From a childhood immersed in abject poverty to having his first book published at the age of 87, Harry Leslie Smith’s life reads like a novel.
But Harry’s amazing memory for detail, powerful telling of his Yorkshire family’s desperate fight for survival during the Great Depression on the 1920s and his biting social commentary on the state of the nation today has won him a legion of fans across two continents and admiration among the country’s great and good.
Now, Harry at 92, has flown back to his native county from his home in Toronto, Canada, to share with ITV Calendar viewers his recollections of his childhood and how it made him the person he is today.
"I may have had a change in postcode, but it cannot erase my past. Those early years made me what I am," he says.
Harry’s first seven years were spent in Barnsley with his parents, Albert, a miner who after suffering an injury was unable to work, mother Lillian, and sisters Alberta and TB-stricken Marion.
His earliest memory is when he was three and he watched as Marion, 10, was taken to the workhouse infirmary to die as her parents could not afford for her to see a doctor: ‘Where is she going?’ he asked his parents, as Marion was taken away on a horse and cart, paid for by his mum pawning her wedding ring.
Knowing Marion’s life was ebbing away, his father simply replied: ‘She’s going to a better place, son.’
Harry says there were many families across the region who struggled to put food on the table in the 1920s. Aged seven, he says his childhood ended as he learnt to ride a bike and began work as a delivery boy.
"My money put food on our table. I worked evenings after school and weekends," says the widowed grandfather.
Lilian moved the family to Bradford in search of work. "Mum ran a doss house, where we lived. I worked as a beer delivery boy. We had to scavenge for food in bins - it really was the most terrible childhood," tells Harry.
The stress of poverty lead to his parents’ marriage breaking up and when his father died, he was buried in a pauper’s grave at Scholesmoor Cemetery, Bradford.
Harry served as a wireless operator in the RAF during the Second World War, meeting his German wife, Friede, in Hamburg as the fighting ended.
Click play to watch part one of ITV Calendar's interview with Harry Leslie Smith:
After falling in love, he fought for a year to marry the love of his life as marriage was then banned under British law to wed a German national. When the ban was lifted, they finally became man and wife, emigrated to Toronto and enjoying 50 years together and raising three sons in Toronto before she died in Harry’s arms in 1999.
He took up writing after Freide’s death and has now published four books which mix his life story in with his piercing and often poignant social commentary. His latest, “Love Among The Ruins” tells of his relationship with Friede and life in post-war Germany.
Harry’s books, newspaper features and speeches are read and seen now by tens of thousands of people and lead to him being asked to speak at the Labour Party Conference while in Leeds in October he addressed junior doctors as they protested against changes to their contracts.
As Harry and his son John, 52, laid a wreath at his late father’s unmarked plot in Bradford, the pensioner wept: "I am so happy i could do this. I am an optimist. My life was hard in the early years. I think that’s why God let me live an extra 30 to make up for those tough times.
"When I die, I want my ashes to be spread in Yorkshire - probably around the Moors where Feide and I spent many a happy time walking."
Click play to watch part two of ITV Calendar's interview with Harry Leslie Smith: