Tobias Hill reviewed by Brian Cole

Love in the City

Nocturne in Chrome & Sunset Yellow by Tobias Hill  
Salt Publishing (2006), 67pp, £8.99, ISBN: 9781844712625

‘Nocturne’ and ‘Yellow’ sound strange in the title of a collection of poems – would this be poetry of music and painting? In a way it is; elegiac verses transmit the essence of Hill’s love for London, his unsentimental nostalgia for his city, the Thames and Londoners, and evoke Elgar and Monet. Running through it like a river is change, death and rebirth, dispossession and repossession. Hill celebrates the new while at the same time mourning, but holding, the past.

Hill was new to me but I felt an immediate connection. No Londoner, past, present or would-be, can be unaffected by his lyricism, gentle rhythmic tone, simple yet sensual language, economy of method, rhyme and delicate but powerful affection for this city. He takes us deep into a London of ghosts, old lights and names, greasy spoons, tide-washed steps and polyglot humanity, where rich meets poor, nature the man-made and the present the past. ‘I will never have seen enough of you’ he says, in the final line of ‘October’.
Memories are stimulated; close your eyes and you could be on the green island of Primrose Hill, looking south at dusk, when the sky is yellow and the office windows needles of chrome light; or on a night train, rattling into Victoria on a high curve, the ramshackle yellow-lit streets swilling mysteriously below you. It is a London of ‘pizza ovens, Peking duck and piss, / the air half-edible and wholly foul’.

We visit numerous people and places; Hampstead Heath; L’Algeroise; John’s Kabul Café; railway gangers working through the night; a young couple inexpertly clearing their derelict garden. We even take a trip to Paris, and Matisse, but soon come back.
Hill’s voice is very English, reserved but not inhibited. He uses an easy narrative, as befits someone who also writes novels, and infuses his lines with tender vulnerability. He suspends before the reader the imminence of change, and of the attendant regret that is both inevitable and accepted:

Daffodils wave their yellow heads at her
and suddenly she thinks of poetry:

beautiful things. The perfect words you say
only later, too late, driving away’.
(from ‘Yellow’)

Hill is unfussed by form and writes in flexible, natural stanzas. It is his rhythms that are so beguiling and gives his simple language a rare beauty:

In the garden
the goldfish are nuzzling
at heaps of soft late summer rain.

If I could have only one thing,
it would be some moment like this,
when one small fact puts all the facts right,

when the rain clears the London air
and my thoughts lie suddenly clean
and bright in the strength of their own wellspring.
(from ‘September’)

Not all is sadness, sweetness and light. Hill’s voice is far from gritty, but while there is none of a city’s brutality here, we do encounter bailiffs, bouncers and a religious madman.
Of the thirty-two poems, twelve make up a series ‘A Year in London’. The rest of the collection is concerned with various aspects of London and its denizens, as in ‘Five Ways of looking at my Grandfather’, a work of some personal poignancy but one which sits oddly with the collection generally.

Acute forensic skill is not required to enjoy Tobias Hill, yet his poems offer more and more with every reading.

• Review by Brian Cole

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