The Blagger's Guide To: Tony Harrison

Wonder why he's not Poet Laureate? Read his poem to Camilla

Saturday 28 April 2012 19:25 BST

The poet and playwright Tony Harrison celebrates his 75th birthday tomorrow. He was born in Beeston, Leeds, attending Leeds Grammar School before reading Classics and Linguistics at Leeds University. His unease about war dates back to his childhood when, aged 8, he "likened the bonfires in the street [on VJ Day] to the terrible fire that helped finish the war. I've always struggled to find a way of uniting my celebratory nature with a way of seeing horrors clearly."

His plays include Fram (2008) and The Bartered Bride (1978), as well as adaptations of Molière and Greek tragedies. His 1998 film Prometheus links the Greek myth with the Yorkshire mining industry and Second World War concentration camps.

His poem "A Kumquat for John Keats" was written when he was 42. It is arguably poetry's finest example of citrus fruit-as-metaphor for the soul.

Plans by Channel 4 in 1987 to screen his poem "V" led to outrage, objections and a debate in Parliament. Inspired by the desecration of his parents' graves by football hooligans, the poem was criticised for its "torrents of obscene language" and "streams of four-letter filth". Naturally, Mary Whitehouse became involved, and an Early Day Motion was tabled by a group of protesting Conservative MPs. Only one MP (Norman Buchan, Labour, West Renfrewshire) opposed the Motion, wondering aloud whether many MPs in the Commons had actually read the poem. The Independent published the poem in full to allow people to make up their own minds. Tory MP Gerald Howarth's comment that Harrison was "probably another bolshie poet wishing to impose his frustrations on the rest of us" was countered by Harrison, who called Howarth "probably another idiot MP wishing to impose his intellectual limitations on the rest of us". The broadcast was screened to hardly any complaints from viewers, and "V" is now studied in schools.

Harrison appears to be popular with the actors in his plays. The Blagger is told that the NT cast of Fram call themselves "The Framily", and have regular reunions, after Harrison flew them all to Norway for dinner on deck of the Fram in Oslo at the end of the NT run.

His poem "Shrapnel" appeared exclusively in The Independent on Sunday in August 2005. Beginning with a memory from his childhood in Leeds, it ends with a reflection on the London bombings of that summer. His poem "Off the Scent" was also published for the first time in The IoS. Triggered by the vote in the Commons to ban hunting, it compared Tony Blair to a hunter "in his Iraq-hued hunting coat/ whose cheeks with Bush-brush daubings bloat/ when he blows hard on Herod's hunting horn/ to cluster bomb the cradle-culled newborn..."

Some wonder why Harrison has never been selected as the Poet Laureate. Then they read his poem written on the occasion of the Prince of Wales's marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles, which contains the lines: "O let law make the monarch as defunct/ as Camilla's tampon after menopause."

In his house he keeps a bust of Milton, to remind him of the "grave and committed role of the poet", and another of John Nicholson, the Airedale Bard, who began life as a Yorkshire woolsorter and ended it drunk, face down in the River Aire, having compromised his poetry in return for money and fame.

His Selected Poems is published by Penguin (£9.99)

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