Atherton Onward

Adventures in starting over

Category: Uncategorized

This Is Not A Poem

Originally written as a commission for the #JeSuisBirmingham event held on Friday, in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.


Napoleon Bonaparte is credited as once saying
quatre journaux hostiles sont plus à craindre que mille baionnettes’*.
He wasn’t wrong.

For centuries philosophers have claimed that the tongue is a blade; and if the tongue a blade then the pen a rifle, the printing press a battalion of artillery.
Against this bombardment of ink and sound, there was but one choice – to end by the sword that which pretended to be one.

Fast forward, switch language.

1937, the exhibition of Entartete Kunst is held in Munich. Kirchner, Beckmann, Matisse, Picasso, van Gogh, sculptures, prints, paintings and more all lumped together, too subversive, too immoral, their creators’ arrest lit by the flames of a thousand burning books.
Some made it. Some didn’t. Beckmann fled to Amsterdam, Ernst to America. Kirchner killed himself in Switzerland the following year, death the only way he would accept silence. Others were killed in Action T4, marked as everything that was wrong with the creative spirit.

Behind the iron curtains of Stalinist Russia, one dared not breathe criticism of the government, the telltale stain of ink and paint on fingers a bulls-eye warning. Between 1920 and 1945, more than 2,000 writers, intellectuals and artists were imprisoned and 1500 died in prisons and concentration camps.
Osip Mandelstam was arrested for reciting his poem Stalin Epigram among friends in 1934. After four years imprisonment he died in December 1938 in a correction camp near Vladivostok.
Babel, Pilnyak and Meyerhold – all arrested on charges of treason, tried and summarily shot.
After being imprisoned, beaten and tortured, Titsian Tabidze refused to break, and named only the 18th century poet Besiki as his accomplice.
Over and over and over again, the same story, men and women who lived by their art were dragged from their homes, their places of work –
and still more came.
These writers, from Iashvili to Platanov, condemned to obscurity as ‘pornographic scrawls in the margins of Russian literature’,
denied privacy, light or tools to ensure that they would not commit Art in the silent hours of the night, they were gone –
but in garrets and gulags, coffee shops, parlours and farms,
Art happened.

This is the inheritance my mother gifted me.
‘Ljusinka,’ she says, ‘remember that your words are a blade.
Remember that a poem can start a revolution,
a painting can fell an empire,
remember that those who live for their art must become masters of their chosen weapon,
and pray for mercy from those who chose weapons of steel and not ink.
Remember that everywhere there is fear, everywhere there is silence and oppression, Art happens.
And more often than not, Art wins’

Fast forward.

2005, Belarus. Nikolai Kalezin and Natalya Kolynola are arrested for a play about state sanctioned disappearances.

2008, Cameroon.Lapiro de Mbanga is sentenced to 3 years in prison for a song.

2011, Iran. Jafar Panahi defies a 20 year ban on film-making and smuggles his latest film out of the country on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake.

2011, Bahrain. Ayat Al Qurmezi, a 20 year old student is arrested and imprisoned for 4months for reciting a poem in Pearl Square criticising government policy. While in jail she endures harassment, abuse, intimidation and threats of rape.

Meanwhile, in street bars and run down theatres, junk yards and kitchens and parks, Art happens.

Fast forward. 2015.

The Belarus Free Theatre continues to produce uncensored plays under the nose of Lukashenko.

Panahi’s ‘This Is Not A Film’ has been seen in more countries than its maker will ever see, being hailed as an essay on the struggle between political tyranny and self expression. His newest film is due to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival.

Al Qurmezi’s sentence has still not been revoked, and her family lives in fear that she will be recalled to prison. She has not received an official pardon and her conviction has not been overturned on appeal. This year, she is to receive the Student Peace Prize for her ‘unwavering struggle for human rights and democracy’.

Where there is silence and oppression, Art happens.

2015, France.
Twelve members of staff are killed and 11 injured at Charlie Hebdo newspaper for adding Islamic leaders including the prophet Muhammed to the long list of those it has lampooned.
In the week that follows, thousands of people across the world stand vigil outside French embassies, but they do not raise the Tricoleur. They raise a pen.

2015, Birmingham.
The news is nothing new. The reaction is.
‘I don’t agree with killing people, but…’
‘It was horrible, but what were they thinking publishing that…’
‘It’s not their place to say what they said.’
And the painters and playwrites, the singers and film makers,
the poets remain silent.
In student digs and damp council houses, on laptops and phones and hidden diary entries,
there is no Art.
It’s not their place – there are some things it doesn’t do to criticise,
to write about, to paint or scribble or say.
So here we are. The greatest potential of my generation made mute, scrolling through social media hashtags,
angel-minded hipsters sipping overpriced coffee criticise those asking the wrong kind of questions,
identical populist opinion cited in different tones and called debate,
young artists distracted by crushes, celebrity scandal and endless tits.

There is no space for privilege here – this a guild of master swordsmen,
our tongues unsheathed blades, brushes and beat machines the infantry,
and there are questions that no-one else is placed to ask.
This is our place. On the front line.
In classrooms. In dive bars. In the halls of academia.

Because in a bitter twist of irony, it was the prophet Muhammed who once said: ‘the ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyr’.

Because art is not always just art.
Because a poem is not a poem –
Because this is a revolution in ink.

* The quote translates as ‘four hostile newspapers are more dangerous than a thousand bayonettes’


Poem for the Winter Queen

She’s a home alone for Christmas kind of girl
a never too young for bitter,
rain and flood at Christmas,
a cup of tea and Home Alone kind of girl.

She isn’t big on gingerbread so
she turned her attic into a gingerbread house
put fairy lights in all the windows when the
gumdrop buttons ran out
iced sugar into the frosting on the sills and panes
garlanded liquor-laced berries into
the moss creeping under the skirting and
invited the mice to pull a carriage to the land of Festive
when they declined a seat at her Turkey Dinner for One.

She’s more of a Joni mandolin and wistful
than a Bing and Frankie kind of girl,
the kind who will take the whitest of winter mornings
and repaint it in shades of blue to bring out the cold,
who renames fir trees for ex-lovers
and paints pine cones for their never-had children,
sits them around a peppernut table
heated with a tealight fire,
spins sugar into spider webs and festoons plump puddings
in shades of October,
she’s always been a pumpkin and shiver kind of girl.

She stalks the aisles of Marks and Spencer glitter
trailing spring thaw and thunder
tips a nod to trolley wheels playing at sleigh bells
to wake children, wide-eyed under comforters
listening for Yule arriving
in plastic shine and stutter.

She’s an ivy-in-the-beer and belladonna
coffee kind of wishful,
counting leaves in teapots and coaxing welts up copper pans
marked by flame and temper, she
is a broken-tooth sixpence in the pudding,
a black hand on the gingerbread man kind of guilty.

You will invite her over for Boxing Day, watch
her finger comb through Tia Maria tinted glances
oversimmered snap and sour,
she will turn down the radio at just the wrong part
of a muttered sentence, mute
the relative you sat in the only mismatched chair at dinner
deep in sherry burn and oak-casked vintage resentment.

She’s a wriggle through your bloodstream and hover sugar-hungry
round the table kind of comment,
a conversation you never wanted but invited in
from the cold out of pity,
paints your cats-eye in shades of Joni and scraped ice
from the back of the freezer;
she’s the morning fog waking on the wrong side of a drunk
night alone,
a red and gold paracetomol and good will to all
Bloody Mary,
she’s an acid scrawling coffee shop and
cheap wine heartbreak kind of girl.

She is in the back of every empty advent calendar window,
a cloud bank on the shortest day kind of shadow,
she is what you have been waiting for all year,
she is everything you ever wanted.

Listen, the snow is falling.


I offer her a cup of tea.
There are no names for the river under this bridge, so I make tea, stir in milk and sugar the way she always liked, let the pot sit between us filled with six months of conversations we haven’t had.
I tell her I’m sorry.

Tea is what we offer when there is nothing left for us to say, when there is so much water that we must drink it or drown in all the things left unspoken, so we fill the kettle.
There is a ritual to it, you know. To preparing the leaves – I always use loose leaves if I can get them – heating the pot and swirling the heat up the sides so that your liquor doesn’t taste like an old broom. There is a knack in letting the kettle thrumble to exactly the right pitch to turn off the heat, well before it over-boils and starts to taste off.
When you fill the pot, you hit the sides first, not the leaves or you might cook them, and let the water turn that ambery shade somewhere between good bourbon and beech leaves in October.

It reminds us of the good times, hot mugs cradled in blue fingers after autumn walks, sat in my horrible old flat with the broken heating and the dodgy fire alarm.
She sips, eyes closed on memory, swirls the liquid round her mug.

We have always come from different lanes on the same road, hopscotching cultures and languages,
We exchanged recipes over pots of cheap PG Tips, poring over the pages passed down from our mothers, the only part of our histories we happily embraced.
When the summer ripened I iced jugs of peppermint and hibiscus, and when disaster struck we sat on the grass and sipped and sunburned, and the rain felt like an age of drought away.
She swirled the liquid then, and the words came slowly, like steam.
They come slower now.

She asks if I remember Scotland.
My smile is more memory than reflex, but it comes. I tell her there’s always next year.
When there is nothing else left to offer, tea is a reassuring blanket that wraps us in better yesterdays, in the morning hikes through mountains cloaked in purple heather and the sound of pipes over the harbour with the little boats moored close.
We both know there will probably not be a next year, but the tea is warm and we sip, swirl the mugs, try to drink the water lapping at the bridge but there are leaves clogging the spout and a weir is forming in the bottom of the pot, threatening to suck us under.

I check the dregs, and there is maybe half a cup’s peace left in the bottom before we hit stone.
I want to break the silence, want to ask her all the questions that sit in the bilge at the bottom of the pot like where were you? Where did you go?
There are things in that water that are better left drowned, that do not belong in this room but the questions taste metal in the warm to sit heavy and unspoken on my tongue.
She has not drunk the remainder of her tea, and I question this instead.
‘I don’t take sugar any more,’ she says, a small shrug under the jumper.

I don’t say anything, just pour away the mug, make her a fresh one, no sugar this time.
When you read the dregs of a cup, there is a ritual to it – handle first, clockwise round the rim and spiralling down; you can read a person’s soul in the pattern of the tealeaves left from a well enjoyed brew.
I do not know what the rule is for a cup not drunk, but nothing says I no longer know you quite like not knowing how someone takes their tea.

There is Assam in the pot today. It is the first tea we drank together, and this is apt.
We drank it rich with spice and good hope, and the name itself speaks.
Or, unequal.
I do not know which applies in these circumstances, but they both describe what we were, what we have been.
The leaves hold no answers this time, and there is so much water under this bridge.

I do not know how to stem this river, and the rains have come and gone unnoticed.
There are things we have not said, things we should have said, but the words lie drowned in the dark at the bottom of the brew.
How do you drink this much water and not choke?

The pot says nothing on the matter and the dregs have gone bitter, so I follow the old ritual.
Put the kettle on.
Stir in milk but no sugar, the way she likes now, let it sit between us on the table.
I tell her I am sorry.
Swirl the amber, take a sip,
and feel the flood waters rise.

Ten Steps to Holla Back

This poem is dedicated with no love, to the creeps who think it’s ok to harass women in the street.

For more information about street harassment and what you can do to put a stop to it, I can recommend Hollaback!


1. Damn straight I look good in these jeans. Considering how much blood, sweat and
shopping trauma went into finding these little beauties, I would hope so.
Granted, that was five years ago. Before the knees wore out and the colour wore out and the hems wore out and I wore them out hiking that one time and seriously?

2. ‘Baby’ is not my name. Neither is ‘cutie’, ‘sweetcheeks’ or any name you might apply to
a kitten, a baked dessert or whatever it is you’re failing to pronounce in sign language.
Yes, it’s true, I do in fact have a name, and a number. You will be getting neither.

3. Opening conversations. Now, being British I’m sure you’ll be familiar with most of our normal social greeting rituals: the wave-come-nose-scratch; the painfully obvious comment on the weather; the use of pointed nasal inhalation at some European-minded anarchist jumping the queue and sorry, I digress. It’s charming, in its own quirky little way.
Yelling ‘hey sexy, nice tits’ at me from across the street – not so much.

4. Hissing, meowing, or that weird thing about sucking your teeth. I don’t get it.
I’m not a cat. You can’t lure me in with tuna, confuse me with laser pointers and
dousing yourself in catnip will not persuade me to jump all over you, though you’re
welcome to try.
In the interests of good communication, may I suggest that instead you
stand and say in a loud, clear voice, ‘I am a sexist douche’.
You’ll still be creepy, but points for honesty is better than nothing.

5. To the bros in the gym: I understand that a woman in the zone known only as the Man Pit
can be a strange and daunting experience, but word to the wise – help is welcome.
Help, is telling me when my bar slants, when my hand drops, or when I happen to execute a routine three times perfectly with the style of Jackie freaking Chan.
‘Help’ does not mean leaning on whatever I’m using, patting my backside and trying to intimidate me out of your gym.
Yes, I punch like a girl.
Try not to get knocked out.

6. Do not mistake my smile for an invitation. Do not mistake my laugh for an invitation.
Do not mistake my clothes for an invitation. Do not mistake my eyes for an invitation.
Do not tell me to smile, and mistake it for an invitation.
Invitations are earned, not asked for.
Do not mistake my ‘no’ for an invitation.

7. The first time a man whistled at me in the street, I thought it was a compliment.
Gratitude is a familiar coat, one we learn to wear the way we learn to take the training wheels off these new bodies, the way we learn to flaunt and barter, the way we learn our worth
is valued, somewhere between yes and only ever hearing yes, between one and paralytic, we learn the hard way. We gamble the only assets we have and like any gambler, even when we win, we lose.
The last time a man whistled at me in the street, I did not think it was a compliment.
When I told him to leave me alone, he heard yes, heard joke, followed me half a mile of road home.
When you gamble the only asset you have, even when you win, you lose.
Making me feel unsafe in my own body, is not a compliment.

8. When I slap down your ‘compliments’, get angry. Tell me you wouldn’t screw me anyway.
Tell me I’m so ugly I should be grateful when you tell me all the disgusting things
you would do to me. Tell me I’d be lucky to be raped.
Call me bitch. Call me cunt.
You are only listing one thing you can’t handle, and one thing you can’t have.

9. Yesterday I was a terrible feminist. Yesterday, I said (and I quote) that I should have expected trouble, for running through a rough part of town.
We learn to expect trouble, to cover up, learn to hide our bodies, to lower our eyes.
From mother to daughter, from friend to lover to friend, we learn to expect trouble. We learn stories about bad locks and good keys, open windows and happy burglars.
We learn that our bodies are siren calls, the smell of good food in a crowd of starving.
We learn it is our fault if the starving come to dinner.
We learn to become part of the problem.
Yesterday I had to remind myself, that my body is not the problem.

10. When I wore a slinky dress, it was not for you.
When I decided my cutoffs were the most comfortable thing in my wardrobe, it was not for you.
When I let my hair down, it was not for you.
When I put on running tights, it was not for you.
When I danced to my favourite tune, it was not for you.
When I waited for the bus, it was not for you. When I  walked home anyway, it was not for you.
When I got up this morning, it was not for you.
When I get up in the morning, it is not for you.
When I tell you to go fuck yourself, that is not for you.

10. Enough is enough.

Riffing on a theme

So, the exercise at this week’s Poets’ Place was to reboot a classic, put our own spin on it.

Thus, inspired by To his coy mistress, I give you:


To her dauntless suitor

or, A response to a latter day Andrew Marvell


Had you but words enough and charm

Your poems, sir, would do no harm.

We’d sit, drink coffee and discuss

The mathematic wonders of the universe.

You’d mention language and we could look

Into the tomes of Grimm and Chomsky’s books

And precious stones would be valued less

Than the geological formations where they rest.

Given all of this, I understand you feel

That our mental chemistry is ideal,

But sir, for all your wit and smarts

And your in-depth studies of the romantic arts

I think more time could best be spent

On the important question of consent.

A meeting of two magpie minds is

Not merit enough to claim a kiss

Nor is a laugh, a touch or smile

Always invitation writ in feminine wiles.

You’re funny, clever, and rather fine

But to persist like this is still a crime.

And while on the topic why believe

In these antiquated notions of virginity?

I’ve seen your style: you’ll coax, cajole and plead

Then call her used goods once you’ve done the deed.

After all a good girl’s coy for now,

But a just-tilled field has no need for a plough.

No, Mr Marvell for all your poetic hype

Your verses reek of misogynistic tripe.

So think on this as alone to bed you go

I’ll sleep with you when Hell lies under snow.

You’ll curse and warn I’ll end up on the shelf

But know this –

Whatever you offer, I’ll do it better myself!


So the refrain of this has been knocking around in my head for a while, after I started really looking at the buildings around me here in Birmingham and realising how much they reminded me of the landscape I knew from back home, while also making me incredibly homesick.

I guess you could say this poem is sort of a love letter to the place I grew up.



I come from a land of red cliffs. Not red as in actually brown or the dark orange of rust, but red, the deep livid red of drying blood, an open would, the lipsticked smile of a woman by candlelight.

I come from green fields, darkling woodland and red cliffs.

The sand here is not yellow but the rich hue of amber, the sea sweeping grey-blue shadows up the shoreline.

Here, the soil is the living flesh of earth, thick and clay, staining boots and hands; the sheep have been dyed pink by rain.

I come from seaside, from sand and salt, rain and wind lash, where winter moans through rigging and bells toll the tide, from lobster pots, fishing nets, the reek of storm-washed seaweed.

I come from cheap fairground jingle, from cotton candy, donkey rides, barbeque smoke and sugar; I am from childish wonder and youthful delinquency, from surfboard, air rifle, tombstoning.

I come from lighthouse, rock shoal, reef and sandbar; from weather eye, clifftop watch, lantern, the wreckers. I come from a land of hidden coves pockmarked with nooks and caves, from rowboats and secret tunnels, smugglers, pirates, espionage.

I come from skirling gulls and apple trees, bale hauling, sheep shearing, from early lambs and frostbite.

I come from a land of granite tors and red cliffs, heaven’s garden and the Old Nick’s playground; where ‘yes’ is arr, where ‘mist’ is smeech and me ‘andsome is a universal address second only to moy luvver.

I come from red diesel and drink drive, from rangy longdogs, drowned kittens, teens with no prospects and the wrong kind of working class accent; from fox hunt, rabbit snare, pigeon shoot, subsidy, bankrupt; Spanish overfishing and rusted hulls of trawlers, from farms gone to pasture to house herds whose RP does not know these hills.

I come from calloused fingers, chicken wire, UKIP posters in every window.

I come from clotted cream and scones, Spitchwick dipping and the drum of Nelson’s fort, from woodcarver, painter, palmreader. I am from Dewerstone, piskie-laid, from dead men’s paths and crossroad graves; from cold snap, pony drifts, will o’ the wisp, bleached bones, brushfire. I am from Hell hound, Huntsman, the Stables.

I have come to a land of red bricks. The red here is tarred, soot-stained and dusty, I have come to metal tang, hammer blow, industry. The sea does not touch these stones, but sometimes I stop to listen for the pull of the tide, the bay of the Wistman’s pack, and know that my blood still runs with Westcountry grit.

I come from a land of red cliffs, and come wind, come drought, flood, come storm, they do not know the meaning of break.

30/30 – Day 20

After Sierra DeMulder’s ‘O Economy Pt.2 .



Damaged Goods

Yard Sale.
All items used, abused, likely damage.

Cracked, chips in places. Honest
even when you wish it wouldn’t be.

Books, pt1.
Notebooks. Most used,
qualification in decoding and data analysis helpful,
but not required.

Free to a good home.

Books, pt2.
Much thumbed, smudges in places.
May include traces of tea, nuts, biscuit, tea, tears, drool, coffee, tea,
youthful ambitions of being a writer.

Some obedience issues,
manual not included.

Hiking boots.
Effective over seven leagues.
May cause wanderlust.
Please see travel agent if symptoms persist.

white-knuckle fist-pump brick-wall-grind
yours if you can take them.

Spare pieces,
previous caretaker returned.

This poem.
Take as you will.

30/30 – Day 19


There are giggles coming from the dining room.
They echo down the hallway, blown confetti and bubbles,
glass marbles holding words that are breakable
and bouncing. Words like




In the kitchen, dinner is a chaos of steam and skewer,
muttered prayers and only half-joking curses
peppering the meal with its final coating of spice.

Hands that follow different masters but work together
weave salt and flame, knife and lamb –
tradition. But more.

Hours away from shared DNA, language or history,
religion is reborn in a kitchen that does not know my
mother’s name. We are the new children of Israel,
seeking not Jerusalem, but the promise of something
like home.

Holy, is only a four letter word,
appropriated to a map and made two-dimensional.

In a remixed jumble food and wine,
holy is glass marbles in a new hallway,
each one spelling out the word home.

30/30 – Day 18

Another short one, inspired by Sierra DeMulder’s beautiful ‘What to do after you have memorised the face of the person you love‘.


When I knew we were in trouble.

When you pulled a tub of chicken soup mix
out of your kitchen cupboard without being asked.

When we laughed more than we cursed
for every mile under our feet, the uphills welcome.

When you asked no questions,
let me dissolve like rice paper, leave black mascara streaks
on your favourite shirt.

When I curled into the echoes of your chest
fell asleep to the drum that meant home.

30/30 – Day 17

A quick poem, inspired by the creepster at the bus stop on the way home from work.



The denim of his jeans has been worn
soft as lamb’s wool. He sits his bike
with all the cock-sure swagger
of a prize stallion.
His grin is a feral dog’s,
hungry and watching,
he licks lips made for brass-knucle kisses
and asphalt.
Dark eyes dance with calculation,
they dress bruises as moonlight and giggle.
He needs no coat in this chill, skin dry
and goosepimpled but still singing summer,
he is not looking for portable warmth.
His hands are clever,
calloused by wrench and engine oil,
nimble enough to pick a chest
clean as an unguarded pocket.
You will know him when you see him.
Your senses still,
you smell the start of the hunt.