Hollyhocks by Karen Withecomb

Driving to dear old London,
To a gig I can’t afford.
Slight trepidation about vans and knives.
A background horror of bombs.
A roadtrip, as quicksilver rises in glass tubes,
East London bound; it’s East, it’s East you tell yourself,
It isn’t West at all.
Onwards we go and the high-rise flats get taller.
De luxe or council, stifling castles in the air.
And we halt in mid-June traffic jams.
With the riot tempers rising.
Car horns sound abruptly, every siren ear-split flinch.
Dancehall pumps from a blacked-out car
And a lad wears a thawb edged with Burberry.
Between muscular towers of macho grey it sits;
A piece of derelict land for sale or rent.
It’s fenced around with chainlink steel
With chopped-up concrete lumped in chalky mounds.
Arid, desolate, unloved, awaiting an unknown.
Waiting for the scams and schemes
The loopholes, the bulldozers and the cash.
But it’s not quite a desert victim for the grasping hands,
For blood-red hollyhocks, all straight and true and beautiful,
Stand six feet high in spite of everything.
I wondered, do the blood-red hollyhocks sprout in Kensington?
Can flowers struggle through the ash and plastic cladding blocks?
A blood-red bloom for you, Khadija Saye
For you, Mohammed Alhjali
And for you the Choucair family; all six of you now gone.
You won’t be ‘victims,’ fused together like an outcome of the flames.
Each one of you will be a blood-red hollyhock.
See, there is Sheila Smith and Deborah Lamprell
There is Zainab Dean and her son, Jeremiah, two.
I don’t suppose that Ali Yawar Jafari stood any kind of chance at 82.
And Suhar, Marjorie and Bekti died, as did their children too.
How terrible to know your darling child would die.
Rohima, she died with her three children, the youngest only 3.
But look! That city flower is so hardy and courageous as it grows;
The blood-red hollyhock that overcomes the chainlink fence.
So hardy and courageous like the photos of sweet Jessica Urbano, she was twelve.
Hashim, Nura and your children; Rania and your little ones.
Mohammed Saber Neda, Moses Bernard and Abdel Salam,
Gloria Trevisan, Marco Gottardi.
Fathaya Alsanousi, you were 70 and lost your life and kin.
Believe me, we will not forget, forgive or pardon those who let you burn.
Nurhada El-Wahabi, mother Fouzia, your father and your brothers.
Omar Belkadi and your wife, Farah.
Your daughter Leena, she was six months’ old.
Stay in your flats, and yes, we’ll see a tiny baby choke to death,
For they are just the poor and we cannot afford to keep them safe,
And their complaints are ignorant,
Their lives are worth a little less than ours.
Well…no, they’re not…
The sturdy London hollyhocks,
Ligaya Moore and Mary Mendy,
Are gentle, smiling faces in the photographs,
And we won’t ever know what Hesham, Stefan or Maria might have done in life.
Or whether Tony Disson ever managed to retire.
The Miah family that in one night was wiped out,
With Lucas James and Hamid Kani, Dennis Murphy and Steve Power.
Look on your works! And look in Isaac Shawo’s little face and weep.
Sakina Afreselabi died with sister Fatima,
At 65 cut down by negligence and flames.
Berkti Haftom and her son, twelve years old with a whole life to live,
And all the Tucca family, all of them presumed deceased.
Khadija Khalloufi, your smiling face will certainly be mourned.
Oh! Look at all of you with lives and stories, love and cares!
And everyone involved in killing them should look on them in shame.
They’re white and brown and black, and you know what?
They all are worth the same.
Because they all were human and they were your fellow Man.
No man or woman’s life is worth a penny more or penny less
And two more pounds per metre squared might just have saved their lives.
Oh you can wriggle all you like, call out your friends,
Deny the truth,
But we will not forget them.
The blood-red hollyhocks endure and will
Break through your rotten concrete, twisted metal and your lies
A blood-red hollyhock for each of them and each will grow and grow
Until the blood-red hollyhocks have smothered all the land despised
For sale or rent.
Until the blood-red hollyhocks have spread their seeds all over London town.

Digital StillCamera
Having practised as a lawyer in the field of criminal defence for many years, in 2011 I decided to concentrate on writing and performing, creating both poetry and novels. I continue to work in the retail sector part-time I have lived in Brighton since the late 1990s, but my association with the city goes back to the early 1980s. The city is a source of inspiration and I have written many poems focussing on its unique character. I am interested in social justice, politics and current affairs. As a result, I have written a number of poems touching on these subjects, and many of my poems have their roots in concepts of social equality. I run and host a fortnightly poetry and spoken word performance night in Brighton called ‘Shine So Hard’. It is based at The Quadrant pub in North Street and has been established for over three years. I have appeared at The Torriano in Camden Town, The Boogaloo in Highgate, The Mascara Bar in Stoke Newington, The Unity in Hanover, Brighton as part of ‘Rock Against the Riots’ and appeared regularly as part of the roster of poets presented by not-for-profit arts organisation Little Episodes, curated by Lucie Barat. I have appeared at The Peoples’ Festival in Hove and regularly perform at Vapour Vox in Brighton, Tomfoolery in Shoreham-by-Sea and Laudanum and Lavender in Brighton.




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