Radio 4 revisits controversial poem 'v.'
Commissioning Editor, Arts, Radio 4
In the days and weeks that followed the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, one fact played heavily on my mind – that Mohammed Siddique Khan, allegedly the organiser of the act of terror that struck the nation, was born in Leeds.
I was born in Leeds too and lived for a short time a stone’s throw away from where he was born, in the district called Beeston. In the intervening years another thought was that the poet Tony Harrison – also born in Leeds – had located his poem ‘v.’ in Beeston.
Harrison’s poem springs from a visit he made to the cemetery in Beeston where his parents are buried. He found his parents’ gravestones had been daubed with racist and offensive graffiti – the ‘v.’ refers to racial and footballing oppositions (Leeds United’s home ground Elland Road is visible from the cemetery).
So when a producer suggested that we revisit the poem, it struck me as something we should take seriously – revisit an important piece of writing set in a location redolent with recent history. The focus on culture we have introduced this year at Radio 4 offers up an opportunity to revisit seminal works that have had an impact on society and Harrison’s poem, peppered with its obscenities and racist language, certainly made its mark.
The producer initially asked if Radio 4 would be interested in broadcasting a conversation about the poem – Harrison was due to discuss the poem at a literary festival 25 years after the Channel Four broadcast. I felt it would be far more interesting to hear Tony Harrison himself reading the poem in full. It’s an important poem that spoke volumes about Britain in the ‘80s – and perhaps, with hindsight, more significantly for that location, wedged if you like between the miners’ strike and the Rushdie Affair.
These days Harrison rarely reads the poem in full. Tonight Radio 4 will broadcast a new version of it in its entirety, recorded in Leeds. It will be prefaced with an introductory feature written and presented by the writer Blake Morrison reflecting on the poem itself, the furore that surrounded it in the 1980s, and its contemporary resonance.
Tonight’s reading will offer audiences a rare opportunity to hear this landmark piece in full. There has always been a close relationship between poetry and Radio 4 and in this spirit, Radio 4 is about to launch The Echo Chamber, a new contemporary poetry magazine presented by poet Paul Farley. The programme will unpick and reweave the poetic fabric of the nation. With a mix of interviews, works in progress, performances, experiments and adventures in the world of poetry, Paul will set out to find the wordsmiths responding to the way we live now. I’m looking forward to finding out what he uncovers.
Tony Phillips is Arts Commissioning Editor for Radio 4.
v. by Tony Harrison will be broadcast tonight at 11pm on Radio 4. It's available for seven days after broadcast via BBC iPlayer.