May 19, 2013 § Leave a comment
When we think of modern Scottish literature it is usually accepted that we are considering writing from the 1970s to the present day. However, there are writers who spoil that neat picture, writers who were being published in the 1950s and 60s and continued to produce new work into the latter decades of the 20th century. Because of this many critics and commentators overlook them as it spoils the straight lines that they like to use to box off Scottish writing into eras. But life isn’t like that, and who would want it to be? Some of the most interesting fiction is to be found messing up the map of Scottish literature.
Robin Jenkins is one of those writers who isn’t an easy fit, and whose level of productivity lead to him being critically overlooked, at least in recent years, but he continued to write novels, and sell well, until his death in 2005. Publishing over thirty novels, from 1951’s ‘So Gaily Sings the Lark’ to 1997’s ‘The Pearl-fishers’, which was published posthumously, Jenkins explored the nature of morality and existence through the personal relationships of his characters.
He was responsible for some of 20th century Scotland’s best fiction. His better known novels include ‘The Cone-Gatherers’, ‘Just Duffy’, ‘Fergus Lamont’, ‘Childish Things’ and ‘Poor Angus’, but the consistent quality that he showed over 50 years is astonishing. His 1958 novel ‘The Changeling’ examines ideas of morality, personal responsibility and the concept of innocence, and does so through the relationship between 13 year old Tom Curdie and his teacher Charlie Forbes, a man whose attempts to help Tom may be more self-serving than he would like to admit.
Charlie sees himself as a modern day ‘good Samaritan’ and decides to express this by taking Tom, who comes from a background of poverty, on holiday with his family ostensibly to give Tom a break from his life, and to show him that life isn’t always tough. With echoes of ‘Pygmalion’, Charlie, with an almost unbelievable naivety, decides this with no real thought of what will happen when Tom has to return to his community, or how this course of action will affect Charlie’s own young family. Jenkins asks the question; does Charlie act in this way to help Tom, or to show to others, his family, friends and workmates, that he is unquestionably a good man? Is it a case of ego disguised as altruism?
As the holiday progresses Charlie slowly begins to realise that he has acted without much thought as Tom’s presence causes his own family to act in a manner that he hadn’t expected, and he finds that Tom isn’t as easy to ‘mould’ as he first envisaged. When Tom’s friends appear on the island that was supposed to isolate the boy from his ain folk, Charlie decides to wash his hands of him in a manner that is callous and childish. But Tom now finds that his time spent with the Forbes family has changed him, and he no longer belongs to his gang, but longs for the company of Gillian, Charlie’s daughter. He is stuck between two worlds and belongs to neither. This lack of identity doesn’t just confuse Tom, it breaks him.
The novel is full of key scenes, but the crux of the enquiry that Jenkins undertakes is to ask what is the motivation behind ‘good’ deeds, and is summed up when Todd, a fellow teacher, tells Charlie that he saw him on Buchanan Street:
‘There was an old fellow with no eyes in his head and a row of medals on his chest. You gave him bags of sympathy, I could see that; but I had the feeling you were pretty displeased with him for sporting medals that he probably never won. It was a complicated business for you getting past him. For me it was easy; I just dropped in twopence. You were noble hearted, I was callous and mercenary. But by God if we’d asked the old chap to choose between us I doubt if he’d have chosen you. We’re all humbugs, Charlie; it comes so natural to us, it seems damned odd you should have to work so hard at it.’
Much of Jenkins fiction is about the nature of morality, about why we feel compelled to act in certain ways. Is an action ever devoid of self interest? As much as we may like to think so it’s hard to argue for certain.
‘The Changeling’ is influenced by Jenkins’ early life. His father died when he was seven and he was raised by his mother with little money around. He won a bursary to Hamilton Academy before studying English at Glasgow University. Later in life he became a secondary school teacher, so it is possible to see Tom and Charlie as two parts of Jenkins own psyche, and one of the reasons ‘The Changeling’ works so well is that the sympathy, or rather the empathy, of the writer seems to move between the two as the book develops. This confusion sometimes makes the story difficult to follow, particularly as the novel draws to a close and Charlie’s daughter Gillian becomes more prominent a character. But this works to the novel’s advantage as the shocking events in the final few pages unfold. I had to re-read the end a few times to fully understand exactly how events occur. Make no mistake, this is a dark novel which will not leave you feeling good, but it will cause you to ask important questions about how you act, and why.
Robin Jenkins is a deceptive writer. His style is apparently straightforward storytelling, and at a time when we are used to all sorts of literary stylistic devices and tricks, many of which are completely superfluous, his prose may seem old fashioned. To think that would be a mistake. ‘The Changeling’, as with many of his novels, has a third-person narrative that allows the focus of the story, and the perspective of the characters, to shift, which means that the reader has as balanced a point of view as possible. Jenkins’ exploration into the human condition is as insightful and illuminating as that of Kelman, Kennedy, Galloway or Gray. For a while, particularly in the 50s, 60s and early 70s, his novels challenged readers to consider their own moral certainties better than any other Scottish writer of the time. The fact that his fiction dealt with subjects that are universal helps to explain why he was so successful outside of Scotland and why he remains relevant today.
Next Month’s Novel: Novels about bands can be hit and miss. There are so many rock n’ roll clichés to begin with that a novel has to deal with them with care to avoid becoming formulaic, and after ‘Spinal Tap’ it is difficult to take the actions of bands in fiction entirely seriously. In his novel ‘The Ossians’, Doug Johnstone’s way of overcoming this is to go dark, and have the structure of a band as the backdrop to one man’s breakdown.
As with all of Johnstone’s novels the action goes at a fair lick, and there is sex, drugs and the senseless killing of seagulls to accompany the rock n’ roll. ‘The Ossians’ is a must read for anyone who has ever been in or around bands. Some of the behaviour may seem excessive, but there is an undeniable truth at the heart of the novel. Making music, and all that accompanies it, may distract you from life, but you can’t avoid it forever.
- Doug Johnstone The Ossians (Jul)
- Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam.(Aug)
- Alan Spence Way To Go (Sept)
- A.L. Kennedy Paradise (Oct)
- Alice Thompson The Existential Detective (Nov)