Harry Leslie Smith's Blog - Posts Tagged "barnsley"

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.
A hundred years ago, on April 2nd, enumerators for the 1911 census flushed out across Ireland and the British Isles and counted every man woman and child. From Blowhard aristocrat to down and outer, they were tallied like inventory in a businessman’s ledger book. Yet, those citizens from the Isle of Man to Aberdeen were more than numbers in the national census. It was a country wide snap shot which froze a moment, in 1911, like it was an ant mummified in primordial amber.

An enumerator on that cool spring night came to my grandfather’s pub located on the doorsteps of a coalmine in the West Riding. The census does not report whether the enumerator stamped his boots at the pub’s entrance and complained of the chill in the air. Nor does it mention if my grandfather poured the man a pint for performing his civic duty. The details contained in the census are sparse and methodical. The document does not reveal the thoughts of the now silent signatories.

I look at the broad, bold penmanship of my grandfather while below him is the neat precise strokes my father made as he wrote his name on the paper. Down the list his brothers names followed his, until finally their two female domestic servants hastily left their names at the bottom of the census document. Perhaps, at the time, the males in the room made light of the females participation and joked that they were suffragettes in disguise.

When, I scan my family’s participation in the census, the poignancy of that record overwhelms me because it is shared with eternity. Their personality, their position in the world is frozen to that time and date by declarations of their age, employment and marital status. There is a surety in their handwriting which cries out and declaims an unshakable belief in Edwardian society, Britain’s empire and god’s good favour, from up above. But progress and time can’t remain stuck and my family’s fortune, their health and their optimism began to unravel after the census was taken. Britain’s demise was slower but just as inevitable. The following year, the unsinkable Titanic sunk in the bitterly cold North Atlantic drowning not only passengers but the dream of man’s supremacy over nature. Within, three years of the census, the world went to war. Millions of men were murdered in battles which erased a generation and enriched armaments corporations for decades to come.

So looking back on my ancestors, who were counted, in the pub on the doorsteps of a coal mine in the West riding; I bid them good night. They make me wonder if our own days in the sun are dwindling down. Is our society at the end of epoch? Are we like a clock that no longer keeps time and is it already past midnight?
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.
It was a month after my wife’s death, when I found them. They were in her writing desk buried under sheaves of ancient letters and mementos of a well lived life. It was a stack of old Mother’s Day cards, tied together with a string. She kept the cards, I suppose to remember those mothering Sundays, from the first to the last. She wanted to hold onto those moments when her children tried to define their love for her.

I remember cutting the string and examining these ageing fragments of affection to her, from our kids. The cards on the top were handmade and produced when the children were in kindergarten to grade three. They were constructed out of hard crate paper. Their sides were uneven because the craftsmen were not familiar with scissors or straight lines. Each card greeted me with a yellow sun drawn with a thick crayon nub. It shone down onto a pencil sketched stick figure, tagged underneath as Mum.

Some of the children’s earliest demonstrations of love for their mother were decorated with paper mâché tulips or butterflies. Inside, no matter the child, the greeting was the same, I love you Mummy printed in a bold and primitive style. By the middle of the pile, the Mother’s Day cards were no longer handmade but store bought. The front of the cards displayed polished, shots of fresh cut flowers and bold fonts proclaiming For You Mother. The cards’ interiors were as shiny as their exterior and treacle verse slithered down to the bottom of the embossed paper like maple syrup dripping into a bucket. They looked anonymous and mass produced, except for the flash of individuality found at the bottom of the cards: each one had the motif I love you Mum and in our sons’ unique hand writing, their autograph. At the very end of the stack were the Mother’s Day cards from the year of her death. Our children had grown into men but each of their final Mother’s Day cards displayed a love as simple and as direct as the proclamations they made to her in their boyhood.

When my wife died, it came as no surprise to me that our children placed onto her still body, a Mother’s Day card, handmade in their boyhood. It was only natural, that our children didn't want their Mum to feel alone and abandoned while she made her journey to the crematorium. They wanted some part of their hearts to travel with her to her final resting place, amongst the atoms and debris of the expanding cosmos.
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.