Since I first published this post, I’ve added some more thoughts about documentary poetry and about my reasons for writing the poem ‘Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe Says Sorry’.
The poem came out of Andrea Brady’s Documentary Poetics workshop at Poetry Swindon. Andrea sent through excellent course materials and poems by writers such as Mahmoud Darwish, Carolyn Forché, Ken Saro-Wiwa and many others. At the workshop, we looked at using documentary materials as a source for poems.
My poem is made almost entirely from words used by Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe in his evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee about three missing British teenage girls in Syria. There is a hyperlink to a BBC film recording of his evidence underneath the poem title. If you watch the video you might, like me, become aware, from Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe’s casual tone of voice, that there is a difference between saying sorry and being sorry.
Making a poem of Sir Bernard’s words gives focus to what he said, and the space around his comments draws attention to the inadequacy of his apology: “It must be horrible.” “It must be terrible.”
I have added in things that he doesn’t say in the video clip but that he is aware of: the girls’ ages – 15, 15 and 16 – and their names – Shamima, Amira and Kadiza. I wanted to highlight their young ages and show respect for them by naming them, rather than referring to them anonymously as if they are statistics rather than living beings.
When I wrote this poem, I was upset by some unfeeling discussions and attitudes circulating on social media. Particularly nasty, I thought, was Grace Dent’s widely-shared article in The Independent ‘If teenage girls want to join ISIS they should leave and not return.’ I’m not going to link to it but it’s included in this article at Media Diversified which reflects some of my own feelings about the loss of the three young women.
My poem isn’t trying to explain or understand why British teenagers would choose to put themselves in a situation that many of us would regard as dangerous (Media Diversified makes reference to Tell MAMA UK, a site which monitors and measures anti-Muslim attacks and there might be some answers there) but I wrote it because I am saddened and angry that these girls and their families were let down by the police and those in authority who knew that they were putting themselves at risk yet, seemingly, did nothing to intervene.
I’m the parent of a 15 year old girl and I also, quite recently, worked for three years as a teaching assistant in a local comprehensive school. I’m not an expert on child psychology but I have been up-close to the sometimes baffling and troubling behaviours of teenage people. I know, for example, that in cases of self-harming and suicide, there is a tendency for young people to copy each other.
Knowing, as Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe admits the police did know, that Shamima, Amira and Kadiza were closely associated with a girl who’d gone to Syria to join Islamic State, there must have been some awareness that there was a risk of other young people in the same peer group doing the same.
Sir Bernard admits that the police issued a letter to the girls’ families saying they wanted to interview them (although, shockingly, this was given directly to the girls, and not to their parents, allowing the girls the opportunity to conceal the letters) but that their motive for this was to find out more about the circle of people associated with the girl who’d left for Syria. This suggests to me that the police were more concerned with making criminal arrests than acting responsibly and caringly for three British children.
So I’ve tried to draw attention to the police’s failings in the poem. I’m grateful to The Morning Star for taking it.
You can read the poem here.