“I’ve done my bits of mindless aggreo too”: The Construction of Working – Class Masculinities in Tony Harrison’s v. Alison Toron 1Tony Harrison’s long social elegy, v., addresses numerous issues surrounding class, politics, racism, and the gulf between working- and middle-class English culture in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. One of the most interesting aspects of v., however, is an issue that is only alluded to throughout the poem: the construction of working-class masculinity. Work is inextricably connected with what it means to be a man because gender and class are intertwined. The skinhead’s frustration at a lack of employment in Leeds is expressed through aggressive and masculine actions. As a “scholarship boy” whose defining moment in life was his admission to Leeds Grammar School, Harrison is well aware of the tension of choosing “manly” physical labour over effeminate writing. Using roughly the same meter as Thomas Gray’s famous “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Harrison uses his imagined confrontation in a Leeds churchyard with a skinhead who vandalized his parents’ gravestone as an opportunity to meditate on life, class, and what it means to be a man. As Harrison puns on “versus/verses” and pairs political, class, racial, artistic, and gender conflict with the Churchillian slogan of “v” for “victory,” he creates a concept of working-class masculinity more conflicted than most stereotypes allow us to believe. Harrison explores these tensions to better understand the nature of working-class masculinity and how it fits into “all the versuses of life” (65). The term “masculinity” has changed so radically in the past decades that many theorists (such as Hatty) now prefer the term “masculinities” to denote the multiplicity of possibilities that lie within masculine discourse. Masculinity, of course, is socially constructed; the social state of being a “masculine man” has nothing to do with the hormonal, biological, and anatomical distinctions that make someone male. The two concepts often become confused, however, as many assume that biology is, in fact, destiny, and men believe that there must be something wrong with them–rather than that there is something wrong with the society in which they are operating–if they are unable or unwilling to live up to masculine ideals. At the heart of what it means to be masculine is the suppression of emotion: in other words, real men do not cry; real men value stoicism and strength above all else. According to Michael Kaufman in his influential article “The Construction of Masculinity and the Triad of Men’s Violence,” masculinity is a reaction against passivity and powerlessness (11). With the acquisition of a “successful” masculine identity comes the repression of all desires and traits that a given society defines as negatively passive or as resonant of passive experiences. Using a revised Freudian model, Kaufman describes the process of acquiring what he terms “surplus aggressiveness,” as men repress “soft” emotions until they can be likened to pressure cookers waiting to explode. This internalization of aggressive masculinity leads to three points on a “triad” of men’s violence: violence against women, violence against other men, and violence against oneself, all of which can be found in v. In relation to class, a special type of masculinity–one that is most obvious in v.–is working-class machismo. “Working-class machismo” is almost a contradiction in terms, because masculinity is about power, and being working-class is to be disempowered. As Kaufman states, for a working-class boy, “the avenue of mastering the world of business, politics, the professions, and wealth is all but denied” (12-13). The working-class male who wants to prove his masculinity has few avenues available to him, so he will tend to express himself through physical means, especially in muscular work. The power to dominate others is expressed in a direct physical form, through physical and muscular power. According to Kaufman, the achievement of a successful working-class identity coincides with the achievement of a successful masculine identity (13). Manual labour becomes infused with masculine characteristics, and working-class masculinity becomes connected with work. In “The Working Body as Sign: Historical Snapshots,” Carol Wolkowitz furthers examines the connection between work and manliness using photography. Photos remind us that the construction of masculinity takes place in relation to work as much as other areas of social life (Wolkowitz 85); men’s bodies are portrayed in the photographs Wolkowitz uses as strong, confident, hard, and fully involved in physical labour. For working-class men, the positive virtues of work reinforce their own sense of self-worth and give them a type of (conflicted) acceptance into the social mainstream. It is understandable, then, that the inability to fulfill the ideal of the manly worker can be damaging to men’s psyches. This observation applies equally to the speaker in v. and to the skinhead with whom he converses. Much has been made of Tony Harrison’s rise from being the son of a housewife and coal miner-turned-baker in Leeds to becoming one of the most popular and respected poets in England today. While the speaker of a poem can never unequivocally be equated with its author, in this case, their similarities are obvious: the speaker is a man named Tony Harrison who shares the same age, profession, and background as the author. Harrison plays with the idea of the poetic persona both in creating a speaker almost identical to himself and by making his alter ego a crude and obnoxious skinhead. Harrison is well aware of what he could have become if he had not gotten an education and left Leeds, and Harrison’s creation of a violent and angry doppelganger for himself shows his own sense of exile and uncertainty of self (Widdowson 22). Both of these characters are deeply concerned with what it means to be working men, and this tension comes out in their dialogue. After viewing the racial epithets “‘Pakis,’ ‘Niggers,’ even ‘Yids’” (159) on anonymous graves and the word “UNITED” (84) (name of Leeds’ soccer team) graffitied on his parents’ stone, the academic Harrison reflects on what lies behind this anger before the skin ironically undercuts his words: I wish on this skin’s word deep aspirations, first the prayer for my parents I can’t make, then a call to Britain and to all the nations made in the name of love for peace’s sake. Aspirations, cunt! Folk on t’ fucking dole ’ave got about as much scope to aspire above the shit they’re dumped in, cunt, as coal aspires to be chucked on t’fucking fire. (173-80) The iambic pentameter lines Harrison employs perfectly replicate the normal patterns of speech, making both the skin’s and the speaker’s dialogue believable. Because he is a working-class man of Leeds himself, Harrison desperately wants to be able to understand the skin’s plight, and to “give some higher meaning to [his] scrawl” (211). The speaker not only wants to imagine that the UNITED that the skin sprays on his parents’ gravestone has more significance than the mere name of a soccer team; he also wants the word to carry connotations of peace and divinity (even though the speaker is an atheist). The skin, however, quickly reminds the speaker how hopeless the working-class situation is in Britain in the 1980s, and that aspiring to anything is futile. The anger the skin feels in his exchange with the speaker is obvious, but what is interesting is the way in which the skin challenges the speaker’s masculinity in order to make his point about class oppression. This shows the way in which class and gender are intertwined. For instance, Ah’ll tell yer then what really riles a bloke. It’s reading on their graves the jobs they did – butcher, publican and baker. Me, I’ll croak doing t’same nowt ah do now as a kid. (185-88) The role that the skin is being denied is that of a working male, or tradesman. Skinheads are products of a working-class cultural identity, according to David Kennedy, and they look back to a mythologized working-class community and a mythologized masculinity (125). Therefore the skin is convinced that things used to be different, and it is much easier to blame scapegoats (racial minorities) for the decline of the working-class than to look at wider political and economic concerns. A mythologized working-class masculinity of the past embodies what the skin is lacking. The speaker notes that the vandals are trying to “reassert the glory of their team” (27), which can be read as a team of working-class, unemployed men as much as a literal soccer team. The exchange between the speaker and the skin is taking place, after all, in a cemetery of dead workers (Kennedy 124). The skin’s violence and vandalism are an attempt to accomplish masculinity when other means of demonstrating manliness are curtailed or unavailable (Hatty 117). To be deprived of work is to be deprived of self-worth, and the skin’s plight points to the crisis of the industrial working-class (Kirk 59). Because work and masculinity are so closely related, the skin’s inability to find a trade makes him angry about his own failed sense of manhood–in other words, it “riles a bloke.” In Kaufman’s terminology, this is violence against oneself, one aspect of the triad of male violence, because the skin is channeling his emotional repression into anger and hostility. It is the association of real work and manliness that gives the skin cause to mock the speaker’s profession: “They’ll chisel fucking poet when they do you / and that, yer cunt, ’s a crude four-letter word” (203-04). The use of the expletive in this line is revealing, as calling a man a crude word for the female genitalia is an obvious way to challenge the speaker’s masculinity, and it also reveals the misogyny inherent in the most virile forms of masculinity. Poetry is not only beyond the scope of the uneducated skin, but it is also useless, in the skin’s opinion, for solving the class problems in England: Don’t talk to me of fucking representing the class yer were born into anymore. Yer going to get ’urt and start resenting it’s not poetry we need in this class war. (265-68) The threat (“Yer going to get ’urt”) reminds us that a key component of achieving successful masculinity is the use (or threat) of violence. Harrison uses metonymy with the phrase “class war” because he knows the associations his readers will draw from this; it conjures not only the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) strike occurring at the time the poem was written, but also the more general “unending violence of US and THEM” (70). This, of course, includes the conflict inherent in masculinity. There is no clear distinction between men’s bodies and their masculinities (Bourke 11), and the skin demonstrates the strength of his body and thus his manhood through threatening the speaker. The skin draws a distinct line between the poet and working-class men by telling the speaker that he does not belong in a group of “real” men. Even though the speaker in v. has an advantage over the skin because he is employed, financially secure, and living a comfortable middle-class life, the skin knows that masculinity is something he can hold over the speaker. The skin’s use of expletives, which has been referred to as a “torrent of four-letter filth” (Byrne, H, v., and O 67), is really just another way for the skin to defend his masculinity. Language is important in all of Harrison’s poetry, as he negotiates the boundaries between two dialects (Standard English and his own regional Yorkshire dialect) to prove that he is both still “one of the lads” yet talented enough to be accepted in literary circles (Jager 128). Harrison reinforces the power of language with v.’s epitaph, quoted from NUM leader Arthur Scargill: “My father still reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your power to master words.” This quotation is interesting because it not only ironically contrasts a studious father figure with Harrison’s own father (a quiet man whose lack of education made him suspicious of book learning), but also because it positions language as a masculine faculty. The verb “master” is revealing because it connotes control and dominance, which are two concepts closely entwined with masculinity. In addition, because women have been historically silenced in patriarchal societies, language was traditionally conceived as a male-owned activity. Language is power, and certain types of language are more powerful than others. For men in the process of achieving masculinity, obscene words are talismans, or magical terms that allow them access to the dominant world of men (Schwenger 23). In “Phallic Critiques: Masculinity and Twentieth-Century Literature”, Peter Schwenger argues that the use of obscene words and slang relates to toughness and masculinity. Schwenger agrees with Kate Millet that most slang terms and obscenities tend to favour male interests, as a disproportionate number of swear words have to do with female sexuality and male sexual aggression. Especially in working-class communities, swearing symbolizes virility; bad grammar demonstrates verbal swagger; and rough talk asserts that those who use it are real men (24). This explains why the skin’s language is as raw as it is: he is reclaiming power in a world that could potentially damage his masculinity because of his class. Not only must the skin use profane language to reclaim and maintain his masculinity, but the speaker must also talk “like a man” when threatened with being labeled effeminate. After the skin mocks the speaker’s profession (poet), the speaker abandons his composure and utilizes the same vulgar vocabulary as the skin: ‘Listen, cunt!’ I said, ‘before you start you’re jeering, the reason why I want this in a book’s to give ungrateful cunts like you a hearing!’A book, yer stupid cunt, ’s not worth a fuck! (205-08) The masculine role designates a certain toughness of language as appropriate; the speaker knows this, and he must reclaim his masculinity by speaking as the skin does. The poet wants to be the voice of the silent and silenced, but this concept is obviously problematic. Working-class skinheads on unemployment are unlikely to see much value in the craft of poetry, to begin with. The speaker’s plan to elevate the graffiti’s meaning merely reinforces the distance between the middle-class and the working-class. It fits neatly in with the other binaries that Harrison’s poem explores, such as “Black/White” (65), “Communist v. Fascist, Left v. Right” (67), “Hindu/Sikh, soul/body, heart v. mind, / East/West, [and] male/female” (73-74). Giving the skin’s point of view will not automatically mean appreciation from the working-class community or understanding from the bourgeois. In fact, it may mean neither. As Sandie Byrne observes, passing from the working-class to the middle-class, as both Harrison and his speaker in v. do, is a kind of emasculation, “a diluting of the over- abundant testosterone in the stage working-class male” (H, v., and O 73). In Roger Horrocks’s “Masculinity in Crisis: Myths, Fantasies and Realities,” Horrocks details his own personal struggle with pursuing an education while trying to retain close ties with his working-class friends in Lancashire. Horrocks poignantly realizes that education is not “manly” in tough working-class environments, and he recalls his sense of shame at not abandoning school to learn a trade. His educational ambitions were made worse by his choice of study: Not only that, I was specializing in English–reading poems, plays, novels, a traditional ‘girl’s occupation’. So I couldn’t even console myself with the thought I was doing something virile like physics or maths. And even at university I found the same code – the engineering students definitely thought I was a bit odd to be doing English with all the girls. I used to go in the bar with the engineers and the rugby players and manfully down pint after pint, determined to prove I was no less a man even though I liked Keats and Emily Brontë. Of course this suggests that somewhere I agreed I wasn’t ‘manful’ enough. (95) Horrocks is describing exactly how Tony Harrison and his poetic persona feel about their masculinities. The speaker in v. has to prove that he too is still a man, even though he is a successful poet and playwright with a degree in Classics. In Harrison’s poem “Self-Justification,” the speaker (again, a variant on Harrison himself) notes how poetry “made [him] seem a cissy [sic] to the lads” (12). He also mentions the bullying he suffered as a bright boy in a tough working-class community (“Their aggro towards me” ), which indicates the third point on the triad of male violence in Kaufman’s theory: violence against other men. In other words, Harrison knows his choice of profession does not endear him to the working-class community. In fact, his anxiety about his legacy is apparent in the first stanza: Next millennium you’ll have to search quite hard to find my slab behind the family dead, butcher, publican and baker, now me, bard adding poetry to their beef, beer, and bread. (1-4) The parallelism and chiasmus in the third and fourth lines shows the speaker’s anxiety about not fitting into his male lineage and contrasts his own profession to those from whom he is descended. The alliteration of “b” sounds (“beef, beer, and bread”) also reinforces the speaker’s inner conflict over his choice of a considerably un-masculine profession, and this alliteration also shows the poet’s separation because the “p” in poetry does not fit with the “b’s” in “beef, beer, and bread.” Following the skin’s threat to assault the speaker if he does not stop speaking “Greek,” the speaker desperately tries to prove his own masculinity, claiming, “I’ve done my bits of mindless aggro too” (221). The speaker goes on to reveal his attack on a “wobbly soprano warbling” (226): Just why I made up my mind up that I’d got to get her with the fire hose I can’t say, but I’ll try. ………………………………………….. ‘What I hated in those high soprano ranges was uplift beyond all reason and control and in a world where you say nothing changes it seemed a sort of prick-tease of the soul. (226-36) In H, v., and O, Sandie Byrne claims that the speaker tries to destroy the song because it lies to him (71), but I think it is more complicated than this. As these lines illustrate, there is something about the femaleness of the soprano singer that enrages him so. It is interesting that Harrison the poet is married to an opera singer in real life, and that he chooses an opera singer’s voice as a catalyst for his own youthful “aggro” in a poem that shares so many commonalities with his own biography. In Kaufman’s theory, the attack on the singer represents violence against women. According to Kaufman, violence against women is an expression of the fragility of masculinity, and it is a method of regaining and perpetuating dominance and control. An important component of masculinity is that being a man means not being a woman (Bourke 14), which is perhaps associated with the Freudian omnipotence of the Oedipal split; the speaker here is attempting to solidify his shaky sense of masculine identity by proving that he is not identified with women. He is, after all, a scholarship boy from a working-class community, which is a conflicted position to occupy. Opera also carries strong class associations in Britain. The speaker seems incensed at the world in general, but it is a woman’s voice that pushes him over the edge. Harrison’s metaphor–a “prick-tease of the soul”–is revealing. By expressing his general frustration in terms of sexual frustration, the speaker shows how much masculinity is at the heart of his concerns. The speaker’s masculine glory is, of course, short-lived, as he easily gives in to authority, and the skin comically muses about “old farts past their prime” (249) trying to relive their glory days. Poetry is again shown to be effeminate, as the skin derides the speaker’s “poufy words” (270). We are again reminded that eloquence and education are not manly. Significantly, after the speaker’s masculine defeat, the next section of the poem details his father’s lonely life in the wake of his wife’s death and the multicultural encroachment (as he sees it) in his neighbourhood. As many critics have noted, Harrison’s father personifies true working-class masculinity in his poetry. As Melvyn Bragg points out, the speaker’s father in v. is depicted as a colonized person in the place of his birth, suffering from cultural isolation and “slowly drowning in foreignness” (55). By invoking his father’s memory, the speaker is really invoking his ideal picture of masculinity. As he recollects his father, he begins staging a conventional working-class masculinity of his own (Kennedy 126): Home, home, home, to my woman as the red darkens from a fresh blood to a dried. Home, home to my woman, home to bed where opposites are sometimes unified. (329-32) The repetition of “home, home to my woman” is so clichéd that it is difficult not to read this sentiment as ironic. Is Harrison questioning the traditional dichotomy between public (masculine) and private (feminine) spheres that demands the home be a refuge against the cruel public world? It is interesting that the sunset is described in terms of blood, which gives the stanza a slightly sinister feel. The “sometimes” also seems significant, suggesting that strife is never far from intimate relationships. The speaker is trying to perform two seemingly opposite feats here: to prove he is not a sissy, but also to describe the comfort and warmth of his home life. The effect is odd, and as Kennedy points out, the return also implies that one cannot perform traditional working-class identity without performing its gender assumptions (126). The way in which Harrison writes this seems to question these gender assumptions, but he is unwilling to do this directly. Instead, he infuses irony into what could be another clichéd celebration of the restorative value of the “good woman” at home. In the safety of his home, the speaker continues to feel conflicted. In the bedroom with his wife, the speaker cannot get his imagined encounter with the skin out of his mind. The repose of his supposedly comfortable home life is interrupted by war and oppression blasted from the television as “old violence and old disunity” (392) contrasts with the meanings the speaker has construed for the UNITED sprayed on his parents’ grave. As Helmut Haberkamm notes, even the momentary idyll of intimacy is “gate- crashed” by social antagonisms (84). Even as he muses on the nature of love, the skin’s imagined words undercut his contentment: The ones we choose to love become our anchor when the hawser of the blood tie ’s hacked or frays. But a voice that scorns chorales is yelling: Wanker! It’s the aerosoling skin I met today’s. (409-12) The unexpected rhyme of “anchor” with “wanker” serves to effectively mock the speaker’s meditations on love, which reminds us that while successfully masculine men may show affection and tender emotions to others in private, there will always be some self-doubt reminding them that real men are supposed to be emotionally cold. The choice of the word “chorales” is interesting because it has religious connotations relating to hymns, and to “scorn” them indicates a hatred of something that others consider holy. In “On Not Being Milton, Marvell, or Gray,” Sandie Byrne suggests that the attempt to unite male and female at the end of v. feels perfunctory because it lacks the passion or energy of the encounter with the skin, or perhaps because the speaker knows even a loving pair’s union is necessarily temporary and conditional (81). I would suggest that it also feels perfunctory because the speaker is still conflicted about his masculine identity. He is, after all, living a middle-class life with comforts unfamiliar to him while growing up as a working-class “lad.” Because gender is so closely related to class, the speaker is still insecure about his ability to successfully perform masculinity in a setting so far removed from his roots. As the poem states, Tony Harrison’s v. is deeply concerned “with all the versuses of life,” but what is at the heart of the speaker’s internal conflict is his unstable notion of what it means to be a man. On one hand, the speaker seems to accept conventional wisdom that real men work with their hands and do not write poetry; he thinks of his own father as the paragon of masculinity, and holds serious doubts about his masculinity because of his profession. This is reflected in the poem’s diction. Language is an important component of working-class masculinity, as the speaker’s alter ego, the skinhead, uses profanity to prove his toughness and eventually provokes the speaker into doing the same. On the other hand, the speaker knows that working-class masculinity is problematic, and that there is value in writing poetry despite its apparent effeminacy. However, the power of gender codes means that the working-class poet must always be examining and evaluating his masculinity to ensure that he is not a “cissy.” As is obvious in v., these concerns can be challenging when attempting to find happiness in human relationships (e.g., with one’s wife), but they can also help to produce a rich and multifaceted text. Works Cited Bourke, Joanna. Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain, and the Great War. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. Bragg, Melvyn. “v. by Tony Harrison, or Production No. 73095WT Arts.” Tony Harrison: Loiner: 49-56. Byrne, Sadie, ed. Introduction. Tony Harrison: Loiner. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997. 1-27. ---. H, v., and O: The Poetry of Tony Harrison. New York: Manchester UP, 1998. ---. “On Not Being Milton, Marvell, or Gray.” Tony Harrison: Loiner: 57-83. Haberkamm, Helmut. “‘These Vs Are All the Versuses of Life’: A Reading of Tony Harrison’s Social Elegy ‘V.’” Black and Gold: Contiguous Traditions in Post-War British and Irish Poetry. Ed. C.C. Barfoot. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994. 79-94. Harrison, Tony. “Self Justification.” Ramazani 2: 675. ---. “v.” Ramazani 2: 676-88. Hatty, Suzanne E. Masculinities, Violence, and Culture. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 2000. Horrocks, Roger. Masculinity in Crisis: Myths, Fantasies, and Realities. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1994. Jager, Andreas. “‘The Broken Lines’: Creative Contradictions in Tony Harrison’s Poetry.”. Seeing and Saying: Self-Referentiality in British and American Literature. Ed. Detlev Gohrbandt, Bruno Lutz, and Saskia Schabio. Berlin: Peter Lang, 1998. 117-29. Kaufman, Michael. “The Construction of Masculinity and the Triad of Men’s Violence.” Beyond Patriarchy: Essays on Pleasure, Power, and Change. Ed. Michael Kaufman. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1987. 1-29. Kennedy, David. “‘What does the fairy DO?’ The Staging of Antithetical Masculine Styles in the Poetry of Tony Harrison and Douglas Dunn.” Textual Practice 14.1 (2000): 115-36. Kirk, John. “Class, Community, and ‘Structures of Feeling” in Working-Class Writing from the 1980s.” Literature and History 8.2 (1999): 44-63. Ramazani, Jahan, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair, eds. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. 3rd ed. Vol.2: Contemporary Poetry. New York: Norton, 2003. Schwenger, Peter. Phallic Critiques: Masculinity and Twentieth- Century Literature. Boston: Kegan Paul, 1984. Wolkowitz, Carol. “The Working Body as Sign: Historical Snapshots.” Constructing Gendered Bodies. Ed. Kathryn Backett-Milburn and Linda McKie. New York: Palgrave, 2001. 85-103.
Pages to are hidden for
"states"Please download to view full document