Harry Leslie Smith's Blog - Posts Tagged "great-depression"

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
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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.
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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?
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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……..
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He is not a historian but he is history. Nearing 90, Harry Leslie Smith has witnessed or participated in pretty well every major historical event in the twentieth century. As a boy, he lived through the social and political upheavals generated by the conclusion of the first Great War. Growing up in the both the mining and factories towns of Northern England, he experienced the devastation wrought by the Great Depression.

When Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and started the Second World War, Smith volunteered on his 18th birthday and joined the RAF. So began Harry Leslie Smith’s involvement in the charnel house of war which concluded for him as a member of Britain’s occupational forces in defeated Nazi Germany.

Now nearing the end of his life and understanding that there are few witnesses left to these great and horrible events in one of mankind’s bloodiest and cruellest centuries, Smith has documented his early years in a series of social histories. Harry Leslie Smith latest work is aptly called Hamburg 1947: A Place for the Heart to Kip. It is the first book every written from the perspective of a British occupational soldier stationed in war ravaged Hamburg. From his billet in Hamburg, a city razed to the ground by remorseless aerial bombardment, he witnesses a people and era on the brink of annihilation. This narrative presents a street-level view of a city reduced to rubble populated with refugees, black marketers, and cynical soldiers.
At times grim and other times amusing, Smith writes a memoir relaying the social history about this time and place, providing a unique look at post-WWII Germany. Hamburg 1947 is both a love story for a city and a passionate retailing of a love affair with a young German woman.

Hamburg 1947 is an excellent introduction into the social and political history of post war Europe from a unique perspective of a common man at the forge of history. Hamburg 1947 is an excellent continuation of Harry Leslie Smith’s progress through the 20th century with the rest of his peers. Hamburg 1947 is available through Amazon.com, Indigo, Barns and Noble, booksellers worldwide and also as an e-book on Kindle and Kobo.

Hamburg 1947 is a must read this holiday season for anyone interested in lives lived on the razor’s edge of dangerous times. Harry Leslie Smith is also the author of the highly praised memoir 1923 and The Barley Hole Chronicles: From Hell to Hamburg.
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