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Holbeck Cemetery

Holbeck Cemetery, setting for Tony Harrison’s v. (Photo credit: Monkey Phil)

As BBC Radio 4 broadcasted a 25th anniversary version of .v, read by Harrison himself, the event rekindled the media’s interest in the poem, chiefly focused on the attacks on it by MPs and the media. One of the reasons given by Tony Phillips for commissioning a new recording of the poem was that it had lost none of its resonance: two of the 7/7 bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, had close links with Beeston – a spit away from Harrison’s Holbeck cemetery and Elland Road stadium.

Shop fire in the Party Superstore, Lavender Hi...

Shop fire in the Party Superstore, Lavender Hill, Clapham Junction, England, 8 August, 2011 – part of the 2011 riots (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, the poem’s appeal today is broader than this. In November 2012, the BBC reported that the UK’s neets (young people not in employment or education) still topped a million. Harrison’s alter ego, the skin, rails at the desecrated graves: ‘Look at this cunt, Wordsworth, organ builder, / this fucking ‘haberdasher Appleyard! // If mi mam’s up there, don’t want to meet ‘er / listening to me list mi dirty deeds, / and ‘ave to pipe up to St fucking Peter / ah’ve been on t’dole all mi life in fucking Leeds!‘ In the Guardian, Shiv Malik writes that, ‘The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said Europe was “failing in its social contract” with the young and rising political disenchantment could reach levels similar to those that sparked North African uprisings during the Arab spring’. Although Harrison presents us with a lone skin, the poem’s celebrated and notorious imprecations do much of the work in presenting seething, barely repressed, apolitical anger. Malik’s political disenchantment would be easier to stomach. Government, although it wouldn’t like it, would at least be able to attempt to engage with it. Watching the family business at Reeves Corner, Croydon, burning felt more like the fall of Rome than the Arab Spring. It was for this reason that the riots of 2011 were so unsettling for those prepared to engage in the political process.

Tags in London 2011

Tags in London 2011 (Photo credit: kami68k)

Faced with the desecration of Holbeck’s graves, Harrison either rapidly sinks to the Skin’s level, or has the wit to grasp that, in order to engage to the Skin in dialogue, he has to speak the same language: ‘But why inscribe these graves with CUNT and SHIT? / Why choose neglected tombstones to disfigure? / This pitman’s of last century daubed PAKI GIT, / this grocer Broadbent’s aerosolled with NIGGER?’ I’m reminded of Prospero, a Duke of Milan reduced to a foul-mouthed stick toting monster by Caliban’s obstinate refusal to play by his rules.

UK Poverty Map, red highlights high regions of...

UK Poverty Map, red highlights high regions of poverty, white highlights low regions of poverty based on national statistics data (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If Harrison is the Skin (and in the Radio 4 documentary on the poem, Blake Morrison points out that, in the draft, Harrison’s Skin was initially a punk) then redemption lies in education. In The Perfect Storm, published by Oxfam last year, the charity reports that, ‘The UK is one of the most unequal rich countries in the world, with the poorest tenth of people receiving only 1 percent of total income, while the richest tenth take home 31 percent’. Suddenly, Harrison’s poem of mid ’80s hardship and militancy looks prophetic. We need to protect the poor, protect public services and strive to do everything that we can to invest in the education of our young people.