Harry Leslie Smith's Blog

February 25, 2015

The bell for my last orders will soon be wrung because I am 92 today and I have reached the fag end of my days. But I am not sad because life still offers me the pleasure of being loved and loving in return. I am one of the lucky ones because I still have purpose and believe I can contribute a helping hand to others who battle the toils and tribulations of modern life.
I think my parents would have been pleased that I survived and thrived after they battled so hard to keep me and my siblings’ safe during the Great Depression. My struggles like so many from my age were harsh, unrelenting and cruel beyond measure but I never succumbed to hating mankind only those whose greed and arrogance made life a misery for so many millions of innocent people.
Now, I am in the last years of my life and that is why I shall begin another speaking tour across Britain that will take me to over 50 cities, towns and villages. I want to remind everyone what life was like before the NHS and before the Welfare State because if we don’t remember the past injustices done to ordinary folk, the powers that be will commit them again, except this time it will be upon you and your children.
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Published on February 25, 2015 04:43 • 229 views • Tags: britain, coming-of-age, family-saga, germany, hamburg, history, hitler, memoir, raf, relationships, sex, true-life-story, world-war-two, yorkshire, young-adults, young-love

December 22, 2014

For the poor of Bradford Christmas 1930 was an inhospitable season where hunger trolled squalid streets and the unemployed froze in dilapidated housing not fit for beasts of burden. I can still remember the beggars chant that I sung when I was famished and in need of alms even though it has been more than eighty years since I repeated the rhyme.

"A hole in my stocking a hole in my shoe, please can you spare a copper of two. If you haven’t a penny a ha’penny will do and if you haven’t a ha’penny may God bless you."

Still it brought little relief because on Christmas morning I awoke with an overwhelming hunger which ate away at my belly. I jumped from the bed and began to cry that it was so unfair that Father Christmas didn't give a damn about us and never stopped to bring presents to our attic bedroom. My father rose from our shared bed hugged me and said, “Go into my trouser pocket, it’s not from Father Christmas and it’s not much but it is from thy dad.”
I went over and rustled through his pockets and found two small packages wrapped in cheap paper. He smiled and said, “One is for thou and the other is for thy sister.” I opened mine and beamed because it was a few bits of penny sweets that I ate for my breakfast.
Downstairs, my mother told my sister and me that we had to go to mass in order to receive our Christmas dinner because it was being provided by the St. Vincent De Paul Society.
In no time, Mary and I dressed for our journey to hear mass and receive the church’s bounty. Once there the nuns told us it was important to give thanks for the birth of baby Jesus and the eternal life He granted us in the hereafter. On that Christmas Day, I gave thanks that the sermon was brief and the hymns at least joyful.
Following mass, we made our way to the meal for indigent children. The feast for Bradford’s poor was held in a school gymnasium. There were long bench tables where we sat and ate our Christmas goose and pudding. We were told to pray, and we, the poor, the destitute, the unloved and unlucky, gave thanks again to the ever-watchful Jesus. Silently, I prayed that the nuns were in a forgiving mood that day and that my ear would not be pulled or my backside bruised by their love for discipline in the name of the Lord. After the meal, a Father Christmas appeared, with a tubercular cough, and presented to each child an orange and a pair of socks.
At home, I found my father upstairs in the attic.
“Happy Christmas, lad, sorry there weren't much for thee and thy sister. Next year, hey son, next year…”
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Published on December 22, 2014 08:58 • 732 views • Tags: britain, christmas, hitler, world-war-two, youth

December 20, 2014

Over Christmas, we were confined to base, where we awaited our orders to deploy to the continent. However, our channel crossing was delayed because of Hitler’s last offensive gambit in the west, when he attempted to retake the Belgian port of Antwerp and cut off the Allies’ main supply route. It was decided that our unit could not be transferred overseas until the Battle of the Bulge was finished, as there was a fear that the western front might collapse due to the Wehrmacht’s last military gamble.
Christmas for my unit was a dour affair that consisted of a few tots of rum being served with our Yuletide meal in the sparsely decorated mess hut.
After I finished my meal, I excused myself and said that I was going outside to get a breath of fresh air. When I got out into the open, I discovered that it was snowing.
The ground looked clean whereas my mind was cluttered because divergent images played in my head from past Christmases. I recalled the sorrow of past holiday seasons when my family starved and my sister and I depended on meagre hand outs from the church to keep our spirits bright. However, despite all those past hardships, my memories kept returning in fondness and in longing to that one Christmas when I was a very small boy and my father played carols on our piano and I was warmed by a giant coal fire burning in our hearth.
“It’s all water under the bridge,” I whispered to myself and cleansed myself by taking in deep breaths of the brisk December air. Suddenly, a snowball cuffed me in the head.
“Come on, you lazy sod,” Taffy called out, “it’s time for target practice.”
From the edge of the cook house, my three other mates appeared and I was ambushed in an avalanche of snowballs.
Confined to camp on New Year’s Eve, we sang Auld Lang Syne at the chime of midnight and toasted the year to come. During the first days and then weeks of January, we waited in disjointed apprehension to deploy to Europe. After a while, we thought our captain had played a cruel prank on us. He promised us in December a mission to Europe and a greater role in this war, and it now seemed as fanciful as Meade’s desert premonitions. We waited and asked our sergeants. “You’ll know when you know,” was the answer.
So, we waited impatient, ignorant and callow for Europe. Yet, as we waited, news reached us that Warsaw had been liberated by the Russians and that they were about to cross the Oder River and enter German territory. As we loitered and marked time for our orders to depart for Europe, the people of Holland were reduced to eating tulip bulbs and shoe leather as they endured a famine created by the retreating German Army. As we waited, chaos erupted across Eastern Europe as the dying remnants of Nazi Germany’s armed forces fought the Russian Red Army to the death, along a front that stretched from the Baltic’s to Danzig. However, for us in the west it was still a brutal and grim battle front as we ferociously battled our way into Germany through Italy and the lowland countries.
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Published on December 20, 2014 13:29 • 459 views • Tags: britain, christmas, hitler, world-war-two, youth

February 24, 2014

I am 91 today-The days that are left to me are a precious few. But I am not sad because I have lived in wondrous times. I have experienced both tragedy and joy. I have laughed, I have cried, I have loved. I have lived over nine decades and realize that my long life is both a blessing and an obligation.

I will not forget the forces that forged my soul. I will not forget my mother, my father and their hard unforgiving life of poverty. I will not forget my eldest sister Marion who got no life and died from TB in a work house infirmary. Nor, will I forget my other sister Mary who held my hand through the storms of childhood.

I will not forget where I come from or the inequities that my generation suffered during both the Great Depression and the Second World.

Until the hour glass of my soul is empty, I will hold to the one absolute that has given my life meaning and hope-I have been loved and I have loved in return.

These are the end of my days but I still have much to learn.

I am so humbled by the fact that my book A Letter from Harry is to be published this June, by Icon books.

My race, that I started, so long ago, in Barnsley is almost complete. The finish line is close by but I won't race to it. Instead I will stroll to my end and let the wine of life linger in my mouth. I will savour each day afforded to me.
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Published on February 24, 2014 20:02 • 1,008 views • Tags: adventure, boyhood, childhood, england, great-britain, hunger, poverty, true-life-story, york, yorkshire

January 15, 2014

Icon Books has bought a book by 91-year-old Second World War RAF veteran, Harry Leslie Smith, called A Letter from Harry: why the world we built is falling down, and what we can do to save it.
Commissioning editor Kate Hewson acquired world rights from Jamie Coleman at Greene & Heaton for an undisclosed sum.
Hewson described the book as "one of the most extraordinary proposals I've seen in my career... This isn’t a collection of quiet ruminations and “in my days…”. Harry is a firebrand of the best possible kind – his writing is at once intensely lyrical and angry, and his voice is as modern and present as any other political writer working today."
She added that A Letter from Harry is "a remarkable rallying cry for us to learn from the mistakes of the past, and build a stronger future".
Harry Leslie Smith, a regular contributor to the Guardian, became a viral sensation in November 2013 when his article for the paper ‘This year I will wear a poppy for the last time’ was shared almost 60,000 times on Facebook. Born in 1923, he is a survivor of the Great Depression, a Second World War RAF veteran and an activist for the poor and for the preservation of social democracy.
Icon will publish A Letter from Harry in June 2014, supported by a "huge" marketing and publicity campaign.
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Published on January 15, 2014 05:26 • 219 views • Tags: banks, books, economy, england, history, london, non-fiction, usa, welfare, ww-2, yorkshire

December 19, 2013

On my way to Friede’s, the streets were cold, desolate, and empty of pedestrians. Anyone with a place to stay was already safely tucked warmly inside. When I arrived at the steps of Friede’s apartment, it was just after eight. I hesitated at the front door and nervously adjusted my hair. From inside the apartment, I heard Christmas carols float out from the wireless. Self-conscious and unskilled at family situations, I hoped I wasn't going to make an ass of myself or reveal my poor upbringing. Just as I was about to ring the bell, Friede swung the door open. She looked confident, happy, and flushed from drink. In the background, I heard her mother talking to Frau Gellerson.

“Hello, Happy Christmas,” I said in a voice that sounded as if I was unsure of the correct greeting.

“Merry Christmas, Harry, come in. You must be cold. Let me take your coat.” Friede slipped it off my shoulders and placed it onto the standing rack. After I slid off my boots, she took my hand and said, “Let’s go and say hi to everyone.”
“In a moment,” I said. “I want to stay here for a while longer and have you all to myself. You look so wonderful.” She blushed at the compliment and her eyes sparkled with the sensuality of youth.
Friede was wearing a delicate black, wool sweater with a slender skirt and dark nylon stockings that ran seductively up her legs. Around her delicate long neck dangled the necklace I had bought for her birthday. Her lips were crushed with a faint rouge colour, while her raven hair was combed back and had a light perfumed scent of spring flowers.

“You look so beautiful,” I stammered.
Friede blushed and whispered, “I did this for you.”

I was about to respond, when her mother shouted out. “For heaven’s sake, bring him inside, he is not a tradesman come to fix the plumbing.”

Friede ushered me into the kitchen, where her mother was preparing a fish soup for the evening meal. The Christmas tree stood at the right-hand side of the entrance. On its branches, lit candles burned from their holders and cast warm shadows across the room.

“Harry,” Maria Edelmann said with a note of accomplishment in her voice, “I actually found carp in a market today.”
“Mutti, you didn't’ find the whole fish, just the heads,” Friede interjected.
“It was still a miracle, considering that the British with their private restaurants and clubs are gobbling up all the best Christmas foods.” She wiped her hands on an apron that protected a very becoming evening dress. Maria Edelmann walked over to me and greeted me with a kiss and said, “Instead of carp for dinner, we will have bouillabaisse, which will be just fine.”

“I've brought some things that should help with the festivities.” I opened up my satchel and produced the wine, the meat pies, cheeses, and cakes. The women cooed in appreciation at the additions while Herr Gellerson looked at the wine and approved the vintage.

“Harry, choose a wine quickly,” Friede exclaimed, “because I am slowly dying from this homemade schnapps.”

Herr Gellerson interjected and said, “I could sell it on the black market as petrol and we would all be rich.”

I easily opened the cork to the French sparkling wine, but, I recklessly over-filled our glasses and spilled much of it onto the table. After a hasty toast, the Gellersons retreated to their room and Friede’s mother resumed dinner preparations. I disappeared with Friede into her tiny sleeping alcove where we talked and kissed.

“I should give you your present now,” I said, excited like a schoolboy looking for approval.

“No,” she said putting her finger to my lips. “We will eat first. Just before midnight, we open up our gifts. It is custom. It is silly that you do not know this. What on Earth did you do in England for Christmas?”

I smiled and said, “Things are different there. We opened presents in the morning.” If you were lucky to get one, I thought.

Friede changed the subject and started to smoke a cigarette.

“There is a lot of gossip going around these days about Germans being forced into work details around the city.”

“This is news to me,” I responded.

“I think it is true,” she said with a note of seriousness in her voice. “I have heard the British and the new German civilian authorities are going to send German women to work.”

“Work where?”

“In any factories that are still functional. There is also talk of German entrepreneurs returning from abroad. They made deals with the British to build their manufacturing empires on cheap labour as punishment to the Germans who stayed with Hitler. Like we had a choice,” Friede added sarcastically.

“What type of deal?”

“Don’t be a dumkoff, the oldest agreement in the world: I scratch your back, you scratch mine; it is bribes, liebchen, old-fashioned cash bribes.”

“But why are they going to force the women to work in these places?”

“There is no one left in Germany, but women and babies. All of our German men are either dead or in concentration camps in Russia. Anyway, if this happens, we will be treated like the foreign workers were under the Nazis. I don’t think I could survive under those conditions.”

“I’ve never heard anything about this,” I said, “but I am sure it will have nothing to do with you.”

“I hope not,” she said, unconvinced. She curled up a leg behind her and became child-like. “I want this holiday, this New Year to be special. During the war, Christmas was very sad with so many casualties at the front and so much destruction around at home. I never felt safe and it never felt particularly joyful.”

“I will try to make this Christmas a happy time for us;” I said, convinced I could alter history.

Friede didn't sound persuaded and asked, “What is going to become of us next year?” “We get poorer by the day. Mutti is getting older. Look, even her hair has turned grey because she is all alone with no one to look after her. I don’t think she will find another man like Henry to take care of her and protect her at her age.”

“What about your real father?” I asked.

Friede sighed. “Poor Fritz, he never got to know me because he disappeared from our lives almost after I was born. When I was a kid he wrote to me now and then, sometimes he even sent me a birthday card. The last letter I received from him was in January when the Russian army was on Germany’s boarder and the east was on fire. At the time, he worked in Berlin as an engine fitter at a factory that made lorries for the Wehrmacht.”

“What else did he say?” I asked?

“Oh, you know, the same old Fritz. “Let’s get to know each other better, you are my only daughter.” I wrote him back to say that after ignoring his only daughter for all of those years. I was just doing fine without him.”

“Did he write back?”

“No, he was probably killed defending Berlin from the Russians like most of the other old men and boys who were press-ganged into the Volkssturm. Anyway, I haven’t heard anything from him since his last letter to me. But who knows with Fritz, maybe he will show up one day with a fantastic story to tell.”

“I’m sorry about your father,” I said.

“It doesn't matter,” she responded. “I never knew him. Papa was the only man who was like a real father to me. Poor Papa, he is out of work and too old to help me with anything. So you see, Harry, I have no one to protect me. I am just a German girl among millions with no money or influence.” She sighed and continued, “I will never be able to finish my education and I am useless at anything practical. The world has had enough of dreamers. So what am I going to do?”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I will always help and things do get better.”

“How?” she asked sarcastically. “Germans and Tommie's aren't supposed to fraternize. Sure, you can have a German girlfriend, but a German wife is verboten by Britain. They don’t want us to have a future together. So don’t make promises you can’t keep, Harry.”

I was about to dispute her claim, but decided it was pointless to get into an argument over occupational policy. She was correct; the authorities in charge didn't want us to develop deep or lasting relations with Germans. The unwritten code promoted by the British military government was: trade with them, steal from them, fuck them, but for God’s sake, don’t fall in love with them. The last thing England needed was a bunch of half-breeds in lederhosen sapping reserves off council boards.

When dinner was called, the Gellersons brought out a gramophone and set it up in the kitchen. Over dinner, we listened to ancient pre-war 78 RPM discs where German carols were performed or nostalgic songs about Hamburg were sung by soloists.

During the meal, there was an element of make believe to our conversation and in the expression and gestures of the diners. Between mouthfuls of soup and warm bread, my hosts remembered and relived old Christmases when there was no war and their life was not dictated by occupation. Maria Edelmann, the Gellersons, and Friede laughed at old worn jokes. They spoke about people who were dead or who had been swallowed up by the war and were now missing from their lives. They spoke of friends, relations and acquaintances who at one time had passed over their hearts and left a shadow.

Friede turned to me and smiled as if to say: All of these old people and their memories; we will make a thousand better ones. Watching them, I understood that I was an outsider looking into their world. It was a universe of reminiscences from a collapsed galaxy and yet they were still thankful for being alive. They accepted that even though their lives had been so horribly altered by the war and their present filled with hunger and pessimism; there was a feeling of grace when they remembered their past selves.

Their stories about better days grew as thin as the candles burning on the tree and a melancholy fell across the room as the night dwindled down towards midnight. Friede and her mother looked as soft and sad as English rain. Their hearts ached for a finished era, dead family, friends and lovers.

“Harry, fill up everyone’s wine glass,” Friede instructed and stood to toast Christmas Eve. “To life, to being alive, and to all of us being fed, healthy, and happy, for a long while” Friede proclaimed.

Everyone clapped and drank from their glass. I noticed Maria Edelmann drained the entire contents of her glass and quickly refilled her glass with a trembling hand.

Maria than asked me, “So does your own mother make such a feast on Christmas Eve?”

I lied and said, “On Christmas Day, my mam puts out a roast goose with all the trimmings,” where upon everyone enviously applauded my fictitious family festivities.

“Look at the time,” Herr Gellerson said, observing his pocket watch. “It is almost midnight; we should exchange gifts.”
Another bottle of wine was opened while Friede handed out presents which were under the tree. From Maria Edelmann I received a small book of Shilller’s poetry and the Gellerson’s presented me with a pair of socks. When Friede opened up my gift, her eyes became as effervescent as champagne bubbles.

“What is it?” her mother asked?

“It is so wonderful,” Friede said. “Everyone come here and have a look at it.”

She held up into the air an exquisite silver bracelet where each link in the chain was a tiny silver elephant. Friede clapped her hands and said, “This is fantastic,” as she placed it on her wrist for everyone to admire. Friede then handed me an envelope and said nervously, “I hope this is all right, I hope you understand.”

Inside the envelope was a large photo of Friede. The portrait showed her wearing the necklace I bought for her birthday. My hands shook as I absorbed the photo and everyone around me faded away from consciousness.

Friede smiled invitingly from the photo and I swam in the depth of her eyes. They shone out from the picture and radiated a singular love for me. On the back of the photograph was inscribed: Für Meine Harry, Ich Leibe Dich.

“Do you like it?” she asked nervously.
I was silent and she repeated the question and woke me from my dreams.

“Yes,” I responded quietly.

“It was very difficult for me to find a photographer let alone someone with developing fluid and paper to make the portrait. There is literally nothing left in Hamburg to make photos.”

I leaned over to kiss her and said thank you a thousand times. I was overwhelmed and excused myself and went to get some air on the balcony. In the cold quarter to midnight air, I lit a cigarette and felt the wind dry my face stained with tears.

Friede came out onto the balcony and asked if I was ok.

“Yes,” I responded. “Your present was beautiful,” I told her in a breaking voice.

“What is it, then? Why are you so sad?” she said.

“Not sad, it’s just, before this, no one ever gave me a gift like yours. It’s hard to explain but I don’t even think anyone has ever said they love me like you did in the photo.”

“No one?” she asked in disbelief.

“Not a one,” I said, “neither my father nor mother ever really said they loved me. There was only my sister Mary who said she loved me before you. She’d say it when we went to bed as children, hungry and dirty from scrounging coal to try to keep our house warm.”

Friede, with wide open and caring eyes, kissed my hand and said, “Well, I love you. Our past lives are history. Let’s just try to love each other and hope it will survive the winter and the occupation.”

Maria Edelmann and the Gellersons came out onto the balcony. They held lit candles to confront winter’s darkness. With one arm around Friede and my other hand holding onto a burning taper, I heard the bells across the city strike midnight.

As the bells rang, people from neighbouring apartments stepped onto their balconies holding lit candles. Eventually, the clamour from the bells drifted away and all that remained was an expectant emptiness in the air.

A male voice stirred from four apartments away. He began in a low, strong tone, singing the words to Silent Night. His voice was joined by other singers until the melody reached our balcony and we also sang Braham’s lullaby to mankind. The tune traveled deep into the blackened city and dissipated into the Elbe River, where it drifted out to the cold, dark, North Sea.
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Published on December 19, 2013 06:53 • 442 views • Tags: britain, christmas, family, food, germany, hamburg, hitler, love, poverty, raf, war, winter, ww2, yorkshire, young-love, youth

November 5, 2013

In its customary fashion, November’s arrival was heralded by a shower of cold rain that fell down onto Halifax’s cobbled streets like shrapnel from a coal black sky. It was a sunless, hopeless month where daylight was a reluctant visitor. When we were fortunate enough to witness the sun’s appearances; it was a sad spectacle and Friede remarked “that it was like watching a candle flicker because it was running out of wax.”

As the sun diminished inch by inch that month, my spirit began to taper from the lack of light and the desperation of finding that one day led to another that was exactly the same as the last. The only element of my work day that I relished was the end of my shift at Macintosh’s. At half four, I crossed the factory’s gates with a hundred or so other labourers who were bundled up against the cold like me. The noise from our boots crushing against the stone pavement reminded me of the weary sound of soldiers returning to base from a long march. We all looked the same in our workmen’s jackets, caps and scarves which were either grey or in the colour of our favourite football club. There was the smell of tobacco the stuck like treacle to the outside air as worker after worker sparked up a cigarette and exhaled dirty smoke.

By the time we’d reach the end of the road way the stream of workers divided and subdivided as they rushed to catch buses to their homes. Not one of us looked back to the looming brick monolith where we had toiled since sun up. We were like caribou migrating to their winter grazing grounds who stared straight ahead in the direction of food and rest.

Through the course of that month, Guy Fawkes was the only night when Halifax appeared festive, warm and accommodating. For one short night we were granted an ephemeral camaraderie with strangers, neighbours or family while we commemorated a centuries old thwarted conspiracy against the crown.

Friede was amazed at the scene that for the uninitiated resembled something akin to a mob riot. “It looks like they want to burn down the neighbourhood,” Friede remarked.

“This is all in good fun, a way for the young ones to blow off steam, I said. When I was a lad, we’d spend days collecting wood for the fires that were lit for the Guy Fawkes celebration and sometimes we’d fight other children from different streets for the best piece of timber for our bonfire.”

“It is a strange celebration,” Friede concluded.

I laughed and said “I think it is one of our best. Guy Fawkes celebrates not only death of a traitor but gives two fingers back at the winter to come. Everyone that is out tonight looks happy and I know it might be beer in their bellies which gives their cheeks a rosy hue. But at least for this short time, people feel like they belong to a community. Better still, they can toss all their anger towards, their bosses, the government or their spouses onto the fire and say cheerio.”

A couple of days after the fiery celebration, it was evident that winter was coming. I smelt it in the outside air; I saw it on the pessimistic expressions of people on the street. It was everywhere except on the Advertisements that covered the sides of the local buses. The cold gloom was at our boarder while hope, joy and optimism readied themselves for hibernation.

There was nothing we could do to prevent the frost, the inhospitable temperatures or the sunless days but bundled ourselves up in our winter coats, light a cigarette and take refuge in a cinema and watch the latest flick from America. If we felt sufficiently flush or down in the dumps, we found a pub that had an abundant supply of fuel and song to make us feel warm in the company of fellow lost souls.
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Published on November 05, 2013 05:21 • 512 views • Tags: bonfire, bonfire-night, england, families, guy-fawkes, halifax, history, labour, love, memoir, pubs, war, yorkshire

October 11, 2013

My dad died today-seventy years ago, when war was on and I was away in the RAF doing my small bit for King and country. I didn't hear of his passing for almost two months because we had lost contact with each other when I was a bairn. You see, at the beginning of that wretched, spiteful and merciless Great Depression he’d taken ill and couldn't work any more, earn his crust as we used to say. So,there was nothing that could be done, he had to go because if there was no work for men there certainly was no work for women. Naturally to keep her kids alive, mum did what she did and dad went out into that good Yorkshire night.

He died on this day in 1943, penniless and alone. He died because his lungs were rotted like old cheese from coal dust. I suppose he died from the occupational hazard of being poor and being forced by necessity to work in those miserable pits that hacked through the Yorkshire moors.

To be honest, when I learned that he had died, I didn't know what to feel, sadness, anger or shame? I was too young and too filled with my own childish worries to understand what he had suffered and endured for me, my sister and my mum.

So, I tried to forgot him. It seemed to work until the war was over and I tried to get on with my life and the past barged in to upset my well measured existence.

It happened on a morning, when I noticed I was running both out of cigarettes and the ambition to wallow in the emotional history of my family. Got to get up and do something, I thought. I stood up and was about to go sweep up the kitchen floor when I heard an unexpected knock at our front door.

I jerked the door open and found two elderly women standing in front of me. They both wore an identical scowl on their faces. It ran from the tip of their disapproving eyes down to their thin, annoyed lips. Their façades were so dour, I thought nothing could change their expressions, not even ten years of solid sunshine.

I wasn't sure who these unwelcome guests were, but I shrugged off any idea that they were lost. They didn't look like they had ever been in need of direction or assistance in their lives. At first, I surmised that they were from the Jehovah Witnesses and were on a most unpleasant mission to sell me the miracles of Jesus.

“Sorry, ladies, but I'm not interested in God, charities, or orphans. Kindly take whatever you are peddling down the road.”
Puzzled, they looked at each other, and then one of them addressed me, “We are not selling anything.”

“Well, I don’t know what you want, but I am sure I can’t help you,” I said.

“You can’t help us,” said the older one of the two, “but perhaps you can answer a question or two for us. Are you Harry Smith?”


“Harry Leslie Smith?”

“Yes,” I said with impatience.

“Your sister is Alberta, now called Mary by some, but not by all.”

“Yes,” I said with some worry growing in my voice.

“Your father was Albert.”


“May we come in?” said the younger of the two.

“We have something to discuss with you, and it is about your father,” said the older one in a commanding voice.

Before I could assent to their request, the older woman impatiently blurted, “We don’t have all day. We have to catch the bus back to Barnsley.”

“Considering I was born and bred in Barnsley,” I said sardonically, “I should have been more courteous. By all means, please come in?”

“All right,” said the older woman, “but we can stay for no more than ten minutes. I don’t want to be left running for the bus. I have wasted too much time on this errand already, and I have much business to attend to at my pub.”

“Yes, our stay must be brief,” said the younger woman in a tone that implied that she had spent a lifetime dealing with her elder sister’s hectoring manner.

As they came into the small entrance of my house, one of the women said, “Aren't you going to ask us who we are?”

I managed to give them a half-sincere smile and said, “Ladies, I am chomping at the bit, so go on and tell me who you are.”
“We are your aunts,” they said in unison.
“My aunts?” I began to guffaw.

“This is no laughing matter,” the younger said in rebuke.

“No, I suppose not,” I responded. “You can rest assured that I am not amused to be your nephew. But considering you have come all this way to see me, please come sit.”

I ushered them into the parlour and offered them a seat on the sofa. “Well, you two must tell me how we came to be related,” I asked, uncertain as to whether or not I wanted to know their answer.

“We are your Da’s sisters.”

“Excuse me,” I said. “I must have misunderstood you,” I said snidely. “I was not aware that my father had any sisters.”

“He did,” Harriet said, “and he also had many younger brothers.”

“By gum,” I sarcastically remarked. “And up until this day, I just sort of thought my father was a fondling, abandoned at birth because no one ever came to call when we flitted from one doss house to the next in Bradford.”

The older lady sighed and said, “We loved Albert, your dad, but he broke with the family by going with your mum. It was an unforgivable transgression.”

“Oh, Christ,” I said with growing anger. “I don’t know why you two are here, but if it is to open old wounds, then you can leave right now.”

The younger woman became apologetic. “It is not our intention to cause you any distress because as they say: that is all water under the bridge.”

The older one interjected, “Perhaps we can begin again. I am Mabel, and this is my younger sister Harriet. We have come a long way to pass on some news to you. Would you be so kind as to make us a cup of tea because it has been a long day for us two old ladies?”

I went to the scullery and filled a kettle full of water and put it on the hob, then I began to mutter to myself that none of this boded well.

When the tea was ready, I brought it out to the sitting room. I lit up a cigarette and rudely blew smoke in their direction. Their intrusion into my life irritated me and stirred up in me an anger towards my father’s irresolute family, who failed to be loyal to their own kind or show kindness to those who had been beaten soundly into the dirt by fate.

I looked dismissively at the two old ladies to see if I could find something in them that reminded me of my father’s gentle but brooding soul. They both looked liked they had been well taken care of in life, but their visages looked as hard as stone. Mabel looked to be in her seventies, while Harriet was perhaps ten years her junior. They appeared as proud and aloof as my dad, but they didn't seem to share his generous nature or his inquisitive mind. Nevertheless, the two women had some features in common with my father. They had his attractive eyes, elegant hands, and Victorian manners.

The women gently sipped their tea and nibbled on some biscuits. We were all silent, preoccupied by past events that we each endured from different perspectives. It was Mabel who finally broke our silence and said, “I was there when your Da died in Bradford, at Saint Joe’s Hospital, in 1943.”

I didn't respond, and my aunt took this as an affirmation that I wished her to continue.

“He went painlessly,” Harriet commented, as if this news were intended to reassure me or make me feel better about my father’s pauper’s exit from this mortal coil.

I was silent, and after a time I butted my cigarette out in the ashtray. “Small mercies,” I said with some hostility in my voice.

“Your dad wanted you and your sister to have what money, whatever possessions he owned. Mind you, it’s not much,” said Mabel dismissively.

“Crumbs for a sparrow,” chortled Harriet, who then looked around the room and took a mental accounting of where I stood - so to speak - on the ladder of life.

“But it was what your dad left you, and I wanted to respect your father’s dying wish,” Mabel concluded.

“My Dad died five years ago. That’s a long time being dead, and it took you all these years to get in contact with me?”
Harriet put down her tea cup. It hit the saucer with some force. She muttered, “I can see the apple doesn't fall far from the tree in this field.”
“I beg your pardon?” I responded with rising irritation in my voice.

“Your Da defied his family in 1914, and you seem to have his same independent and disrespectful manner when it comes to your elders. Your father was a fool to choose your mum over his family, and because of it, he was cast out from his kith and kin. He lost everything the day he married your mum: money, respect, eventually he couldn't even show his face in the village where he was born.”

“Defied? Defied bloody what? You must be seriously taking the mickey out of me.”

“Our family,” said Mabel, “was a proud family, and your mum had no place in it; she was looking for an easy life.”

“That’s enough,” I said. “Don’t ever speak in that tone of voice to me about my mother or father or I’ll chuck you out of this house by the scruff of your neck. Neither of you have the right to judge them, considering what they suffered for their so called ‘transgression’ against your kind. You lot are just a bunch of cold hearted, miserable bastards.”

Mabel’s expression darkened across her face as if she were about to unleash a tempest upon me, but Harriet interrupted her before she could strike. “We are just here to follow your father’s last wishes; nothing more, nothing less. Once it is done, we can all go back to living our lives.”

Mabel added, “As far as I am concerned, I didn't come here to stir up any old dirt. ‘Leave the dead with the dead,’ I say. I will give you your legacy, and then we will be off. Your father didn't leave much. There was no insurance or -”

I interrupted her, as I was growing irritated by her circumlocutions. “Mabel, I think it is safe to say that what his own people denied him and what the Great Depression stole from him, my Dad was busted both physically and financially when he clocked off.”

“Yes,” said Mabel with a distasteful note of superiority. “He didn't have much of value to sell, but here is your share.” Mabel then handed me a handkerchief, which contained a small amount of coins.
“There is nine shillings and tuppence,” she said, and then added, “please count it to make sure it is all there.”

“I don’t think it is necessary for me to count my father’s Earthly worth, or the silverware, for that matter, after you have gone.”

I took the money and held it tightly in my hand. I looked at my father’s two sisters and said, “‘Ashes to ashes,’ quoth the parson.”

The women concluded that our reunion was finished and stood to leave. I gathered their coats, and while they prepared to go, I asked - not expecting an answer - “Did he have any last words?”

Mabel said, “Not really. He was very sick. His lungs were shot from working in the mines, and his heart wasn't much better. It was like a clock that could no longer be wound because the mechanism was broken inside. I had gone to see him in hospital, but he was very weak but wanted to talk. So we spoke of long ago times when he was a miner at Barley Hole and our father ran the pub beside the pit. He wasn't afraid of death. In fact, I think he welcomed death. His only regret was how he lost touch with his children.”

At this point, Harriet interjected and said, “Mabel, do not forget to tell him about what Albert said just before he died because it was most strange.”
“Yes, you are right,” responded Mabel. “The last word he said to me or anyone on this Earth was ‘Babylon’. Honestly, I don’t know what that means; he was not a religious man.”

I smiled; I knew what it meant, but I was not going to tell them. I was not going to give up my father’s secrets, my secrets, to these two old crows.
As the two ladies stood on our front stoop, I indifferently thanked them for their visit. I closed the door to them and shut the bolt, knowing that I was locking away that side of my family for good. Let them rot in my memory as they've let us fester in the Depression, I thought.

I sat back down on the couch and stared for a long while at the coins wrapped in a silk handkerchief. Outside, it had begun to rain, and it splashed against the window. I noticed I was out of cigarettes, and I scooped up my dad’s legacy and slipped on my overcoat and went out to buy some cigarettes and beer at the off licence. When I stood in line to order, I thought about paying for my purchase with the coins from my dad’s inheritance, but I stopped because something inside of me said this was not right.

On my way home, the cold spray from the rain washed away some of the dirtiness I felt after my encounter with my father’s sisters. I returned to the parlour and turned the wireless box up loud and let it deafen me with swing music and sat down to drink my beer and stare at the loose change left to me by my father.

“Ta, Dad,” I said and took a long swig from me beer. “I’ll grant that you didn't leave me much, but then again, I never needed much from you. When I was four and you took me down the road for a plate of mushy peas, you bought my heart for a penny. Never you mind,” I said to myself and started to weep. “I’ll find Babylon, just like you promised me I would. Don’t you remember, Da?” I said, talking to the coins. “It was when I was a lad and you let me look through your book, Harmworth’s History of the World. I found all those beautiful pictures about the ancient wonders of the world and asked you, ‘What is this place?’, and you responded, ‘It were a paradise, but one day, lad, when it is right as rain, you will travel far from these dales and cold moors. I feel it in my bones that you will see sights and wonders grander than those of ancient history.’”

I wiped my tears dry with the cuff of my shirt. I realised that even though he was only in my life for a few brief years, his presence was worth a million pounds to me.
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Published on October 11, 2013 07:15 • 561 views • Tags: bradford, childhood, children, dads, death, fathers, great-depression, halifax, hitler, money, old-age, poverty, sons, ww2, yorkshire

August 16, 2013

I returned back to camp to get cleaned up for the ceremony. As I dressed, I started to shake and had to sit down and have a cigarette. I was overcome by my good fortune and the fear it was going to run out. How is it possible, I asked myself, that I fell into this joy, this great promise of better days? I didn't know the reason except blind luck. There were so many others who missed out on life and were cut down before their time because of the Great Depression or the war. Yet I had somehow survived. I was granted by fortune or endurance or whimsy the chance to love and be loved in return. I had arrived at the entrance to a life worth living. “Don’t bugger it up,” I said while brushing my hair tightly back.

When Stan and I rode up to the church in a Jeep, I saw there was a growing crowd of inquisitive onlookers loitering around the entrance. Stan and I quickly rushed through the church doors and passed the assembled guests as we moved towards the altar. While I waited for Friede, Stan cracked jokes to me and the vicar.

It was hot inside the church and the air was stagnant. The padre was sweating and the organist looked uncomfortable on his stool. I mopped my brow with a handkerchief, while Stan said, “Hope none of the neighbours nick the beer while we are at church.”

After several more perspiring moments, I heard the doors open at the back of St Luke’s. The guests shuffled in their seats and then made an appreciative collective sigh. Friede had arrived with her foster father, Max. The music was struck and Friede walked slowly towards me. I knew that she was drinking in this moment. I knew that every step Friede took, she believed was a final and absolute negation of her stigma. Walking up that aisle, she wasn't just coming towards me; she was walking away from her childhood sorrows, pains, and humiliations. I wanted to turn around, but dared not. Stan glanced backwards and whispered to me, “Blimey, she’s beautiful.”

Finally, Friede and Max were beside us. The organ notes faded away like a feather caught in a breeze. Max ceremoniously relinquished Friede to my care. He whispered in my ear, “Be well and remember to be tender to my Friedle.”

Friede and I sheepishly smiled at each other. She whispered the words, “Ich liebe dich.” The satin bridal gown magnified her loveliness and made her beauty appear timeless, untouchable, and seductive. Her beauty, her history, and her fragility humbled me as I stood in my RAF blue dress uniform. Friede held a bouquet of wild flowers, whose scent perfumed the air around us. It was a wonderful fresh aroma that made me think of our time walking in the botanical gardens.

Our wedding service wasn't long but it was charged with emotion, laughter, and human kindness. The chaplain joined us as man and wife, but said this was also a marriage unique for this town and for our garrison. It was the first post-war marriage between a Brit and a German. It was a signal, he said. It was a harbinger of peaceful days to come because if love could germinate between two young people from different cultures; the world was healing its wounds from the war. Finally, the vicar pronounced us man and wife. He blessed the union and we were wed.

Friede and I walked slow and steady to the church’s exit and on our way out, we received the adulation from the pews. I whispered a “thank-you” to Friede. She smiled and had tears in her eyes. For a brief second, I felt afraid of my new responsibility and I hoped I wouldn't disappoint her. I didn't want to muddle up destiny’s kindness towards me.

On the steps of the church, a wedding photographer took our picture. Once the pictures were taken, the guests were ferried to the reception in a fleet of Volkswagen taxis I had commandeered earlier on in the day for a hefty black market bribe.
The feast, the feelings of good will, and the emotional atmosphere were never better at Maria Edelmann’s apartment than on the day of our reception. Everyone was content; no one brought any disgruntled and disjointed emotions to the party. There were toasts from Friede mother. There were speeches from Sid and Dave. Congratulatory telegrams arrived from my mother and sister. Friede translated them into German and read them out to the guests, who applauded my English family for their warm-hearted support.

We drank wine and beer, and ate cakes and delicate sandwiches. Cigarettes were shared and hands held. I felt proud that I had orchestrated this feast of love for Friede, her family, and her friends. Halfway through the reception, Friede slipped out of the room. She quickly returned and sat beside her mother. They talked in low voices and then hugged each other warmly. Friede walked over to a painting hanging on the wall and placed a small wallet-sized photo of her father Fritz along the edges of the frame. She raised her glass and announced,

“To my mother who loved me in dangerous times; to my foster mother for caring for me; to my foster father who loved me as his own.” The wedding table broke into applause at the dedications. When the clapping stopped, Friede continued, “I raise my glass to Harry, who will love me until the ends of days, and I shall love him whether the sea is in storm or the waters calm.”
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Published on August 16, 2013 06:58 • 1,009 views • Tags: britain, germany, hamburg, hitler, love, marriage, raf, sex, war, yorkshire, young-adults, young-love

August 14, 2013

Jack Common

Born: August 15, 1903, Heaton, Newcastle, United Kingdom
Died: January 20, 1968, Newport Pagnell, United Kingdom
Books: Kiddar's Luck

Jack Common and I never met in life, although we shared a great many similar early life experiences. Both of us were fully fledged members of the working class, knew extreme poverty, heart ache and hungered for a better education than was afforded to us.

I came to know Jack Common’s writing when most of the storms of my youth had subsided. I regret that I was not introduced to him sooner because Common’s most famous work Kiddar’s Luck depicts a hard scrabble time in Edwardian Tyneside that evokes my own childhood twenty years later in Depression ravaged Yorkshire.

The era that Common wrote about may seem to a modern reader to be as ancient and distant as Dickens’s Pickwick papers but I can assure you that Kiddar’s Luck is still redolent because poverty today is just as much a scourge as it was in early twentieth century Britain. Moreover, I think Jack Common would have been sorely disappointed in the twentieth first century because despite all its progress there is still a great divide between the have and the have nots.

As Jack Common’s 110th birthday comes to pass, we should pause and remember a man who believed in the dignity of the working class and strove to illuminate through his professional writing the hardships faced by so many in this country.

He was a man who wasn't afraid to fight against injustice, enjoyed a good smoke, a pint of beer and a good laugh. His life wasn't easy but he bequeathed to future generations his indomitable spirit which modern day working class activist can emulate.

I lament that Jack Common and I never crossed paths but I think if we had, it would have been a fine friendship. So, as a casual contemporary of Jack Common, on the day of his birth, I will raise my glass and use his own famous words as a toast: “First we start with a handshake.”
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Published on August 14, 2013 10:41 • 425 views • Tags: activism, britain, england, george-orwell, great-depression, jackcommon, newcastle, poverty, writers