Invisible Ink: No 157 - Walker Hamilton


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The Independent Culture

In past columns I've featured prolific authors such as Edgar Wallace, whose output ran to thousands of pages. Here we have someone whose sole claim to fame lies in a single, slim volume. Walker Hamilton was Scottish, born in Airdrie in 1934, and his is not a happy story.

The son of a coal miner, he left school at 15 to join the RAF, but was too sickly to last there and headed for Cornwall, where he married Dorothy, and the couple survived by picking crops – hard seasonal work.

It doesn't seem a likely background for a budding writer, but in 1968 he published his first novel, All The Little Animals, a spare, lean and rather peculiar fable about roadkill, running away, the land, identity and friendship. Its hero, Bobby, survived a car crash but was left with slow wits. He ran away from his hateful stepfather Fat, who killed his pets and his mother by "shouting her to death", and came to Cornwall, where he meets a strange older man, Summers, who is obsessed with burying run-over animals and wants to protect them all from humans. The pair set about interring the dead creatures to provide them with some dignity, and Bobby comes to share the world view of his mentor. They go on a guerilla raid to free some butterflies, but Bobby's stepfather returns and the tale darkens as revenge is taken.

All The Little Animals feels Steinbeckian at times, with the rugged Cornish landscape sharing common territory with America's west coast. It's about a pair of child-men but is not a children's entertainment, and as a book it felt cursed. Despite glowing commendations from Roald Dahl, The Times and The Daily Telegraph when it was first published, it failed to find an audience. A few months after it was published Hamilton wrote another novel, A Dragon's Life, but on the day he completed it he suddenly died, succumbing to heart failure brought on by blood poisoning contracted in the RAF. He was 34.

To add to the tragedy, All The Little Animals was turned into a film starring Christian Bale and John Hurt, directed by the renowned producer Jeremy Thomas, for whom the book had become an obsession. I attended a screening of this angry parable but could see that it would be a tough sell to modern audiences. It failed, and Hamilton was utterly forgotten until Freight Books recently republished the book.