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Why millennials are lapping up every tweet and podcast from 94-year-old agitator Harry Leslie Smith

Through technology unavailable in his first 80 years, Smith is spreading his message: Fight for love and fair wages, and resist hate and Donald Trump.

Author and activist Harry Leslie Smith in his Belleville apartment. He survived a depression, world war, and cold war and believes we can learn by listening to him and others linked to the past.

Paul Hunter/Toronto Star

Author and activist Harry Leslie Smith in his Belleville apartment. He survived a depression, world war, and cold war and believes we can learn by listening to him and others linked to the past.

BELLEVILLE, ONT. — His voice is reed-thin — best you lean in to hear it — and there is the occasional pregnant pause to recover his breath, but not his thoughts; this is a man who knows exactly what he wants to say. Ninety-four years of life, with its joys, heartbreak, triumphs, and hard lessons, has imbued him with wisdom he feels compelled to share.

Now Harry Leslie Smith is imploring you, all of you, to listen.

So he writes books and newspaper columns, goes on university speaking tours, takes to Twitter (118,000 followers) and, in hope his message touches today’s youth, records passionate podcasts.

On platforms that didn’t exist during his first 80 years, Smith preaches about preserving democracy and the welfare state, creating a just society and living a life of compassion, all from an enthusiastically leftist perspective. And he rails against Donald Trump, Brexit, inequality, corporate greed and whatever else he finds loathsome, his pointed words delivered with an engaging, guy-on-the-next-barstool folksiness.

In his tenth decade, Smith is trying to change the world, with the urgency of someone who understands the time constraints.

“As we get into our late years, surely we should all be endeavouring to give something back to the country, to make it a better place when we leave,” he says. “Life is not permanent, although a lot of people look at me and say, you’re coming damn close to it.”

Smith, who divides his time between Belleville and his native Britain, has lived through the ravages of war and he fears those storm clouds are building again. He’s heard the cries of pain from those abandoned to die in the days before socialized medicine and is troubled those hard-earned benefits are being eroded. He served in the Royal Air Force when the Allies pushed back the Nazi scourge and is chilled by the prospect of such evils rising anew.

He survived a depression, world war and cold war and believes we can learn, perhaps more than we realize, by listening to him and others linked to the past.

So, with mind and memory tack-sharp, he has made it his mission in his final years to educate.

Harry Leslie Smith cares very deeply. He wants you to care, too.

"For me, old age has been a renaissance despite the tragedies of losing my beloved wife and son. It’s why the greatest error anyone can make is to assume that, because an elderly person is in a wheelchair or speaks with quiet deliberation, they have nothing important to contribute to society. It is equally important not to say to yourself if you are in the bloom of youth: ‘I’d rather be dead than live like that.’ As long as there is sentience and an ability to love and show love, there is purpose to existence.”

— Smith writing in the Guardian, Feb. 24, 2017

On a warm summer morning, sunlight bathes the cozy second-floor apartment in a building that is a short walk from the Bay of Quinte. Smith, one set of glasses on his nose, another dangling around his neck, has the air of a literature professor as he holds court from a high-backed armchair near the window.

A one-time importer of Oriental carpets — Conrad Black and the Reichmann family were clients — he trades now in words and his tools are nearby. A laptop for tweeting and writing — though he composes his essays longhand and types them afterward — and a microphone for recording his podcasts.

There’s a captivating intimacy to Smith’s online broadcasts, the premise being that he and a stranger, the listener, have both missed their trains on a rainy day and have taken refuge in a station pub. There is little to do but exchange honest opinions over a pint and the podcast unfolds as a one-sided conversation as Harry shares his views on the world and why he views his voice as a “weapon against the political tides that want to return Britain and the world to the darkness of my youth.”

Smith has recorded nine episodes, launching the series as he turned 94 in February. He tapes them here but they are edited by an audio technician in England, where he spends half his year.

The nonagenarian will soon be heading there to tour in promotion of his latest book — Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future — and spend the winter at a rented cottage in Yorkshire, his home county in the north where he does much of his writing. That book should be in Canadian bookstores by year’s end.

At the moment, though, he is bemused that a visitor finds it curious he has adopted social media to share his thoughts.

Harry Leslie Smith, post-Second World War in Hamburg, Germany, where he was part of British occupation forces.

Contributed

Harry Leslie Smith, post-Second World War in Hamburg, Germany, where he was part of British occupation forces.

“People always express surprise about these things,” he says. “But, really, I joined the Royal Air Force in 1941 and I went in as a wireless operator. I had to learn about transmitters and receivers and generators and all sorts of things that I’d never heard of in my whole life but we learnt them; including Morse Code which was our only means of transferring information. So we weren’t dumb buggers.”

Smith says he’s been politicized since the degradations of his youth. The youngest of his three sons — John, 53, who lives with him — recalls hearing impassioned diatribes at the kitchen table while growing up in Scarborough. Canada’s push for free trade in the 1980s and Smith’s belief it would destroy the working class was always worth a rant.

But it’s one thing to have outrage roiling within. It’s another to broadcast it to the world. That desire came after a confluence of soul-crushing, late-life developments.

In 1999, the love of Smith’s life, his wife Friede, died at home in his arms. Cancer claimed her. They’d been married 52 years and Smith was devastated. He has written that he stumbled through his days afterward “anaesthetized by tranquillizers” lost in the wake of her passing.

As a salve, he took lengthy trips through the States and Europe. It was comforting to be constantly moving, often revisiting his past. At one point he returned to Hamburg, where he and German-born Friede met, and stood across the road from her old apartment staring longingly at the door.

“I could picture her coming out.”

Losing Friede, he says, took away his softness.

Harry Leslie Smith and his bride, Friede, married in 1947 in Hamburg. They would raise their children in Scarborough.

Contributed

Harry Leslie Smith and his bride, Friede, married in 1947 in Hamburg. They would raise their children in Scarborough.

What hardened him further was the economic collapse and mortgage meltdown of 2007-’08 and how it was “the regular taxpayer who had to recover this deficit.” There were little or no long-term repercussions for the wealthy.

The injustice and inequality enraged Smith.

Then, in 2009, his middle son Peter, already battling schizophrenia, succumbed to a lung disease. He was 50.

“Harry was 87 at the time,” says John. “It’s not good for the young to lose their children or the old.”

That was the final trigger. Smith began writing his memoirs.

After he self-published three autobiographical works, Smith was given the opportunity to write a column in the Guardian. His first, in May of 2013, expressed outrage at what the Western world had become compared to what Smith believed had been accomplished with a victory in the war.

The essay caught the eye of a book agent, who thought Smith evoked the spirit of a generation. That led to a fourth book, Harry’s Last Stand published in 2014 by Icon Books in the U.K. and distributed by Penguin Books in Canada. It was part biography, part lament for what was and part plea for the preservation of the welfare state. It was also, says Smith, “a blockbuster.” Icon says it sold 20,000 copies worldwide.

At 91, the legend of Harry Leslie Smith was born.

“It’s funny how the world works and something you say projects you into limelight that you never expected,” he says. “You never know what life is going to throw at us.”

“Because I am old, now 94, I recognize these omens of doom. Chilling signs are everywhere, perhaps the biggest being that the U.S. allows itself to be led by Donald Trump, a man deficient in honour, wisdom and just simple human kindness. It is as foolish for Americans to believe that their generals will save them from Trump as it was for liberal Germans to believe the military would protect the nation from Hitler’s excesses.”

— Smith in the Guardian, Aug. 14, 2017

Smith’s relentless advocacy for social democracy and his championing of the poor are very much a product of his history. Born in 1923, he had a childhood of abject poverty in England.

He was the son of a coal miner, living first in the sickly slums of Barnsley, Yorkshire. There was no heat and little food. Sometimes, says Smith, it could be a week between decent meals.

“I was so hungry I used to have to dig through garbage cans to see if I could get scraps that people had thrown away. It was a brutal life.”

One of his two older sisters, Marion, contracted spinal tuberculosis in the foul living conditions and, with no affordable medical help, wasted away. One day, Harry’s parents pawned their best clothing to hire a horse-drawn cart. On it, Marion was taken, Harry recalls, “like rubbish they hauled away” to a workhouse infirmary to await death. At 10, she was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.

Harry’s father lost his job due to injury and the family moved on to Bradford — fleeing in the night, as it would often do, to avoid the rent collector — for crowded lodging facilities that were like rabbit warrens for the destitute. A room in a house would contain an entire family; damaged war vets and the mentally ill mixed in to the squalor. When Harry was 8, Harry’s mother kicked his father out because she couldn’t afford to provide keep for him. His mother took up with other men for survival as much as anything, he says. Those relationships gave Harry two half-brothers.

It was a miserable existence through the Great Depression and Smith recalls that ungodly screams could be heard from neighbours’ homes, the dying unable to afford any type of painkiller. A visit to a doctor or hospital might cost at least half a week’s worth of a subsistence-level wage.

“It happened often, people simply died when they could’ve been saved,” he says.

When he was 7, Harry got a job after school delivering ale. There was no wage protection for kids so many were hired ahead of adults. The money kept his family from starvation. At 10, he delivered coal. When he was 14, he began working in a grocery store fulltime.

Young Harry would often take refuge in the library reading everything from Dickens to Shakespeare.

But there was no escaping the sense of foreboding Smith felt when, on the cinema newsreels, he’d watch the histrionics of Hitler and other ominous images unfolding through Europe.

War erupted in 1939 and when Smith turned 18 in 1941, he joined the RAF. In his latest book he writes that he did it in the hopes a new economic order would arise from the ashes. Along with his clothes, he departed with a book of Wordsworth’s poetry, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. He also took a notebook in which he vowed to write every day.

When he remained in Germany with the post-war occupational forces, he met Friede. It was forbidden for a British serviceman to romance a German national post-war but Harry was smitten.

Smith once wrote of the first time he saw the 17-year-old Friede, bargaining at a black market in war-torn Hamburg: “In the throng, I noticed a woman who made my heart and head stumble in aroused confusion. Her stance, her look of defiance and grace made her appear to me like she was in Technicolor while everyone else around her was in sepia tone.”

It was also at war’s end that Smith voted for the first time and watched as Britain’s Labour government, elected in 1945, brought in the National Health System, providing equal and free medical benefits for all. The Labour Party also made it legal for members of the armed services to marry former enemy nationals. Friede and Harry wed in 1947.

That social reform and dignity through democracy — Smith remembers being overwhelmed when, suffering from a chest infection, he visited a doctor for the first time in 1948 and there was no bill — left an indelible mark on Smith and informed the political views to which he clings.

His generation helped build the social safety net that he credits with turning him from a street urchin into a middle-class homeowner and it helped improve the standard of living for millions of others. He now fears it is at risk.

“All of you, when young, will make your own history: you will struggle, you will betray some and others will betray you. You will love and you will lose love. You will feel profound joy and deep sorrow and during all of this you will grow as an individual. That’s why it is your duty when you get old to tell the young about your odyssey across the vast ocean of your life.”

— Smith in The Guardian, Feb. 24, 2017

Smith with his wife, Friede, and son Michael in Toronto's High Park in the mid-'50s.

Contributed

Smith with his wife, Friede, and son Michael in Toronto's High Park in the mid-'50s.

After the war, Harry and Friede settled in working-class Halifax, England. They didn’t have much but Smith got a job as a carpet weaver and they both attended night school where Harry nurtured his love for writing. While Labour’s reforms promised a better life eventually, improvements were slow in impoverished post-war Britain. Harry and Friede lived what he calls a “beans-on-toast life” but they longed for something more, a fresh beginning. Then came a knock at the door.

Smith didn’t recognize the two women but they introduced themselves as his “aunties” and passed him some coins tied together in a handkerchief. It wasn’t much, about the equivalent of a dollar, but they told Smith that his father, before he died, sold everything he had and wanted the proceeds to go to his only son. Smith never saw the women again but the encounter was a nudge to leave Halifax.

Smith, because of his experience in England, had recently been offered a good job at a Toronto carpet company but had to pay his own way to get there. Smith said he sold his and his wife’s “measly possessions” and purchased steerage fare on the Empress of Australia. Harry made sure his surprise inheritance was put toward the tickets on a steamship that took them to Montreal, where they then moved on to Toronto in November, 1953.

“There were no ghosts in Canada,” says John. “My mother was a German and she had lived through the Nazi era and not very well because her father was a socialist union guy so he was always in jail. England had austerity and all of the ghosts that my father was still contending with because of his hard childhood. Canada was this great country that could offer all these new potentials.”

The couple raised three sons — the eldest, Michael, lives in Mississauga — as Smith travelled the world, including behind the Iron Curtain, acquiring carpets to be sold in Canada and the U.S. It was a good life and it set up a perfect retirement.

But just 18 months into it, when Smith was 66, Friede became severely ill with rheumatoid arthritis. Then, through years of treatment, her medication began to damage her heart and other organs.

When Smith was 70, Peter was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The doctor recommended that the 30-year-old live at home. Smith became a caregiver to his wife and son.

Sometimes, at Peter’s request, the father would lie down beside his son at night to keep him from self-harming.

“It’s just devastating, mental illness,” says Smith. “You must never be ashamed to help another person who you can see is in difficult situations and straits.”

John says Harry’s grace in dealing with the illnesses of both Friede and Peter is reflected in his father’s writing.

“It’s the idea that people should always have the right to be treated with dignity,” he says.

Peter, an accomplished artist, found peace in his painting and wood carving, and with medication he developed enough confidence and independence that he eventually married and moved into a farmhouse near Belleville.

However, he developed idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which destroyed his lungs. He spent his last days in hospital, attached to a breathing apparatus, in and out of consciousness. That brought Harry here to this apartment, to be close to Peter, eight years ago.

John says it was “an incredibly gutting experience” for his dad to lose Peter to a disease after nursing him through his worst days of schizophrenia.

“I do hope that in the end,” says Smith, “we did our best to make the end of his life more comfortable.”

“The internet has become our agora, the meeting place where diverse opinions can be debated alongside comments on last night’s football match … For me, being able to navigate through the internet has made my old age a less lonely place … Simply put, as my grief over my wife and then the loss of one of my sons eased, I wanted to join the land of the living and all the diversity it offered.”

— Smith in the Guardian, May 17, 2013

Harry Leslie Smith delivers an impassioned speech about his life and the National Health Service in Manchester, England, in 2014, at the Labour Party Conference.

Dan Kitwood

Harry Leslie Smith delivers an impassioned speech about his life and the National Health Service in Manchester, England, in 2014, at the Labour Party Conference.

“I must say, I’m not really one to blow my own trumpet,” says Smith when asked about the fame he has achieved in the twilight of his life.

“Deep down I am grateful for all the people who have followed me and praised me and are still believing in me. I hope that it will continue and because of it, change will come.

“I worry greatly about the younger generation, honestly. I just can’t imagine myself living today without hope because I’m sure many of them are.”

In 2015, on the eve of Canada’s federal election, the Broadbent Institute (an independent organization that promotes democracy, equality and the training of a new generation of leaders) invited Smith on a speaking tour. Billing him as “Canada’s oldest rebel,” Smith’s Stand Up For Progress town halls sold out venues of up to 250 people from Victoria to Halifax.

Jonathan Sas, the former director of policy at Broadbent, accompanied Smith on the seven-city trip and recalls that about one-third of the audience was clearly under 30. Sas said they related to Smith because he isn’t a politician or political theorist, instead he “speaks from experience in his bones” and delivers life lessons “with moral clarity.” Smith’s message — about how they should expect fair wages, pensions and workplace benefits — is not one that today’s younger generation is accustomed to hearing.

“He connects with young people because he speaks about a collective ethic regarding public services and what it means to invest in one another in a way that, certainly, our politicians rarely talk about anymore,” says Sas, who was 30 at the time.

Many of those young people would, afterward, linger to chat or to get copies of Harry’s Last Stand autographed.

With the release of his new book, Smith will again meet many of his fans, and likely get the rock star treatment, on his tour of England; while the themes are universal, much of his work is from a British perspective. Though he’s not as fond of travel as he once was, he remains driven to get his message out.

“I would like to feel, when I go, that my life meant something,” he says. “That I’ve seen changes happening; that ordinary people begin to realize that they mean something.

“Democracy, unless you work at it, will not exist. It just doesn’t happen. You have to make sure you know what it’s all about. You have to also be able to stand up and protest when something unjust appears to happen in government.”

During the Brexit referendum campaign, he hit 40 cities in 60 days, giving speeches, doing town hall question-and-answer sessions and media interviews. He was 93 at the time. His only concession to age was that in airports or train stations which required long walks, he’d use a wheelchair.

This coming tour has 20 events planned, so far, into November. One stop will be the University of Bradford, built on the site of the slum where he once lived.

“I speak often at Cambridge and Oxford,” he says. “Sometimes I can’t believe it. Me, Harry Smith who left school at 14 though, admittedly, by that time I read everything I could get my hands on and I continued reading and reading and reading.”

This, he says, will be his last promotional trip, though he does believe he has two more books in him. The next will be on the refugee crisis. When he is finished his speaking engagements in England, he will travel to a refugee camp in Greece as part of his research, then he’ll go to Quebec to learn more about the Haitians arriving there.

Smith spends about 90 minutes a day on Twitter where he plays the part of an angry old man, blasting out his defiance in 140 characters — with almost 63,000 tweets since he joined in 2010 — but in person he is funny and self-effacing.

He was recently asked on Twitter to share his secrets of longevity to which he listed, purpose, tai chi, exercise, gin and tonics, laughter and being able to give and receive love.

He confesses, however, that he’s had to give up the gin but he still enjoys a shandy every night and, in winter, a sweet sherry for dessert.

He does indeed still do tai chi once a week as well as 10 stand-up toe touches and 10 knee bends daily.

“It’s a real game, you know, staying alive,” he says.

Smith said he reads newspapers every morning on his tablet and watches the news on television every night, often jotting down notes that spark future commentary.

He loves Canada and everything it has given him and cherishes the fact that he and his wife were able to buy a house here and live comfortably.

In the morning, his son John will often take him for a drive in the countryside around Belleville, where he’ll drink in the beauty of the world.

“I personally, because of my age, am so thrilled to see the flowers in bloom and the trees,” he says.

“It’s as though you can’t get enough to fill you body’s needs. I think sometimes you realize you might not be seeing them much longer.

“I try not to dwell on those things.”

Harry Leslie Smith enthusiastically shares his often-biting, sometimes sentimental Twitter musings with 117,000 followers. His favourite targets are U.S. President Donald Trump and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. He can be found at @harryslaststand.

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