to live with the selfishness of the baby boomer generation that helped create neo-liberalism and made it fashionable to disparage the welfare state while enjoying all its benefits.’
Speaking of the aims of society, Harry says ‘Our thirst to do good things like find a cure for cancer and our hunger to do harm to others like selling weapons to Saudi Arabia astonish me.’
Despite his age, or maybe because of it, Harry has lost none of his enthusiasm in the belief in a better world or the belief that people, especially young people deserve better. He speaks of the injustice that a child’s economic place at birth determines so much of what they are or are not entitled to.
One of the most poignant parts of the book for me are Harry’s recollections of the humiliation which comes with poverty – both for adults and children. The stigma of poverty leads to negative self image and self blame. Reading this I could not help but picture those families reliant on food banks and the message we, as a society are sending those reliant on charity for food, about their worth,
With so few of those from the Second World War now left to share their experiences of life prior to the Welfare State and the NHS, it can sometimes feel like ancient history and that we are safe from the issues that pained that period. But of course, by comparing modern issues- poverty, poor housing, a rise in fascism, no refuge from domestic abuse, unaffordable health care – Harry shows that they battles won in 1945 need fighting once again.
Seeing Harry’s strength in fighting against the ills of the government at his advanced years is truly inspirational. I hope reading this book encourages more people to leave their complacency behind and fight for a better, more just society as Harry and his comrades did in 1945.
The great thing about Harry’s writing is it speaks across generations. I’ll be buying copies for my Grandad and my friend’s 16 year old for Christmas.
Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future by Harry Leslie Smith is available to buy now.