OFTEN those who love books dream of finding a forgotten classic. In April this year an unpublished Kurt Vonnegut novella, Basic Training, leapt to the top of the e-book charts when it was released.
In July, Dr Gerri Kimber, a 23-year-old researcher from Northampton, made national news after discovering previously unknown and revealing stories by the New Zealand writer, Katherine Mansfield.
My own big “discovery” isn’t really mine at all, but that of the recently Booker long-listed novelist, Alan Warner, whose latest work, Dead Man’s Pedal, has been receiving ecstatic reviews. In 2010 we were discussing my plans to start a new publishing imprint, Freight Books, as an extension of Gutter, the literary magazine I co-edit and that Alan supports as a member of its editorial board. Knowing that he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Scottish literature, I asked if there were any forgotten Scottish novels he could recommend for one strand of the new list. Without hesitation he named the wonderful, woefully neglected All the Little Animals by Walker Hamilton.
Alan found it by chance in a secondhand bookshop years ago, drawn to the unusual and captivating cover on the original edition, first published in 1968. It shows an old man staring out at the reader while beside him a young boy bends to pick up a dead rabbit with a trowel. Intrigued, Alan noticed that its author had been born and brought up in Airdrie. Having never heard of the book before, nor of Hamilton, he immediately bought it.
All the Little Animals is the story of Bobby, a 31-year-old man with the emotional development of a ten- year-old boy, the result of a childhood car accident that killed his father. After the death of his mother, he runs away from a privileged but abusive life with his stepfather in London to Cornwall, where fate draws him to Mister Summers, a strange little old man who has inexplicably dedicated his life to burying roadkill. Bobby finds his true calling and the pair embarks on an idyllic but all-too-brief life together before the past catches up with shattering consequences.
On the surface, All the Little Animals is a beguiling adult fable that reads almost like a fairy story. But beneath its pastoral surface lies a brutal darkness that reaches its nadir in the book’s violent dénoument. With much of that violence coming from the encroachment of modernity on a more innocent world, in the form of cars and lorries, Alan Warner draws comparisons in the book’s foreword with the autogeddon obsessions of JG Ballard, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and another post-war classic, The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins.
Having tracked down a rare copy of the book, I immediately fell in love with it. As I researched, trying to find out why it had been completely erased from Scottish literary consciousness, the story of All the Little Animals grew stranger. Tragically Walker Hamilton died in 1969 aged 34, only six months after it had been first published to great acclaim, its admirers including one Roald Dahl. I phoned the Scottish literature departments in all our main universities, but no-one had ever heard of it. I then discovered All the Little Animals had been made into a film in 1998, starring Christian Bale and John Hurt, but had flopped spectacularly, failing to even be distributed beyond a tiny number of cinemas in Britain and United States.
When Hamilton died he was survived by his wife, Dorothy. I found Hamilton’s birth certificate, which reveals his father’s occupation as coal miner, his marriage certificate and his death certificate, which confirms the cause of death as heart failure, but no trace whatsoever of Dorothy, whom I needed to find to ask permission to republish. I assumed she must have died too. His biography in All the Little Animals states Hamilton left school at 15 and served in the RAF before being discharged on medical grounds.
Eventually I contacted the original publishers and agreed a deal to republish. They confirmed they had lost touch with Dorothy Hamilton in the late 1990s. I commissioned the artist Seb Howell to illustrate each of the book’s eight chapters with drawings of dead animals. Then, out of the blue, a few weeks ago I received a phone call. The quietly spoken woman at the end of the line introduced herself as Dorothy Hamilton.
In turned out she had been hiding “in plain sight” – she is the published author of several walking guides to Wales where she now lives, but clearly values her privacy. With some coaxing, she told me in detail about her life with Walker, which itself sounded as idyllic and as brief as that enjoyed by Bobby and Mister Summers. In fact, she had unwittingly provided the original inspiration for the book. On a country walk with her husband, she had stopped to scoop a dead bird from the road and place it carefully on the verge. “He got a look in his eyes,” she said. “He didn’t talk much on the way home but then started work on the novel straight way. He always said that at was at the moment he got the idea.”
She also told me the circumstances surrounding her husband’s untimely death. Compounding the tragedy, he died the very day he finished the manuscript for A Dragon’s Life, his second novel, published posthumously in 1970. He had contracted blood poisoning in the RAF which had weakened his heart. “He would never go to the doctors about it,” she said. “Then the day he finished the second book, after dinner, he collapsed and died.”
Walker Hamilton’s early death is clearly one of the reasons All the Little Animals has been forgotten. The fact that the book is set in the south of England is probably another factor in why in Scotland Walker Hamilton has remained completely unknown.
Alan Warner concludes his foreword by saying, “All the Little Animals inevitably carries the tragedy of its author’s early death with it, and the sadness of all the promise which was spread out before him; but we are lucky enough to be left with this little novel and its fragile air of damaged innocence. Unjustly neglected, we can wonder once again at its dreamlike oscillations, its terror of human violence and its huge compassion for the pain of the natural world and all the precious and living things gathered around us.”
While the chances of any of us uncovering a lost literary masterpiece ourselves in an attic, archive or dusty bookshop are slim to say the least, we can, as I have done, discover and enjoy this unjustly neglected book as a reader. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to give All the Little Animals the chance to achieve its proper status in its author’s homeland, that of a Scottish literary classic that all should enjoy.
• Adrian Searle is co-editor of Gutter magazine and publisher of Freight Books. All the Little Animals by Walker Hamilton is published by Freight, priced £7.99.