Image by Sam Taylor
I’ve met a man. He’s 91. His name’s Harry and I love him. We found each other online. I was drawn to his northern charm, passion for social justice and fiercely intelligent Guardian columns; he, like you, could not resist the allure of my hot-mess-oh-what-the-fuck-am-I-gonna-write-about-I’m-on-a-comedown VICE scribbles. He’s anti-poverty. I’m pro-sex. In our dream world, your needs will always be gloriously met. He doesn’t want you to want for a pair of shoes in the wintertime and I don’t want you to feel like you can’t rub a pair on your crotch if that’s what makes you feel good. When I meet Harry in person after months of online exchanges, it’s his wheelchair I spot first. He can walk about 100 yards before he has to sit and rest while the circulation reaches his legs. “It’s just one of those things,” he says. “I get by.” He tells me he’s always loved a challenge: “Never give into downfall, that is the secret to longevity. Just keep buggering on!” I instantly warm to him. I don’t want to make a huge deal of Harry’s age, but to carve a role out for himself in public life in his tenth decade is pretty fucking impressive. In addition to his journalism, he has a book – Harry’s Last Stand – which I’m not saying you should read instead of Russell Brand’s Revolution, but it might be worth reading it first. Harry also went down a treat at the Labour Party Conference last month with a rousing speech on the fact that his childhood "wasn’t an episode of Downton Abbey". He’s not calling for a revolution, but he’s lived through a fair few. “I never expected all this attention,” he says. “I’m still just an old guy, one of the workers. I just want to show people that they're not getting where the country is going. They must start getting interested in politics, and the only way they can do that is they’ve got to get out and vote. I’m so keen on it because I was brought up in an age when men and women were not allowed to vote – we were not worthy of a vote.”
Hang on, men couldn’t vote when Harry was a lad? “Not the poor people. I mean, we’re looking back at the 1920s. You begin to appreciate the good things in life when you’ve experience the bad things. I wanted to bring this to the attention of the young people today who are being treated very unfairly. I just don’t know how they’ve managed to go along without screaming to high heaven for the injustices which have been created.” To be honest, we’ve all been asleep. I’ve never voted before. Like 39 percent of eligible voters in the 2010 general election, I just couldn’t be arsed. I'm just the sort of girl Harry is hoping to reach. Hearing Harry speak, though, I feel, well, relieved. I had been starting to think that the only alternative to our identikit professional politicians was Russell Brand, the establishment’s disestablishmentarian of choice, the pumpkin spice latte of sedition. Don’t get me wrong. I like Brand. Or I want to like him. He does spew up the odd chunk of wisdom, like that quote about inequality: "When I was poor and I complained about inequality people said I was bitter; now I'm rich and I complain about inequality they say I'm a hypocrite. I'm beginning to think they just don't want inequality on the agenda because it is a real problem that needs to be addressed."
Johnny Rotten says Brand’s a "bumhole", but at least he lets out a hot fart of perspicacity every now and then. I just wish his flatulence reached better conclusions. “I think Russell Brand does a tremendous job with his humour,” says Harry, “but to tell young people not to vote, I think it’s the worst thing he could possibly do. I’m telling the young people all to vote, even if it means going to the booth and spoiling the ballot.” But what's the point if, as Harry believes, our politicians have become mere puppets for the real people in power – the corporate elite? “Politics, like life, is temporal and that is why we must vote. This current lot of MPs have brought austerity to our cities and created acrimony and division to our society, but neither they nor the hardships they have created will last. All we have to do is become more politically active”.
Russell Brand in 2011 (Photo via)
Growing up in a working class area in the 90s, I don’t remember anyone being political. Politics was something posh people did. What the hell would people like us know about how the country should be run? “In the 1930s, I think the working class was more politically aware,” Harry explains. “The slaughter of the First World War was still fresh in everyone’s memories. Moreover, the men who did come back from the trenches were sold out by the government of the day by not providing adequate housing, healthcare or job protection during the Great Depression.”
During his youth, Harry says it was hard for someone not to be political: “All around us were new ideologies like communism or fascism… I’m very proud of my working class background and that I came from an era when my class was sorely oppressed by the elite, but instead of turning to radicalism we chose democracy as the path to building an enlightened Britain.”
He’s horrified to see the welfare state his generation built now being dismantled: “My heart goes out to the young people of today," he says. "I don’t think they’re going to experience what I eventually managed to experience, which was to have my own home and raise a family and be free of want.”
I’m a successful journalist and university graduate, and I certainly can’t see a point where I’d ever be able to buy my own home. I don’t, however, live in a slum. As Owen Jones has rightfully pointed out, the problem today isn’t so much one of poverty, but inequality. I ask Harry a blunt question: Is being poor in modern Britain really as bad as it was being poor in 1924? “I don’t think there’s any difference," he says. "Poor people today may have a few more creature comforts than we had, but they also have the despair that we had. They have better clothing and they watch TV, but that is not life. It’s not living.”
"VOTING MIGHT NOT BE AS FUN AS SCREAMING, 'REVOLUTION!' BUT IT MAY PROVE MORE USEFUL"
“I had an interview with [Conservative member of the House of Lords] Baroness Trumpington a few months ago and she said, ‘There are no poor people in this country. You don’t call people who serve you coffee poor, they’re on a wage.' I said, ‘You wouldn’t know poor people if you fell over them.’ Every city and every town in this country has a section of its community that is desperate. Some people have lost hope to such an extent that they are saying to themselves, ‘It’s no good, we can’t change things.’ In reality, apathy is the worst thing where our welfare is concerned. We have to get out there and fight for our rights. I’m going to be here for the next election, and if I have to bang on every bloody door in England and tell them to vote, I will.” Harry’s passion stems from his childhood. His sister died of tuberculosis in a workhouse infirmary in 1926 – his family couldn’t afford medical care and it would be another 22 years before the NHS was created. “I remember being so angry at the time, but I wanted to make sure I was always a compassionate person,” he says.
He believes that the majority of people are kind by nature, but that sometimes things can go wrong. “There has always been compassion. I remember when I was 14 and it was wintertime and I couldn’t go to school because my shoes leaked in the snow, and the next day my maths teacher, a guy called Dawson – unbeknown to him we called him Froggy Dawson, because he looked like a big toad – made me stay behind. He said, 'How come you weren’t in school yesterday?' And I lifted my shoe up and the cardboard paper fell out. He said, 'Now, you go straight home and see me after school tomorrow.' The next day he reached into his desk and brought out a pair of brown shoes. I still had to shove newspaper down them, though, because they were too big for me. Ha!” I can’t help looking at Harry and wondering what a better world we might live in if there were more people like him in it – and less like Michael Gove, Lord Freud and co. Misty eyed, I decide there and then that I’m going to vote at the next election. And I’m going to knock on doors with him, too. It’ll be like knock-a-door-run, but instead of legging it and collapsing in a fit of giggles because we pissed off the dickhead at number 12, we’ll be sticking around and encouraging people to get off their arses and exercise their rights. I used to sell dodgy timeshare in a call centre, so I reckon I can persuade a few folks to get down to their local polling station. It might not be as fun as screaming "Revolution!" and channelling Che Guevara, but it may prove more useful. “You think the world is cruel now,” says Harry, “but unless you do something, it will get much worse.”