Tobias Hill, Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow, Salt
Is English literature soon bored of London? Bored, if Samuel Johnson remains a trusty guide, of life itself?
Iain Sinclair’s books have increasingly pulled away from the capital, out to the M25’s inflated boundary, or on further, on poor John Clare’s journey, out, out, and out of one’s mind. Monica Ali’s follow-up to Brick Lane emigrates completely. Heaney may have bucked a trend with his recent collection meditating on the District and Circle lines, but didn’t even Eliot go from the urbane (Prufrock) to the urban (The Waste Land) to the immanent rural (The Four Quartets)?
No, that’s not quite right. Glimpses of the underground in the Quartets suggest London isn’t so easy to shrug off. Like the dominance of the Big Smoke in contemporary media (Birmingham or Inverness politics anyone?), London, for the English writers aspiring to the Tradition of Dickens, Woolf or Henry Greene, needs nailed, nabbed, notched up.
Tobias Hill’s new collection announces its arrival as one such London-loving book from the first poem, which is written in a historical fiction genre. You can’t help cheering the lust for life one Henry Morgan, writing, we’re told, in1653, energetically extols: “As to myself, I have since had much / much joy of London. My nights have been / as nights spent in the company of lovers. / I have played merry and yet have made / much good of myself. I am eighteen, / and have chattels and lace enough / by which a stranger might judge me a fine man.”
It’s an endearing prosody: unrhymed, relaxed in its syllable count, stressed around, roughly, a four-beat line but not proscriptively – as liberal, confident and boyishly strutting as Henry Morgan himself, and the rest of this collection. There are few formal fireworks, though, and no sense that expression itself is under intellectual or emotional pressure. In the London canon, a comparison would be with the earlier prose style of Julian Barnes rather than the declaim-and-collage of Allen Fisher’s poetry, say, or of the formally tighter work of Val Warner’s impressive Tooting Idyll.
Rather, in one striking poem, “Repossession”, there’s a marrying of storytelling (or backstory telling) with Hill’s engaging conversational style. Surprisingly I think of Edward Thomas here. Like several of Thomas’s poems, this is a text about depopulation and the casual, almost intimate rhythm, is especially effective. Hill notes the repo men even taking “some seeds / the people there had meant to plant that Spring,” He revisits that detail with a pang when a new couple, years later, move in and start a new garden.
I’m not quite sure where the rhyme-scheme went in this twenty-stanza poem. It very quickly disappears after a promising start, like a Thames tributary under tarmac. Instead, the text survives on subject and charm. The whole book is pleasurable in the same slightly ramshackle way. The calendar piece “A Year in London” is full of the life of Londoners who live in those parts of the city that are a cross between an urban village and a suburb, and “Horse chestnuts” is witty and rhapsodic in a knowingly oldfashioned way – “Hold fast, my love.” In short a reader might well feel they’d like to walk with Hill (the title seems to suggest in Whistler’s footsteps) as he blethers affectionately through this still remarkable city.
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