Note: This interview was in October 2017. Harry Leslie Smith passed away on November 28, 2018.
London, England – When Harry Leslie Smith was a boy, his father hoped that by dragging his hungry son along as he begged for a shift at the Weetabix cereal factory in the northern city of Bradford, sympathy would secure him a day’s wage.
Smith, now 94 years old, says his father would cry out to the factory manager: “Look at my boy. He’s starving!”
But millions of men in Britain were out of work in the Great Depression era, and sympathy in the slums of Yorkshire was hard to come by.
With his father languishing in unemployment, Smith snuck out to the factory alone, “because a boy alone is easier to take pity on”.
Some workers allowed the child to ride rounds with them and gave him boxes of broken cereal to take home.
The Smith family was so poor that dinner would be Weetabix not with milk, but water.
For years, even when they were finally able to afford more food, Weetabix would never reappear on the table – the sight of it was too painful.
Having grown up in poverty, Smith later served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War.
He has seen the best and worst of humanity, and now his optimism is sinking.
will be the beginning of a revolution that will spread throughout the world and maybe end civilisation. I am dreadfully scared, believe me”]
From the unpredictability of hawkish US President Donald Trump and the refugee crisis, to neoliberalism and the British government’s squeeze on the National Health Service (NHS), there is much about the current state of the world that angers Smith.
“The US is in turmoil – they don’t know which way they are going and unless Trump is eradicated and pushed out, he will be another Hitler,” he tells Al Jazeera, speaking before a book reading in London’s Wood Green district. “That’s all it amounts to. He will be the beginning of a revolution that will spread throughout the world and maybe end civilisation. I am dreadfully scared, believe me.”
He is here on a crisp autumn evening to promote his fifth book. Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future is a reflection on poverty and a wake-up call for younger generations to think beyond personal desires and work towards a more equal society.
His slight figure is wrapped in a suit and a black leather jacket. The memories of the cold sink deep into his bones – his family couldn’t afford enough coal to heat the house. He asks for his gloves to keep warm during the interview.
One by one, young and old ticket holders find their seats in the Big Green Bookshop to listen to Smith. Many came to know about the event on social media.
For the past seven years, he has shared his thoughts, frustrations and warnings on Twitter, gaining almost 140,000 followers. He also recently launched a podcast.
Standing outside my hotel young woman maybe 30 with kit bag slung on her shoulder. Stops me apologises and says"I don't know how it happened but I am homeless can you spare a couple of pounds so I can sleep in a hostel." Thanks to Theresa May it's 1932 all over again.
— John Smith (son of Harry Leslie Smith) (@Harryslaststand) November 9, 2017
A lifelong socialist, he brought the 2014 Labour Party conference to tears with a blistering speech about an England before the NHS, describing “when common diseases trolled our neighbourhoods and snuffed out life like a cold breath on a warm candle flame”.
His latest book carries an endorsement by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn: “Smith is a vital and powerful voice speaking across generations about the struggle for a just society.”
‘Today immigrant is a dirty word, it’s ridiculous’
Born in 1923, Smith’s greatest concern now is for the millions who have been forced from their homes through war, persecution or poverty, often all three.
As a young soldier, he witnessed the floods of refugees across Europe abandoning their homes in the hope of finding safety.
“Roads were loaded with men, and women and children mostly, who were giving up their homes rather than face a Hitler barrage,” he says. “These were people who had been taken as slave labour in German prisoner-of-war camps and people who were scared for their lives.”
When many arrived in Britain, he says, they were welcomed in a manner that would be unrecognisable today.
“It was such a different world then. Britain was a different country. It was a country with a heart. We have lost some of our early love for each other. We arranged for these migrants to have their children in decent accommodation, we arranged camps where they could have food, we arranged certain areas of Britain where they could be landed as immigrants.
“And today, ‘immigrant’ is a dirty word, it’s ridiculous. There were 300,000 Polish soldiers who fought for the Second World War. And they were taken in by Scotland,” he says, pausing to take stock of his own words.
“Three-hundred thousand people taken in by Scotland to be accommodated and fed and everything else.”
We have to learn to live with each other. There is not that much difference between us. We all have to eat to live. We all have to work and have a job
According to a report by Oxfam in December, fewer than three percent of five million Syrian refugees have been resettled in rich countries. The United Kingdom, the report said, fell far short of taking in 25,000 Syrians – its fair share of refugees from the war-torn country, and accepted just 4,400 people.
Smith remembers a woman who protested the arrivals of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany to her small British town.
“She was told ‘you can like it or lump it, but this is how life is today. And you have to get used to it.’ You know? So that was the end of that.
“Maybe [the difference now] boils down to the governments that have taken over our countries in the last 40 years.”
And so, given the apparent lack of compassion by Western governments, Smith is taking it upon himself to rally empathy for the refugees of today.
Last year, he visited the so-called Jungle camp in the French port city of Calais. Now, he is raising funds to travel to refugee hotspots in Europe and document what he says is a preventable tragedy that could lead to a conflict “as gruesome” as the Second World War.
By the time of publishing, Smith had secured more than $37,000 of a $60,000 goal on GoFundMe for the tour.
“I’ve always been passionate about [the refugee crisis] … The whole world has to come together and say ‘we are all human beings, we all have to live, and we are all looking for the same things’ – peace and good lives for ourselves and our children.
“We have to learn to live with each other. There is not that much difference between us. We all have to eat to live. We all have to work and have a job.”
The mention of employment leads Smith back to the days of the Great Depression, signs of which have returned worldwide with zero-hour contracts and rising joblessness.
“The fact that too many young people can’t find work [is] a disaster, because when young people can’t find work they turn to mischief. And quite often that mischief is dangerous and deadly.
“It needn’t happen. You don’t want it to happen to your children and I certainly don’t want my grandchildren to go through it.”
It is again a stern warning from Smith, for whom giving up is never an option despite his own personal suffering.
He lost his sister to tuberculosis when she was 10 years old because the family couldn’t afford a doctor; his wife, a German who he dearly loved, to cancer, and his 70-year-old son, Peter, to mental illness.
“I had a good life,” he says, explaining that he does not fear death.
With tearful eyes, he adds: “My middle son died in 2009 from mental illness … He said to his friend, ‘I know I won’t have a long life. But thanks to my parents I had a ball for the time I lived’.
“As for myself, I know that once this beautiful life that we don’t appreciate ends, it is curtains. There is nothing else.”
Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla