Books

Harry Leslie Smith
Harry’s Last Stand

Harry Leslie Smith is pissed off. He’s a 91-year-old survivor of the Great Depression and a World War II veteran, and he’s furious at the dismantling of the welfare state in Britain. In Harry’s Last Stand, he’s getting it all off his chest.

Some of his complaints are specific to Britain, but most, like the stripping of public healthcare, the lack of affordable housing and the rising cost of education, are just as applicable here, in this country that now divides people into “lifters and leaners”. What did his generation fight for, he asks, now that “technocrats and human resource experts ... have betrayed our dream of equitable society with medical care, housing and education for all”? Has the entire 20th century taught us nothing?

Smith is an occasional contributor to The Guardian and now Facebook sensation, and he’s in no doubt as to the cause of our recent troubles. “It is ... our rulers that have done this. To blame anyone else but the government, its advisers, the banks, the hedge fund managers and the corporate elite for our financial crisis is like blaming the stokers on the Titanic for hitting the iceberg,” he says. “Governments and right-wing media ... have sold fear to the people like the markets sell fish on Friday.”

This is not Piketty’s Capital, despite some similar conclusions. Harry’s Last Stand is a moving part-memoir where Smith recounts the grinding poverty of his childhood in a mining slum in Barnsley. His sister, Marion, died from tuberculosis in 1926, aged 10. “In those days, there was no national health ... One either had the dosh to pay for your medicine or you did without.” Marion did without and died in pain, in a workhouse infirmary. She was buried in a pauper’s grave. Smith never expected to fear for the health of a new generation of children, yet by the year 2020, he says, UNICEF expects one in four British children will live in poverty.

Smith is a fine writer and a logical thinker, even though Harry’s Last Stand makes its points early and often and is a bit of a rant at times. As a member of a generation that made great personal sacrifices for the good of everyone, he’s earned that right. He’s also one of our few remaining links to a time when power was wielded to benefit people, not corporations. We would do well to listen.  LS

Icon, 224pp, $24.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 2, 2014 as "Harry Leslie Smith, Harry’s Last Stand". Subscribe here.

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