Britain’s unofficial poet laureate Tony Harrison tells ANTHONY CLAVANE about how the divisions exposed by his landmark poem, V, are as raw now as ever
They say you should never meet your heroes. It is even less advisable, perhaps, to chair a question-and-answer session with them in a beautiful church after they have just declared their antipathy to religion.
Around 100 poetry lovers had gathered at Beverley Minster on a blustery Saturday night to listen to one of the star attractions of the market town’s literary festival. Recently turned 80, Tony Harrison is widely regarded as the nation’s unofficial poet laureate. A recent profile in the Guardian hailed him as the composer of ‘one of the angriest and finest poems of the 20th century’.
He is also a plain-speaking Yorkshireman. So when one of the poetry lovers stands up to enquire how excited he is feeling to be giving a reading in such a prepossessing building, he doesn’t hold back. ‘I’m pretty anti-church,’ he growls. ‘I don’t mind reading anywhere. It’s the place where I am reading poems tonight. But I’m pretty hostile to religion.’
Still, this is one of the reasons those of us who worship at the altar of Saint Tony revere him so much. Throughout a long, glittering career writing for the page, stage and screen, he has refused to compromise either his art or his principles. Which is why, one would imagine, he has never been appointed the nation’s official poet laureate.
As well as being anti-religion, he is anti-royal. Infamously, on the occasion of the Prince of Wales’ marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles, he penned the lines: ‘O let law make the monarch as defunct/ as Camilla’s tampon after menopause.’
It is almost 30 years to the day that a filmed version of V, the poem venerated by the Guardian, scandalised the establishment. Directed by Richard Eyre for Channel 4, it was denounced by the Daily Mail as a ‘torrent of filth’, cited by clean-up campaigner Mary Whitehouse as yet further evidence of the then-newbie channel’s depravity and admonished in an Early Day Motion put down by Tory MPs for its ‘stream of obscenities’. One of their number, Gerald Howarth, who some years later confessed to not actually having read the offending verse, dismissed the baker’s son as ‘probably another bolshie poet wishing to impose his frustrations on the rest of us’.
The bolshie poet countered that Howarth was ‘probably another idiot MP wishing to impose his intellectual limitations on the rest of us’.
V, despite its references to the mid-1980s’ miners’ strike and skinheads, still reads like a state-of-the-nation missive. Running to around 3,500 words, 17 of which are expletives, it speaks to today’s bitterly-divided Britain, lamenting the toxic religious, cultural and racial oppositions that continue to undermine social cohesion.
On a personal level, it is a timeless portrayal of an upwardly-mobile, working-class northerner’s sense of estrangement from his economically-battered, left-behind, post-industrial community.
‘You can read V now and not feel it’s dated,’ Harrison agrees. ‘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. There is a lot of social division about today. Similar ones all inherited from the great arch-villain Mrs Thatcher.’
In his magnum opus, the poet has an imaginary face-off with a Leeds United hooligan who has desecrated his parents’ graves at a cemetery overlooking Elland Road football ground. He tries to erase the drunken fan’s graffiti, to scrub away the obscenities – but he can’t make them go away. Which seems to just about sum up his feelings towards Brexit.
‘It’s not coming out as a poem though,’ he sighs. ‘I just sort of brood on these things.’
Being a reluctant public speaker – he’d rather just read his poems – there is, at first, little elaboration on this subject. But then we get talking about the golden age of culture – the 1960s and 70s – when the voice of the northern working class held centre stage. When, in novels, the theatre, television and the cinema, ‘ordinary people’ suddenly became the subject of ground-breaking dramas.
Harrison’s poetry, and Yorkshire-accented adaptations of world classics such as The Mysteries, were influenced as much by the method, patter, timing and delivery of music hall stand-up-comedians as the Latin and Greek classics he studied at Leeds University.
His work was an antidote to the upper-middle class tweediness of the immediate post-war era, thriving during a period of social mobility and cultural egalitarianism.
‘It’s all come back again,’ he notes. ‘This nostalgia for the Downton Abbey world. That (northern working class) voice is missing today. It’s gone back to the Eton and Harrow voices.
‘I loathe Downtown Abbey. Jim Carter (Carson the butler) was part of that group of actors I worked with. I did a television play with him and Barrie Rutter. Now you go back to playing servants.
‘The nostalgia for that world is also why people were wanting Brexit. Thinking that if we go out of the EU we’d suddenly go back to the old British Empire days, which were horrible.’
V embodies the opposing forces that clashed during the referendum debates. Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, who as a schoolboy was inspired to apply to Cambridge after watching a video of the Channel 4 film, argued it was ‘so prescient in predicting the dislocation coming to a de-industrialised north’. The title referred to the ‘versus’ of left v right, miners v police, Leeds v Liverpool. But it could just as easily apply to today’s Remain v Leave divide; the EU referendum, as we know, split the country according to age, race and educational qualifications.
Harrison, himself, personifies the great divide. A cosmopolitan classicist, his latest book The Inky Digit of Defiance takes the reader on a journey through several continents and many international productions. But as anyone who has read his elegiac sonnets about his Leeds childhood – particularly his beloved parents – will confirm, he can hardly be accused of being part of the dreaded metropolitan elite.
He is a proud Loiner (native of Leeds) and gets angry at the cultural snobbery of media commentators who ‘never talk about Leeds. The only person they mention is Alan Bennett. But he made films about Leeds that I was annoyed by. He knows that. I often bump into him on the train. Sadly the lazy press think ‘Leeds, oh that means Alan Bennett’. He’s a great friend of mine, but we tease each other.’
Both writers are renowned for examining the gulf between their working-class backgrounds and middle-class education. Bennett has explored this theme throughout his career, with his customary humour, whereas the more angst-ridden Harrison underwent a seismic shift in literary style after his parents passed away.
‘Their deaths shocked me into thinking ‘Why, why?’ I had too many influences like Ezra Pound and TS Eliot. I really don’t like Eliot now. I have a real distaste for his work. Because I knew other languages I was passionate about learning any of them. I probably scattered too many learned things into my earlier poems.
‘But when my parents died I just went ‘Oh, what would I say to them now, that was very direct’. My first book was called Loiners. I didn’t give a copy to me mam. A while after it came out a cousin of my father’s got it out from the library and showed it to her. One time she said to me: ‘I don’t know, Tony. You weren’t brought up to write such mucky books.”
Anthony Clavane’s Moving The Goalposts: A Yorkshire Tragedy, published by Riverrun, is out in paperback this month