The Week in Radio: Tony Harrison is 75 - but he hasn't aged and nor has V

 

In the summer of 1972 Alice Cooper, the fright-wigged shock-rocker, sent Mary Whitehouse, the blue-rinsed umbrage-taker, a bunch of flowers along with a note of thanks. Through the latter's vociferous campaigning to have Cooper's single "School's Out" banned from Top of the Pops, she inadvertently propelled it to the top of the charts.

The poet Tony Harrison might have considered a similar token of gratitude for the Conservative MP Gerald Howarth who, 25 years ago, led a campaign to prevent a reading of Tony Harrison's poem V, which contained 90 swear words — we know this because The Sun newspaper was kind enough to count them — from being broadcast on Channel 4 as part of a Richard Eyre film, thus swelling its audience from the anticipated few thousand to 2.5 million.

I doubt that the poem's late-night airing on Radio 4 on Monday pulled the same ratings, or provoked a millionth of the fuss, despite the station's best efforts to stir up some outrage with a slew of press releases that all but begged us to storm Parliament and torch Broadcasting House. Last month, the controller Gwyneth Williams announced that she wanted to throw some fireworks into the schedules. This, apparently, was the first rocket.

There may have been a scattering of listeners whose knickers got vaguely knotty over Harrison's liberal sprinkling of the words "fuck" and "cunt", the same type of people who find themselves unusually hot under the collar at the sight of a children's TV character in a Jimmy Savile wig and start dashing off letters to Ofcom in telltale green ink. But I'm guessing that most heard it for what it was: a howl of rage and a shattering reflection on the state of his city, his country and of human nature.

Harrison wrote the poem after visiting his parents' graves in Holbeck Cemetery in Beeston, Leeds, to find them vandalised. He imagines a conversation with the aerosol-wielding skins who, taking a shortcut back home from the football stadium up the road, had defaced the tombstones on a drunken whim. The poem's title stands not for victory but for "versus", signifying the divisions at the heart of British life – "Leeds v. Derby, Black/White, and (as I have known to my cost) man v. wife, Communist v. Fascist, Left v. Right..."

But before the reading came the context, courtesy of the writer Blake Morrison who, 25 years ago, as the literary editor of a Sunday newspaper, had written that viewers were right to be shocked by V, not by the language but by of the poem's unflinching examination of a polarised society. Regarding the swearing, the poet Khadija Ibrahim, who runs writing workshops in Leeds, told Morrison: "If he didn't use those words, he would be dishonest as a poet. You wouldn't know about the Beeston environment. It's the language of the people."

The poem had some impressive defenders first time around – Auberon Waugh, Harold Pinter, Joan Bakewell and Melvyn Bragg – but they weren't needed now. The only dissenting voice was Gerald Howarth, still thumping his tub a quarter of a century later, but with a noticeably smaller voice.

And Harrison? He's 75 now, the age at which in V he wonders if he might be joining his parents on the family plot. But he didn't sound old and nor did his poem. You don't hear much about "skins" now, but replace them with "hoodies" or "chavs" and, with the references to unemployment, hardship, religious divisions, the rich and the poor, the educated and ill-educated, and Britain doesn't look or sound so very different. It's this, not the "four-letter filth", that's shocking.

twitter.com/FionaSturges

Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week