Talent Behind Bars

John McAteer was born in Bury, Lancashire in October 1955 and emigrated to Australia with his family in 1962 at the age of seven. In 1987, aged 31, he was involved in a drunken brawl that ended in a fatality, following which he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. He served 16 years in prison in Boggo Road Gaol, Brisbane, where he graduated in English literature through Griffith University, Queensland.  In 2003 he was released and deported to England.

In 2017 he was admitted to St Charles’ Psychiatric Hospital, London after suffering the trauma of losing his family in a single day, his wife having died of cancer on the same day his 2 children died in a car accident on their way to see her in hospital.

In 2017 he was found guilty of assault and sentenced to prison, then received a further sentence for breaching a restraining order, spending much of 2018 in HMP’s Wormwood Scrubs and Wandsworth. He was released in April 2019 and as of late June 2021 says he is “still scribbling and getting used to living in Ladbroke Grove.”

Throughout his adult life he has been a prolific poet, writing hundreds of poems on a wide range of themes – all in lower case with no punctuation. His most recent cycle of poems is called Still Life with Ashtray. Of the poems below Silence was written after an inmate of the same Wing committed suicide in 2018, and So Many was written in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire.   

His talent notwithstanding, he remains unpublished: if anyone reading his poetry on this website would like to help John get published please contact BEST.


saddened by the world and the workings of men
wounded and weary and fragile
seething with rebellion 

pretty things he noticed though only in the abstract
like special silences shouting indecipherable
not unintelligent just struggling
with the anguish of abandonment

and the nights began to tumble
as he stumbled through the cries in his head
through the wretched corridors and landings crammed
with broken souls with criminals and the collective burden
of spent love and dead words

with no kindness even beneath moonlight
he absented himself

braver than most they discovered him
savagely still
a ragged strip of soiled cloth tethered to the bunk
secure around his throat
gone deep into the jigsaw-puzzle of prowling ghosts created
by this place

quiet for now