Tag Archives: history

Whistling for Stalin – poem

This w/end my poet friend Kathleen Kummer will be celebrating her 94th birthday. We first met 20 years ago on a writing week held near Cambridge. Kathleen lived and worked in The Netherlands after marrying a Dutchman.

To mark her special day, I’m posting a poem from her debut collection Living below sea level, published by Oversteps Books. The poem first appeared in the original 14 magazine, edited by Mike Loveday.

Whistling for Stalin

Circus performer summoned to the dacha,
you arrived empty-handed, no sign of the treasure
at the tip of your tongue. The signal was given,
you pursed your lips, made them a channel,
floated a tune on a cushion of air,
like a bird in a cage, lusciously trilling.
They sat around in their white, belted tunics,
he and his henchmen, legs stretched out rigid,
but ready to jack-knife to a Georgian folk song.

Did your whistling enliven the poker-face,
make it genial? When he clicked his fingers,
your tune slid back into its voice-box.
How much did you know about Uncle Joe?
When you whistle, you’re bound to sound carefree.

Trying – writing prompt

Madingley Hall, near Cambridge

Yesterday I talked with friends about Cambridge. That brought back memories of a one-week workshop at Madingley Hall with the poet Lawrence Sail. Madingley Hall is a 16th Century building just a few miles from Cambridge. It is set in seven acres of splendid gardens and grounds, designed by the famous Capability Brown in the 18th Century.The weather was good the week I was there and we would all find a quiet corner outside and get writing.

Credit: Pasja1000 via Pixabay

Writing prompt

One of the exercises was about personification. We mentally went through the alphabet and stopped at a letter that resonated with us. What kind of life does that letter have? What do they want and what is difficult for them?

The poem Trying was published in my debut Another life (Oversteps Books Ltd, 2016).


Trying not to be like
one who has gone before.
Allocated a slot
at the back of the queue:
a circle dancer with a club foot.

Striving to become
the symbol of perfection.
Dragging a tail,
leaving tiny furrows
on the rough terrain.

Trying then to hide
in foreign places.
Archaic words spoken with a twang:
Qua, quorum, quota, quasi.

A cold place they tell me.


To honour International Women’s Day I’m posting this poem about a woman.  It was first published in The Best of Manchester Poets, vol. 2, published by Puppywolf (2011).  I aimed to give the reader enough clues (the Gauloises cigarettes, the stubborn streak) for them to be able to guess the identity of this woman before they read the final lines.

It’s a good prompt: with which historical figure (famous or infamous) could you have gone to school, college, university with?  Did you even sit next to them in the classroom?  What were they like then?


One of the girls I went to college with

was Joan who’d left home early.

She smoked Gauloises, had a stubborn

streak, wanted to study philosophy.

We thought she was depressed; she cut

herself and once put out a cigarette on her arm.

I wish I’d asked her why.  I can see her now

with that hair cropped short, staring straight ahead.

People shouting, the smoke, the crackling fire.

Too hot, I need to step back.