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Back to school: A visit to Hampstead School

Poet and novelist Tobias Hill and rapper Doc Brown visit their old school
  • @chloehamilton

Award-winning British poet and novelist Tobias Hill yesterday encouraged students at his old school in Hampstead to “be imaginative with their lives”.

Hill, who returned to Hampstead School in London as part of a ‘Back to School’ alumni event facilitated by Future First, encouraged students to look beyond the world of nine-to-five jobs and to ‘invest’ their lives in what they love doing.

He revealed a residency at a private school had encouraged him to visit his old comprehensive school to share his experiences and advise students on potential careers.

“I don’t think I received any career advice at school,” said Hill, who has since become well-known for his novels The Hidden (2009), The Cryptographer (2003), and The Love of Stones (2001). “Getting my first poem published was my turning point and I realised it might be possible to devote myself to what I loved doing – making up tall tales!”

Joining him at the event was rapper, comedian and fellow Hampstead School alumnus Doc Brown (real name, Ben Bailey Smith), whose sister, writer Zadie Smith, also attended the school.

He said: “It was refreshing and interesting to share the knowledge with them and see their eyes light up when they learned how complex some elements of my job are.”

Brown, whose career has seen him perform with the Black Eyed Peas, Mark Ronson, and Lily Allen, said he took a multiple-choice careers quiz when at the school which suggested he become a roofer.

“I wanted to perform, write, create, and goof around in public,” he said. “You can’t judge a kid using multiple-choice!”

The performer also joked about the drawbacks of having a high-achieving sister. 

“It was especially difficult coming behind my sister who was a huge academic and a hero at this school,” he said. “I remember getting in trouble for smoking or being late. I went to the Head’s office and there was a framed picture of my sister with the speaker of the House of Commons!”

Brown put his sister’s success down to her state education.

“My sister’s first book became a global success. How is that possible?” he said. “It’s more than possible because she fraternised with everyone. She had so many points of reference. School is the first bit of research in life and she got to know so many different types of people.”

Both ex-students praised state education, with Hill applauding the “vitality” of his comprehensive school.

“It was comprehensive with a small c,” he said. “It was great for meeting people. The breadth and the reach of society, that’s really valuable, that’s really important.”