Tony Harrison's v. and the commodification of outrage
For reasons I can't remember I have two copies of Tony Harrison's collected poems. Perhaps I think one will illuminate the other. I don't read either of them very often. If I have a session which might involve getting even half way through one before realising there are other things to do, I spend the rest of the day or night thinking in iambic pentameters. The recent (18 February Radio 4 11pm) programme about Harrison's v. and his masterly re-reading underscores the significance of the poem as a social commentary. The poetry's not bad either, with lines that deserve to be etched in marble and flaunted in our public spaces, if only to antagonise our civic guardians or provoke, through graffiti or otherwise, the bitterness of the inarticulate or unheard.
The slating of v. the film by a wide range of influential voices in 1987 did not suppress interest in it - just as the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial of the 1960s, gave a massive boost to the book's paperback sales. It's equally likely that as with Lady Chatterley, most pages were skimmed in pursuit of the well-thumbed visceral, leaving much else neglected. Visceral v. is, but not quite as shocking on re-reading, and perfectly familiar, depending on the company you keep. To present the poem on a public service TV programme was daring in 1987 if not outrageous. Interesting that the BBC settled for an analysis and re-reading on radio, rather than showing Richard Eyre's film again, despite its 2.5 million viewers the first time round.
v. presents a demonic and demotic dialogue which while imagined, carries the bluntness of truth. It's the language you don't get in soaps, in situation comedies, or strangely enough in Shameless. It also provides a monologue which touches on altogether deeper if no less provocative themes which reflect the writer's own conflicts and inner demons. v. may have different meanings for different audiences, and both may ignore the other, as they often do in life.
Cut the crap and get to the point, I can hear you say. What's it about? I'm tempted to say if you don't know by now you've been living in a cave, know nothing about your recent history, or are under 30. That's just ill-mannered arrogance on my part, a trait which my parents, like Harrison's, would have been appalled at. Harrison may be an iconoclast but he has a deep respect for learning, for language, for people and for manners. His was a voice of reason in an unreasonable situation. Some reviewers grasped this, including the Telegraph's Peregrine Worsthorne.
So Harrison, this educated, literate academic, makes a periodic visit to his home city Leeds to find his parents' gravestone, along with many others, desecrated by drunken Leeds United supporters.
"This graveyard stands above a worked-out pit.
Subsidence makes the obelisks all list.
One leaning left's marked FUCK, one right's marked SHIT
sprayed by some peeved supporter who was pissed."
His anger and revulsion at the graffiti leads to an imaginary dialogue between a skinhead and the poet in which no linguistic holds are barred.
“Aspirations, cunt! Folk on t'fucking dole
'ave got about as much scope to aspire
above the shit they're dumped in, cunt, as coal
aspires to be chucked on t'fucking fire"
Harrison gives an extended voice to his protagonist to clearly list the “us and them” of class war, tribal boundaries, race, religion and gender politics. Despite his anger his empathy is with the offender. After all, he has done his “bits of mindless aggro too”. He too is struggling to accommodate the changes wrought in Leeds. On the bus to the station Harrison's honest observations on the changes to everyday life are searing.
"A pensioner in turban taps his stick
along the pavement past the corner shop
that sells samosas now not beer on tick
to the Kashmir Muslim Club that was the Co-op"
The poem was written in 1985, during the national miners' strike, a period which saw the country violently polarised, as the embers of the north's industrial revolution flickered to an end, ably hastened by Margaret Thatcher's fire brigade (or more accurately police force, but the metaphor doesn't hold up). Alongside this theme the poet grapples with his own chosen detachment from the situation, looking backwards for moral reference to a world he walked away from and abandoned, liberated through education and talking proper. In realising his parents' aspirations he has only created a gulf between himself as an artist and the people he was made from.
Of course, the return of the long-lost son is a classical theme not wasted on Harrison. He is a character in his own mythology, and like so many of those myths there is no completion or closure as we now say. Tragedy and uncertainty abound.
And then there's the may tree. A hawthorn in bloom at which children in Leeds United kits repeatedly kick their ball at, to dislodge the blossom and dance mockingly in its confetti-like clouds. A reference to the impermanence of finer qualities such as love, or of the shallowness of man's commitment to them? Looking away from the past to the present the poet considers his blessings but even they are tinged with doubt.
"I doubt if 30 years of bleak Leeds weather
and 30 falls of apple and of may
will erode the UNITED binding us together.
And now it's your decision: does it stay?"
None of these themes was new to Harrison. Similarities abound in his earlier work and he was never averse to blunt Anglo Saxon to drive home a point, or just to describe those visceral acts of everyday life, those physical pre-occupations and drives, that power our troubled lives (or did do when I was younger). The Loiners ( London Magazine editions 1970), one of his first collections, is awash with Rabelasian excess in West Africa, Central Europe or wherever his formidable language skills had taken him. So it was not really a departure for him, a respectable man of the theatre and opera by 1980, to lapse into his vernacular and use the language of the street, not to desecrate the dead but to antagonise the living.
v. had an agonised quality to it the first time round. It was raw and current and screamed for attention, as if a call for help. The issue was too big for one man to deal with. The destruction of the cycle of certainty that had held communities fast was horrible to behold, and its ramifications are still being felt. Strange that that certainty had probably only existed for three generations, riding on the back of Britain's role as workshop of the world.
The natives were ill-equipped to deal with change, and all Harrison could do was stand and empathise. And write poetry. Did it change anything? I doubt it over the last 30 years. The denied and dispossessed are still around, and certainty has long since been out of fashion.
v. the second time round has created few ripples. Perhaps we are deadened to grief and loss with our daily measure of the same from all quarters. There is no news like bad news. The scenario as described by Harrison would make a comedy today about dysfunctional teenagers, eccentric teachers and cardboard politicians.
It's illuminating to note that v.'s arch enemy the Daily Mail, which originally described the poem as “a torrent of filth”, did not again make a front page issue of its recent BBC outing. Instead it managed to express front page outrage on behalf of the Great British Public at Hilary Mantel's “hurtful” assault on Kate Middleton, a “jointed doll on whom certain robes are hung”. Of course it neither put in context nor gave the full text. From extracts I picked up from the radio, Mantel has nothing but sympathy for a young woman whose breeding habits will preoccupy the columnists for the forseeable.
The orchestration of outrage on behalf of the GBP is a Mail speciality, a perfect foil for its commodification by characters such as Jeremy Kyle. What Richard Eyres called “synthetically created fury” in his contribution to the Radio 4 programme. Such fury didn't kill Harrison's reputation as translator or poet, and I doubt it will impact on Mantel's status as novelist and historian.
The rhyming quatrains of Harrison's elegy on an urban graveyard may not make next century's Golden Treasury but its exploration of layered meaning in language, such as the contradictions and nuances in the abbreviation v. (versus, opposition, victory), and united (in this and the afterlife), should maintain its importance not only as a social record but as testimony to the importance of literacy and communication in a civilised world.
It's too much to expect it will ever make the A-level syllabus but if we hear this stuff in everyday life, if we gratuitously pursue our demons through reality TV, if we insist on subscribing to the commodification and orchestration of outrage, a little intelligent analysis of the subject matter wouldn't go amiss.
Hearing Tony Harrison reading v. is a provoking and emotional experience for someone of my age and background. I urge anyone, young and old to chase it on BBC iPlayer and make your own mind up before it expires. A text copy can be found on the internet at plagiarist.com.
Dave Morgan’s own Leeds poems, owing something to Tony Harrison, Choker and Goldfinches, can be found on Write Out Loud's website
PHOTOGRAPH: SANDRA LOUSADA