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.
Final Top Gear reviewTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 BBC told new political editor must be 'impartial' with Nick Robinson reportedly stepping down
- 2 Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
- 3 Humans of New York image of crying gay teen receives best response yet from Ellen DeGeneres
- 4 The map showing the most dangerous tourist destinations in Europe, according to the Foreign Office
- 5 Swedish minister gives strongest case yet on why EU should stop turning away asylum seekers
Church of Scientology allegedly sent threatening letters to film distributors and festivals showing damning documentary
This is surely the best way to watch Jaws
James Blunt was special guest on the highest-rating Top Gear episode ever
Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl performs with broken leg seated on massive throne made of guitars
Chris Moyles reportedly set to make radio comeback with new breakfast show on XFM
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture
Osborne to cap family benefits at £23,000 – announced ahead of his post-election Budget