2006, Eliot, From the Diaries of Henry Morgan Summer 1653, Henry Morgan, London, Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow, Olympic Games, pirate, Salt, Salt Publishing, The Waste Land, To a Boy on the Underground, Tobias Hill
Forget Eliot’s crowd of commuters flowing over London Bridge. Today’s city can provide an intense rush hour experience at any time of day or night and especially in this Olympic summer, when the people on London’s streets and in her tube network will cease to be individuals. Our bodies will flow, like traffic, like water, as their press distributes us through stations and carriages. We will feel one another’s warmth and we will smell perfumes: both sweet and rank.
This is the kind of city that Tobias Hill celebrates in Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow. The collection opens with a verse treatment of the diary of Henry Morgan, arriving in the capital in the summer of 1653 in the company of John Twentyman. Twentyman is characterised as every inch the puritan (and ironically, therefore, the person most likely to fit into an historically staunchly Puritan capital). He is ‘prudish in all he said, remarking / that the country life is much to be preferred, / there being works of God there, and herein / nothing that has not been touched / into its present form by the hands of men’. In contrast, Morgan revels in the delights of the metropolis, where he says his ‘nights have been / as nights spent in the company of lovers’. The city is ravishing and sensuous. No matter what you are looking for, no matter how exotic: the City of London can provide. As the poem concludes, Morgan is furnished with ‘a brace of snaphaunce’ (pistols) and ‘a sword all out of Damascene’. Snaphaunce is a word of Dutch, or Flemish origin and blades traced with Damask patterns were imported from Damascus. So, in Hill’s opening poem, his London is a multi-cultural confluence, where anything can be bought and sold and, given that Henry Morgan became a celebrated pirate (think Morgan’s rum), perhaps Hill is implying that London was the making of him.
Hill takes the sensory overload of this keynote poem, and delivers virtuoso variations on a theme throughout the rest of the collection, arguing that little of London’s character has changed since. In To a Boy on the Underground ‘The laptop cauls your face with light, / unflattering and glutinous. / The iPod plugs your ears with ambient noise. / If only you would disconnect // you’d see the Underground’s dark tract / unearthed’. There’s a lot to love here, as any journey on British public transport reveals faces shackled to the social media, as the real world slips past. The light cast by our new digital friends is an unhealthy one: the social and cultural equivalent of fast food. The first stanza concludes with a brilliant, ironic reversal of E.M. Forster’s epigraph to Howard’s End: ‘Only connect’.
The tube train uncoils into London’s bright summer light and Hill assaults the senses, as people lean out of windows ‘one dangling a cigarette, / one seeming to be savouring the smells / of pizza ovens, Peking duck and piss, / the air half-edible and wholly foul’ (great pun here too). If you have ever walked through Soho on a summer’s evening, then you know and probably love this overpowering, crazy blend of odours.
Without pause for breath, Hill’s collection then runs into a twenty-first century London diary, a partner piece to Morgan’s. His poems pulse with the sights, smells and sounds of London life. In the likes of Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral, Richard Curtis‘s manicured repackaging of our great, patchwork capital city feels more like an export: the cinematic equivalent of a postcard of Wills and Kate. Hill, on the other hand, gives us the living, breathing heart of a magnificent capital. If you haven’t got tickets for the Olympic Games in a few weeks, read Tobias Hill’s Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow: he’ll put you right there.