Edith Hall at Prospect Magazine:
Harrison is best known as the author of several frequently anthologised poems about his working-class childhood in the Leeds suburb of Beeston and his difficult relationship with his relatives. Studying as a scholarship boy at Leeds Grammar School and then reading Classics at Leeds University, his ever-widening intellectual and cultural horizons created a chasm between him and his family. His painful attempts to come to terms with his alienation from his mother and father, while remaining committed to the cause of the working class, is explored at length in his pivotal 1978 collection From The School of Eloquence and Other Poems; several of the pieces expressing the impact of his mother’s death on his relationship with his father, a taciturn baker, are studied by teenagers at GCSE. At A Level, the poem of choice is his “v.,” written during the 1984-5 miners’ strike.
A modern response to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), “v.” recounts Harrison’s trip to a cemetery in Beeston to visit his parents’ grave. Now a haunt of local skinheads, the graveyard has been defaced by racist and obscene graffiti. This prompts meditation on the divisions (as in v for versus) caused by class and racial conflict in his society; it is followed by a dialogue with a skinhead in Leeds vernacular. The poem is now regarded as a classic of late 20th-century literature. The film version, directed by Richard Eyre and seen on Channel 4 in 1987, involved the longest cluster of sexually explicit words ever broadcast in Britain at the time. It made Harrison headline news. Mary Whitehouse protested in the Times. The Daily Mail denounced it as a “torrent of filth.”