Harry Leslie Smith's Blog - Posts Tagged "1923-the-book"

Crikey, I am 88 today. Many years ago, I was told that the midwife who helped bring me into this world had a fondness for the demon gin and carbolic soap. She was by all accounts a thrifty magpie who spent a good deal of her day predicting my family's decent into the gutter. Perhaps it was because my father could only pay half her fee. Despite the paltry sum, she received at bringing me into this world; I don’t think she cursed me when she put me into the dubious arms of my mom. I think that she slapped my bottom and wished me good luck and good riddance and left me swaddled in the blankets of poverty and ignorance.

Looking back now, across the river to my beginning, I wonder how many bairns that midwife brought into this world, from that poor and hungry coal mining neighbourhood. If they were anything like my family, they began their first steps way behind the starters block and were handicapped by limited health care, education, proper sanitation and decent housing.

Somehow, I and many of the other’s from the birth canal class of 23 survived to grow into gangly teens. However, we were not destined to follow into our father’s footsteps and go down deep into coal pits of Yorkshire. The world had other plans for us boys of 1923 and we were led reluctantly into war. During those five years, the lights of many of my brethren, from 1923, were extinguished in faraway places like Tobruk, Monte Cassino and the Sheldt.

As for the rest of us, we carried on in this Divine Comedy called life. We built families, businesses, communities. For some of us, the memories surrounding the unjust and uncivilized conditions we were born into were so strong, we fought to reform the systems of government across Europe and North America. Other’s from my class of 23 were quiet revolutionaries and insured that those in their families were loved and would never want for food or shelter.

Today unfortunately, most of those babies from 1923 only appear in our newspapers as an obituary, their lives compressed into a haiku twitter. So as one of the few, who is still here, still active, still bloody lucky from 1923; I will take a page out of my midwife’s book. I shall toast my good fortune with a Gordon’s gin and tonic. 1923  A Memoir  Lies and Testaments by Harry Leslie Smith
As I scraped my face, this morning, with a disposable razor. I made one long stroke too many.For perhaps the six thousands time, in my long life; I cut my chin. As my blood dripped down into the wash basin, I thought of yesterday’s lunch, roast turkey, with all the trimmings. I started to wonder how many, Sunday dinners had I supped on during my long life?

As a boy, these end of week feasts celebrations of plenty were a rare event. But when it did happen, it caused great joy for my parents and us children. I can remember, my father’s precision at sharpening the carving blades as if he were part whirling dervish. Later on, when I was head of the table, I would imitate my father’s art . And now old and shuffled down to the sides of a smaller table, for yesterday’s Sunday Roast, I noticed more the dead who were absent, then those alive around me, who absent-mindedly attended to their mastication.

So on this left over Monday, I will have my tea with the long departed spirits of my youth. Between bites of my sandwich, I shall think fondly of my dad, who seldom had the chance to carve a roast, because he was out work and we were living doss- house- rough in Bradford.
As it does in April, it rained today. It wasn’t a hard or bitter rain. It was just unpleasant drizzle which made my morning walk uncomfortable. Even the dog, who dawdled beside me, was despondent. The damp seeped through my rain coat, while I grimly sloshed through sidewalk puddles on my way home to a warm cup of tea. Young power walkers barged passed me with their iPod buds locked to their ears, dismissing the glory of the stroll with their arrogant strides.

By the time, I had reached the public school, near my residence; I was so tired of the wet, sunless day. I had to rest. On the pitch, I saw school boys’ practise rugby. I looked at the young teens learning to scrum, their knees caked in turf and dirt. I marvelled at their youth, their pursuit of this one moment in time. I stood for a while watching them, the dog panting beside me, the April rain smearing my glasses. I wondered how many more cruel April’s remained for me. I am afraid not as many as I have already experienced as a boy and a man. I lingered, for a while longer, watching the boys at their sport and yearned for my spring, my youth in 1945.

Perhaps, it was a selfish wish to want to step back into those days, for just one more brief moment. After all, it was a bloody time for many as the war spiralled down to its end. However, for some, like me, we were permitted the grace to continue our lives and find joy in a cigarette or a brew up, while birds overhead began nesting. During that final week of the war when the months straddled the rain of April and the sun of May; Europe was slowly being reborn. And across the border in Nazi territory, a young girl’s life was spared. She was walking, with three friends, in the botanical park in Hamburg. They were enjoying the beauty of an early spring and that the war was almost over. Above them they spotted an American fighter plane rapidly descending as if to strafe the young women. Yet, realizing they were young, non combatants, that the war was nearing its end and that even animosity can be spent, he soared passed them. The pilot tipped his wings to either indicate victory or perhaps peace. One of the women, who witnessed the brazen pilot’s flyby, became my wife. As for the pilot, I hope he still struggles through the rain of April, with the same gallantries he displayed in his youth.
My grandfather was a walrus of a man, who in old age was most comfortable resting on his laurels, far from my grandmother’s hectoring tongue. It was a rare occasion to find him standing. It was rarer still to find him standing outdoors, beside me, on the edges of winter.
It only happened once, on a cold, wet day in November,1920. Contrary to popular myth the 1920's never roared, at least not for my family; it brayed at us like an irritated donkey.
Armistice Day was the only occasion which altered my grandfather’s supine preference. For that day, he always rose to the occasion. During those grim ceremonies, he stood tall and rigid beside our village cenotaph to commemorate the fallen, the lost and butchered from the Great War. My grandfather wasn’t there to remember his service, in that fools war. A conflict which did more to enhance the balance sheets of Mr. Vickers and Herr Krupp than ennoble youth. No, my grandfather did not serve in that conflict: he was too old. His time in the King’s army was spent in India, in the 1890′s where he saw no uprising, fired no gun but came back to Yorkshire with a fondness, for chutney and Calcutta after dark. My grandfather came with me to the centopah in 1920 to remember his son Tom, whose name was etched on the memorial commemorating the fallen men of the village. My grandfather came on that day and every other remembrance day to pay respect to his eldest son who was consumed, like the millions of other young, boys, between 1914-1918, in a war they said would end all wars.

Now, like my grandfather, I am old and shuffling. Today, I will go before my centotaph and remember my war and it’s loses. During the ceremony, I will say a little prayer for serving men and women everywhere. I hope, regardless of their uniform, they will expire with the distinction my grandfather earned upon his death. The local newspaper honoured him as the village’s oldest soldier. Granddad died in his bed, with his boots off, at seventy-three. Now that is dulce et decorum.
Last night autumn arrived on cat’s paws and curled around my legs and hissed at the shrinking sunlight. I find it melancholic how the days grow shorter while evening boastfully exhales a cold black into the garden. It is the season of rot and death before winter throws us into a frozen hibernation. Outside, I sip on a sherry, wrapped snug in a pullover and listen to a dog digging in the ground beside me. I wonder where it all went. I don’t mean the past summer or even this last spring. No, it is something much longer and yet so brief, it was gone like a kiss stolen between lovers. I want to know where all my time has gone because I am starting to feel like the gambler left with one last chip and one last spin at the roulette table.

I suppose my stake was to write it all down and recreate the scenes of my human comedy which were staged so long ago. They played out in the slums of my childhood and in the limelight of my adolescents spent in the smouldering ruins of Germany. It is my last venture, so to speak, to set my wager on memory. I hope like a foolish alchemist that my words can resurrect, if only for a blink of an eye, all that love, fear and wonder I felt so long ago. So, now while sipping my drink and feeling the night’s chill against my back, I hold in my hand, a new manuscript: Hamburg 1947. It is like a sarcophagus because it contains my long dead youth, my long dead loves and my long dead friends. Yet, if you open it; my vanished world is resuscitated and let free to once again wander in search of harmony, purpose and dignity. Did we find it? Even now, I do not know but we did seize the moment and drink it to its lees.

So maybe tonight with fall drawing in, I can go to sleep content that I have tended the garden of my past and harvested the struggles of my youth. It is not a great legacy but at least I dared to leave a footprint in the sand, for all those I knew and loved. For me, there is grace in knowing that in text my young life continues in pursuit of love and happiness. Hamburg 1947 will be published this October, just before winter buries us all.
It wasn’t meant to happen but I fell in love with the german girl. It was astonishing and something I didn’t expect to occur, considering our countries had been at war for five years. They were our mortal enemies and my knowledge of Germany was based upon propaganda posters and dirty pub songs about the Fuehrer’s testicles. I only knew Germany through news reels which showed an endless sea of jackboots flood across Europe. The picture magazines taught me that Germans were tall, blonde and athletic, with a penchant for gymnastics and torch light parades. My RAF instructors reinforced the prejudice that Germans were lacking in humour or kindness. “Woe to any poor bastard shot down over Germany, they’ll skin the bugger alive, the Nazi scum.” By the time I had reached Belgium and Holland what I had already learned about Germans seemed about right. After I saw my first starving Dutch child, I knew Germans were evil and sinister.

It wasn’t until I crossed over into northern Germany and and saw the enormity of destruction the air war had inflicted on their population; I accepted that no one escaped sorrow and hardship in this war. My hostility towards the german people began to dissipate after seeing that their cities had been bombed back to the middle ages. A month into our occupation of Hamburg, I had seen enough emaciated german children living in helpless conditions to haunt me for the rest of my life. So, I dispensed with our orders to treat all Germans as hostile and suspect. It didn’t take me long to understand that Friede was both my Beatrice and my Virgil. She was the one who was to lead me through Germany’s post war inferno and to a greater understanding of Germany and its people.
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 in 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.

We waited and Warsaw fell to the Russians. We waited impatiently and the death marches began for the near-lifeless prisoners of the concentration camps. We waited while the Germanic retreat of volks deutch began, from the Eastern, Hanseatic fortresses of Lithuania, Latvia, and Pomerania. Over two million Aryan refugees limped across the snow or sailed in over-laden ships across the icy Baltic. While underneath the slushy sea, Russian submarines hungrily trawled the waters in vengeful wait. The Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz and we waited. For parts of Holland still under German occupation, “The Hunger Winter” was now in its fifth month and the citizens were reduced to consuming tulip bulbs and boiling shoe leather for nutrients. We waited anxious, ignorant, and callow for Europe.
I don’t know why but the winter rains stopped and spring came early in 1945. When Hitler committed suicide at the end of April, the flowers and trees were in full bloom and the summer birds returned to their nesting grounds. Not long after the great dictator’s corpse was incinerated in a bomb crater by his few remaining acolytes, the war in Europe ended. After so much death, ruin and misery; it was remarkable to me how nature resiliently budded back to life in barns, in fields and across battlegrounds, now calm and silent. The earth said to her children; it is time to abandon your swords and harness your ploughs; the ground is ripe and this is the season to tend to the living.

I was twenty-two and ready for peace. I had spent four years in the R.A.F as a wireless operator. During the war, I was lucky; I never came close to death. While the world bled from London to Leningrad; I walked away without a scratch. Make no mistake, I did my part in this war; I played my role and I never shirked the paymaster’s orders. For four years, I trained, I marched, and I saluted across the British Isles. During the final months of the conflict, I ended up in Belgium and Holland with B.A.F.U. My unit was responsible for maintaining abandoned Nazi air fields, for allied aircraft.

When Germany surrendered, to the allies in gutted Berlin, I was in Fuhlsbuttel, a northern suburb of Hamburg. Our squadron took up a comfortable residence in its undamaged aerodrome located not far from the main thoroughfare. At the time, I didn’t think much about Fuhlsbuttel, I felt it was between nothing and nowhere. It was much like every other town our unit drove through during the dying days of the war. Nothing was out of place and it was, quiet, clean and as silent as a Sunday afternoon.

While I slept in my new bed, in this drowsy neighbourhood; the twentieth century’s greatest and bloodiest conflict came to an end at midnight on May seventh. On the morning of the eighth, our R.A.F commander hastily arranged a victory party, for that afternoon. The festivities were held in a school gymnasium close to the airport.

No one considered or asked on that day of victory “what happens next.” That was tomorrow’s problem. I certainly didn’t question my destiny on that spring afternoon. Instead like the Romans, I followed the edict carpe diem: I ate too much, I smoked too much and I drank too much. And, why not I reasoned, the war was over and I had survived whereas many others had been extinguished as quickly as it takes to blow out a flame on a candle.
There was a time when the city’s skyline was low and my horizons stretched towards infinity. It wasn’t that long ago when I was a new immigrant to this country. I was fast putting down roots in this young land where billboards dotted the highway and promised ice-cold Coca Cola and happiness at the next exit. Back then, opportunity was long and endless as the freeway for recent arrivals to this nation.

When my second son was born, a little over fifty years ago, I bought a used Morris with a dodgy clutch. Even though I thought it a bit pricey, I purchased it because I needed it to ferry home my new child and my wife from the maternity hospital. In those days when wealth was measured by the health of your family and the strength of your convictions; we lived in small rented house on a cul- de- sac which edged onto a park. During the summer, those rambling woods were populated with the cries of children building forts and in winter the trees were hushed by dense clean snow.

When I brought home my second boy, he slept happily all the way through the car ride, cradled in his mum’s arms. I thought watching the road and stealing glances at them in the rear-view mirror; this is just marvellous, this is just right; the gods above have shown me mercy and benevolence. When I laid him down for the first time in his crib; I wished for him, I wished for me and hoped for all of us a calm and pleasant life. The simple hope didn’t seem out-of-place in our new land, this country of endless space, unspeakable prospects and bounty. Back then, in the not so distant past, I marvelled at my family, I trembled at my luck and grace to be a husband and a father.

Now in the present, the city is vast. The skyline is a behemoth of cold steel and glass. It erupts towards the earth’s ceiling like an arrogant gesture of one’s finger to nature and humanity. The Morris, the park and the little house on the cul-de-sac vanished long ago, along with my young family. We evolved with this country. We aged and through the march of days felt the beginnings of our decay. My wife, she was the first to let go and slip beneath the waves. I thought, her going was the deepest cut, the hardest blow I had ever faced in my life. But I said this is nature’s way; the old die off and the young take over. Life continues and so I thought, the next must be me. It was only reasonable because I am old and this is the law of life and renewal. But you, my second son, left before me. You disappeared at the moment where you could see the summit of your achievement but could not reach it. When you went, you didn’t sneak out in the night. You didn’t leave quietly, gently or with painless kindness. No, you went hard and heavy, slow and painful. There was no lesson to be learned from your end but there was so much to savour from your too brief dance on this planet.

Today is your birthday and it will always be for me a day of wonder. So, with your permission, I shall move backwards into the thicket of my time and my place. I will remember a second-hand Morris with a dodgy clutch, scrubbed and polished for your ride home, from the hospital. I will remember taking extra care on the roads which led us home. I will remember stealing glances at you in the rear-view mirror, wrapped tightly in your mother’s arms. I will remember smiling and loving the mystery and miracle which was you, my son Peter.
My sister Mary suggested we go on a day journey to Blackpool as a present for my school leaving.

The next Sunday, we took an early train from Halifax to Blackpool. It was my first train trip and I was enthralled at the prospect of an adventure. The giant steam locomotive pushed itself out of the station with blasts of grey smoke and a giant cry from its whistle. Mary and I sat on wooden benches in the third class compartment. We pulled the heavy window down and breathed in heavy, sooty air as we were propelled towards the sea. On our voyage, we passed innumerable, identical hamlets and villages. We saw the same grim and dour people enter or exit the train. Mary and I made fun of the stodgy, old people while we passed the time eating apples. For me, it was like I was leaving my homeland. In my imagination, our train could have gone to Zanzibar or Tashkent, instead of Blackpool, the mythical northern seaside town to the poor crowds from the north. It was a city filled with diversion and amusement where, throughout long summer nights, the town was set ablaze with a multitude of illuminations, and cheap romance was found between cotton candy kisses and the Ferris wheel. Always present, in the back ground was the noise from the crash of the sea waves and the thunderous roar of the death-defying roller coasters.

“Harry, Harry,” my sister called out to me, waking me from my dreams. “Don’t you worry; one day, Harry, we will grab a train and never look back, never come back. Bye-bye Mum, bye shite life… Hello world…”

Enthusiastically, I cried out, “Yes.”

When the train rushed into Blackpool station, Mary took my hand and we hurried out of the station waiting to find fun and adventure.

“Remember, Harry, no rainy day thoughts. Now, brother, it’s time to go find some fun!”

Outside, the sky was clear and blue and the temperature mild and refreshing. We were lucky because we found a cheap fish and chip shop on our way to the beach and boardwalk. We treated ourselves handsomely to two orders of battered cod and chips. Our lunch was wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper. Mary and I found a bench near the shop and we sat down to eat. We tore through our meal. We laughed and joked in between bites of fish drowned in malt vinegar. Feeling stuffed and sated, we crunched up our spent lunch and dumped it in a bin. We walked down to the beating heart of Blackpool, the promenade beside the sea. As we approached, we heard the noise, the electricity coming from the amusement rides. We saw the giant Ferris wheels turning on the horizon, with loud and boisterous occupants. We heard bells clanking while men barked into metal tubes, magnifying their voices.

Our first quest, we decided, was a walk on the beach as we had never in our lives seen the sea or smelled salt air. We hopped off the promenade and our feet sank into voluminous sand. Looking out towards the water, I observed tiny breakers riding up against the shore. Above us, seagulls frolicked and shrieked, spying stray bits of trash to eat. I had brought a ball with us and we played toss on the cool sand. We both thought we were on holiday, in our version of paradise. After a while, we stopped playing catch. We traipsed down the wide expanse of sea and surf, kicking the sand upwards, while walking astride each other. We were arm in arm, singing childish lullabies.

“Once upon a time, when birds shit lime and monkeys chewed tobacco…”

Mary said, “Let’s go to the Blackpool Tower.”

The tower stood 520 feet high and at its base was a giant building that housed a circus, zoo, and aquarium. We gained admittance for a couple of pence and immediately found the animal enclosure, where we laughed at the monkeys. I made silly faces back to them and imitated their gestures and their antics. The lions in their cage looked proud and indifferent to our entreaties to roar as kings of the jungle.

In a quiet moment, Mary said, “Not a bad life eh, Harry? For the lion that is… all he has got to do is look fierce and tough. Scare the shite out of people. But at tea time, he knows a man will come along and throw a nice bit of meat his way. A roast beef or a leg of lamb, we wouldn’t even see on Sunday. For that big pole cat’s supper, I’d roar and snarl and bark.”

Suddenly, she let loose a giant growl as if she were a lioness. We left the animal den and rode the elevator to the top of the tower, eating a piece of rock candy. We stared out across the sea and I told Mary, “If you stare a little further out, there is Ireland.”

“And a little further back is Leeds and bloody Manchester,” she replied. “One day, Harry, and never you mind, one day we will get out.”

We descended the tower, our cheeks whipped by the wind as we raced to the fairground.

“My treat, let’s ride the dodgems,” I called to Mary.

We jumped into our separate cars and chased each other around the ring, while sparks of electricity traced the ceiling. We drove into one and other and bumped other cars. We laughed until tears ran down our faces and our turn and our money ran low, ending the ride.

The day was quickly done. We made our way back to the station and our train, which would take us to Halifax and home. On our return journey; we were both exhausted from joy. Mary and I hugged each other.

“Promise,” I said, “that we can do this again, real soon.”

“Sure, Harry, sure we will.”

Separately and forlornly, we stared out of the window while outside, cloud and darkness descended……..