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Versus Verses

Published 12 February 2013

Extract from Tony Harrison's poem 'V' with photograph of cemetery

Items in the Special Collections' Tony Harrison archive give a unique insight into the story behind 'v'.

Notebooks, letters and newspaper articles in the University Library's Tony Harrison Archive offer a fascinating insight into the story behind 'v', one of his most controversial poems.

'v' was inspired by a visit Harrison made to Holbeck cemetery, where he found litter, graffiti and vandalism around his parents' graves. The poem references the miners' strike, Leeds United - the cemetery overlooks Elland Road - and clashes of political ideology. The 'v' of its title could be the "versus" of left v right, miners v police or Leeds v Liverpool.

Harrison's notebooks show 'v' from first inspiration, through drafts and redrafts to the final text - all pasted in among layers of notes, press cuttings, photographs, travel tickets and wine bottle labels - to give a unique insight into his creative process, and the amount of work involved in writing the poem.

The collection also chronicles the furore which followed the poem's broadcast on Channel 4 in October 1987, when it was described by the Daily Mail as a "torrent of filth" in which "the crudest, most offensive word is used 17 times". Items include press cuttings documenting the scandal; a copy of the Early Day Motion submitted by Conservative MPs which "considers that the stream of obscenities contained in the poem is profoundly offensive and will serve to hasten the decline of broadcasting standards.", and a copy of the Channel 4 Duty Officer's log, which recorded viewers' reactions to the broadcast, ranging from "totally disgusting" with "foul and unnecessary" language to "so full of compassion...beautiful and moving".

The Tony Harrison archive documents the development of Harrison's poetry from his time as a talented scholarship pupil at Leeds Grammar School in the 1950s through to the present day. Over 250 notebooks, hundreds of files, and thousands of letters trace the development of his most famous pieces of work.

Items from the Harrison collection are on show in a special exhibition in the Brotherton Library until Thursday February 28. The new recording of V will be broadcast on Radio Four on Monday February 18.