Tony Harrison's Unblinking Eye
At the end of April 2017, poets, directors, academics and publishers came together to celebrate the remarkable work of Tony Harrison on his eightieth birthday at the British Academy in London. The range of tributes was impressive: from Lee Hall’s moving account of how the screenplay for Billy Eliot would not have been written without Harrison’s influence, to personal testimonies from Harrison’s collaborators, including Peter Symes (with whom Harrison made some of his most striking films), Giovanni Greco (who translated Harrison’s work in Italy), Oliver Taplin, who worked with Harrison on Trackers of Oxyrhyncus in Delphi, and Edith Hall, who edited Harrison’s most recent work, The Inky Digit of Defiance. Although Harrison is best known for being born and bred in Leeds, even this handful of examples confirm the unquestionably international scope of Harrison’s work, which spans centuries and insists on crossing national and linguistic borders. Indeed, Dinah Wood (Faber and Faber), who chaired a session on translation at the conference, said that Harrison is by far the most international of the drama writers at Faber.
This is not a recent feature of Harrison’s work. I talked, at the British Academy conference, about Harrison’s time working in Northern Nigeria where, between 1962 and 1966, he worked as a young lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University. During this time, he was not only involved with questions of writing, teaching and examining English literature and language in the newly independent nation of Nigeria, but also translated and produced his first play in collaboration with his old ...
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