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1923: A Memoir presents the story of a life lyrically described, capturing a time both before and during World War II when personal ...
1923: A Memoir presents the story of a life lyrically described, capturing a time both before and during World War II when personal survival was dependent upon luck and guile. During this time, failure insured either a trip to the workhouse or burial in a common grave. Brutally honest, Smith’s story plummets to the depths of tragedy and flies up to the summit of mirth and wonder, portraying real people in an uncompromising, unflinching voice.
1923: A Memoir tells of a time and place when life, full of raw emotion, was never so real.
When I was born on a cold, damp day in February 1923, we were not a happy family. We were not a well-fed family when I first cried out for my mother's breast. Nor were we a loving family when I fell asleep for the first time in my crib, beside my parents' bed. On the day of my birth, my father was not glad-handed by his friends for siring a male. When I came into this world, he was already an old man in his late fifties. If my father had any friends, they would have been elderly and unimpressed at his impecunious virility. As for my mother, she was a much younger woman. She was in her twenties, jaded by marrying both above and beneath her station. My arrival was one more proof to her that she was trapped in a marriage that had long ago lost its luster. My mother was being asphyxiated by the cliché: too little, too late.
My father, Albert Smith, was a miner at one time. He was an heir to a public house, the son of an innkeeper. The first forty-five years of his life, he did not know the meaning of want, but he knew the meaning of desire. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 1840s, my grandfather and my great-grandfather, Benjamin Smith, had worked their land and their pub, slaking the thirst of miners. With a two-guinea-a-year license, Benjamin had transformed his front parlor into a licentious and rowdy beer house.
Francis, my grandfather, had reaped the rewards of his father's thrift and along with his brothers and sisters, he inherited an equal share of Benjamin's net assets; £247. It was not a king's ransom, but it was a deposit on a better life. Francis, aware of his own father's toil, was conscious that opportunity is earned and sometimes stolen. So Francis used his legacy to acquire another pub in Barley Hole, Thorpe Hesley. He aptly named it the New Inn. The inn would serve him well as a stream of income long into his old age. It was ideally situated by the entrance to the colliery, which had been cleaving out coal from the depths of Yorkshire since 1867. Francis Smith was mindful of the thrift of his father. He sent each of his sons down into the pits to hack black flesh from the Earth's abyss to fuel Britain's ascendency in the world. Out of necessity, each son from first to last was to be taught the cruelty of working beneath the world. Each son was taught the fear of death below and the fear of being maimed above in the miasma of mechanical parts pulling and tearing coal up from the Earth's bottom.
Albert, born in 1867, had been raised as a favored first son. He was taught how to play the piano with great refinement. His mother, Sarah, instructed him in bible studies and at the age of seven, she had Albert baptized in the Church of England. Sarah gave him softness and compassion and a desire to better his mind and spirit, while Francis melded his ethics to work and strive for the family unit. Generally, Albert assumed an air of refinement. He made use of the local library to better himself and his understanding of his time. He was an oddity and an outsider, amidst the noise and thirst of coal-soaked miners. They were rough and ready for beer and whisky, throwing away their last farthing on drink rather than keeping food in the bellies of their children.
Albert was also expected to be brutal and to plunge underneath the moors to cut and smash black coals from the rock face of darkened mine shafts deep below. He was a hewer. My father went up against rock faces with a pick, in cramped small crypts. He bashed coal down with the brute strength coming from his arms wielding an axe. Rock slides; collapsing mine shafts, and death were daily occupational hazards for him. Years down the pit made him muscular, brawny, and he looked younger than his age. When above ground, he was sure to be meticulously groomed. Albert wore better clothes than his fellow workers. They knew he was their equal below ground, but above the dirt; he was a man of marked position. He was the grandson of a beerhouse keeper and the son to an innkeeper. Miners they may have been, but they were miners digging upward in society, not downward.
Was it fate or destiny that left my father unmarried at forty-seven? I don't know if he was naive or shy around women. I don't know if his heart had been broken early in life, leaving him a bachelor. I don't know if he was a virgin before he met my mother. I suspect he was just like many other men from the unforgiving land of Yorkshire, who burned their lust and desires away with secret visits to prostitutes. On odysseys to the larger cities of Sheffield, Bradford, or Manchester, they hunted and easily found street whores, for backroom or back alley trysts. Albert's profession and his gender guaranteed he was no innocent when he encountered my mother at his father's pub.
Lillian was nineteen and the daughter of Walter and Lily Dean. By her own sisters' accounts, she was wild and not easy to tame. Her siblings, however, were younger and more apt to believe the myths, rumors, and innuendo that surrounded my mother in later life. They did not peer too deeply into her past or the brutal events that had shaped her. Lillian was not the apple of her father's eye because she was too outspoken, lazy, and sarcastic. She was a force to be suffered; she was a storm to be endured.
Being the eldest daughter, she was expected to be servant and cook to her elder brothers and younger sisters. It was also ordained that Lillian would be her mother's rock and right hand. It was a role Lillian could not play without complaint. She let it be known to both her father and her mother that she had not been put upon this Earth to be a servant. Nor would she be maids to her brothers and a nanny to her younger sisters.
Much later on, Lillian shared her revulsion about how courtship to my father had led us to starvation's cul-de-sac. When I was a small boy, my mother, drunk on cider, lamented her fate. She moaned and carried on about being chained and married to this lifeless rock, this old load. Lillian riled on about her husband. She ridiculed his family with their pretense of belonging to a much better society than the Deans.
"Serves me right for rubbing a turd and thinking there'd be brass," she said.
During these viperous downpours, Albert would sit on a stool beside our cold fireplace. My dad, with a warm pipe in his mouth, tried to escape from us and his own misplaced guilt. He fixed his gaze onto the living room wall, which had grimy, smoke-stained wallpaper loosely hanging from it. Perhaps he drowned out her tirades with the imaginary sound of his ancient hammering against subterranean cliffs. Perhaps he saw himself young, fit, and free, farming coal out of narrow seams. Perhaps he saw himself when he was younger, and Lillian and he still had illusions to be lost.
Lillian was a beauty in her teens. She had long hazelnut hair and cheeks that were high and rosy. She was a Yorkshire lass, reckless and fearless, tearing through suitors like a lioness on an antelope. Most, she alienated because of her sharp tongue and animal intelligence. Her reputation was solidly wanton in the village of Hoyland Common. It stretched beyond the hills and moors to Rotherham, some ten miles southeast. She swore she would follow no man unless it was out of these suffocating hamlets.
How Lillian ended up at my father's pub was a mystery to me. Rest assured, it was no doubt in pursuit of a suitor, a miner, or a farmhand that brought her into the small, public house by the Barley Hole Pit. The public house over looked a series of workers' cottages, all of which were squat, lightless building with broken slate roofs. The tenements had been used for generations to house underpaid miners in substandard, disease-laden buildings. For the miners and their families; it was a troglodyte existence of easy disease, early death, disfigurement, or illness that led one to the workhouse. Rewards for them were found in heaven, never on this Earth.
The New Inn was laden with tobacco. There was the smell of ale and the musky aroma of working men, unaccustomed to the luxury of a bath. To the side of the pub's entrance was an old upright piano where my father played jaunty songs, made popular by the music halls. The room wore a bodice of dark Victorian paneling. Its wooden floors were warped and creaked with any footstep. The floors, although swept daily were coated in a black sheen. It was coal dust banged off the hobnail boots of the miners as they walked through the front door. There were sturdy chairs made to hold the weight and girth of miners. While upstairs, there were rooms rented to merchants on the way to wool markets or business calls to hock mining machinery. Behind the bar there was a Versailles-like mirror that illuminated the soot-stained men in rough clothing and hard talk. Some played skittles off to the side, others talked to my father, tending bar. It was a simple task as there was only cask ale and cider available as per their two-guinea-a-year publican's license. My father, however, was disdainful of his bartending tasks as he was no drinker, no social gad fly. He preferred his own company rather than a room of boisterous men.
Lillian was a breath of fresh air in the stagnant pub that housed men so old, they remembered the time before steam and their grandfathers recalled the fight against Napoleon. Lillian always arrived at the New Inn in a fresh dress while her uncovered skin smelt of perfumed soap. Her breasts were exposed just enough to make men notice that an alluring youth had crossed their threshold. In 1913, she damned convention by visiting the New Inn and drinking light ale while mixing with men. She pointed her finger at fate and challenged it for good or ill.
When she entered the New Inn, miners lifted up their tired heads from stagnant conversations and pulled their pipes from their mouth, catching the scent of sex, of youth, of wanton rule-breaking. With her easy wit, her adolescence, and sensuality, Lillian aroused a desire in my father, which like the moth's addiction to the flame, he could not resist. At the same turn, she was flattered by the attention paid her by an older, muscular and powerful man who had some refinement and some capital. She knew from local gossip about Albert's family and their climb up the slippery, economic ladder to publican. Lillian was aware of the history behind Benjamin Smith's bawdy Beer House he had opened in the 1840s. She knew that Albert's granddad, when alive, counted his profits and kept a club to bash down the more riotous drunks or malcontents who desired political change through unions and socialism.
At least Lillian admitted that cash flattered her vanity and brass could always be used to buy things that fired the furnace of her ego. Albert treated her well with outings to Rotherham and walks around Barnsley. He showered her with reverence and softness, and endless compliments as to her looks and dress. Honestly, Lillian was not accustomed to this manner of courting and she liked its feel. Lillian fell in love with the notion of being loved and cared for. My mother was seduced by the simplest and emptiest of fairy tales: the one that ends happily ever after.
Like a siren, my mother sang in the pub and encouraged my father to accompany her on the piano. Lillian sang the songs of the music halls from Blackpool, the illuminated city filled with chintz, carnival barkers, and organ grinders. She sang with a lusty, throaty voice that made the male patrons grin, while it made Albert's father grow alarmed at her attention to his eldest son and his reciprocal consideration. The housekeeper, Mrs. Mcheter, warned the New Inn's scullery maid to be mindful of Lillian and avoid her company.
In the pub's parlor, Lillian sang a risqué ditty, and when it came time for the chorus, in a loud and jaunty voice she defied all those around her to sing better, to sing with more abandon.
"So why should I drink coffee or tea, When there's plenty of ale for two."
From songs about beer, about times at the seaside, about spring and summer, and all things that had to do with youth and hope; Albert was easily beguiled. It was easy to love life if it were above ground, beyond the coal pits and beyond the flagons of hard ale for thirsty workhorse men. For Lillian, it was easy to feel the craving and hunger of youth that wanted to devour everything in its way, to be free and blissfully happy. It was easy to see how Lillian loved the attention of the miners and the landlord's son. It was easy for her to dream of one day being the chief mistress. Lillian swam in the imaginary praise she would receive as wife to a publican. She could feel the strength of her own money jangling in her purse if she married Albert. Lillian reasoned money could buy her freedom. There was a twenty-six year difference in age between them, but Lillian deduced he was the finest catch for her. At least, he was solicitous to her needs and he was prosperous, with an ever-expanding future.
So one evening, it was natural and effortless for their respective desires to seduce them into each other's arms. After the final beer had been poured, the last notes of the piano had drifted away, and the gaslights along the wall were extinguished, Albert and Lillian went up the back stairs, drunk, to his bedroom, hand-in-hand. They slunk into the room, as they had no wish to wake Albert's brothers or the housekeeper. They were fortunate that Albert's father had gone to call on his married daughter Mabel and was not at home. The room overlooked the low depressing cottages that housed the after-birth of the industrial revolution. From the window, they saw the spires of the colliery, with its giant, two-wheel pulley that hauled coal baskets up from a darkened world below. If they looked beyond the houses and the pit, there were some woods, and beyond the trees were the moors; at least it was something that had not been dug or crushed or dirtied by the pit owners.
Inside the room, there was darkness that was slightly illuminated from the outside night sky, lurking through the window. Albert's long sensitive fingers fumbled while unbuttoning his shirt and pulling off his suspenders and trousers. Nervously, he folded them and placed them on a chair. He cautiously slipped beneath heavy woolen blankets where Lillian expectantly waited. Either by design or lack of birth control, she conceived with a man almost as old as her father, and far clumsier than her other blokes.
It did not take Lillian long to realize she was pregnant. At the time, she was not sure whether it was a misfortune or a blessing, but she would know after informing Albert. Lillian reasoned that since he was her only dance partner; he better sort this out or else the entire village would know that Albert was putting very young girls up the spout.
Albert was warned by his siblings that Lillian was no good, a bad seed, and a bad bet. His brothers were not pleased with this romance and warned him their father would snuff it out, as he did with the coal gaslights every night, with a twist of his hand. Albert ignored their warnings because he believed the future was his to own.
In early summer of 1914, the district was prosperous and beer sales brisk, the world looked optimistic, and the future bright. The mine worked to full capacity and there was plenty of spare cash. Albert was in his forties and his father was still head of the household. Surely he would understand, Albert wished to start a family and continue on the family business and name. Francis Smith, however, was neither young nor optimistic; he was a pragmatist. Francis remembered his father's stories of a life without steam, without gaslight, and men in silk breaches who ruled the known world. He remembered that the walk up the stairs was long, but the tumble down from another man's boot was quick and painful. Life was short but money was long to Francis. One built a history by stacking a penny upon a penny until it was a mountain of money.
Francis Smith had raised nine children into adults, into miners or wives, and he wasn't going to allow his dominion to be attacked or assailed, not by an outsider and especially not his own son. He demanded his daughters marry, as they were a burden on his budget, but he schemed that his sons remained in his house, unmarried. They were used as his iron hand in pub dealings. He told his boys there would be time enough for marriage and money when he was dead in his grave. Since 1885, when Francis' wife died delivering the last child to Francis' dynasty, there was little room in the pub for emotion, compassion, or tenderness.
Francis held his family and his small fortune together with the intensity of a despot. He allowed no truck or trade with gold diggers or interlopers. For his family to survive in the unforgiving environment of pit mines and pubs, iron authority was exercised and used without mercy.
Excerpted from 1923: A Memoir by Harry Leslie Smith Copyright © 2010 by Harry Leslie Smith. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 25, 2011
It is always interesting to see eras, such as World War II, through the eyes of one single individual. This is a well written memoir that follows the author's life through his difficult childhood in the Great Depression, showing how his mother slowly began to give up her ideals to put food on the table for her children, while Harry turned to library books for solace.
The writing is simple and to the point, making the events the most important aspect. Sometimes turning brutally stark, the writing tears away until the truth of those years shines through. There are not many books out there that show the life of a pilot during those years, and I was surprised at how moving many of the sections were. There was no real dull moment in the book's entirety, which is something to compliment the author about.
Writing a memoir is not an easy matter, there is always the danger of maudlin scenes or descriptive minutia that might mean a lot for the author but not for the reader, so this is one of those books that should be read, not only for the incredible life resting in its pages, but for the skill with which it was handled. I can easily recommend it to lovers of memoirs and of history.
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Posted November 24, 2010
1923: A Memoir, by Harry Leslie Smith, is a lasting memory of his legacy and imprint on the world. While this is a must-read book because it narrates the intriguing early life of the author, it is also fascinating because of its historical backdrop: the Great Depression and World War II. Ultimately, this is a story of true survival. It is about boy turning into a man, one who must conquered life's many peaks and valleys en route to becoming the reservoir of knowledge and experience that Smith is today.
Although this story caters to the age group of 40-80-as they can relate to some of the experiences that Smith depicts-it really is on it way to becoming a timeless classic that conveys the impact of devastating events, such as war and depression, and how a family copes with disaster. Readers will empathize strongly with Smith's endeavors and admire his resolve throughout the struggle.
The story itself begins on an innovative note: an outlining of Smith's lineage and ultimately the controversy and union of his parents, Albert and Lillian Smith. Knowing nothing but poverty, death (of his eldest sister), and an aging father, Harry grew up stealing coal for fuel.
In an age where everything is readily available (e.g., food, home, etc.), it is astounding, heart-breaking, and harrowing to read of a child growing up, in his first seven years of life, witnessing the death of his oldest sister, the physical deterioration of his aging father, and the end of love because there was no time or money for it.
Ultimately, the child, Harry, evolves and runs into a series of unforgettable characters and sequence of events as he weaves through the web of his life. More than anything else, this book describes the tragic themes of hunger, loneliness, and more than anything else, fear.
Instead of cowering and succumbing to a strong sense of foreboding and helplessness, Harry learns essential survival skills and builds himself up from scratch. The quote that resonates most strongly is, "Do you remember a time when we were small, fed, and happy? Do you remember a time, as children, when we weren't scared or lonely? I don't."
In a nutshell, 1923: A Memoir is Harry's protest against social injustice, corruption, war, famine, poverty, and societies blinded by greed. More importantly, it is the story of hope and the notion that anything can be overcome if desired.
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Posted April 16, 2011
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Posted May 19, 2011
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Posted July 9, 2011
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