It's the famous poem that drew high praise and huge offence. But does Tony Harrison's 'V' still have the power to shock?

A quarter of a century ago, Tony Harrison’s seminal poem was broadcast on Channel 4, printed in The Independent, and scandalised a nation. Now it’s having a second life. Its author tells Jonathan Brown that it’s as relevant as ever

Tony Harrison is still struggling to work out what the fuss is all about.

“I couldn’t believe they would react like that again. There has been so much written about it. It has been translated into most European languages, children study it in schools. You would think it had gone through the process,” he says, chuckling quietly at the absurdity of the situation.

“It”, of course, is his seminal poem “V”, written in the midst of the miners’ strike and broadcast on Channel 4 in 1987 complete with all 17 original expletives and which will be aired once more in full on BBC Radio 4 next month.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the film of the poet performing the work before a serenely appreciative live television audience was branded a “torrent of filth” by tabloid newspapers. It provoked broadcasting campaigner Mary Whitehouse, as well as angry Tory MPs who laid down an Early Day Motion condemning the “obscene” poem.

It also went some way to branding the former Channel 4 chief executive Jeremy Isaacs “Britain’s pornographer in chief” by the Daily Mail.

The newly launched Independent responded to the furore by printing the whole poem in its news pages – something for which its author remains grateful. The rest of the media was less understanding, not that Harrison let it faze him. “I just hid. I pulled the phone out [of the wall]. I got the first weird phone call in the morning and I pulled the phone out and closed my shutters and there were people banging on the door. I just let it blow over and got on with writing more poems,” he recalls.

“V” tells of Harrison’s visit to his family grave – a traditional family plot in Holbeck Cemetery overlooking the city of Leeds where he grew up and studied.

For the son of a baker, whose grammar school scholarship saw him learn Latin and Greek and escape the class confines of previous generations, the sight of the obelisk obliterated by swear words scrawled by disaffected football fans en route from nearby Elland Road was a profound one. So, too, the symbolism of the leaning headstones subsiding into the old burial ground – the site of a worked-out pit below.

“It was written during the miners’ strike. It’s about all kinds of divisions and oppositions in society and in the human spirit and in my own make-up and imagination,” says Harrison, who at 75 is enjoying a new lease of life after undergoing two knee replacements at his local hospital in Newcastle.

But he remains irked that his critics were speaking from a position of almost total ignorance about the poem. “Somebody told me that [the Tory MP] Gerald Howarth has now admitted he never read it when he sounded off about it. Most people hadn’t read it,” he says.

But he does not fear that it might have become outdated in the intervening years. “There is a lot of social division about. Similar ones all inherited from the great arch-villain Mrs Thatcher,” he says.

It turns out that the former Tory prime minister might still prove something of a muse for Harrison. Asked what he might do to mark her passing he replies: “I might write a poem about that. It wouldn’t be a very nice one. I am capable of bad taste – deliberately.”

He adds: “You can make poems out of anger as well as tenderness. You can make poetry out of anything. It can be the ugliest of emotions. It doesn’t have to be sweetness and light.”

Harrison remains an unreconstructed opponent of the royal family. “Can’t stand any of them,” he says agreeing that the forces of republicanism are losing out to a resurgent servility to the House of Windsor. “Awful. I find it terrible. I think it infantilises politics and Britain generally. Even on the BBC they almost never have a republican voice. They have the royal correspondent going on about the state of whatever-her-name’s womb,” he adds, shaking his head in disbelief.

Despite a life in theatre and the arts he admits that he was slightly surprised to be asked to perform “V” for the BBC which provided him with his formative artistic experiences, although he is less enamoured by the modern state of some of its output.

“I have always loved radio as a medium. I grew up listening to a very bad radio, but hearing the Third Programme. It was wonderful. You could hear the whole of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov.

“In some ways it was lot better in its cultural breadth [than Radio 3]. Everything is too bitty. Sometimes they don’t even give you the whole poem. I don’t like listening to bits of poetry and music,” he says.

“They don’t seem to take any risks much at all either artistically or in any other way. I think it is what they call `managerialisation’. That has been the death of a lot of institutions.”

Another thing that has changed is the opportunity afforded young, bright working-class children through education, he believes.

“They are terribly afraid of debt. I got all my education free. It is sad to think of them getting so in debt.”

Meanwhile Harrison remains furious at the former Labour prime minister Tony Blair: “He gives me the creeps. He’s basically a war criminal.” And he recently joined other artists from the North-East of England, including Sting and Bryan Ferry, in opposing Newcastle City Council’s arts cuts.

“Of course you have to provide for the vulnerable and the children but also the vulnerable and the children need art in some form or another. You need spiritual experiences that I think forms of art give best. I don’t mean religion – I have no time for religion,” he adds.

His current age is also something of a landmark. “I do say in the poem ‘At 75 this place [the grave] will suit me fine’. I would want some of my ashes there with my parents but I would want the others scattered in other places.” He adds: “But I’m not ready to go yet. I’ve got my energy back.”


Extract: 'V' by Tony Harrison

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.


Far-sighted for his family’s future dead,

but for his wife, this banker’s still alone

on his long obelisk, and doomed to head

a blackened dynasty of unclaimed stone,


now graffitied with a crude four-letter word.

His children and grandchildren went away

and never came back home to be interred,

so left a lot of space for skins to spray.


The language of this graveyard ranges from

a bit of Latin for a former Mayor

or those who laid their lives down at the Somme,

the hymnal fragments and the gilded prayer,


how people ‘fell asleep in the Good Lord’,

brief chisellable bits from the good book

and rhymes whatever length they could afford,

to CUNT, PISS, SHIT and (mostly) FUCK!

Selected Poems by Tony Harrison is published on 7th February,£9.99; V will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 18th February

Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
Morrissey pictured in 2013
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices