Jonny Magnanti is the first actor to interpret Tony Harrison’s still controversial poem,‘V’. Like Tony Harrison, Jonny Magnanti had a working class upbringing in Leeds. In his familiarity with the Leeds dialect, its cadences, and the reality of what for some at least is everyday speech, Magnanti took us right to Harrison’s parents’ municipal graveyard, daubed with swastikas and profanity and littered with discarded cans of Harp larger. For nearly an hour in three separate performances this week, thirty-odd people in the St Leonard pub in London Road were drawn-in to Harrison’s (or was it Magnanti’s?) private world where a painful internal dialogue took centre stage.
Years before he wrote this poem in 1985, Harrison had sometimes used vernacular language in his poems so that people like his parents would not be alienated from them. Returning to Leeds for the first time in years, this middle aged man was seared by his visit to his parents’ desecrated grave and by the poverty and desperation of a city wilfully run down like the surrounding pits where the bitter confrontation of the Miners’ Strike raged. However the vernacular in ‘V’ came largely from the skinhead, the ‘yobbo’ that Harrison’s poem says he (or Magnanti) could have been, had not education taken them both to a different creative and material dimension. When speaking in the poet narrator’s voice, Magnanti delivered powerful and highly evocative poetry of a different kind, where the damp stone of the graves was suffused with images of coal’s prehistoric geology and an eternity of unity as all bodies secrete together in an undifferentiated carbonic mass. The skin dismisses this part of Harrison’s delivery, contemptuous of this elitist ‘c***’.
It’s probably debatable whether Harrison or Magnanti ‘but for the grace of God’ would, minus an advanced education, have become Nazi skinheads. In the mid-80s I remember unemployed northerners on the edge of, or fully absorbed in, the black economy down south. They were angry but very unlikely recruits to that particular form of working class politics. The dramatic effect, however, of the polarity that Harrison writes, and Magnanti so powerfully vocalises, is mining a rich seam indeed.
The strike of course hangs heavy over the poem and this performance, as it does any recollection of the 1980s. Fetch Theatre, who produced the performance, include brief audio interludes that politically and musically soundtrack the decade. Margaret Thatcher’s voice, and its dogmatic and propagandist interpretation of what the strike was about, still cuts to the quick in its absolutist sense of what she believed, or wanted, to be at stake. A warmer voice of a striking miner paradoxically becalms with its moving assertion of the social dimension to what some saw as just an economic issue.
Harrison wasn’t expressing the ‘V’ for ‘Versus’ sentiment that united many young Leeds men with their football team, and much else in their culture, against whoever they were ‘losing to’ that week. Harrison’s ‘true’ voice says that the reference to Leeds football club, ‘United’, that had been spray-painted on his parents’ grave could perhaps be left there. While having no religious faith himself, he says that it could be a sentiment of hope that they would, someday, be together again. More broadly, the poet expresses in ‘V’ the wish that his nation could be united; not divided down the middle in what is presented as a wilful exercise in class politics.
Magnanti gives expression to Harrison’s guilt upon making one of his rare homecomings; not privileged but having escaped from the miserable powerlessness that the poem argues spawns such ‘yobbos’. The occupants of these tombs – butcher, baker and publican - would have wanted such vandals punished, Harrison’s non-skin voice observes. His own Dad, elderly and isolated, had felt increasingly alienated too, not recognising the city he grew up in and uncomfortable at the presence of ‘coloureds’ (his father’s most ‘liberal’ term) whose culture he didn’t understand and whose shops obliged him to walk ever further for a tin of baked beans. Leeds was, according to ‘V’, ‘beef, bread and beer’ and that is what was being played out, positively and negatively, among the tombstones. There is much humanity and realism in Harrison’s poem and in Magnanti’s telling of it, including language and sentiment that can still be shocking, but now perhaps for an otherwise very sympathetic audience.
I don’t think the poem’s telling is intended to evoke some
guilt in the audience. However Magnanti’s
delivery and the audio soundbites combined to trigger in me sharp memories of
the class-conscious politics of the time. I felt a familiar conflict between
total sympathy for miners resisting deliberate and spiteful socio-economic
engineering and contempt for those whose cynical political calculations helped lead them to
defeat. Thatcher’s self-serving ‘enemies of democracy’ rhetoric aimed at
working class industrial action did have a ring of truth for some, like me, on the compromising, trimming, centre-left. The poet detected where the Labour leadership was heading; two
references to the Leeds MP who led the Labour Party when Harrison was a much younger
man, Hugh Gaitskell, and his ‘smooth’ appeal to what the ‘other side’ wanted to
hear, were signposts of what was beginning to happen when ‘V’ was written.
|Jonny Magnanti in 'V' - a portrait by Peter Mould www.stagesnaps.com|
If this performance of ‘V’ still makes people uncomfortable, for the contemporary resonances of its subject matter, for its explanation of where social resentment can come from, and because of the disconnect that perhaps many of us feel from those at the sharp end, then it only proves the poem’s abiding power and particularly this performance of it.
Jonny Magnanti said to me afterwards that the Leeds LitFest have not only thrilled him by inviting him to perform ‘V’ there, but have asked him to sit on a discussion panel about it with Tony Harrison. ‘You couldn’t make it up,’ he said. You couldn’t make up the language and concerns of ‘V’ up either. Rooted in the real and poetically connecting to other possibilities: not ‘Versus’ but ‘United’.