For many, the prospect of Tony Harrison reading at Haileybury was the cultural highlight of the year. Harrison is, without doubt, one of the finest, most influential, and probably most technically accomplished writers working in English today. He is also one of the most controversial.
Few poets can be said to have been discussed in the House of Commons; few can have been pursued and vehemently attacked by The Daily Mail, The Sun and other tabloids. But in the mid-1980s this is precisely what happened to Harrison when his astonishing poem, v, was broadcast on Channel 4. It is perhaps difficult to imagine now, in a world with cable and satellite television, not to mention the Internet, just how shocked some people were by this work. However, the quality of the work has survived, long after the critics have been forgotten (indeed, the poem can now be studied for A-level English Literature, and his other works are regularly studied at degree and postgraduate levels).
It should be remembered, however, that Harrison’s work cannot be characterised in any one way. To do that would be reductive. As Harold Pinter has remarked, Harrison’s work is "brilliant, passionate, outrageous, abrasive, but also immeasurably tender", and it was that last quality that will remain in many people’s minds. The poems about Bosnia, about the first Gulf War, and about other, highly political issues, were tremendously powerful; and yet, for many, it was the poems he read about the sudden deaths of his parents, and the unspoken words he wishes he had said, that will linger most powerfully in the memory of the 100-strong audience.
After the reading in the Attlee Room, Tony Harrison stayed and signed books, and talked amicably to students (from Haileybury, as well as from other schools), and to members of the public. It was a memorable, moving and inspiring evening.