ALEX STEWART analyses the poem v. by Tony Harrison and asks what lessons can be learned by football, politics and society from a 30-year-old piece of work that could well have been written for today.
When it was first published in 1985, Tony Harrison’s furious, questioning poem v. caused outrage among those who felt its repetitive use of obscenity was a threat to the moral fibre of the nation. These critics, mostly wealthy Tories and campaigners like Mary Whitehouse, were further appalled when Channel 4 broadcast Harrison reading the poem in full, his broad Leeds tones annunciating every spittle-flecked shit and cunt with a venom born of his own frustrations with the state of the nation.
Harrison’s poem is a tour-de-force, a vitriolic examination of a marginalised underclass, rooted in the struggles of the Miner’s Strike and the evisceration of the public sector at the hands of Thatcher and her robustly private sector, free-enterprise loving party. It is a howl of anger at and on behalf of a working class who, made peripheral by the social and economic changes instituted by a right-wing Tory government and appearing to lack an articulate voice of their own, resort to aggressive acts of vandalism and lurch, xenophobically, towards blaming changes in the ethnic make-up of their country rather than recognising where the fault actually lies.
The frame for this exploration of class and estrangement is a conversation with an imagined skinhead in the graveyard in Beeston where Harrison’s own parents are buried, a graveyard through which Leeds United fans pass before and after matches. He sees the skinhead tossing cans of lager among the obelisks, “dodging between tall family vaults and trees / like his team’s best ever winger, dribbler, swerver” and scrawling obscene epithets and football-related graffiti on the headstones of the dead:
This graveyard stands above a worked-out pit.
Subsidence makes the obelisks all list.
One leaning left’s marked FUCK, one right’s marked SHIT
sprayed by some peeved supporter who was pissed.
Or, more expansively, there’s LEEDS v.
the opponent of last week, this week, or next,
and a repertoire of blunt four-letter curses
on the team or race that makes the sprayer vexed.
Harrison sees, correctly, that the frustration and alienation felt by these drunk, young men, who causally toss cans of Harp among the memory of their deceased forebears, is channelled into the language and ideology of hate, hate for a football opponent or for someone whose skin is a different colour. This manifests most clearly in the elision of football and far-right extremism, in this period the rise of the National Front in England, who ruthlessly exploited the disaffection and unemployment of these young men and steered them towards an extremism they would never normally have supported:
The prospects for the present aren’t too grand
when a swastika with NF (National Front)’s
sprayed on a grave, to which another hand
has added, in a reddish colour, CUNTS.
Which is, I grant, the word that springs to mind,
when going to clear the weeds and rubbish thrown
on the family plot by football fans, I find
UNITED graffitied on my parents’ stone.
Harrison narrates the toxic mix of drink, football, and anger against a world that ignores these disenfranchised young men, who can only say to the poet, “ah’ve been on t’dole all mi life in fucking Leeds!” He sympathises but he despairs too:
‘OK, forget the aspirations. Look, I know
United’s losing gets you fans incensed
and how far the HARP inside you makes you go
but all these Vs: against! against! against!’
The slippage from anger at football to anger against the world is an easy one for these disaffected young men; this is not Harrison making leaps of judgement, but seeing with his own eyes the beer-fuelled visuals in the graveyard. The damage was actually done; Harrison fictionalises only in the conversation with the skinhead, but not in his record of the vandalism. The poem is born out of reality.
In this conversation, which Harrison imagines occurring when he surprises a young skinhead spraying something on a grave, the poet reveals his own source of anger and frustration, that such young men play a part in alienating themselves. While never condoning their actions, Harrison recognises with the apparent hopelessness of their situation, their sense of being trapped in circumstances beyond their control, having himself abandoned these men like the friends or families who have “gone away / for work or fuller lives, like me from Leeds”. Harrison’s emigration from his own roots and his hard-won learning have seemingly elevated him above these young men he tries to speak for, whose plight he tries to give voice to even though the skinhead ridicules his efforts:
‘Listen, cunt!’, I said, ‘before you start your jeering
the reason why I want this in a book
’s to give ungrateful cunts like you a hearing!’
A book, yer stupid cunt’s not worth a fuck!
‘The only reason why I write this poem at all
on yobs like you who do the dirt on death
’s to give some higher meaning to your scrawl.’
Don’t fucking bother, cunt! Don’t waste your breath!
The skinhead needles Harrison viciously for abandoning his class, for leaving the train of football fans and impoverished young men, and for employing poetry as a vehicle at all:
Don’t talk to me of fucking representing
the class yer were born into any more.
Yer going to get ’urt and start resenting
It’s not poetry we need in this class war.
Harrison ends up challenging the yob to write his own name next to his graffiti if he is so proud of it, and finds that the name is Harrison’s own. The estrangement from his roots is not, in fact, complete, and Harrison still rages against the injustices of a Tory society and the waste of a generation of working class young men and women, even as his job as a poet and his academic learning (as well as his move to London) have distanced him from those for whom he seeks to speak.
The poem climaxes with a hopeful, though uneasy, appropriation of the team’s name UNITED for an idealised view of the country, the v. for victory rather than division, and Harrison recasting himself as a ‘poetry supporter’, appropriating to the last the imagery and language of football. But there is a sense of doubt, of still needing to fight and assert his right to speak for those young men and women who are otherwise voiceless.
Harrison’s poem still resonates with the situation we find ourselves in today. Across Europe, the rise of the far right has been well documented. Small, niche parties such as UKIP and Front National in France have crossed the political divide and established themselves as a voice and focal point for people who feel that immigration has changed the make-up of their home countries too greatly for comfort. A disaffected, and often genuinely marginalised, swathe of the population in the UK, predominantly working class, have turned in their droves to UKIP and organisations such as the English Defence League who, they feel, do give voice to their worries in the face of mainstream politics’ indifference. The English Defence League and its pseudonymous leader ‘Tommy Robinson’, who took his name from a book about Luton Town’s hooligan group and has been closely associated with the firm, have strong links to football and football violence. This link between right-wing extremism and football is often observed and, while it is more overt in Eastern Europe and at a number of Italian clubs, it is clear that there is some overlap between certain groups of football fans and nasty, angry nationalist ideology.
Football, especially in the 70’s and 80’s, was often seen as a vehicle by which young men and, to a lesser extent women, could give vent to emotional frustrations, a form of transference that allowed them to express feelings of anger and resentment in a forum with which they were comfortable. These men were and are not inarticulate but, as Harrison uncomfortably notes, the register of conversation about the issues that effect them, the economy, immigration, and so on, is perhaps deliberately elevated to place it beyond their grasp. This is why in the poem Harrison himself has to use the language and imagery of football to communicate.
A discourse situated in politics is all too often exclusive and, by its nature, excludes those most affected by it. Even those who wish to argue for the people described in Harrison’s poem, or at least give them a voice, such as Harrison, find themselves distanced because in order to be heard it is often necessary to appropriate the language of the oppressive class, which then alienates the speaker from the people he/she speaks on behalf of. The danger lies in when other groups, the NF, UKIP, the EDL, do find a way of speaking to and for these individuals, subverting their concerns into a hatred of difference. Often, football provided a common ground for the exchange of these ideas, not just a means of channelling emotion, but a meeting point for those needing such a channel and those looking to exploit them.
We face a similar situation now as we did in the mid-80s: the wealthy are getting wealthier, the public sector is being torn apart, and the right are embracing increasingly xenophobic policies around immigration for electoral benefit. With the threat of terrorism added to this heady mix, it is easy to see why hate-ideology can get a foothold in certain communities or areas.
While football, as a community and as a sport, needs to be mindful of this, there is no doubt that improvements have been made, both by the actions of clubs and governing bodies. Yes, there is still racism in football, more explicitly in parts of Europe than in the UK, and yes, nationalism can still be found associating with or being promulgated by football groups.
Ironically, the changes in football supporting habits, the move towards a more middle class, consumer style of fandom, are probably the thing that keeps football safest from a falling back towards such issues as were encountered in the 80’s, rather than anything proactively undertaken by the sport itself. That is not to say, though, that the skinhead from Harrison’s poem might not still carve out an angry, nasty space for himself on the terraces. But if, as once was surely the case, football provided a space and even a language for such hateful ideology, then football is also the place to make the most effort to combat it. Clubs, the FA, and politicians need to do far more to prevent the skinhead of v. reappearing. We currently have a government that seems to think itself above talking to or taking advice from anyone as it single-mindedly pursues its policies, but that does not stop society as a whole from making the effort. Football should work harder to engage with the Asian communities that live close to so many stadiums, to combat intolerance, whether it is sexism, homophobia, or racism, to reach out into the community to assist with education programmes. Football has been, in the past, a space in which some of our very worst characteristics can be allowed to grow; surely now, it must lead from the front to ensure that never happens again.
ALEX STEWART - @AFHStewart