Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith

‘As one of the last remaining survivors of the Great Depression and the Second World War, I will not go gently into that good night. I want to tell you what the world looks like through my eyes, so that you can help change it…’

In November 2013, 91-year-old Yorkshireman, RAF veteran and ex-carpet salesman Harry Leslie Smith’s Guardian article – ‘This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time’ – was shared almost 60,000 times on Facebook and started a huge debate about the state of society.

Now he brings his unique perspective to bear on NHS cutbacks, benefits policy, political corruption, food poverty, the cost of education – and much more. From the deprivation of 1930s Barnsley and the terror of war to the creation of our welfare state, Harry has experienced how a great civilisation can rise from the rubble. But at the end of his life, he fears how easily it is being eroded.

Harry’s Last Stand is a lyrical, searing modern invective that shows what the past can teach us, and how the future is ours for the taking.

Harry Leslie Smith is a survivor of the Great Depression, a second world war RAF veteran and, at 91, an activist for the poor and for the preservation of social democracy. His Guardian articles have been shared over 60,000 times on Facebook and have attracted huge comment and debate. He has authored numerous books about Britain during the Great Depression, the second world war and postwar austerity. He lives outside Toronto, Canada and in Yorkshire.

I don’t know quite how to describe this book. It’s an autobiography, historical record, political analysis but I guess in the end it’ll be a plea from a survivor of the 30’s depression over the way history is repeating itself. These are not the words of some expert, but a normal person, born into poverty on the streets of Barnsley. He lived through some of the most important social events of the twentieth century and writes bluntly about those times with an urgency that he wants the world to take up and notice,

Harry’s life in the depression makes hard reading at times. The poverty comes alive with his words. The hardness that developed in the minds of people who were fighting to stay alive. I can’t comprehend what it must have been like to live in such a life. The hardship he endured but Harry wasn’t one to give up and neither were the people he lived among. During the war Harry fought in the RAF against the fascists who wished to conquer, not just countries but minds.

In Germany he saw the horrors of war, the starving people who’d been left by their leaders to fend for themselves. This was the reality of war. He was shocked by the poverty he saw, it wasn’t any better than home. He quickly realised these were people like himself. These people couldn’t be blamed for the actions of their masters, not blamed for the actions of their leaders, they had human rights.

Harry married a German girl who he met and fell foul of those who wished to separate the two. Eventually he was allowed to marry but his time in the RAF was up. He returned to war-torn Britain with her. For him it was a chance to start a new life. Luckily the Labour party won the general election with an aim of creating a welfare state where no one would live in poverty again. Free education, health care and nationalising industry were the key pledges made. The promises that no one would have to suffer the depression again without adequate care, pay when unemployed and hope of a better life.

The book goes on to show Harry’s life as he lives. The book is divided in to Morning, Afternoon and Night. Night is the end of his life and we come the crux of his arguments. Harry sees the world he helped create turning around and the world heading back to poverty and depression faster than it had risen out. He points to the way the government stopped the social benefits and introduced austerity. Money became the all important goal, not the security of its citizens. Its cuts hit those without money worse than those with. People once again are struggling to survive in the world where the bosses have all the power. Poverty is at its highest for years.As all historians know, we keep making the same mistakes without any thought.

This is an excellent book and should be on the syllabus of every school. It’s argued very well and with an urgency lest we all fall back in the the dark of Harry’s youth. I can’t recommend this book enough.

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