'Lived history' burns with urgency and integrity

HARRY'S LAST STAND <br>How the world my generation built is falling down  and what we can do to save it<br><b>Harry Leslie Smith</b><br><i>Icon Books</i>
HARRY'S LAST STAND <br>How the world my generation built is falling down and what we can do to save it<br><b>Harry Leslie Smith</b><br><i>Icon Books</i>
In troubled times, fresh new voices can emerge to point the way forward. In this case, the voice belongs to a 91-year-old former carpet salesman.

Harry Leslie Smith is making a late run with his popular pieces in the UK's Guardian newspaper and now this book about the state of the world.

Everything he writes about is completely relevant to New Zealand, and it would be a condescending mistake to relegate this slight volume to the nostalgia novelty bin. Nor is this a dry tome of political economy. It is lived history, or as Harry says: ''I am not a historian, but at 91 I am history, and I fear its repetition.''

His writing burns with a urgency and integrity that zings off the page. Harry, who I refer to by his first name because you feel you really do know him after reading this book, belongs to a generation largely gone on.

Part deeply personal memoir and part furious political polemic, this book spells out how society has taken a wrong turn.

Harry brings to life the world in which social democracy came into being, following the devastation of the Great Depression and the two world wars. He shows how the security-focused society that his generation built was created for a reason: because previously life for a large section of the population was bloody awful.

The later part of Harry's life was spent in modest prosperity and family life in the carpet business in Canada. But his childhood continues to haunt him.

His youth was spent in abject poverty in Depression-era Yorkshire and in the RAF fighting in World War 2, where he again witnessed great misery in post-war Germany (he married a German woman).

His account is emotionally harrowing. It is greatly moving. The loss of his sister to Tb, and the disintegration of his childhood family under the terrible pressures of unemployment and poverty are recounted with painful honesty. He brings to life unimaginable experiences and makes you realise the people who lived through them were the same as you and me, they were just born in a different place and time.

Harry makes no bones that the working class which he came from was viewed as expendable by the people who owned and ran society.

That is why his distillation of insight from a long life is so valuable and important. Rather than bitterness, Harry has a positive vision.

He acknowledges his own determination to build a better life, but says that it was the security of social democratic policies in housing, health and employment - the much maligned ''welfare state'' - which made this life possible after such an unpromising start.

So if you are feeling this year's election is of no interest, pick up this book. Because Harry says by returning to dog-eat-dog free market capitalism, and by tolerating the re-emergence of poverty and inequality, we are on the path to perdition.

This is not history, says Harry, it is happening again now.

- Victor Billot is editor of The Maritimes, the magazine of the Maritime Union.

The ODT has five copies of Harry's Last Stand, by Harry Leslie Smith (RRP $29.99) to give away courtesy of Allen & Unwin and its imprint, Icon Books. For your chance to win a copy, email helen.speirs@odt.co.nz with your name and postal address in the body of the email, and ''Harry Book Competition'' in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, August 26.

Winners of last week's giveaway, Tenderness by Sarah Quigley, courtesy of Random House and Vintage, were: Diana Holgate, of Mosgiel, Heather Abernethy, of Owaka, Cecily Waldron, of Dunedin, Kate Sidey, of Wanaka, and Mandy Gardiner, of Queenstown.


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