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.
Theyve got locked gates and security cameras,
he says of his week teaching creative writing to different classes,
and the drugs have changed. At least, Im 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 theres still not enough
money for books. Its 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 theyve only got Alex Garland.
Tobias feels strongly enough about childrens 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 Societys Childrens 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,
Im not being entirely charitable, he says. Its
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 railwaymans 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 didnt like, such as
chemistry and physics and non-human geography. I wasnt 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 didnt start reading until he was
seven. I used to memorise stories people read to me and make
up my own, he says. I just didnt 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
Yet he is adamant, when he and his wife Hannah have children, they
wont 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 theres always something interesting to so.
He continues: Anyway, its 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 Regents
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 its 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 dont
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 its right at the centre of London.
The giraffes are almost visible from Baker Street.
One of the best things about his tenure in Regents 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 Elliots poem The Wasteland. There isnt 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.
Hes now writing his fourth volume of poems and continues:
Poetry isnt a luxury. Like God, people no longer believe
in it. But its very important. Theres something inside
it like the writing in a stick of rock which is simple and primitive
and children will get. Its to do with the rhythm and how it
should be recited.
For tickets to Childhood, readings for the Caspari
Foundation, call 020 7734 8932.