South of the River – poetic licence

Compass-SouthTony Harrison’s controversial poem “V” is in the news again.

A programme is being made and an updated version of the poem will be read by Harrison on Radio 4 next month. The poem is controversial because of the liberal use of four letter words – the words Harrison found sprayed on gravestones when he visited his parents’ grave in Holbeck Cemetery in 1984.

You can find a video of V on YouTube (it’s in four parts), but please don’t watch it if you’re easily offended.

Now I’m no literary critic – I failed my Eng Lit O level – but it seems much of the controversy is created by a superficial and rather literal reading of the poem.

The poem is a reflection on the divisions in society. V stands for “versus”. Divisions between football fans, races, creeds and classes (this was the middle of the miners’ strike).

We called them “yobs” in the 80s, now we call them “chavs”. Neither label is very helpful, but we are talking about people who sprinkle their speech with swear words. Harrison includes a dialogue between a yob and the poet in which the yob uses swear words. Of course he does, that’s his authentic voice. I don’t believe Harrison uses it just to shock.

The Harrison family plot in Holbeck Cemetery. Photo by Jeremy Morton
The Harrison family plot in Holbeck Cemetery. Photo by Jeremy Morton

Harrison also riffs on the fact that they scrawled “United” on his parents’ grave. They meant Leeds United, but united is a fitting sentiment for a family split by death, but then buried together in the family plot. He also notes that nearby graves contain a Wordsworth and a Byron. Like all good writers he enjoys playing with words.

Locally people seem to take offence that the poem represents Beeston as a divided community where yobs run amok vandalising graveyards.

Yes, the poem is about Beeston and Leeds United fans. But it’s also about many communities in Britain. It’s about Harrison, but it’s also about many families, especially those with working class grammar school boys (like Harrison). Like all good art it takes you from the specific to more general truths.

The programme makers at the BBC appear keen to link the poem to the 7/7 bombers. I think that’s quite a stretch, but it’s the kind of “sexy” link that mainstream media organisations like to make. Yes, the men behind 7/7 were excluded and marginalised young people, but they were looking for solutions to international problems. The origins of the London bombings lie in Gaza, not in Beeston.

In contrast, the young people graffiti-ing grave stones were numbing themselves to the world and escaping through football and glue bags.

Things have changed in the last twenty five years. Glue is harder to come by, now it’s illegal to sell to under 18s. Football has changed too. Elland Road still had those iconic diamond floodlight pylons in 1984. Then we had Heysel and Hillsborough, all-seater stadiums, the Premier League and big ticket prices. There are fewer fights at the football and more middle class supporters.

My memories of Beeston in the 80s and 90s are of a spiral of decline. The “yobs” of V struggled to find work, got into trouble and caused aggravation for their neighbours. Those with the means sold up and moved out. The Asian community stayed, close to their shops and places of worship, providing much-needed stability for the area. In the 90s community action resurfaced, crime started to fall and Friends groups reclaimed Cross Flatts Park and Holbeck Cemetery.

The community is so strong now that we have large festival each year in the park. At last year’s Beeston Festival we even had a reading of V. It wasn’t without difficulty and despite all the warnings about the language, the Police still asked us to stop. We compromised on turning the PA system down and carried on.

Jeremy MortonI’m interested to find out what Tony Harrison thinks of Beeston today. Rumour had it that he hated Beeston, but from the insights he shows in the poem I find that hard to believe.

If you want to make your own mind up the programme will be on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 18th February at 11:00pm.

Join me next Friday for more views from South of the River.


2 Replies to “South of the River – poetic licence”

  1. Tony Harrison also wrote a poem called Shrapnel, linking the WWII bombing of Beeston to the 7/7 bombings – well worth a read.

  2. Thank you, Jeremy, for this article. I’d not heard ‘V’ before and it is a very powerful and impressive poem. I find it very hard to understand why people get so worked up about the use of bad language in a context like this.

    I can’t see any direct link between the 7/7 bombers and the poem but I don’t think the men behind the bombings ‘were looking for solutions to international problems’. I think they were looking to express their anger and frustration and to that extent that is what they share with excluded and marginalised young people.

    Your article and the poem made me think about how much has changed and what hasn’t since the poem was written My fear is that given what is happening currently with the ‘austerity approach’ and, in particular the lack of opportunities for young people we will have more people who feel they have no real stake in society.

    I think you’re right about Beeston but we do need to find more ways of getting the various communities to work together: I think the central message of ‘V’ is about the nature of conflict and polarities. The poem seems to indicate that in many ways these are unavoidable but towards the end of the poem Harrison uses the image of love between a man and a woman perhaps to suggest how conflicts might be resolved.

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