I only knew the man in fragments. A fellow Glasgwegian publisher whose books seemed to appear one day in a quick flash of excitement, they included a reissue of Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing, an original account of hunger and homelessness in the 1930s, and a volume by poet Tom Leonard.
In a recent interview for industry magazine, The Bookseller, about our city’s indie spirit, Brian summed up his publishing approach: “I love the ethos of doing it yourself because nobody else is doing it in quite the way you want it, or quite the way you think it should be done. Don’t bother conforming to the literary ideals of others, no kowtowing or complaining, just do it all yourself instead, and folk will get on board.” And folk did.
The joy of a small press, without suits pushing for profit and pumping out celebrity bookclub blockbusters, is that they often publish the good stuff: innovative, experimental, playful and raw work where writers can take a chance.
The Common Breath provided a home for short-form fiction, stories, and poetry. Our last correspondence, just a few weeks ago, was about a series of pamphlets by up-and-coming Scottish writers he was due to publish this autumn. It takes passion to drive this kind of publishing, and Brian’s editorship was marked by a welcoming, spirited curiosity that others gravitated towards.
Recently published anthology The Middle of a Sentence, titled after a line by Gogol, asks whether the reader can be as absorbed in short-form fiction as long novels.
Introducing the book, Brian wrote about changing his mind from scepticism to deep appreciation – finding pieces “where your heart is pounding, hands are shaking, and you are consumed so completely by what is taking place on the page” – provided they are “read with the same reverence, the same intensity of focus”.
These are the words of someone with ambitious intellectual standards, but a core of deep respect for what other writers were striving towards. His small press, in its short existence, with its open-hearted artistic energy, has been a gust of fresh air.
In that introduction, written in November, he concluded: “As writers, and as readers, we are always in the middle of one of these sentences, caught in the artistic moment and looking for its next movement, the following clause, because our story is always ongoing. The writing and the reading are never-ending. As my friend Stuart Murray says […], our endeavour in art is ‘one continual work in progress with no end in sight’. And so it is.”
On my desk, scattered with post I haven’t yet put away, lie some Common Breath books he sent me a couple of months ago. A note tucked inside one reads “a wee literary gift for you!”
It sums up how I’ll remember Brian Hamill who I only wish I’d known better and longer. Generous, kind-spirited, sending out sparks of inspiration and working to spread the word of good literature.