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Paying homage to the world’s oldest rebel

Harry Smith became a political celebrity at around the age of 90, after telling a Labour party conference how his sister died at 11 from TB and ended up in a pauper’s grave

14 February, 2019 — By John Gulliver

Jeremy Corbyn with Harry Smith

IT was more a raucous, happy-clapping theatrical occasion than a sombre memorial meeting on Tuesday – all in memory of one of the most remarkable men of this century who became a political celebrity around the age of 90, wrote a best-seller, and won the hearts of the Labour Party.

All Labour’s hierarchy turned up at Conway Hall in Holborn to pay homage to Harry Smith – Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, union leader Len McCluskey and party chief Jennie Formby.

Needless to say, Harry became a modern social media man in his late 80s, built up a Twitter following of more than 250,000 – and the celebration of his 95 years was streamed to all of his followers.

Harry, born in Yorkshire in 1923 in the grossest poverty, suddenly flowered as a political philos­opher in his ninth decade – and became a household name with his memoir, Harry’s Last Stand. He died in November, aged 95.

He had moved a Labour party conference to tears five years ago describing how his young sister died at 11 from TB because there were no doctors to help her and ended up in a pauper’s grave. Harry warned those who threatened the NHS “to keep their mitts off it”.

Mr Corbyn with Harry Smith’s son John at the memorial meeting in Conway Hall on Tuesday

Jeremy Corbyn told the packed hall that Conway Hall held a special place in his heart because it was there his father and mother met in the late 1930s at a meeting on the Spanish Civil War.

He said they were sitting on either side of the hall but “their eyes met – and here I am!”

Corbyn also spoke about the shameful sight of homeless people sleeping in doorways in one of the richest capitals in the world while luxury flats, guarded by seceuity men, are kept empty.

“This will have to stop!” he said to loud applause, banging the lectern with his hand.

Other more political than “personal memory” speeches came from Len McCluskey and Jennie Formby and it was left to Harry’s son, John, who delivered at breakneck speed a beautifully written elegy to his father who he desceibed as a “the oldest rebel in the world.” His words flowed like a poem in a fast stream from the lectern, all 42 pages of it, dropped one by one onto the platform as he spoke, occasionally his voice breaking.

Later, I gathered the printed pages together and spoke to John, now around 70 years old, and the only survivor of the family. He works in the wine trade in Canada and apart from his father his only surviving sibling, Peter, died at 50.

There were many young people in the crowded hall. Next to me sat a young man whose father used to run a dry-cleaning business in Kentish Town Road. He was a fan of Harry’s who had inspired him to take an interest in politics. Among Harry’s Twitter followers would be thousands of youngsters who clearly lionised an extraordinary man.

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