Brian Hamill’s love for literature was only surpassed by his love for people, and his burning desire to bring the two together. A champion of writing, no matter when or where it was written or who wrote it, it’s not an exaggeration to say his was an obsession. He once stated in an interview, “I am a machine programmed to purchase books. It is a vice, and I cannot stop.” In conversation he was always enthusiastic about his next project or publication, often ending a lengthy and detailed message along the lines of, “Expect a wee literary treat in the post.”, exemplifying his generosity, thoughtfulness, and passion.
From his time as a member of Cargo Publishing in the early 2010s (which is where I first met him) through his vital work with Thi Wurd magazine which he co-founded with Alan McMunnigall, to the outstanding undertaking that is The Common Breath, Brian was at the coalface of Scottish publishing. However, publishing and promoting others went hand-in-hand with his own writing (he won the Scottish Book Trust New Writer Award for Writing in the Scots Language in 2013). He was published regularly in various journals and collections – including some of his own – and he held his own no matter the company. Perhaps the best example of this was the short story collection Good Listeners, the debut Common Breath title he shared with his mentor and friend Alan Warner.
We should never, and nor will we, underestimate Brian’s work with The Common Breath. Created over a relatively short time it stands as a substantial and essential body of work, publishing the aforementioned Alan Warner, Tom Leonard (from whose work The Common Breath got its name) and A.L. Kennedy. The short prose anthology The Middle of a Sentence features work by literary luminaries Duncan McLean, Janice Galloway, Bernard MacLaverty, Jenni Fagan, and James Kelman, alongside more recent acclaimed names (such as David Keenan and Graeme Armstrong), as well as, crucially, many new and up-and-coming writers - too many to name here, but who we will undoubtedly come to know better.
He understood that for a nation to have a literature worth the name then all voices must be heard, which is why The Common Breath’s ‘Voices In the Dark’ pamphlets were the logical next step. Brian described them to me as “[…] an attempt to find just that – writers we perhaps didn’t know as yet, people writing loud, dark, and different work, and looking for a breakthrough opportunity, so I figured letting people have their own individual pamphlet publication would achieve this [...]”. He went on to say, that, central to the ethos of The Common Breath was, “Finding and promoting and showcasing new and marginalised writing." Having been lucky enough to read some of the ‘Voices In the Dark’, I can confirm they fulfil those criteria and more.
But Brian’s love of literature was never going to be confined to the local or national, he was a true internationalist in this respect, publishing writers from around the world, and championing the cause of ‘forgotten classics’ such as American Tom Kromer’s Waiting for Nothing and New Zealander Frank Sargeson’s All To Blazes. He wanted a cultural conversation which had no boundaries, and which benefited us all as a result.
Brian Hamill was central to much of what was good in Scottish writing over the last decade and more – his expertise, rigour, knowledge and intelligence (which he wore lightly despite his many achievements) made sure of that. But, when talking to and reading from those who knew him, other words keep occurring – supportive, considerate, generous, enthusiastic, gentle, and, above all, kind. We have lost one of the very best of us, but Brian Hamill lives on in the books he brought to the world, and the people whose lives he touched. He leaves an inspirational legacy that is twofold – one of literature and love.
* A version of this tribute first appeared in SNACK Magazine.