The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Harry Leslie Smith

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Harry Leslie Smith


Summary: We thought that the first volume of Harry's autobiography 1923: A Memoir was a remarkable piece of writing and the opportunity to ask Harry some questions was just too good to miss.
Date: 24 February 2011
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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We thought that the first volume of Harry's autobiography 1923: A Memoir was a remarkable piece of writing and the opportunity to ask Harry some questions was just too good to miss.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Harry Leslie Smith: In my imagination, the people I see reading my book are those who want to see the world as it was in the early part of the 20'th century. I see a reader who is willing to explore the emotions, the sensations of people in desperate situations who try to retain their humanity and ultimately fail because of circumstances beyond their control. I see younger people reading 1923 and understanding that passion, desire and a need for love are universal and timeless.

  • BB: It's common nowadays to blame our parents for how we are today on the basis that they should have made our childhood better, but you seem to be remarkably free of this attitude. I'm sure that you wish your childhood could have been better, but do you blame your parents at all?

HLS: That is a very interesting question. Through out most of my life, I think I felt a great deal of anger and injustice for my childhood. I know that when I was a teen I did blame my mother for some of our misfortunes. I was also ashamed of my mother for her ability to survive while others did not, like my father. But my parents were victims of their time and a society that had not matured and developed a social safety network to give people a leg up, when times are dire. I am 88 now and I don't think you can live that long by harbouring grudges. Looking back at my parents, I feel a great deal of sympathy and hope that they were able to scratch some moments of happiness, from their very unhappy and lonely lives.

  • BB: Did you find that you almost relived your childhood as you wrote about it and was it at all painful for you? How do you feel after having written the book?

HLS: Writing this book was both emotionally gutting and a catharsis, for me. Over the last ten years, I found it necessary for my own mental well being to return and sift through those memories of my early youth. After experiencing the death of my wife and then a son; I found that the ghosts of my past were not going to let me go, until I confronted them. Completing this book has given me a great deal of comfort and it has freed me, from the legacies of the great depression. It has also liberated me from the guilt of having survived and flourished despite my background.

  • BB: 1923: A Memoir brings to life the West Riding of Yorkshire in the first half of the twentieth century. You've obviously made a good life for yourself elsewhere. Do you feel that your roots are in West Yorkshire and how long is it since you've been back there?

HLS: My roots dig deep back into the soil of the West Riding. My family on both my mother and father's side has been part of the West Riding for over 300 years. I am proud to have been born and bred in that part of Britain. For me, the West Riding is a county of contrasts. It has intense physical beauty which is rough and stark. There is a primal, lyrical quality to the landscape and to the inhabitants. I think people who come from the county are unique for their humour and their stubborn perseverance. For the last 15 years, I have come back to the West Riding every year. I spend more time down south but I always make sure to go up for a week or two and visit.

  • BB: I'm more than happy to agree with all that, Harry.

You have the ability to produce exactly the right phrase for any situation and I found it almost impossible to put your book down. Where and how did you learn to write so well?

HLS: I started keeping a journal, when I was in the RAF. Since then I have always been writing primarily for my own enjoyment. I think I became a good writer because I am a good listener and a good mimic. I can sit in a pub and listen (this is before the introduction of piped in music) to the strains of other people's conversations and construct miniature portraits of them.

  • BB: Did you find that you had to do a lot of research for your book? Was it enjoyable and did you rely on the internet to any great extent?

HLS: I did a considerable amount of research to complete this book. The archives of Bradford, Rotherham and Wakefield were invaluable to presenting a social historical record of my early life. I did rely heavily on the internet for census records and also to confer with a cousin in Australia; who had a great deal of family history, from my mother's side. It would have been a lot more difficult to have completed 1923 without the use of the internet.

  • BB: Where and how do you write?

HLS: My first drafts are always written on yellow legal pads. I need to feel the connection between my writing hand and my imagination to start any writing project. I think that has more to do with age and how one is taught. Once the first draft is completed, I type it into a Word document on my lap top. All revisions are done on the computer and from the first drafts to completed book, there are at least 7 revisions. I have a small study where I write. If I am writing in Portugal, I write on the terrace when it is sunny and warm.

  • BB: How do you feel about modern technology?

HLS: I have a a masochistic relationship with modern technology. I detest mobiles but own one. I have the fundamentals to use my lap top for emailing, word processing and surfing but always find it a giant mystery when the computer crashes.. I also engage in social media but I still feel in the dark and bloody useless when I watch a much younger generation text, talk and surf. I believe that modern technology that employs social media has been as revolutionary as the printing press. However, I am concerned that social media has allowed individuals to trade away one of the greatest freedoms we have; the right to be private and reflective for the momentary satisfaction of tweeting, you tubing the irrelevant. People today are being bombarded with images, opinions and endless commentary that I think has made them afraid to be alone with their own thoughts.

  • BB: Has reading played a big part in your life? Which book do you remember most fondly?

HLS: From my earliest memories to closing in on my ninth decade, reading has been a big part of my life. It has been my school and my refuge. Paraphrasing Northrope Fry The act of reading has let me be a thousand men and still remain myself. There are many books that I remember fondly. The poetry of Wordsworth affected me enormously as a teenager and connected me in very positive way with Yorkshire. Hugo's Les Miserables I have a great fondness for because when I read it as a teen I identified with the injustice and the sheer thrill and pace of the novel.

  • BB: What's next for Harry Leslie Smith?

HLS: Currently, I am working on the second volume of my memoirs. It deals with my life in post war Germany. It is tentatively titled 1947: That German Girl It will be ready for publication in late October 2011. It is an interesting book and somewhat different from 1923 because it explores my experiences as a young man, after the war, in an occupied nation, jammed with refugees, black markets, criminals, total annihilation and a couple of hapless lads from Britain.

  • BB: We certainly look forward to reading the book, Harry.

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