Social media is a strange animal. It is so fast moving it can be funny, curious, informative, inspiring, infuriating, enraging, vile and vicious all at the same time. But I generally love it. Having been initially scathing of Twitter and Facebook, I now spend a lot of my life on both, because despite the problems, I find them places where I can meet and engage with interesting people.
One of those people was Harry Leslie Smith, who died in an Ontario Hospital at the age of 95 on Wednesday. Harry came into the public eye when his book ‘Harry’s Last Stand’ was published in 2014 when Harry was 91. This powerful memoir describes the grinding poverty he was born into in the 1920s. Poverty that put such pressure on his parents, their marriage didn’t survive. Poverty that meant the family had no money to get medical attention for Harry’s sister, Marion when she developed TB, so that she died in agonising pain in a workhouse. Poverty that forced him out to work selling coal aged 10. Though harrowing in parts, the driving force behind the book was Harry’s fury at the austerity measures imposed by the government which is sending our country back to a past he thought he’d escaped. It was an instant best seller, and Harry himself became a sensation when he gave this fantastic speech on the NHS to the Labour Party. With the tour that followed, his follow up ‘Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future’ and Harry’s Last Stand podcast he has been an inspiring leader for the anti austerity movement in the last four years. So that last October when he asked for pledges to do a tour of refugee camps to write a book about refugees, the money came flooding in.
I first ‘met’ Harry on twitter a couple of years before the publication of ‘Harry’s Last Stand’ when we got chatting about his book ‘Love Among the Ruins’. It tells the true story of how at the end of the war, when stationed in Hamburg, he met his future wife Friede. Despite a ban on having relationships with German women, they fell in love and fought against everybody for the right to be married. I was fascinated and after that we talked a lot about writing, progressing to politics where we discovered we had a mutual rage against austerity. So when Harry came to Oxford to speak with Owen Jones in 2014, I naturally took my then 11 year old son to see him. In a world full of toxic masculinity and unhelpful role models, it was wonderful to show my son, that being a man means you can show emotion and compassion as well as rage at injustice. It was a fantastic night and we were both very pleased to meet Harry afterwards and shake his hand.
In the last four years, I continued to enjoy chats with Harry, which were always interesting. Every year on the anniversaries of the deaths of his beloved Friede, and his son Peter (who had mental health needs), he spoke movingly about what they meant to him and Peter’s struggles to stay well. He spoke out about injustice whenever he saw it and supported a wide range of progressive causes. His hilarious put downs of racist trolls who challenged his support for refugees and refusal to wear a red poppy were a sight to see. (Never mess with a nonagenarian RAF veteran). And his interactions with everyone he spoke to were laced with kindness.
Harry’s last tweet last week was something to the effect of ‘Bugger, I’ve had a fall. I’m off to hospital.’ I missed that one, but I did catch the one that followed from his son John, saying Harry was in hospital and at Harry’s request, John would be updating his account. What followed was the most amazing social media experience. Within minutes messages flowed in from all around the world from people inspired as I was by Harry’s work and witness. #IStandWithHarry trended as a virtual vigil of young and old, the ordinary and powerful joined John by Harry’s bedside. Up until that point I don’t think many of us had been aware of the vital part John played in Harry’s life supporting his work, caring for him, enabling him to manage his tours. But in this last week we have come to see a beautiful son, looking after his beautiful father, with an extraordinary tenderness and love. John tweeted about his father sleeping, trying to breathe, telling jokes, remembering good times. He tweeted hope for his father’s recovery, anxiety about things that weren’t working, dread that this was it. And in between he reminded us of Harry’s work, to challenge poverty, champion free health care, fight for refugees. As the week continued, it was clear that Harry wasn’t going to make it back on the road this time round, and so we had a final lesson from him in how to die well. And a baton being passed, as John,shortly after announcing Harry’s death told us he would be completing his father’s work.
Last night John tweeted a picture of Harry in his hospital bed in January, surrounded by paper as he continued with the work he knew to be so vital. He promised us he would keep going to his very last breath, and so he did. I have so often despaired of the state of the world in the last decade, I’ve needed someone like Harry to remind me that hope is possible, change is possible, but we need to show up and keep working. Thank you Harry and John for reminding me of this. I promise never to forget. And that I too will go on till the very last breath.