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
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