Tony Harrison returned to his home city of Leeds to record a new version of his controversial poem V which is being broadcast this month. Chris Bond met him.
TONY Harrison warms his hands on his coffee cup as he sits in the bar at The Queens Hotel, in Leeds.
It’s a place he knows well. As a young boy his grandfather took him to watch a newsreel about the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp here at City Square and years later when he returned to visit his father they would sometimes come here for tea.
Harrison is back in his home city to record a new version of his controversial poem V, which the BBC has bravely decided to broadcast next month on Radio 4. It is brave because the poem contains a torrent of expletives and caused an outcry when it was first broadcast for Channel 4 in 1987.
The corporation is aware of the potential criticism it could face from listeners and says there will be many warnings and explanations prior to its broadcast, which forms part of an hour-long programme presented by Blake Morrison.
Harrison wrote the poem in 1985, after discovering that football hooligans had desecrated his parents’ gravestones with obscene graffiti at Holbeck Cemetery where they are buried. For those unfamiliar with it, V was written during the miners’ strike and is an angry and rueful reflection on a society scarred by conflict and division, as well as Harrison’s estrangement from his own working class roots.
The poem first appeared in the London Review of Books but it wasn’t until the film version, directed by Richard Eyre, was broadcast that it caused a stink. The Daily Mail called it a “torrent of filth” while some MPs wanted it banned from the airwaves.
Harrison, now 75, says he was initially reluctant to return to the poem when it was suggested he should make a new recording. “I don’t go back to my old work very much unless I’m doing a reading, and V isn’t one I tend to do because it takes nearly 40 minutes to read. So I hadn’t looked at it with any real attention for quite a while, although I do have to confront it occasionally because it’s been translated into lots of languages and from time to time I get questions from translators so I have to go back to the text, ” he says.
“The trouble is when you get older there always seems to be some anniversary or another and I would rather do something new, so I’m always a bit wary about going back to things like this. But I thought it was pretty brave of Radio 4 to say they would do it and not only because of the odd swear word, but because it’s a 40-minute poem.”
He was also curious to see how the poem sounded more than 25 years after it was last broadcast. “Sometimes it is interesting to go back and calmly revisit something and I thought there’s a wider difference between my younger self and me now, and maybe I can find a contrast and a confrontation in the stiller inwardness and see how they play off one another.”
The poem continues to divide people. Its detractors say the swearing is excessive and gratuitous, while supporters argue that the profanities are integral to the poem’s rhythm and the credibility of Harrison’s alter-ego who utters them.
Harrison admits he was taken aback by the controversy it caused. “I was surprised in some ways because it was an ignorant onslaught and some people who condemned it hadn’t even read it.” So does he think swearing offends people to the same extent today? “I don’t think it does and maybe I wouldn’t have thought about it myself if I hadn’t found the words on the graves. It makes you think ‘well, what is the place of swearing?’ Swearing is a powerful linguistic medium and powerful linguistic forms are what poets are supposed to use.”
Despite the controversy that has surrounded it, these days the poem is even studied in schools. “I met a teacher last year who came to hear me talk because she was studying V with her pupils. My Selected Poems is taught in quite a few schools and I often get pictures sent to me of all the pupils holding up the book and a note saying ‘we love the poems’ and I find that very gratifying.”
He says the poem has become popular overseas, too. “Last year in Belgium they had this arts event called Manifesto, in an old mining place in Genk, and V was shown there. It’s been made into a theatre show in Paris with an actor and a Rasta rock guitarist, it’s had several theatrical presentations, so it’s entered the cultural mainstream and I don’t see it as having to fight the same battles although there are always ignorant people around.”
As someone widely regarded as one of our greatest living poets he does find the emphasis on V a little frustrating at times. “You do get a little irritated for being well known for one poem because I have written a hell of a lot more stuff.”
Why, then, does he think V continues to provoke debate? “You never know what takes people to poems but there is obviously still something in it,” he says. “I wrote V at the time of the miners’ strike and after the destruction of the coalfields which created a different kind of Britain. The social divisions still apply and the political divisions are as exacerbated again as they used to be.”
Harrison was the first of two children born to Harry and Florrie Harrison and grew up in Beeston, south Leeds. He was an exceptionally bright child and won a scholarship to Leeds Grammar School, where he developed a lifelong fascination with classical language and literature. But his education created a divide between him and his parents, and the question of culture and its value is a recurring theme throughout his work and one he tackles in V by creating an alter-ego.
“It’s about me trying to come to terms with what is the poem worth? And the dramatisation is also about me realising that I could have been like him. I had a similar background and if I hadn’t gone to Leeds Grammar, won a scholarship and discovered poetry, I could have easily been amongst the unemployed, ” he says.
“There’s still something of the alter ego in me because most of my work, at some point, lets in the doubts I have about the value of poetry and culture and what’s the use of it.” In V he embarks on a verbal duel with this alter-ego character. “We have this battle and then he writes his name on the gravestone and it’s mine, and writing the name on the grave is important because this is where my parents were buried and where some of my ashes might be scattered. It’s funny because I say in the poem ‘when I’m dead at 75’, so perhaps I better not go up there, ” he says, laughing.
As the title suggests V is about conflict – right versus left, black versus white, communist versus fascist. But it’s more complex and layered than some people perhaps realise.
“There are many themes and some of them were neglected when it was launched on television. There was once a mine under the graveyard and I was interested in the idea of time passing and how places change and become neglected.”
Harrison has lived in Newcastle for the past 40 years but has fond memories of Leeds and visits his parents’ graves when he can. “I haven’t been up for a year or two until now, but there’s a society for the preservation for Holbeck Cemetery and they look after the place, ” he says. “I was always going to move back to Yorkshire and I never did. But I still come back as often as I can and as soon as I hear people talk when I get here I feel like I’ve come home.”
Harrison has won umpteen prizes since his first collection, The Loiners, was published in 1970 to widespread acclaim and he believes poetry still matters. “Poems, if they work, stay relevant, that’s what I hope. I’ve always believed if you get the poem right it re-creates its relevance.”
So what does he think people who tune in to his new recording of V will make of it? “I’ve always liked the engagement of just the human voice and I’ve always believed one of the functions of poetry is to draw the ear into close-up and you hope a poem has that ability to draw people in so that everything else is excluded. So I hope they will be gripped by the poem and follow it through to the end. There won’t be any music or gimmicks, just a man talking to an audience.”
V, read by Tony Harrison, will be aired on BBC Radio 4 at 11pm, on February 18.