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The poet who works with kids and animals

Poet and author Tobias Hill tells Jane Wright about his Hampstead school days and how he was inspired to write

LAST year, at the age of 33, poet and author Tobias Hill not only published his much-praised third novel, The Cryptographer, but he also went back to school. It was 15 years since he had been a pupil at Hampstead Comprehensive in Mill Lane, West Hampstead, and he found it had changed a great deal.
“They’ve got locked gates and security cameras,” he says of his week teaching creative writing to different classes, “and the drugs have changed. At least, I’m not talking specifically about Hampstead, but crack cocaine is now available in schools. In my day it was mostly marijuana and LSD.”
He continues, reflectively: “But there’s still not enough money for books. It’s hard to see the changes as good.
“However, Hampstead still has the most fantastic English department, just like when I was there. Zadie Smith came five years after me and I think playwright Nick Grosso was in the year above.
“My parents would never have sent me to a private place like University College School (in Frognal, Hampstead), but that should have far more writers. Yet they’ve only got Alex Garland.”
Tobias feels strongly enough about children’s education to line up on Saturday evening, in the Jeremy Bentham Room at University College London in Gower Street, Bloomsbury, to read selections from his work for educational charity the Caspari Foundation, based in Noel Road, Islington.
Performing alongside him will be Booker-prize winning novelist AS Byatt, who has called Tobias “one of the most original young novelists working in Britain today”, Highgate poet Adrian Mitchell, the winner of the 2004 Poetry Society’s Children’s Book of the Year award for Daft as a Doughnut, and Islington writer Carol Lee, whose To Die For topped the bestseller lists this year.
The Caspari Foundation was named after Irene Caspari, a former psychotherapist at the Tavistock Centre in Belsize Park and provides educational therapists for children with learning difficulties.
Tobias says he finds it “particularly interesting”.
“Reading is easier to do than running a marathon and anyway, I’m not being entirely charitable,” he says. “It’s good for lonely writers to get out of the house.” Brought up in Leverton Street, Kentish Town, Tobias began at Eleanor Palmer Primary School in nearby Fortess Road and now lives in a modernised former railwayman’s cottage just over the top of Shoot-Up Hill from his secondary school.
Here, armed with a mug of Earl Grey tea, he says: “I hated school, because of all the subjects I didn’t like, such as chemistry and physics and non-human geography. I wasn’t lazy, but no one had the time to interest me in them. If only parents all had the time to teach their kids at home.”
Unusually for a writer, he didn’t start reading until he was seven. “I used to memorise stories people read to me and make up my own,” he says. “I just didn’t feel the need to read until someone introduced me to Dr Doolittle.”
And he only started reading poetry at 12, long after he began writing it.
Yet he is adamant, when he and his wife Hannah have children, they won’t be moving out of the city. He says: “This is a wonderful place to raise children. What a wonderful gift for kids. The city is tremendously exciting and exposes children to a wider life. People see drugs as a problem for London children. But kids in the countryside get much more bored, which leads them into drugs. At least in the city there’s always something interesting to so.”
He continues: “Anyway, it’s much posher and safer today. Kentish Town was much rougher when I was little, with the IRA and big street gangs.”
After Sussex University, Tobias spent two years teaching in Japan at a private night school, where the youngest students were two-and-a-half-year-olds cramming for entry exams to get into the right kindergarten.
If he has reservations about schools in Camden, the Japanese education system is something else.
The result of his stay there was his 1996 collection of poems, Midnight in the City of Clocks.
This was followed two years later by Zoo, written around the time he was appointed the first poet in residence at London Zoo in Regent’s Park. But the verses still preserve his trademark urban grain.
He explains: “Zoo poetry is very different from nature poetry. Humans are always there and it’s about the relationship between the caged animals and their watchers.
“I admitted to very mixed feelings about zoos at my interview for the residency, but then I often write about things I don’t like.”
He cites as an example his 1999 thriller Underground, set on the London Tube. “I started writing poetry about London Zoo to get under the skin of London itself,” he says. “It has the same exotic he says claustrophobic quality of things not being where they belong. And it’s right at the centre of London. The giraffes are almost visible from Baker Street.”
One of the best things about his tenure in Regent’s Park was “introducing two different crowds to each other: people who read poetry and people who go to zoos”.
At one reading he organised in the aquarium, 170 people turned up, including literary editors from Fleet Street, adults and children.
But he concedes: “A five-year old may have a tricky time with TS Elliot’s poem The Wasteland. There isn’t really poetry for adults or children, just good or bad poetry. An adult can get a great deal from a poem by a five-year old.”
He’s now writing his fourth volume of poems and continues: “Poetry isn’t a luxury. Like God, people no longer believe in it. But it’s very important. There’s something inside it like the writing in a stick of rock which is simple and primitive and children will get. It’s to do with the rhythm and how it should be recited.

For tickets to Childhood, readings for the Caspari Foundation, call 020 7734 8932.