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Tony Harrison's poem V is a timeless portrayal of working-class aspiration


V reflects the social divisions that seem to have hardened 25 years after the poem's Channel 4 appearance caused outrage

Whatever happened to the northern iconoclasts? You know, the likely lads and lasses who barged through the privileged ranks of the metropolitan elite in the 1950s, 60s and 70s – an era when, to adapt their most famous representative's mantra, a working-class anti-hero was something to be.

Age, of course, has caught up with them. Some have died or, even worse, gone out of fashion. Half a century ago, in the film adaptation of Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar, a new generation of socially mobile northerners were urged to get on the train to London and make something of their lives. William Terence Fisher bottled it, but his handbag-swinging girlfriend – the luminous Liz – transcended the confines of her dreary existence and got London, and then the world, swinging. This was a golden age of aspiration, when a new, open, meritocratic society was being forged. Anyone wishing to know what went wrong should read V by Tony Harrison (right) – or listen when he reads it on Radio 4 on Monday.

A quarter of a century ago, when it was shown as part of a Richard Eyre film on Channel 4, the expletive-laden poem was denounced by a holier-than-thou trinity of Mary Whitehouse, Conservative MP Gerald Howarth and the Daily Mail. There is likely to be another furore next week: Radio 4 is "bracing itself for the backlash". Then, as now, the fuss over its obscene language misses the point.

V was inspired by Harrison's discovery that his parents' grave had been vandalised. He imagines an exchange with the drunken skinhead who has aerosolled graffiti on the tombstone, and ruefully reflects on society's schisms. "V", in this context, stands for "versus", an emblem of the bitter divisions of the new Thatcherite order. Even rightwing commentators such as Bernard Levin hailed it as "one of the most powerful, profound and haunting long poems of modern times … a meticulously controlled yell of rage and hope combined, a poisoned dart aimed with deadly precision at the waste of human potential."

At the beginning of the Eyre film, Harrison, standing like so many northern iconoclasts before him on top of a hill overlooking his home city, describes the "panoramic view". He points out Leeds grammar school, where he learned the Latin and Greek that helped him escape the confines of previous generations, and Leeds University "where I got the education that took me away from this background". Harrison, like Waterhouse, John Braine, Stan Barstow, Alan Bennett, David Storey and Willis Hall, was born and brought up in a resurgent west Yorkshire. The son of a baker, he escaped at the earliest opportunity – and paid the price of estrangement from his roots. In "catching the London train" – a metaphor for acting on your fantasies, fulfilling your potential – the northern iconoclast becomes uprooted from his family, class, community and city.

In this sense, V stands alongside the dystopian films that lamented the "progress" made in the 60s. In Get Carter, Charlie Bubbles, O Lucky Man and The Reckoning, the north's prodigal sons – the Billy Liar generation – return home to discover a wasteland of demolition sites, car parks and crumbling terraces. Their old towns and cities had been crippled by the decline of heavy industry and corrupted by big business. Progress was a mirage; they felt like strangers in a strange land.

It is significant that V was broadcast on Channel 4 – a station established to provide viewing for under-represented groups in society. For, by the 1980s, the northern working classes, briefly incorporated into the Swinging Sixties meritocracy, had returned to the margins of British culture. And, as the corpses of its dead parent industries rotted, Harrison's home city had become an unforgiving place. The 1984 miners' strike reinforced the view that the Tories were fighting a civil war against the north – and that the police had become a brutal arm of a heartless government.

In 1987, the self-appointed governors of public morals denounced Harrison's liberal use of the words "fuck" and "cunt". In 2013 these words might still have the power to shock. But the poet was far more interested in the other bit of graffiti the profane and brutalised hooligan scrawls all over his father's tombstone: a "V". Despite the bleakness of its vision, the poem ends on an optimistic note, expressing the hope that society's polarities will disappear – that "V" will come, once again, to mean "victory".

Far more attention has been given to the poem's hostile reception than to the beauty of its language. It remains a timeless portrayal of working-class aspiration, an agonising reflection of both a northern iconoclast's internal conflict and the social divisions that, a quarter of a century on, appear only to have hardened.

There are many conflicts described in the poem – north v south, black v white, Leeds United v everyone else – but it is his internal torment that is the poem's heartbeat. Harrison tries to erase the drunken fan's graffiti, to scrub away the obscenities. But he couldn't make them, or his own alienation, go away.

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