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Tony Harrison

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Never mind the width, feel the quality
Added by: Andrew Mayers
This is well worth the time it takes to read it. As way of an introduction, here is an extract FROM editor Neil Astley:

Thomas Gray composed his Elegy in a quiet country churchyard. Two centuries later, Tony Harrison wrote v. in a vandalised cemetery in Leeds during the Miners' Strike. It begins with words by Arthur Scargill and ends -like Gray's Elegy - with the poet's own epitaph. It embodies those two extremes in its language and concerns, FROM Gray's poem on the one hand, which is much more than just a neat literary model, to Scargill's tribute to his father, who believed that people's destinies are shaped by their own mastery of words.

Harrison's concern, like Gray's, is less with mortality than with frustrated human potential. Gray's 'mute inglorious Miltons' have their counterparts in the local artisans Byron and Words- worth laid to rest near Harrison's parents in Beeston cemetery. The nihilistic skinhead is what Harrison might have been, but for his education; and both protagonists, both Harrisons, define themselves and their alienation through their use of language.

The skinhead is contemptuous of words he wouldn't use at home: words FROM another culture, another Britain, the language of privilege and authority, used by those who've put him down. Harrison spits back his repetitive four-letter expletives, using the youth's own words not only to SHOW how his thinking has been inhibited by his poverty of language, but also to voice the frustrations of his class (something which the skinhead says he doesn't need FROM him).

The conflict in Harrison's poetry is far more complex than a simple 'them' versus 'us' confrontation, for he has himself become estranged FROM his working-class background in acquiring the language he now uses subversively on behalf of the dispossessed and inarticulate. At the same time, his subject- matter, class, has become something of an embarrassment, for many people in Britain now believe (or pretend) that class no longer matters, just as they think there is no excuse for not finding a job or for getting swallowed up in the poverty trap. However, Harrison's isolation makes his voice all the more necessary at a time when market forces are supposed to dictate our responses to social and individual needs. As Douglas Dunn wrote in a review of v., Harrison is 'squarely on the side of Old Left decencies'.

When Bloodaxe first published v. in 1985, we couldn't claim that a few thousand copies of a poetry book could do much to challenge those kinds of complacent assumptions, even if it was - as Tribune said - 'the most outstanding social poem of the past 25 years'. Richard Eyre's Channel Four film of v. changed all that. Thanks to the publicity, generated initially by the tabloid press, the poem reached an audience of several million - and not just those who saw the programme but also the readership of The Independent, which printed the whole poem.

The political and cultural issues debated in the press are still current and of fundamental importance. In The Journal (Newcastle), David Isaacs linked the attacks on the film to 'politically motivated hysteria' and to recent government cutbacks in arts funding, political appointments at the BBC and threats of institutionalised censorship'. In other papers, columnists objected to the poem's 'offensive' language but seemed more discomforted by the effrontery of its frank representation of a side of life they didn't want to know about.

It is difficult to read the poem now without becoming engaged also with the wider issues raised both by the film itself and by the controversy it stimulated. Because of this, we asked Tony Harrison to allow us to expand v. INTO a larger book and include press articles and other matter relating to the film. In agreeing to this, he left the choice of what to include to me. What follows is not a complete compilation but is presented as a representative selection of press and public comment both for and against the poem and the film. I have tried where possible to use articles in full, and I must thank the newspapers, writers, Channel Four and others for their kind permission to reproduce their material in the book.

The only piece written specially for this edition was Richard Eyre's article, although its partisan point of view is more than balanced by the negative voices of other writers represented in the compilation. Of those I feel I must make special mention of the former Conservative MP Sir Gilbert Longden, writer of the letter to The Independent on page 68, who wrote: 'You may certainly use my letter in the Independent of 2 November 1987. I would only add, in the words of John Simon (the American Art critic, not the English statesman) which embrace all "art" forms: "once you admit Jackson Pollock to the ranks of great painters anybody can paint; once junk can be sculpture, anybody can be a sculptor... the riff-raff takes over.'"
Added by: Andrew Mayers
The inclusion of the section on Harrison’s father, “squeezed by the unfamiliar” is brave. In these days of political correctness, Harrison is more likely to have been criticised for such attitudes than for his use of ‘naughty words’.
Thank God for at least one Tony worth regarding
Added by: AM
Here are some comments FROM the man who made the television film version of V:

Such men are dangerous


director of the film of v.

In Russia they used to kill their poets pour encourager les autres. The reward for the English poet is at best indifference and at worst becoming Poet Laureate. With V., Tony Harrison violated both ends of the spectrum. Whatever was invoked by the poem, it was not indifference. Indignation, outrage, joy, sorrow, pity perhaps and paradoxically, for a man who would violently shun any form of honour, he became the uncrowned poet laureate a truly public poet.

I first became aware of the rumbling storm provoked by Channel4's intention to SHOW the film of v. when I was making another film which also provoked severe climatic disturbances, Tumbledown. There were similarities in the response to both films. In both cases, before the transmission, in fact before anyone even on the production team had seen the finished films, there was a chorus of outrage, misrepresentation, prejudice, insult, bullying and condescension FROM MPs, journalists, peers and pundits. Popular newspapers, as ever, found rich resources of moral indignation. I was standing in a North London car park on a grey dawn, waiting for the day's filming to begin when a cheery make-up assistant thrust a copy of the Daily Mail INTO my hand. 'You've made the front page,' she said. I read, and I hope I do full value to the pungent prose, 'FOUR-LETTER TV POEM FURY!' Only with hindsight was I grateful to the Mail and their even more downmarket clones for HAVING unwittingly brought to the poem an audience whose size could never have been imagined without their gift of free publicity. It was an audience, I think, who largely came to the poem out of curiosity and was surprised to find that not only could they understand it, but that they were moved, amused, even educated by it.

The film's editor was a man who, like many victims of our educational system, had been turned off poetry at an early age. 'It was,' he said, 'not for me.' One of the greatest pleasures of making the film was watching Ray become drawn INTO the poem so that he felt each nuance, each rhyme, each rhythm, each shift of thought with an ever increasing vividness. Indeed, all of us involved in making the film became evangelistic in support of the poem: its miraculous appeal to the head and the heart, its way of yoking sophisticated and ambitious philosophical speculation to minute physical observations; its astonishing variety contained within an unvarying scheme of rhyme and scansion; its pessimism as much as its optimism and above all, its endless celebration of the ambiguities of what it wouldn't be too grand to call the human condition. We all thought, as Ray put it, that the poem was fucking amazing. I still do, and when Tony told me that a parents action GROUP had succeeded in persuading the Manchester Education Committee (via the office of that renowned figure of the new enlightenment, James Anderton) to withdraw his poetry FROM the school curriculum, I felt once again that as in Russia, poetry was dangerous. The Russian poet Gumilyov (who was shot) said that dead words smell badly. These are the words of the acknowledged legislators of our world who proscribe, censor, inhibit and monitor what we should read and see and by implication, think and feel.

If I had the slightest influence over educational policy in this country, I'd see that v. was a set text in every school in the country, but of course if we lived in that sort of country, the poem wouldn't have needed to be written.


National Theatre, April 1989

The poem V
Added by: Richard Trillo
Is this the same poem "V" that was published in the Guardian during the first Gulf War?
Tony Harrison 'V'.
Added by: Neil Phillips
Butcher, publican and baker. Professional men with 'a bit of brass', hardly a secure grounding for a working class poet from the black stuff. A cracking good poem but lacking authenticity and I do seriously mistrust the word 'united' on his parents tombstone, the paint hadn't run as with every other piece of graffiti. Which side of the 'V' is Harrison really on?
Added by: Marcus Sherifi
Absolutely fantastic! the language he uses, togetehr with his emotion and expression makes a long poem, a mindful one!
guilty conscience
Added by: mark gorman
If Tony Harrison ever reads this I would like to apologise for the resistance and stubborness of youth.I was one of the youths present that prompted him to write his poem.The details and the transcript are probably correct but what he fails to realise is that we never meant any conflict to provoke the poem but at that time every vibe in the cemetary provoked a sense of negativity.I am still in contact with some of the "lads that you met that day and after reading your poem we have realised that just because a grave was knocked over,overgrown or neglected doesn't mean to say that nobody cares about them.We were young and ignorant and realised the error of our ways when some students came into our local youth club in 1986 and read out the poem which made us realise that these people that were buried had families that cared.I am genuinely one of the youths that spoilt the visit to your Mother's grave and are deeply sorry.Such is the ignorance of youth.,Maybe we can look over the quarry together and look down on Elland Road without a "V" but an equal sign.
Eternal apologies,
Mark G

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