Tony Harrison (born 1937)
Honorary DLitt, 2004
A picture by the Leeds artist Liz Smith hangs on Tony Harrison's kitchen wall. It shows him as a young schoolboy looking down from his bedroom window at a group of friends who are urging him to come out to play. Tony, wearing a poet's laurel wreath, refuses - homework must come first. On the far horizon we can see Leeds University's Parkinson tower, Tony's boyhood goal.
Grasping the post-war educational opportunities available to a working-class boy from a supportive but inarticulate family in Beeston, Leeds, Harrison won scholarships to Leeds Grammar School and then to the University of Leeds, where he studied Classics and Linguistics. His close University friends were the Nigerian Wole Soyinka (later the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature) and Barry Cryer (later a great professional comedian). If he missed his last bus home to Beeston, Harrison stayed near the University in Blenheim Square with another student poet, James Simmonds.
Harrison left the University determined to live by his writing. He briefly supported himself with teaching posts and writers' fellowships, but was soon able to make a full-time career from poetry.
His first collection of poems, published in 1970, was called The Loiners, a traditional name for the people of Leeds. A major theme of Harrison's poetry over the next 40 years - the contrast between his class background and the cultural world opened up to him by education - emerged in this first book. "I wanted to write the poetry that people like my parents would respond to."
Harrison's verse plays have been produced at the National Theatre and throughout the world. Many of them are colloquial Northern versions of classics by writers such as Sophocles, Euripides, Racine, and Molière. His television films include Black daisies for the bride, a meditation on Alzheimer's disease set in a hospital near Leeds, and the controversial v, set in his parents' vandalised Leeds graveyard.
Harrison's work has won many prizes: the latest, the European Prize for Literature, 2010, shows his international reputation as one of Britain's greatest living writers.
Special Collections holds Harrison's massive - and growing - literary archive. The central feature is the series of dozens of notebooks going back to his student days, not only giving unique insight into the complex evolution of his works, but vividly reflecting his life through inserted personal notes, photographs, travel tickets, wine bottle labels...