Monday, 11 August 2014

Harry's Last Stand - 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…’ 

As I sat on my sofa, TV on in the background, iPhone carefully poised at my side and opened this book, I wondered whether I was really in the right frame of mind to begin what I anticipated would be a hard-hitting read. It took all of five sentences for me to switch off every noise-emitting device and settle in; this isn't a book that you read with one eye trained on Facebook, this is a book that demands your uninterrupted focus. Harry's Last Stand demands you sit up and pay attention.

As the back cover summarises, Harry Leslie Smith "is not an historian, but at 91, [he] is history". Born into the poverty and deprivation of the post WW1 Great Depression, Smith was only 18 when he joined the RAF and fought for Britain in the Second World War. Without doubt, he has seen more in his lifetime than most of us could even imagine. This book is at once memoir and manifesto, seeking to awaken a generation who, seemingly having forgotten the history behind our current way of life, sit idle as it comes under threat.

As a memoir, Harry's Last Stand has the charming rhetoric of your grandfather telling stories of his life at the kitchen table. Memories, both harrowing and happy, recur as Smith dips in and out of almost ten decades worth of experience. He uses his personal history to explain how he sees the society his generation built at risk of regressing to dark, austere times. An avid reader and established writer, it is unsurprising that Smith's prose flows seamlessly between memory, historical contextualisation, contemporary anecdote and compelling thought.
As a manifesto, Harry's Last Stand is poignant, humbling and challenging. It is so much more sincere, inspiring and provocative than any politician's speech I've heard in recent elections - speeches with which we all seem to be disillusioned. A socialist, Smith voices political concerns about the imminent collapse of the Welfare State - threats to the NHS, inadequate social housing and a benefit system which no longer protects the vulnerable. He voices his anger at the way in which the poor are demonised by politicians and the media, at the perpetuation of the notion that our current socio-economic imbalance is unavoidable, and at the bleak acceptance of this state of affairs that has become imbedded in our subconscious. Smith recounts his memories of communities pulling together and demanding change as he traces Britain’s history, proclaiming his fears of what will become of an increasingly divided, fearful and consumption-driven 21st century society.

Like the majority of voters, Smith is disillusioned with both the Right and the Left, who don't seem to offer a whole lot of difference these days. He is appalled by the unfathomable inequality in our society where "according to Oxfam five families control 20 per cent of this nation's wealth", meanwhile an increasing number of British citizens live in states of unemployment, underemployment, poverty and homelessness. While interspersing his real-life experiences with shocking yet factual statistics, Smith asks us to stop simply accepting this systemic inequality as if it is inevitable. Although there are some points where I might disagree with Smith on an ideological basis, namely his perspective on religion, there is no doubt that his position is steadfast, his arguments valid. As opposed to the wavering, lacklustre politicians of today, this war veteran writes with a resoluteness that inspires response.

But what kind of response? Firstly, read the book. I think it should be compulsory reading for everyone. Put it on the bloomin' school syllabus that has been causing (rightly so) so much uproar of late. Teach young people not only about the bravery that was demonstrated by generations gone by, but about what that bravery accomplished. If nothing else Harry’s Last Stand is a concise and accessible insight to a history that needs to be remembered in order for it not to be repeated. At a time when social media and news channels abound with touching tributes of gratitude to the fallen heroes of World War One, let us not forget that their sacrifice wasn't so that democracy could be taken for granted.
Secondly, therefore: VOTE. As Smith mentions, Russell Brand's style of revolt against the political system by encouraging a boycott of elections achieves nothing. Instead, get involved. Local elections are the place to start. Politics should be taught in schools. Young people should learn about how our democratic system works as it is integral to our daily lives. The sheer complexity of the political system is a mist through which many do not even try and see - it is far easier to plead ignorance; this has to change.
One last thing: Smith points out that despite general stereotypes of people his age in the media, he is not a nostalgic, backwards thinker resisting the modern age. He is more prolific on Twitter than most people I know, recently tweeting:

Harry's Last Stand isn't just some long lament about what is wrong with contemporary society - it is that - but it is a call to activism, too. At 91, Harry is defiant and hopeful. I dare you to read this and not feel the same way.

I certainly will be passing it on to my friends and relatives and thank Icon Books and Leena (@leenanorms) for my copy and of course, Harry Leslie Smith, for making me pay attention.

Price: GBP 12.99
Pages: 224
Publication date: 05-06-2014

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