10 June 2018

Grave

The Harrison family grave last Thursday evening
At Beeston, Leeds - close to those back-to-back terraces I photographed - there's a graveyard called Holbeck Cemetery. 

I have know about this burial place for years because it was the inspiration for a very controversial poem by the Leeds poet Tony Harrison (born 1937). That poem is entitled "V". It focuses upon the Harrison family grave but it is not a poem of sweet reverence

The poet notices that the graveyard is "now littered with beer cans and vandalised by obscene graffiti". It is an angry, reflective and rambling poem delivered in over a hundred rhyming four line verses. He says:-
When I first came here 40 years ago
With my dad to 'see my grandma' I was seven.
I helped dad with the flowers. He let me know
She'd gone to join my granddad up in Heaven.

But as the poem advances there's a growing sense of frustration and anger. Harrison observes the cemetery's neglect and he reflects upon the way that life is changing and the mentality of those who would vandalise a graveyard. He turns some of that anger upon himself .. 

As "The Guardian" once described it, "V" is indeed  "a timeless portrayal of working class aspiration". There are echoes of the past, the present and the future. Harrison has moved away from Leeds but this place is in his blood and he even contemplates being laid to rest here. What might be inscribed in his memory?

For readers of a prudish nature, I should warn you that if  you wish to investigate this poem, it contains numerous profane words that in my view, help to nail the anger and capture the linguistic poverty of frustrated working class youth - people without hope or route maps to the future.

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?

The poem was famously and controversially  aired on Channel 4 in 1986. Written during the coal miners' strike of 1984/85, it is a poem for our times. Not safe and saccharine but bitter, confused and questioning, pushing boundaries, getting to the nub of things. It is a poetic tour de force and if you are interested, open-minded and have half an hour to spare, here it is.
The same grave seen from a different angle

14 comments:

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    1. Given your working background I feel sure that you were already aware of "V" Graham.

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    2. As it happens, YP, I have not come across it before. However I was absolutely enthralled, shocked and a lot more besides. I certainly won't forget it.

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    3. To be grammatically correct I should have said that I will not forget of it or of its existence. Memorising it would be a feat well beyond my capabilities.

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    4. I doubt that Tony Harrison himself could ever have remembered all of this poem. He is 81 years old now but I shall always think of him as angry young man.

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  2. Interesting! I hadn't heard of this poem or this poet. I'll definitely check it out. I think we all have similar thoughts sometimes, of the "What is this (world, country, city, etc.) coming to?!" variety. Thus perhaps we can all identify.

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    1. I am pleased that this poem has aroused your curiosity Steve. Reading it all carefully with understanding is quite a feat.

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  3. Poetry is not a form of literature I find easily accessible for myself, and therefore admittedly I am usually not particularly interested in it, lazy mind that I can be at times. This is different, however. It makes me see that poems can serve many more purposes than I' thought. Thank you for broadening my mental horizon.

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    1. You are by no means alone in showing resistance to poetry but to me it has always been a form of writing with which I feel very comfortable.

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  4. Our back garden backed onto a grave yard when I lived at home, people thought it spooky but it was great. My Dad used to nip over the wall to collect food for his canaries, lol
    Thus, I like graveyards and Tom and I like nothing better than to take a picnic and walk around the cimbo as we call it. Our's has been turned into a kind of wild life sanctuary, really nice.
    I'm going to take a look at that poem.
    Briony
    x

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    1. I doubt that a cultured southern belle will appreciate a northern poem with swear words in it. It will probably make you blush!

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  5. I wonder if the cemetery will become obsolete. With people being cremated , ashes are spread in various areas and cemetery markers are not used. I intend for my ashes to be place in the exact place of my birth.

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    1. That's a lovely idea Red. The beginning will also be the end.

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  6. I haven't read it yet but tomorrow, when the house is quiet....

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