A week or so ago, John Freeman commented on Sunjeev Sahota's inclusion on Granta’s much-hyped 2013 Best of Young British Novelists list: "He had never read a novel until he was 18 – until he bought ‘Midnight's Children’ at Heathrow. He studied maths, he works in marketing and finance; he lives in, completely out of the literary world."
Out of the what? Let us put aside, for one moment, the cultural snobbery inherent in the Granta editor’s dismissal of an apparently-unfashionable, provincial, northern city. Let us, instead, consider its stupefying inaccuracy. This is the moment I like to reel off the great Leeds first eleven of writers. Equal, indeed, to the great Leeds first eleven of footballers – Sprake, Reaney, Cooper, Bremner, Charlton, Hunter, Lorimer, Clarke, Jones, Giles, Gray (with Madeley filling in for anyone who is injured). So, please forgive me, but Mr Freeman – perhaps attempting the kind of mind games opposition managers (always unsuccessfully) would try on with Don Revie’s boys – has got me riled. Here goes, then: Tony Harrison, Alan Bennett, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Jack Higgins, Keith Waterhouse, Helen Fielding, Louise Rennison, Arthur Ransome, Alfred Austin, Caryl Phillips and Kay Mellor.
And the greatest of these – in my humble opinion – is Tony Harrison. Our Greatest Living Poet is best known for getting up the noses of Tory MPs, Mary Whitehouse and the Freeman-esque establishment back in the 1980s. His magnum opus “V”, which was written in the midst of the miners’ strike and set on a hill-top cemetery in Beeston overlooking Elland Road – the stadium’s diamond floodlights the only glints in a decade of decline – used the darkening national mood as a backdrop to his own internal torment.
There was an almighty row when Channel Four aired the poem in 1987. This is because of its many expletives – mainly from the mouths of the Leeds United fans who desecrated his parents’ grave – but when it was re-broadcast on Radio Four earlier this year, less attention was given to its hostile reception than to the beauty of its language. It remains a timeless portrayal of working-class aspiration.
They say you should never meet your heroes. It is even less advisable, perhaps, to introduce them back in their home city in a literary festival. On Sunday 9 June, however, I will take the plunge, introducing the 76-year-old legend at the West Yorkshire Playhouse for the final event of the city’s Big Bookend Festival. The festival itself is a riposte to the anti-Leeds lobby. It will include several writers who are very much “in the literary world” and many young ones who are aiming to be. The funny thing is that Harrison, as he made clear when we met up, doesn’t see himself in this way. Despite being our GLP, he is still – in his own eyes – an outsider. “I don’t like the world of poetry,” he says. “I don’t mix in it at all, to be honest.”
When I ask him his reaction to the Granta row, he roars with laughter. For someone renowned for a sombre, intense approach to everything from football hooliganism to ancient Greek tragedy, he has an often-overlooked love of humour. “I remember an actor,” he says, “who was in a comedy which came to Sheffield. His mother and father came and we saw them after. I asked his father what he thought. ‘It were alright…if you like laughing.’”
Harrison likes laughing. Not a lot of people know this but he was Barry Cryer’s comedy partner back in the 1950s. It’s about as unlikely a double act as Ted Hughes and Frankie Howerd. Both Cryer – who has written for everyone from Morecambe and Wise to Monty Python – and Harrison are proud Loiners. Both were educated at Leeds Grammar School and Leeds University. My favourite Harrison poem, apart from ‘V’, is ‘Them & Uz’, which was a response to not being allowed to read aloud at school because of his broad working-class accent. It is a very funny poem, but it also bitterly probes the fault-line dividing England: between south and north, between poetry and prose, between what the narrator sneeringly calls "the Receivers", who drone on in Received Pronunciation, and "those / Shakespeare gives the comic bits to". When his class read Macbeth, Tony was alloted the part of the drunken porter.
“I thought it was getting better,” he says, reflecting on the current divisions in Cameron’s Britain. “But it’s got worse again. The nation is still divided. The one thing that’s been satisfying is that the other meanings of ‘V’ have come out after the silly fuss about the language. It was very good that Radio Four took it on. There wasn’t any condemnation this time. You just think you’ve got to wait 25 years. This thing with the Granta editor, though, it shows you that things haven’t changed very much.”
Partly, this is because Yorkshire working-class writers don’t blow their own trumpets. They don’t want to appear grandiose, too big for their boots. “I think self-deprecation is in he bloodstream. We have gone back, though. You just think ‘what’s the point of doing it?’ I tried to reclaim great poetry in northern English. It was written in an alliterative style, for being outside in the street, in places like Leeds market, where I worked. And the music hall inspired a lot of my theatre. I saw Laurel and Hardy live. I went to Leeds music hall and I’d take my homework. I’d have Aristophanes in my pocket, or Euripedes. I used to work as a barrel roller in Tetley’s. I found an old note where I was trying to devise a Greek chorus out of people working in Tetley’s. It was an amazing place. I drew on the rhythmical energy of the workmen for my poems and plays.”
Watching the greats perform at the Leeds Empire inspired his astonishing ‘School of Eloquence’ sonnets. His poetry was influenced as much by the method, patter, timing and delivery of stand-up-comedians as the Latin and Greek classics he studied up the hill on campus. With Cryer and fellow Leeds University poets James Simmons and Wole Soyinka, he helped to write and appeared in a series of rag revues which included music, song, comic turns and dance routines. Barry even wanted to take Tony as his straight man on a stand-up tour.
“We did a double act in the University Rag Revue. We did sketches at the Leeds Empire. In one sketch, the princess and the frog, I played the frog. I had a flat cap and a scarf on, and I got into bed with the princess – Barry – and said: ‘If tha believes in fairy tales tha’ll believe owt.’” After the interview I rang up Cryer, who confirmed this unlikely partnership. “Tony was a maverick,” said Barry. “We had great fun, but I remember once he refused to put on a tux and so we all attacked him in his dressing room, forcing him into the suit and putting Brylcreem on his hair.”
Of course, Alan Bennett, a fellow working-class Leeds lad made good, pursued the comedy route when he joined the ‘Beyond The Fringe Team’ with Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore. “There are certain subjects I don’t do,” Harrison smiles. “I go ‘Alan does that. That’s his thing.’ We get on very well, but neither of us go to social gatherings. We meet and we communicate through the editor of our books. He said once: ‘Tony’s parents’ grave looks a bit bigger than my parents’”
Harrison chuckles. But there is a poignant point to the alienation experienced by the post-war generation of socially mobile northerners who transcended the confines of their local communities. The 1960s was a golden age of aspiration, when a new, open, meritocratic society was being forged. The son of a baker, Harrison escaped his background at the earliest opportunity. In another great poem, ‘The Queen’s English’, he recounts the last time he saw his father.
”Last meal together, Leeds, the Queen’s Hotel
that grandish pile of swank in City Square
Too posh for me, he said (even though he dressed well)
if you wern’t wi’ me ah’d nivver dare!
I knew that he’d decided to die
not by the way he lingered at the bar
not by the look he’d give me with one good-eye
nor by the firmer handshake and the gruff ta-ra
But when he browsed the station bookstall sales
he picked up ‘Poems from the Yorkshire Dales’
‘ere tek this un wi’ yer to New York
to remind you of ‘ow us gaffers used to talk.
It’s up your street in’t it? ‘ahh buy yer that!
The broken lines go through me speeding South.”
Like Bennett, it was after reading Richard Hoggart’s ‘The Uses of Literacy’ that he began to write about his childhood, his parents and the old Leeds. “One of the chapters of that book is about the working-class scholarship boy. It’s called ‘Uprooted and Anxious’ – how, when you leave your roots you kick the ladder away. But I don’t do that. Through my writing. You gratify the need for language at its most articulate and powerful. Then you say: what next? That is always in the back of my head.
“That’s why I don’t like the world of poetry. Because they don’t ask themselves that question enough. And I do. I still do. The terrible irony for me was that I only learnt to write a direct poetry after both of my parents died. Poetry which reflected their world, their language. I wanted to write in a way that they would understand. That would mean something to them. They were happy to come to the National Theatre and the Old Vic in 1973 to see my production of The Misanthrope. But with some of my poems my mother was horrified. ‘We weren’t brought up to write such mucky books,’ she said. And I wasn’t. So you are always thinking ‘Why, what for?’ The drive to create something is one thing, then you think ‘who is it for?’”
*For information about The Big Bookend festival in Leeds, which Tony Harrison is headlining, visit www.bigbookend.co.uk/about or call 0113 237 9900.