Tobias Hill, who has died of glioblastoma aged 53, was one of Britain’s most visible poets in the 1990s, winning so many prizes – nearly 100 in four years, or an average of one a fortnight – that other poets begged him to stop entering competitions; he also had a sparkling stint as the Sunday Telegraph’s rock critic, from 1996 to 1997.
He then dedicated himself to writing novels, winning great acclaim – “There is no other voice today quite like this,” wrote an admiring AS Byatt – until his failing health interfered. His most recent novel, What Was Promised, about Columbia Road market in London’s East End, appeared nearly a decade ago.
London loomed large as a character, in both his novels and his poems. One of his first jobs was walking 12 to 15 miles a day there as a researcher for Fodor’s guidebooks. Zoo, the 1998 poetry collection which he published as inaugural poet-in-residence at London Zoo, was as much about the city (“the watermark of London sky/ green as old money all over the river”) as it was about the creatures (the “bored cough” of a jaguar; “giraffes with swimming-pool skin”).
His first novel, Underground (1999), was a bleak, riddling thriller set in the grimy labyrinth of the Tube; at its launch party, his publisher hired out the defunct Aldwych station, printed invitations that looked like Travelcards and toyed with making guests stand outside for two hours while they fixed a phantom signal failure.
His final book of poetry, Nocturne in Chrome & Sunset Yellow (2006), traced 12 months in London, starting with “the smell of All Day English Breakfast Specials/ expanding in the January air”. He opened the volume with a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson, which he re-used as the epigraph to his last novel: “Cities give us collision.”
Tobias Fleet Hill was born in London on March 30 1970, to George Hill, a feature writer for The Times, and Caroline (nee Berman), a book designer; they also had a daughter, Amelia. Their Kentish Town house was filled with books, of which Tobias’s favourite was Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. He was a secretive teenager, bunking off school – Hampstead Comprehensive, where he was a few years above Zadie Smith – to sneak into London Zoo via a hidden entrance next to the wolves.
Aged 12, he entered the 1982 National Poetry Competition with Letter From a Dying Soldier, convinced he would win. It began: “Dear Mum and Dad,/ I think of you/ As I crouch here/ Among the few./ It makes me sad.” He had to wait six more years for his first prize, when, as a student of English at Sussex University, he won the Birmingham & Midlands Institute Mary & Alfred Wilkins Memorial Poetry Prize. After that, he entered whatever prize he could find, and won most of them. “Every competition – from the Dolphin Prize £10 book-token to a £5,000 Eric Gregory Award – has bought me a little extra time to write,” he later said.
He moved to Japan to teach but came back after two years, in 1995, realising he couldn’t “be a poet from the middle of a rice field”. He settled in his childhood bedroom, which his parents tolerated for 18 months; he then advertised in the local newspaper: “Young poet, poor but not penniless, seeks room”. A genial 89-year-old lady offered him the run of her house in Highgate, with one catch: she was dying of cancer. Hill moved in, but nine days later she died. Her puzzled relations thought he was a squatter. It was, he recalled, “the most excruciating week of my life”.
He established a precarious business model: “fiction to keep the poetry, book reviews to keep the fiction, and beyond that an ever-increasing circle of ever dafter jobs to keep the lot – London tour guiding, landscape gardening, voice-overs on Radio 4’s Feedback programme (‘Umbraged of Tunbridge Wells’ was my finest moment)”. His early poetry collections, Year of the Dog (1995) and Midnight in the City of Clocks (1996), were followed by a short story collection, Skin (1997), which won the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award.
His London Zoo tenure – in the footsteps of Ted Hughes, the zoo’s former washer-upper – brought out his showman side. He did popular readings in the Aquarium (Damien Hirst meets Hieronymus Bosch, he called it), scrupulously choosing animal poetry that wasn’t sentimental. “Anything with fur and not-too-sharp teeth seems to get the [sugary] treatment. But luckily there are lots of good poems about fish.”
As the Sunday Telegraph’s rock critic, he reviewed everyone from the Sex Pistols to the Lighthouse Family, displaying a genius for barbed observational comedy. “‘What I worry about is the deer,’ mutters the coach driver as we pass Knebworth gatehouse,” began his review of Oasis’s most famous performance. When he went to see Sting, he wrote: “It’s a bit weird, rock in the Albert Hall. Maybe it’s the Victorian layout – velvety corporate boxes with curtained interiors, standing-room for the starving orphans in the gods. No one is going to be biting the heads off hamsters tonight, that’s for sure. Anyway, Sting’s a vegetarian, isn’t he?”
In 2001, he published his second novel, The Love of Stones, about a woman’s obsession with a famous jewel. He called himself “a very primitive fiction writer. I like stories with stories, and characters who are characters,” but it was precisely his plots and characters that reviewers found flawed, although his verbal dexterity and intellectual heft were never in doubt. The same criticisms resurfaced with his third novel, The Cryptographer (2003), a near-future tale of a Gatsby-like tycoon who has invented “soft money” (eerily presaging bitcoin).
“There is a stark clarity to his writing that can stray, in his prose, into coldness, leaving one feeling dazzled but untouched,” wrote the critic Sarah Crown. “In poetry, however, his scrupulousness heightens the intensity of the emotions he is expressing.” But it was generally agreed that his fiction was arresting, and never less than interesting; it is telling that his most fervent admirers were his fellow novelists – Penelope Lively, AS Byatt, Rachel Cusk, Kamila Shamsie and Adam Mars-Jones.
In 2007, he was poet-in-residence at Eton College, where he made the boys read Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky – but in Romanian, so that all they had was the music of the language. His own favourite word was “dog”. The Latinate canine he thought “a beautiful word, fit for a medieval greyhound in a tapestry,” but he preferred “the spareness of the Anglo-Saxon”. In 2008, he wrote a book for children, The Lion Who Ate Everything, illustrated by Michael Foreman.
His fourth novel, The Hidden (2009), set on an archaeological dig at Sparta, was a mystery with touches of The Magus and The Secret History. Before the publication of his final novel, What Was Promised (2014), he suffered a stroke. Thereafter he concentrated on raising the son he had had in 2012 with his wife Hannah Donat, an artistic director at the Proms, whom he married in 2003.
Hill had a Byronic look, with curly hair; one interviewer described him as “a pirate prince”. Although a charismatic performer, he was anti-social, because, he explained, “Writing is a powerful experience, and over the years, exposure to any source of power will have a deleterious affect on the human body. Scientifically speaking, this is why writers are weird.”
His wife and son survive him.
Tobias Hill, born March 30 1970, died August 26 2023