Harry Leslie Smith must never be forgotten – or his past will become our future
You knew him as Harry Leslie Smith, the world’s oldest rebel, who fought in his later years against austerity, the privatisation of the NHS, the rise of fascism and a populism which now tries to convince the world the vulnerable and refugees are the cause of economic inequality, rather than the product of it.
But to me, Harry Leslie Smith was just dad. He was my father who, for 55 years, stood by me, through the thick and thin of my life and, in return, in his later years, I stood by him, becoming his comrade in arms to help spread his political message across Britain and the world.
Finally, as my last great honour and duty to my dad, I became his care giver as his health began to decline from old age and the gruelling speaking schedule he kept during the last few years of his life.
Just three short weeks ago, my voyage around my father and his voyage around me ended in intensive care in Belleville, Ontario, Canada, where he died after being taken there, a week before, with acute pneumonia.
Still, when he entered hospital, I wanted to believe he had miles to go before he slept. In fact, I thought his passion for life and for making a Britain for the many and not the few, gave him immortality.
I guess, in the end, I wanted to have a few more years with him, so I could enjoy the time we spent alone in our work, in our laughter and in the ordinariness of days which are simply marked by the passing of A Call to Arms breakfast, lunch and tea.
But my dad knew death was stalking him. You see, for weeks before his final trip to the hospital, he had been plagued by a dream of a girl he had once known when his family lived in an outbuilding on a farm in Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire.
She always appeared to him in worn and filthy clothing, walking towards him with a painful limp. Each time he saw her, he’d wake from his sleep and call out feverishly to me, ‘She’s back again and she’s come to fetch me’.
So, it wasn’t much of a surprise to my dad when, after seven days of a nil-by-mouth order, his doctor told him there was no hope of a real recovery.
However, death came hard because his will to survive had been impressed upon his soul when he was born, in 1923, into the slums surrounding the coal mines of Barnsley.
My dad met his death stoically, but I worried he was dying without fully understanding the impact he had on left-wing politics and advocacy for the vulnerable in Britain.
Shortly before his death, he even asked me whether what he had done during these last years had mattered or made a difference. I tried to calm him by hugging him and reminding him that his speech at the Labour Party conference in 2014, where he had recounted the brutality he and his working-class generation had endured at the hands of the entitled, ultimately galvanized the party to remember its roots were its future.
It’s why I was overjoyed and grateful that before my dad lost consciousness and died, on November 28, I was able to play him a video that had been made by commentator Owen Jones – in which a crowd of fellow travellers cried out, ‘We stand with you Harry, hip, hip hurrah’.
These simple words made him smile for the last time.
It took half a day for my dad to die and those hours were the most painful and profound I will ever experience in my lifetime.
Minutes before his death, I kissed his forehead, his cheeks and his hands so my mind could remember for as long as possible the feel of touching him.
While I held my dad in my arms as he began to die, I watched the final beats of blood pulse through his jugular vein, like it was a weak and unsteady Morse-code signal. I heard his breath sigh in resignation and then no inhalation.
His existence fluttered from his body. With that, my dad, who had witnessed and endured both the tragedy and triumph of the 20th century joined its history.
When his death came, I felt an overwhelming presence of loneliness, of knowing that I had lost for ever not only my father, but a profound and deep relationship which had evolved over 55 years and had become a unique partnership that had made both my dad and me better people.
Yet my story doesn’t end in grief and in sorrow, but in knowing I was a part in his beautiful and heroic last stand that doesn’t end with him, but will continue with me and others.
It’s why I will be taking up where my dad left off and completing his many political and writing projects, especially his work to end the refugee crisis.
That is why I am travelling across America before Christmas to report back to my dad’s hundreds of thousands of social media followers that we must continue to stand for democracy, decency and the rights of the vulnerable to a better standard of life – or else my father’s past will become our future.
- Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future: A Call to Arms, by Harry Leslie Smith, is published by Little Brown.
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