All the Little Animals, Walker Hamilton
Introduction by Alan Warner
Freight Books, £7.99
This week Glasgow-based Freight Books published the slim novella All the Little Animals. But there will be no author readings or signings. That’s because Scottish author Walker Hamilton died in February 1969 of a heart attack. He was thirty-four.
His is a story of hardship. The son of a coal miner, Hamilton was born in Airdrie in 1934. He left school at fifteen and joined the National Service but was let go due to poor health. In 1960 he married Dorothy and they lived as crop-pickers in Cornwall, in a wooden farm cottage which can still be rented out today. Hamilton published All the Little Animals in 1967 and a second novel A Dragon’s Life was released posthumously in 1970.
Though All the Little Animals was made into a film in 1997 featuring John Hurt and Christian Bale, the author and his books have been woefully neglected. As Alan Warner states in his indignant introduction: “The novel remains unmentioned in all the current literary ‘histories’, demonstrating that familiar and destructive inaccuracy as canons are simply engineered from the canons which came before them, rather than from wider reading”.
It’s puzzling that this vibrant novella – full of Scottish literature’s archetypal themes such as urban violence, male camaraderie and the narrator’s quest for acceptance – has slipped through the net. The book opens with the wistful voice of Bobby Platt, a thirty-one year old man with learning difficulties due to a childhood car crash. He ran away from his privileged home in London to escape his stepfather, known as the Fat. Bobby hitches his way to Cornwall where he encounters Mr. Summers, a small man who restores dignity to roadkill. When a car crash occurs in both of their sights, Bobby watches in awe as Mr. Summers attends to the dead rabbit first. Summer explains: ‘Be quiet, boy. You only help good people. That man was a bad man. He killed this rabbit. ‘
What follows is a common theme in many stories. Two vulnerable and mistreated souls band together for collective strength and identity. Bobby and Mr. Summers traverse the fields of Cornwall, drinking tea and burying whatever little animals they can find. Until one day Bobby’s safe future with Mr. Summers is threatened and the duo realise that they must conquer their pasts by destroying those who have hurt them.
The parallels of this novella to American literature are worth noting. First, the narrator’s moniker of Bobby, an iconic name in 60s and 70s America due, in part, to chess whiz Bobby Fischer and the politician Robert Kennedy. Second, the novel’s thematic connections to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, published almost thirty years earlier and titled after Robert Burns’ poem, soon become apparent. Bobby’s love of cuddly rabbits mirrors kind-hearted Lennie’s own obsession. These gentle men-children, both of whom struggle to control their strength, also rely on the wits of their companions, Mr. Summers and George Milton. Frequently repeated words and phrases such as ‘kid’ and ‘y’know’ and ‘you’ll never guess’ steer us closer to the Atlantic than Cornwall.
Freight should be commended for bringing this darkly enigmatic work back into contemporary view. Unlike the little animals, the novella has stayed buried for far too long.