English essay – Monty Python, Tony Harrison, language and class
CONSIDER HOW AND TO WHAT EFFECT LANGUAGE IS USED AS A FORM OF POWER
Of all the socio-political issues in Britain today, very few carry the weight, the history or the popular fascination as does class. In a nation often associated with its royal family, and bearing a long history of feudalism, many people still believe they are fighting the class war, and despite Tony Blair’s declaration that “we are all middle-class now”, a 2007 poll by The Guardian found that a majority of respondents saw themselves as “working class”. What is most interesting here is that both Blair and The Guardian have identified a majority bloc of the British people, the difference is that the middle class that Blair speaks of identifies itself as working class – the disagreement is one of language. Perhaps unsurprisingly, class emerges as one of the most significant issues of concern in two of the finest manipulators and users of language in modern British culture – the poet Tony Harrison and the comedy troupe Monty Python. Harrison, the working class child who, via grammar school and university, became a celebrated poet, is always acutely aware of his own class, but also of the importance of language as a symbol of class struggle. His poem Them & [uz] is a scathing attack on those Harrison saw as hoarding poetry, reserving it for the upper, educated classes as thought the right to self-expression was a part of one’s M.C.C. membership. Similarly v., arguably Harrison’s best-known work contains examinations of language, expression and poetry, only this time it is Harrison representing the intelligensia against a skinhead vandal. While perhaps less immediately apparent, the comedy of Monty Python is similarly scathing of superiority, whether religious, social or military, and spent a significant proportion of their career portraying hopeless, incompetent “upper class twits” getting their comeuppance at the hands of the lower classes – both on screen and at the hands of the writers.
When considering the power of language, particularly in relation to class, it is impossible to ignore Harrison’s own biography, and the continued recurring power of language inherent in it. Harrison was a working class boy who received an education, both at grammar school and university, which removed him from his class. And he is a man who has spent his working life as a poet, playing with words and manipulating language. Clearly, nowhere is the power of language more apparent than in Harrison’s own life. It removed him from the innate, natural unit of identity, his family, and immediately set him apart from almost everything he had known pre-education. And his continued education only led to a continued distancing from his home, his hometown and his family. And if that weren’t enough, the power of Harrison’s own language has enabled him to make a living as a poet – something that many attempt but at which few succeed. No wonder, then, that Harrison’s poetry displays such a focus on class and on language: these two competing markers of identity are pulling him in opposite directions, and he is left, torn, in the middle, attempting to find his niche where he can coexist between the class he was born into, the class conferred upon him with his high school diploma, and the class he has chosen for himself, as a member of the literary elites in the most literary-elite country on earth, Britain. These are Harrison’s very own ‘versuses of life’ that he details in v. – “Half versus half, the enemies within/the heart that can’t be whole until they unite.” This is the inner conflict displayed in Them & [uz], and the argument played out between Harrison and his skinhead alter-ego in v. – it’s the voice of Harrison, the “class migrant”, unable to return to the land of his parents, but equally unable to find a sense of home in the land he has chosen for himself.
Nowhere is this conflict more apparent than in Harrison’s poem Them & [uz], in which Harrison recounts his schooling and of ‘receiving’ Received Pronunciation, in which all dialectic and regional accents are completely removed from any reading of the poetry. Harrison vehemently disputes this idea that there is only one correct accent with which to read poetry aloud, and announces his opposition to this idea of “leasehold poetry” by using the military word “occupation”. Harrison declares that he saw this as “an aggressive occupation – I was going to usurp classical forms but fit them to what I wanted to say and the kind of language I wanted to use” . Indeed he succeeds at this from the opening line, juxtaposing the familiar (to academics) cry of the Greek tragic chorus with “the stand-up comedian’s popularly familiar “’ay, ‘ay”” , and continues in the same vein, alluring to the accents and regionalism of Keats and Wordsworth, and declaring gleefully his flouting of the accepted rules of grammar – “ended sentences with by, with, from”. Of course, the problem with Harrison’s quest for an accessible, egalitarian poetry is that you not only have to be reading the poem in the first place, but also understand the allusions to Keats, Wordsworth and the conventions of grammar – things that, realistically, the working class for whom he is writing will not do. Indeed, Harrison himself seems to admit this very problem in his poem when he writes:
You can tell the receivers where to go
(and not aspirate it) once you know
Wordsworth’s matter/water are full of rhymes,
Harrison’s use of the phrase “once you know” makes it abundantly clear that the poet himself knows what we as the audience have already realised – that while Harrison is raging against the elites he sees as holding a monopoly on poetry, language and expression, he is doing so in a way that is completely impregnable to anyone outside that elite group.
This calls to attention Harrison’s usurpation (as he sees it) of classical forms in order to make his poetry more accessible. The issue of the power of language is clearly highlighted here, with a poet using recognisable, manageable and approachable forms of poetry – quatrains, ABAB rhyme patterns, even rhyming couplets – in order to achieve wider readership. By making his poetry more accessible, Harrison is also making it more powerful simply through striving to reach more people. Here is a double-sided consideration of the power of language – it can be powerful, influential and significant, but only if it is being read. There is scarce experimentation in Harrison’s work – rather he is content to allow the form to welcome readers, and the language to affect and engage them.
In this way, Harrison’s poem v. has been made available to a much wider audience as a result of its presentation on that most accessible of formats: British national television. v. is a simple poem in its structure, featuring 112 quatrains in an ABAB rhyme scheme, and thus is a simple, straightforward poem to hear or read. There are no wild shifts in metre, narrative voice or rhyme, and this allows the power and force of the language to be greater and more readily identifiable. v. is not a poem that makes witty jokes concerning grammar and the pronunciation of written poetry, but instead explodes into a tirade of harsh, violent expletives during a heated argument about class in Britain in the 1980s, the stark divisions in British society and the blunt, brutal power of words. Indeed, the setting of the poem itself can be seen as a metaphor representing Harrison’s view of Britain following the 1984 miner’s strike – a graveyard, littered with empty beer cans, desecrated by anger and violence, and sitting precariously on an empty, mined-out pit.
Perhaps one of the more interesting considerations of the power of language is quite separate from any real analysis of the poem itself or its themes. The most interesting examination of the power of language comes instead from looking at the heated reaction to the profanity in Harrison’s poem. Although certainly not intended as such, the greatest compliment ever paid to the poem was by a coalition of conservative MPs who proposed a motion titled ‘Television Obscenity’ into the British Parliament, allegedly concerned with the effect that Harrison’s use of obscenities would have on the youth of Britain. Although slightly hysterical, this apparent belief that rude words can somehow scar and mark a child for life clearly subscribes to a belief in the power of language.
This “furore in the right-wing press” caused v. to receive “more tabloid coverage than any other postwar poem” , and following its airing on Channel 4 in 1987, many youth and community groups staged popular performances and poetry workshops, which drew a large number of young people. Indeed, in Bruce Woodcock’s experience, “young, unemployed people were unanimous about the power and general accessibility of the video version of v.”, but “at the same time, they asked some probing questions about Harrison’s presentation of the skinhead voice.” Woodcock goes on to explain how these young people felt Harrison was not entirely correct in his portrayal of the skinhead, as many football-supporting skinheads had been banned from stadia, and thus had to hide their identity by changing their clothes and hairstyles. And while Woodcock uses this example to address the problem of Harrison’s speaking on behalf of a class he no longer belongs to, what is most fascinating about this account is that these young, unemployed people were arguing about and taking umbrage with a poem. What greater reinforcement could there be for Harrison’s use of traditional, non-radical poetic form to better convey his message than this anecdote of “ex-NF ex-skinhead” objecting to the representation of skinheads in a poem?
John Cleese once said that a good deal of the Monty Python comedy came from a reaction against the system. In Britain, unavoidably, that system involved class. And while Python were certainly never class warriors like Tony Harrison, many sketches of theirs not only involved sending up the upper classes (“The Wacky Queen”) or lovingly mocking the lower classes (“Four Yorkshiremen”), but occasionally turning the entire class paradigm on its head to create something that was both recognisable and completely ridiculous all at once.
The perfect example of this is “The Working-Class Playwright”, where a recognisable father-son confrontation scene is entirely reversed. Indeed, this is perhaps a scene that Harrison himself would recognise: the son returning to the roots that he has outgrown only to be met with a father furious at what he sees as a complete rejection. However, just as the audience has identified the trope, the entire scene is subverted when it is revealed that the father, while outwardly working-class, is a playwright, and that the son with his suit, coiffed hair and Anglia accent is working in the mines in Yorkshire. In this instance, the language is where the joke is, as Graham Chapman echoes the working class Four Yorkshiremen, but now with a distinct culturally elite bent:
“Good! good? What do you know about it? What do you know about getting up at five o’clock in t’morning to fly to Paris… back at the Old Vic for drinks at twelve, sweating the day through press interviews, television interviews and getting back here at ten to wrestle with the problem of a homosexual nymphomaniac drug-addict involved in the ritual murder of a well known Scottish footballer! That’s a full working day, lad, and don’t you forget it!”
The power of the language is not only that it creates the humour, but that it creates the class as well. In a complete reversal of the norm, and indeed of Harrison’s poetry, it is language that controls class, rather than the upper classes controlling the language.
However, similar themes to Harrison emerge in “Romanes Eunt Domus” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Although it may be a comic scene, there is a parallel – Brian can only tell the buggers to get stuffed once he knows their language. Throughout, the Centurion has power over Brian because the Centurion knows the Latin, and Latin is the basis of the protest. As with Them & [uz], Brian has to master the language of his occupiers in order to fight back.
The difference though, lies in the accessibility of the scene compared to the accessibility of Harrison’s poem – the scene is in a popular film, screening in cinemas across the world, and even within the scene itself the Pythons explain why the joke is funny. All the audience members who have never done Latin can appreciate the joke because every step is translated for them. And even then Brian’s high-pitched squeals of “Ah. Ah, dative, sir! Ahh! No, not dative! Not the dative, sir! No! Ah! Oh, the… accusative! Accusative! Ah! ‘Domum’, sir! ‘Ad domum’! Ah! Oooh! Ah!” are funny on their own, whereas with Harrison, the audience cannot appreciate the wit or wordplay of the poem unless they know the conventions of grammar and of classical Greek theatre.
But perhaps nowhere do Python more explicitly show the power of language than in Dennis vs. King Arthur. This scene shows the opposite of “Romanes Eunt Domus” and of Harrison, as it is the peasant who has control over the dialectic that leads to the defeat of the class enemy. The king is attacked by language questioning his “divine right” to rule, and Arthur, like his less fictional descendants, has no answer as to the exploitation of the workers, or the fact that his “supreme executive power” does not derive from a mandate from the masses. In their own way, Python once again bring about the defeat of the upper classes. Only this time they are not defeated by the writer of the sketch (as in “The Upper Class Twit of the Year”) but rather are soundly beaten in a direct contest with the workers.
If, as The Guardian survey suggests, the majority of English people see themselves as working class, then perhaps this goes a long way to explain the enduring popularity of Monty Python. If most English people see themselves on the bottom rungs of the social ladder, then Python’s frustrated authority figures, triumphant peasants and ridiculous aristocrats not only serve as amusement and escapism, but appeal strongly to the majority of English people who feel judged by their social class, and thus enjoy a good skewering of those above them.
Both Monty Python and Tony Harrison clearly convey the power of language through their chosen medium. Harrison uses his poetry to rage against the literary hegemony of the educated elites, and even the reaction to his aggressive v. shows the force that words can have in the right context. Monty Python, meanwhile, play exceptionally clever games with the English language to satirise every aspect of British life. While Harrison forces his audience to examine issues of class and language by making his words impossible to ignore, Monty Python persuades their audience to laugh at themselves by making their words impossible to resist.
1. Tony Harrison, v. in Joseph Black et. al., The Broadview Anthology of British Literature volume 6: Directions in Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Century Poetry, (Broadview Press: Ontario), 2006
2. Tony Harrison, Them & [uz], in Joseph Black et. al., The Broadview Anthology of British Literature volume 6: Directions in Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Century Poetry, (Broadview Press: Ontario), 2006
3. Graham Chapman et al., Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Just The Words vol. 1 & 2, (Methuen: London), 1989
4. Joseph Black et. al., The Broadview Anthology of British Literature volume 6: Directions in Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Century Poetry, (Broadview Press: Ontario), 2006
5. Sandie Byrne, H, v., and O: The Poetry of Tony Harrison (Manchester University Press: Manchester), 1998
6. Peter Childs, The Twentieth Century In Poetry: A Critical Survey (Routledge: London), 1999
7. Gary Day and Brian Ockerty (eds.), British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s: Politics and Art (Macmillan: Basingstoke), 1997
8. Joe Kelleher, Tony Harrison, (Northcote House in association with the British Council: Plymouth), 1996.
9. John O. Thompson (ed.), Monty Python: Complete and Utter Theory of the Grotesque, (BFI Publishing: London), 1982, p.9
10. Stephen Wagg (ed.), Because I Tell A Joke Or Two: Comedy, Politics and Social Difference, (Routledge: London), 1998
11. Bruce Woodcock, Classical vandalism: Tony Harrison’s invective, “Critical Quarterly” vol. 32, no. 2