1923: A Memoir by Harry Leslie Smith
|1923: A Memoir by Harry Leslie Smith
|Reviewer: Sue Magee
|Summary: An eloquently-told story of a hard beginning to a life. Recommended. We were delighted when Harry agreed to talk to us.
|Date: November 2010
Harry Leslie Smith was born in 1923. If you're wondering about the title – that's the explanation – and although it's when Harry began his life it's not where his story began. He takes us back some years before to his father's family with its roots in mining and a sideline in running a pub which was to make them comfortable if not wealthy. Harry's father was middle-aged when he got involved with Lillian, a teenage girl. Unsurprisingly his family were not impressed or welcoming when the pair married because a child was on the way. Albert Smith expected that he would inherit the pub when his father died, but it passed to his uncle and so began a life of disappointment for Albert and Lillian.
Actually disappointment doesn't really cover what they would face. Hunger was always close to the surface. Poverty was endemic and on top of this there was betrayal, infidelity and abandonment. There wasn't a social safety net in those days and the consequences of what was happening were always likely to be immediate, with the workhouse not necessarily the worst outcome.
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking misery memoir. Well, forget it because it's far from that. It's a factual and eloquent telling of the story of a hard life. There's no undue emotion and Smith is a lot kinder about people than I think that I could have been, considering that the best part of his first twenty three years was probably his time as an airman in the Second World War. It's a personal as well as a social history and Smith has the knack of bringing the times and the places to life in a way that few writers can manage.
It's not just the ability to get dialogue onto the page so that you hear people speak – and it's as people really did talk as the language has not been tidied up at all. It's not just the ability to produce exactly the phrase that paints the picture, although you can open the book at just about any page and smile at a point made with exactly the right words. Above all it's the ability to tell a story, the knowledge of when to move a story on and not labour a point, to know when you need say no more.
Harry is eighty seven – and possibly eighty eight by now - but this book only covers the first twenty three years of his life. We have the pleasure of looking forward to reading a further two volumes and I, for one, can't wait. Have I any criticisms? Well, I'd like to see rather more put into proof-reading and fact checking, but it's a very minor point in a book which I found difficult to put down.
Harry Leslie Smith was kind enough to be interviewed by Bookbag.
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