Labouring

Blake Morrison

  • Continuous by Tony Harrison
    Rex Collings, £3.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 86036 159 4
  • The Oresteia by Aeschylus, translated by Tony Harrison
    Rex Collings, 120 pp, £3.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 86036 178 0
  • US Martial by Tony Harrison
    Bloodaxe, £75.00, November 1981, ISBN 0 906427 29 0
  • A Kumquat for John Keats by Tony Harrison
    Bloodaxe, £75.00, November 1981, ISBN 0 906427 31 2

There are grounds for thinking Tony Harrison the first genuine working-class poet England has produced this century. Of course, poets from D.H. Lawrence to Craig Raine can boast a proletarian background, but their poetry isn’t usually interested in doing so – not at its most characteristic and not to an extent that would make the term ‘working-class poet’ a useful one. Other poets have written of working-class ‘subjects’ (by which is usually meant the view from the factory floor) and have furthered working-class aspirations (by which is usually meant socialism), but most of them have been haut bourgeois – Stephen Spender writing of cogs, driving-belts and the beauty of labour – lacking first-hand knowledge of the material they deal in. Douglas Dunn, impeccably proletarian and Left-inclining, once wrote memorably about a backstreet in Hull – but he, it turns out, is Scottish. And D.J. Enright’s vivid account of a working-class childhood, The Terrible Shears, is really more prose documentary than poem. Remarkably, in an age that was supposed to see the flourishing of working-class writing, Harrison seems to have the field to himself.

One would not insist on the fact of his being a working-class poet did he not do so himself. But his embarrassment, pride and surprise at the fact (‘Me a poet!’ begins his ‘Self Justification’) are a dominant theme in the 50 sonnets that make up his collection, Continuous, which adds 33 new poems to the 17 that first appeared in ‘The School of Eloquence’ sequence of 1978. At their simplest level, that of narrative (for the sequence does add up to a story of sorts), the poems describe the poet’s childhood in Leeds during the 1940s and early 1950s; his endeavours as a scholarship boy; his mother’s death and cremation; and his return visits, as a successful poet and play-translator, to see his lonely, grumpy and aging father, who in the end dies and is cremated too. The Leeds setting is every bit as accurately observed as Douglas Dunn’s Terry Street: the 8 × 5 gardens, kept up or not kept up; the front doors used only by doctors, postmen and strangers and the backyards with their ‘beaten hard square patch of sour soil’ (a typically heavily stressed, heavily monosyllabic Harrison description); the cloth caps, coal fires, false teeth, ukeleles, wedding photos and Co-ops associated with this part of the North (but not the greyhounds, braces and tin baths a less informed observer would have gone for).

Continuous has a full complement of characters who in Harrison’s hands avoid becoming ‘characters’: Ethel Jowett, next door, who loved the D’Oyly Carte and gave young Tony The Kipling Treasury; the feuding Sharpes (‘Through walls I heard each blow, each Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!’); grampa Harrison, who ‘carried cane and guineas, no coin baser’, and grampa Horner, who

                 when a sewer rat
got driven into our dark cellar corner
booted it to pulp.

But the chief focus is on the family triangle – father, mother and only son – and the dislocation that ensues from the mother’s death, a dislocation touchingly and even comically observed:

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