Radio 4 revisits controversial poem 'v.'

Monday 18 February 2013, 14:30

Tony Phillips Tony Phillips Commissioning Editor, Arts, Radio 4

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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.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I would have preferred it if the associated feature had followed the poem rather than preceding it. Hearing odd lines of the poem used in the feature, stuck together apparently almost at random, is distracting as one anticipates hearing the piece in its entirety. Once the poem finally comes on, the listener's mind will be cluttered with associations imposed in the feature and evoked by hearing those lines again, rather than responding freely to the verse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Like Nick Fitzsimons I would have preferred to hear the whole poem first, then the discussion - and for the same reasons. It's hard to see why the "bad language" evoked so much outrage; the work would make remarkably little sense without it. And it seems hypocritical for people to wax so "disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" about language which one hears relatively frequently, even in the southern, middle-class enclave in which I live.

    I hadn't heard of the poem before hearing the broadcast trailed on Radio 4 this morning; I'm glad I stayed up to listen.

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    Comment number 3.

    Simply brilliant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Very, very keen to hear this. When will it be available on 'Listen Again'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I caught the last 20 minutes of this here in Australia as I was getting out of bed. Great stuff. It's that rare thing: real poetry. I am also eagerly awaiting it on Listen Again so that I can hear it all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Thank you to BBC Radio 4 for airing this fantastic poem. I was riveted by it. Having listened to the recent series on Orwell, and the idea that those who control language control thought being in my mind, I felt proud and fortunate to live in a society/ age where our poets and broadcasters are not cowed but tackle difficult subjects in a challenging way. I was fascinated to hear the feature which preceded the poem. The feature put it into social (and historical?) context for me and set me up for the main event - the poem. Tony Harrison’s reading of his work was superb. Respect to Melvyn Bragg too who championed the original broadcasting of the poem back in the 1980s and said that broadcasters must take risks. Fantastic.

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    Comment number 7.

    Just listened to the programme in full having only caught the end last night. A great poem that that stands up against anything written in the English language. I find it difficult to understand the outcry against the poem documented in the 80s. The use of language seems to be entirely right for the piece, giving it an unforgettable resonance - if anything is shocking or distressing it is that the poem has lost none of its relevance to today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Naively reacted to as prophanic by the narrow conservative bigots of the 80s establishment but understood as prophetic by some which has proven to be true over and over since. One of the greatest living poets

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I first heard of Tony Harrison whilst listening to WORD AND MUSIC on Radio 4 a few years ago, he read 'Illuminations' and I had to stop the car to listen properly. I then purchased the various books and was delighted to find the current edition of 'V' with all the contemporary reviews re-printed after it in the book. I recommend this highly. Tony's poems read so well off the page, but spring into another life altogether when he reads them. Those who appreciated 'V' may do well to buy the boooks.

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    Comment number 10.



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