Benchmark humanity

Harry Leslie Smith, the RAF veteran, writer, political activist and prolific tweeter talks sense in this interview first published in November 2015

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Two weeks ago the country paid its respects to the millions of lives lost during the First World War. While politicians airbrushed poppies on to their suits and were criticised for the depth of their bow, sensible onlookers couldn’t help but feel they had missed the point. For many, sympathy was with the veterans who had endured war and lost loved ones only for their efforts to be used in a game of political pigtail pulling.

Two days later a series of well-planned attacks by Islamic State claimed 132 lives in Paris and this time we looked on in horror. As France ramps up its military campaign against the terrorist group it is a stark reminder that war is not something consigned to the past.

Perhaps the most publicly outspoken veteran today is 92-year-old Harry Leslie Smith, who left his impoverished life in Barnsley to serve in the RAF aged just 18. Now a social historian, political campaigner and writer, he has published his sixth book, Love Among The Ruins – a memoir of love and life in Hamburg in 1945. Just days before the attacks on Paris, Smith returned from Calais where he says the situation is in many ways worse than what he witnessed 70 years ago. Here he reflects on his trip and the refugee crisis, the Paris attacks, Remembrance Day and more, and as ever he is the voice of reason and unwavering hope.

“Terrorist attacks always leave me in a state of anger, grief and sadness.”

Tell me a bit about Love Among The Ruins and how it differs from your previous book Harry’s Last Stand.
Harry’s Last Stand is my memoir about my life just after the Second World War while I was part of the British occupational forces in Hamburg. It’s a love story about me and a young German woman who I met in the bomb-ravaged city. Love Among The Ruins is also a history of that turbulent time and how I experienced it. There is no other book written by an eyewitness to those tragic times about our occupation of Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, and the hunger winter that occurred, killing thousands of Germans in the city while under our protection. Love Among The Ruins is more personal and intimate than Harry’s Last Stand. It deals more with human emotions during difficult circumstances rather than the nature of politics or building a more just society. It also has splashes of humour and I believe is an honest look at my past – an ordinary young man in the cauldron of history.

It describes, among other things, the displaced people you encountered in 1945. How did it feel 70 years on to visit the Calais refugee camp this month?
In many ways, when I went to the refugee camp in Calais dubbed the Jungle, I thought I was being transferred back to the 1945 refugee crisis that I witnessed at the end of the war. In Calais there was the same lack of sanitation, housing and medicine for refugees that I saw in camps after we defeated Hitler. However, there was also an optimism amongst refugees then, no matter how hard their circumstances, because they could see the allied powers did want to resettle them and integrate them into western, democratic societies. At the Calais refugee camp the residents seemed to be deficient in both food and hope. I can’t blame them for feeling less than optimistic because the camp is wretched, dank and dismal. Nothing that primitive and unhygienic should exist in the third world, let alone 20 miles from our shores on the continent of Europe. Having gone to Calais, I can assure everyone those people are refugees, in desperate circumstances that need our help. It makes me angry that the 21st century’s reaction to human tragedy is to turn up the volume on their iPads and tune out the sadness all around them. Unless we wake up and act, this refugee crisis will cause more war, more suffering and greater peril to the world.

What is your reaction to the attacks in Paris?
Terrorist attacks always leave me in a state of anger, grief and sadness. With Paris it was no different – such a senseless loss of life. I found it as affecting as 9/11 and that is because it was played out in real time while I watched the BBC. I suppose that also made it feel more direct to me than the perpetual carnage on the streets of Baghdad, Kabul or through the entire country of Syria.

François Hollande called it an act of war. Do you think war is the correct response to the threat of IS?
First of all, acts of extreme violence are an act of war against civilisation. So in my opinion the gun carnage that occurs in America like clockwork would be to me an act of war against the civilised state. So, in many ways Hollande gives IS legitimacy by calling it an act of war. But what we must also remember is that what they did was an act of extreme barbarity and there must be an appropriate response. However, I don’t think a massive military response against IS is pragmatic because it assumes they are a nation state, which they are not, and have the normal economic infrastructure of a sovereign country. I think at the moment we must make some military gestures but we must also work out a deal in Syria that ends the civil war, so that everyone can concentrate on eliminating IS. However, to do that, we have to make a thorough and truthful investigation into how IS gets its funding. I feel we must be realistic and look at Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states’ involvement with IS and then take appropriate action against them. Sadly I think our own ability to allow Saudi Arabia, and other nations in the region allied to us, to do things just as barbaric as IS has sullied the waters and perhaps made either a military or political solution in the region impossible.

“Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs have helped to destigmatise homelessness.”

What do you say to those using the Paris attacks as a pretext to clamp down on refugees and to call for even more restrictions on their freedom?
Sometimes a terrorist attack is like an earthquake, where the aftershocks kill more people and disrupt the lives of many more people. We saw that after the tragedy of 9/11 when Bush and Blair pushed us into the Iraq War and unleashed an avalanche of death and destruction. I fear this is what will happen after Paris. Aside from Germany, Austria and Sweden, most of Europe has had an appalling disregard for the refugee crisis. In fact France and Britain, great proponents for the eternal war on terror that has left the Middle East and large swathes of Africa war zones, have been the most callous towards their responsibilities to ending the refugee crisis. So I can guarantee you that the governments of both countries will take the 1930s approach that many nations took to the Jewish refugee crisis created by Nazi Germany, which was to do nothing. I am afraid all I can tell people is that if we don’t take our responsibilities as civilised nations seriously and end this refugee crisis by first absorbing as many refugees as Europe, Britain, America, the Commonwealth and Russia can handle, we will find that the massacre of Paris will be a regular occurrence in all of our countries, followed by a real war, with enormous fatalities.

As a veteran, how do you feel about the appropriation of the poppy, the militant insistence that figures in the public eye wear them, and the glorification of war around Remembrance Sunday?
I am not happy and to be honest disgusted at how our politicians fall over themselves to wear the poppy but now no longer pledge to eradicate war. Since 9/11, and then our war on terror, the poppy has been less about remembering our fallen in war and more about perpetuating the myth that all war is justified, that suspension of civil liberties is necessary to protect society, and that wars can be waged without raising taxes on the rich. It’s time to start making the arms merchants pay for their wars they sow with their guns.

Do you think Jeremy Corbyn offers real hope?
A couple a weeks ago I had a brief chat with Jeremy Corbyn and what struck me about him is inner calm. He is a very centred man and that gives me great hope that he will be able to lead thLove among the ruins booke Labour Party to victory in 2020 and change this country for the better. It has been a long time since I have seen a politician who is more concerned with leaving the country a better place for everyone, rather than select constituents. It’s why I know Corbyn is a politician who will be able to return Britain to good governance and fair play for all.

Are you encouraged by Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs offering Manchester Stock Exchange to homeless protesters for the winter, and Manchester City Council for following suit?
Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs are top blokes for offering the Manchester Stock Exchange to homeless protesters. They have helped to destigmatise homelessness and hopefully they have lit the way for other fair-minded business people to lend a hand to the homeless, help them get back on their feet and keep their dignity.

You are 92 now – do you have another book in you?
I will keep writing, reflecting, raging against the dying of the light, until I clock off. So yes, I’ve got more than one more book in me. Right now I have five more books planned because I think I still have much more to say before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Love Among The Ruins and Harry’s Last Stand are both available now from Icon Books

First published 30 November 2015

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