V by Tony Harrison

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V on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4, 18 February 2013
Written in 1985 as a response to the wanton destruction of the family grave, V is an angry narrative poem depicting a world riven by conflicts - of class, of race, and region.  People are intolerant of outsiders - especially if they originate from other cultures - but at the same time yearn for a long-vanished world of community in which everything seemed so much simpler than the present day.  The poem describes a narrative in which the speaker encounters a graffiti sprayer and engages in conversation: why should anyone be so bereft of moral feeling that they should want to deface a gravestone?  The reasons why the sprayer does what he does are more complex than we might think - a combination of resentment, frustration and a na´ve belief that people in the past "never had it so good," with the prospect of secure employment for a lifetime until retirement.
As the narrative unfolds, so Harrison springs a surprise on us; the two protagonists are not the kind of people we assumed them to be.  Every person has a dual nature - a 'civilized' and an 'uncivilized' side, if you like; exactly how they deal with these two natures depends very much on the environment they inhabit.  Harrison argues that in societies dominated by the notion of 'V' - understood as an emphasis on conflict and dissension - human beings find it very difficult to reconcile the differing sides of their nature.  
The poem also looks at the conflicts between past and present, using Harrison's father as an example, as he surveys a world undergoing profound change, from which he feels more and more alienated.  By the time he passes away, no one (not least his children) cares for him any more, and his grave becomes nothing more than a surface for the graffiti sprayer.  Harrison wonders whether he will undergo experiences similar to those of his father in the next three decades, or whether people might actually start listening to one another rather than living in a world of conflict.  If they looked for the elements "binding them together," as the poem suggests, then they could find a way of reconciling the dual natures within themselves.  External harmony leads to internal peace.  But there does not seem too much hope of that happening in the contemporary world.
A lot has changed since V received its premiere three decades ago, but the poem still has the capacity to shock, with its brutal language and uncompromising judgments.  Gwyneth Williams, the controller of Radio 4, was quoted in the Mail Online as saying that the broadcast was part of a deliberate plan to "throw fireworks" into a schedule too much dominated by dry coverage of economics and politics.  While respecting Williams' judgment, V is actually the kind of dramatic piece that Radio 4 has always been very good at - a work that forces us to confront the realities of living in contemporary Britain, and consider how such realities have hardly changed since the mid-Eighties, when the Thatcher government seemed more concerned to intensify rather than eliminate class conflict.  V offers a salutary lesson for anyone looking to consider the effect of current government policies on British society. 
Tony Harrison's reading of the piece was both controlled yet passionate.  The producer was Graham White.