Them and [uz]: Tony Harrison and the language of inclusion and exclusion
Born in Leeds in 1937, Tony Harrison is one of the very few contemporary writers to earn a living almost entirely from poetry, whether for stage, screen, or page. He published his first pamphlet collection, Earthworks, in 1964, and continues to write and publish to this day, his work combining the personal and intimate with the public and political.
From the schoolboy whose dialect (he says [uz] and mi ‘eart) is considered by RP-speaking [us] to exclude him from High Culture, to disaffected unemployed youths who desecrate graves, to the tribal conflicts of warfare, Harrison’s work explores themes of language, memory, and the unities and divisions of life.
Harrison’s poetry, whether for page, stage, or screen, is about divisions: ‘all the versuses of life’, particularly:
class v. class as bitter as before,
the unending violence of US and THEM,
personified in 1984
by Coal Board MacGregor and the NUM
(v., Collected Poems, p.266.)
Language is a marker of class and therefore division. The teacher in ‘Them & [uz]’ represents the ‘them’ who speak standard English with received pronunciation (RP) and consider those who speak a regional dialect with a non-RP accent unworthy of the products of high culture:
4 words only of mi ’art aches and… ‘Mine’s broken,
you barbarian, T.W.!’ He was nicely spoken.
‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’
[….] Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those
Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!
(‘Them & [uz] I’, Collected Poems, p. 133.)
The dedicatees of ‘Them & [uz]’ are Professors Leon Cortez and Richard Hoggart. Leon Cortez was the stage name of music-hall comedian, singer and actor Richard A. Chalkin, who, among other turns, declaimed Shakespearean soliloquys in Cockney English. The dual dedication makes him the equal of Richard Hoggart, a much-respected academic and author of The Uses of English, an important work which included an essay on the ‘scholarship boy’ phenomenon. Harrison was a scholarship boy whose place at Leeds Grammar School could have resulted in his assimilation into the prevalent middle- and upper-middle-class values and speech of the staff and pupils. His militant resistance is enacted in the poem.
Harrison’s verse dramas present characters who epitomise the worst kind of them versus us. In The Big H, three teachers attempt to improve the pupils’ speech, to assist them to ‘rise’ to the middle classes and engagement with high culture and power. They focus on the aspirated [h], insisting on Halifax, Hunslet, and Hull rather than ’alifax, ’unslet and ’ull. That sound becomes a symbol of status; to aspirate is to have aspirations, and to rise in the world.
The ladder of aspiration, the more you aspire
The more your aspiration will take you higher.
Those who drop their aitches fall and break their necks.
But those who proper aspiration end up REX and LEX! [The king (power) and the law (power)]
End to end laid aitches are a ladder to the top,
So never never let me hear your aitches drop.
(The Big H, Collected Film Poetry, p.32.)
Again, exclusion is represented violently; the three teachers become Herods; the children who learn to ‘speak properly’ become ‘The Prel’ (Pro Rege et Lege) a murder-squad of newborn babies. Only one boy, Our ‘Arry, resists the inculcation of RP; he transforms the Herods into three wise men, and Leeds [h]s remain unaspirated.
‘Uz’, the working-class background as well as pronunciation of the speaker, ‘can be loving as well as funny’. Poems such as ‘Illuminations I’ and ‘Continuous’ emphasize that warm family background, but also acknowledge the divisions. ‘Them & [uz] II’ trenchantly asserts the narrator’s intention to ‘occupy’ the ‘lousy leasehold poetry’, and to ‘speak the language that I spoke at home’ (Collected Poems, p.134). True to this, the poems use slang, dialect, and swear-words, words broken across lines, and ellipses. But they also include complex language, non-English terms, and scholarly allusions. The boy who tells friends him, ‘Ah bloody can’t, ah’ve gorra Latin prose’, is encouraged at school to translate an English letter from 1778 into Ciceronian Latin (‘Classics Society’, Collected Poems, p.130). Reading Marx and Gide, he gets ‘one of his you stuck-up bugger looks’, from his father, and though he states: ‘I’ve come round to your position on “the Arts”’, he wryly notes: ‘but put it down in poems, that’s the bind’ (‘A Good Read’, Collected Poems, p.152).
Words and wordlessness. Between the two
the gauge went almost ga-ga. No RI,
no polysyllables could see me through,
come glossolalia, dulciloquy.
(‘Wordlists’, Collected Poems, p.127.)
Harrison doesn’t romanticize [uz] nor suggest that ‘they’ are always the villains. In v. one of the skinheads who have been spraying graffiti on the headstones of Beeston Cemetery (‘Leeds v’ the opposing team of the week, or simply swear words) materialises. Unrepentant, disaffected by lifelong unemployment and hopelessness, he mocks the poet for using ‘posh’ language. The poet tries to understand:
What is it that these crude words are revealing?
What is it that this aggro act implies?
(v., Collected Poems, p.269)
The response is a hail of abuse for his liberal PC attitudes, until he angers, and answers in the skinhead’s own brand of obscenity.
There is anger even in poignant elegies such as ‘Marked with D.’, when the speaker considers the way class-ridden society made an inarticulate, dialect-speaking working man feel.
he hungered for release from mortal speech
That kept him down, the tongue that weighed like lead.
The baker’s man that no one will see rise
And England made to feel like some dull oaf
(Collected Poems, p.168)
When the skinhead is revealed as the poet’s alter ego, readers understand that language, class politics, and anger are inextricably linked.