Wednesday, November 28, 2018
Harry Leslie Smith 1923-2018
For about a week, along with hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, I have been keeping an online vigil for 95-year-old Harry Leslie Smith.
Harry had been battling pneumonia in a hospital in Belleville, Ontario.
He fought bravely, but early this morning that battle finally ended.
But what a life it was.
Elizabeth Renzetti wrote this tribute to him a few days before he died.
He spoke about the unimaginable poverty of his childhood in northern England as if he’d just woken up that morning in the grotty miner’s hovel in Barnsley. He spoke about the beer cart he pulled as a child to make money, the hunger pangs that were never far away and the death of his sister Marion from tuberculosis at the age of 10.
Marion died in a workhouse, where the poor were relegated at the ends of their lives. Her body was cast into an unmarked pauper’s grave, as Harry’s father’s would later be as well.
She wrote about how Harry spoke about the horrors of the past, and his fears that those horrors could return.
What bothered Harry was that postwar ideals of equality and justice were falling apart. He told me, when I interviewed him for a second and third time, that he was worried that fascism was on the rise again, that the politics of austerity in Canada, the United States and Britain was stripping working people of their futures and dignity.
He was anxious that young people didn’t see this calamity in front of them, although he’d tried to warn them in a book called Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future.
And in this excerpt from his book Harry's Last Stand, he reminded us of what life was like if you were poor and sick in pre-medicare or pre-NHS Britain.
For the last 12 months of her life, Marion was totally dependent on my mother to be fed, bathed and clothed. In those days, there was no national health service; you either had the dosh to pay for your medicine or you did without. Your only hope for some medical care was the council poorhouse that accepted indigent patients.
Her last weeks were unbearable but she still fought death. She thrashed her arms about in defiance against the coming end to her life. My parents tried to calm her by stroking her hair or singing to her, but she wasn't pacified. Instead, Marion wept silent tears and continued to struggle with so much ferocity that in the end my dad reluctantly restrained her to her bed with a rope.
And he denounced the Tories for trying to dismantle the National Health Service.
Sometimes I try to think how I might explain to Marion how we built these beautiful structures in our society – which protected the poor, which kept them safe at work, healthy in their lives, supported them when they were down on their luck – only to watch them be destroyed within a few short generations. But I cannot find the words.
Like every one of these Con beasts will eventually try to do here...
Unless we rise up and tell them, no, not in our Canada.
I'm glad I was able to send Harry this message a few months before he died.
Today I sent this message to his son:
Harry fought the fascists in the Second World War, and never stopped fighting them. What a sad loss, but what an inspiration for all of us.
And my message to the rest of us would be this one:
You are are never too old to fight the Cons and the fascists for justice and decency.
Harry went down fighting to the very end, like a hero, and now it's up to us...