Reading: Turns by Tony Harrison

Britain’s leading theater and television poet is Tony Harrison (b. 1937), who is celebrated of the twentieth century’s true working class poet. He is a translator, director, playwright who says that all is implied in the job description: poet. I read ‘Turn’ about his passed father, where the class consciousness becomes visible:


I thought it made me look more ‘working class’
(as if a bit of chequered cloth could bridge that gap!)
I did a turn in it before the glass.
My mother said: It suits you, your dad’s cap.
(She preferred me to wear suits and part my hair:
You’re every bit as good as that lot are!)

All the pension queue came out to stare.
Dad was sprawled beside the postbox (still VR) ,
his cap turned inside up beside his head,
smudged H A H in purple Indian ink
and Brylcreem slicks displayed so folks migh think
he wanted charity for dropping dead.

He never begged. For nowt! Death’s reticence
crowns his life, and me, I’m opening my trap
to busk the class that broke him for the pence
that splash like brackish tears into our cap.

The last lines of this sonnet are powerful, integrating vulgar (lower class) English with a clear sense of metre, confident rhyme and rhythm, and a classical sounding finish. ‘Trap’ means mouth and ‘nowt’ means ‘to no degree’. The worthy silence rounded the life of Harrison père. His son became an acclaimed man of latters, but describes himself as a busker and beggar to the upper class.

A VR postbox refers to Queen Victoria (postbox put up between 1853-1901). So there dad lied, his initials on the inside of his cap, Brylcreem slicks (magazines?) on display, that make folks think he wanted some donation, like someone put AdSense on his funeral page (perhaps my interpretation is too ‘modern’).

So, he did a turn to look if the working class cap suited him. In life, he made a turn away from the working class, he made use of the upward mobility like many of his generation. This turn made him more conscious of what it means to be working class. The turn is a nicely chosen metaphor here.

A dense poem that manages to play with and bridge that gap between ‘classes’. Impressive. I will practice some reticence before I open my trap.

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