This Graveyard on the Brink of Beeston Hill

NTU MIDLANDS4CITIES DOCTORAL STUDENT TUESDAY SHANNON GOACHER ON A POETRY PILGRIMAGE: HEADING NORTH FOR TONY HARRISON’S v.

It’s a grey day in June 2019, 34 years since Tony Harrison’s v. was first published. Few poems manage to capture a landscape in the way that Harrison does in v., be it geographical or political; Channel 4’s 1987 broadcast, featuring Harrison reading the poem interspersed with clips of political and emotive film (including footage of Hitler, the Second World War, the Miner’s Strikes of 1984-5 and Margaret Thatcher) met with much controversy, and was even debated in The House of Commons. Today it’s considered a seminal piece, defining an era.

On this dour, though thankfully dry, day, I’m headed north to Leeds to visit the graveyard that inspired that poem, chauffeured by my supervisor, Rory Waterman. We make good time and get there relatively easily, despite a satnav instruction to ‘perform a U-turn’ which, upon following, is repeated.

The first thing I notice about the graveyard is its view back over Leeds, the Bauhaus-style buildings of Leeds University cutting into the skyline, the places where Harrison ‘learned Latin, and learned Greek’, contrasted against the lush greenery beyond.

Harrison blog 1
‘V POEM’ is attributed to 1987 – the year of the television broadcast, not the poem’s print publication.

We clearly aren’t the first to make this journey for these purposes, and a wrought iron sculpture shows pivotal historic moments from the graveyard’s history , with ‘V POEM’ on the timeline. Despite directions to the grave we’re looking for, the Harrison family plot isn’t easy to find. The poem had warned us this might be the case: ‘you’ll have to search quite hard’ for it, he writes. We split up, and I find a Byron about thirty yards away (though not ‘three graves on’, as Harrison put it in the poem) and Rory spots ‘Wordsworth, organ builder’ – accurately described in the poem as ‘opposite’ – before turning around to find the Harrison family vault.

Harrison blog 2
The poet’s father and mother – ‘Not Florence and not Flo but always Florrie’ (‘Marked with D.’) – are among others in his family who have been buried in Holbeck Cemetery, Leeds.

And now we aren’t sure what to do. We stand for a moment, reading the inscriptions and both thinking that we can’t just look at it and leave. So, we find a patch of grass that doesn’t seem to be atop anyone’s final resting spot, sit down and watch Tony Harrison’s Channel 4 reading. It’s an odd but comforting experience, and it feels like the right thing to do. At the end, we recall that Harrison does, in fact, invite us to visit, to check on his family plot, to take away the discarded beer cans, and to see whether the ‘UNITED’ spray-painted on the headstone has been left in place. It hasn’t. All the graves have been scrubbed clean of graffiti, though they do all still lean due to subsidence from the worked-out seams below – some, in fact, are completely toppled, while the graves beneath others are beginning to cave in.

Before we head back, we jump the graveyard wall to have a wander down the streets of back-to-back terraces Harrison knew as a boy, and look out at the view of Elland Road, where Leeds United ‘disappoint their fans week after week’ – now obscured from the hill-top graveyard, at least at this time of year, by a line of trees. A corner shop, the proprietor of which is a Patel, is open for business (though this is ‘K. Patel’, not ‘M. Patel’, as in the poem); children home from school ride bikes in the street rather than booting a ball at a tree; a bedraggled stray cat lounges on the roof of a car, making the most of the sun that has finally appeared, close to where scaffolding climbs one of the terrace ends. It feels as though not much has changed since Harrison’s 1984 return visit. In some ways, it hasn’t.

At the end of the day we stop at a service station just outside Leeds, in need of a caffeine top-up. It’s humid and the sun has come out properly, so we sit outside and chat about the poem, the graveyard, my research, while a few yards away a man in a grey t-shirt smokes. When we head to leave, he stops us, and asks if either of our surnames is Harrison. His is, but he ‘ain’t related to no poet’. He looks a lot like a younger Tony, though, and we go, wondering whether it is wrong to feel we might have just met the alter-ego from the poem.

Tuesday Shannon Goacher, NTU MA Creative Writing student 2016-17, and current M4C doctoral candidate