Archive for the ‘Robin Jenkins’ Category

The Changeling

May 22, 2013


Teachers play an unusually prominent role in Scottish fiction. Jean Brodie is, of course, the archetype, but many other novels feature a ‘dominie’ as a central character. This is perhaps partly the natural consequence of so many Scottish writers being teachers, including Robin Jenkins. He began his teaching career in Glasgow’s east end in the 1950s, a setting not unlike that of The Changeling, which remains his best known novel after The Cone Gatherers.

The plot of The Changeling has dated somewhat, though the issues it raises have not. Charlie Forbes decides to take a promising pupil from a poor background, Tom Curdie, on holiday with his family. Nowadays they would find themselves the subject of a nationwide manhunt, but in those more trusting times we have to take Jenkins word for it that this, while unlikely, was not impossible. (Curdie’s family do appear at the end in an attempt to blackmail Forbes with hints of paedophilia, but only to demonstrate their own baseness).

Forbes is a man who wants to do good – he is, to quote the title of another of Jenkins’ novels, a would-be saint. He is not, however, presented as a heroic figure – Jenkins intends to make us aware that doing good is more complex than it might at first appear. Look at this early description of his feelings for Tom:

“With his leer of sympathy he contemplated this small, smiling, incommunicable, deprived morsel of humanity.”

‘Leer’ is Jenkins’, suggesting Forbes’ sympathy is not entirely genuine, and that he may be taking some pleasure in it; ‘morsel of humanity’ is Forbes, reducing Tom to what he represents. Forbes himself doubts his motivation:

“Without doubt, at the very back of his mind form the very beginning had been the hope that his befriending of this slum delinquent child might reach the ears of authority.”

Is it ever possible, Jenkins questions, to commit a selfless act?

Just as we can never quite pin down Forbes – well-meaning innocent or destructive meddler? – so too our impression of Tom is changeable. At one point he wants revenge on Forbes for his pity – “It would pay Forbes back.” When he breaks into the school he is careful to steal from Forbes’ classroom – if he didn’t it “would be like admitting he was grateful.” However, we also see his kindness to his younger brother. And how should we feel when on holiday he shoplifts despite having been given money to buy – is he simply reminding himself of who he is?

Predictably, like a changeling, Tom causes upset in the Forbes’ family. Often it is his good behaviour which draws unwelcome comparison with Forbes’ own children. One revealing scene occurs when they come across a rabbit suffering from myxomatosis. Forbes knows the humane action is to kill it but his attempt fails and he cannot bring himself to do more. It is Tom who has to end the rabbit’s life, only to suffer Forbes’ daughter’s critical eye:

“He did not seem at all conscience-stricken, either for killing the rabbit or just for seeing it.”

The scene demonstrates the moral complexities of the novel: Forbes wants to do right but cannot whole-heartedly (in merely hurting the rabbit he makes things worse); Tom does right but is suspect for his lack of emotional response.

Tom is an experiment in the nature / nurture debate, Forbes believes that by removing Tom from his environment he can change his nature. When his wife complains that Tom is a thief, he replies:

“Because of corrupting influences, surely. It’s those influences I hope to save him from.”

Slowly, painfully, the time away begins to change Tom – at one point he calls himself ‘Tom Forbes’ – but, as Jenkins realises , the problem with holidays is that you eventually have to go home. Is it fair to give Tom a glimpse of happiness and then take it away? The novel ends, like The Cone Gatherers, rather melodramatically, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that the questions it asks are as relevant today as ever.

Lost Books – The Holy Tree

June 24, 2012

Though largely unregarded in the rest of the UK, Robin Jenkins remains valued in Scotland thanks, at least in part, to the continued presence of The Cone-Gatherers, his novel of conscientious objectors harvesting cones in the forests of aristocratic Christian Lady Runcie-Campbell during World War Two, in classrooms. (A stage adaptation is due later this year). Another novel of Scotland, The Changeling, about a young boy from the slums who is befriended by a teacher who feels he has potential, is also taught (though whether either remain so after the Scottish Qualifications Agency publish their list of set Scottish texts remains to be seen). Among readers, Jenkins is a novelist where acquaintance often leads to love, and this has kept many of his novels in print from Scottish publishers such as Canongate and Polygon. A few, however, have never been reprinted (a couple of years ago I posted about A Toast to the Lord), largely those set outside Scotland. As was the way in those days, Jenkins spent the first twenty years of his writing career publishing novels while also working at a ‘proper’ job as a teacher, first of all in Scotland then later in Afghanistan, Spain and Borneo. A fictionalised version of Borneo became the setting for a number of his novels, The Holy Tree among them.

Much of Jenkins work- The Changeling and The Cone-Gatherers included – is concerned with issues of class and morality, and The Holy Tree is no exception. The novel’s main character, Michael Eking, is a nineteen year old who has recently graduated from Primary school with the hope of going onto College. The Primary school’s headmaster, Mr Chin, has reduced Eking’s marks to prevent this happening, largely because of Eking’s origins:

“His family were jungle-kampong folk, poorer than church mice, for the latter had a decent shelter over their heads.”

The discrimination is also racial with Malayan society being rigidly hierarchical, with the British at the summit, the Chinese midway, and the native Dusuns (of which Eking is one) stranded at the bottom. The morality of the situation, then, seems initially very clear-cut: we know who to root for and who to boo when they appear on-page. However, right and wrong are more complex issues where Jenkins is concerned. He is, first of all, a master at the unfashionable omniscient narrative, moving from character to character, revealing both their choices and why they make them. Mr Chin is not only convinced that “so dangerous a pagan should not be rewarded by a Christian school,” but he correctly recognises Michael’s flaw:

“Eking’s desire for self-improvement…was a hunger, a greed, an obsession.”

It is this that will cause Michael to betray his own brother, a wanted man having fallen in with the leader of a failed Dusun revolution, in order to be granted the education he desires, forgoing any monetary reward:

“That is what I want, sir: a place in Api College. The money I shall give to the Principal to buy books for the library.”

Some characters approve of Michael’s choice; others find it abhorrent. Much is made of whether he is a ‘Judas’ (religion is never far from the surface in Jenkins work, and the professed Christianity of characters is often tested). It is into this web of moral complexity that the reader is forced and frequently tangled: it would take a certain sense of conviction (of which I can’t help but think Jenkins would disapprove) to be able to easily decide right from wrong in this novel.

If that were all, it would be enough, but Jenkins also raises political questions relating to both revolution and colonialism, and sex (more common in his foreign novels than his Scottish ones – it must be the climate) is also thrown into the moral mix. If you’re looking to discover and undiscovered writer, then Robin Jenkins would be a good place to start.

A Toast to the Lord

October 4, 2010

Probably every country has a writer admired within its borders but little known outside. Often this is because, whatever their talent, their concerns appear, at least superficially, localised. Robin Jenkins certainly has a strong claim to be Scotland’s entry in this particular category. Despite being loved and respected by a wide range of readers within the country, he has almost no profile outside Scotland, and those of his novels in print tend to be published by Scottish imprints. Most of his novels are set in his homeland, and those set abroad invariably feature a Scottish protagonist, but this is true of most novelists. It is Jenkins’ focus on religion, and its often peculiar Scottish off-shoots, which has most likely prevented him reaching a wider audience. This is a shame as Jenkins is not only concerned with faith, but with morality, and, in particular, what makes a good man or woman (it’s no accident that one novel is titled A Would-Be Saint).

A Toast to the Lord is one of six novels never to have been reprinted – and second-hand copies can be hard to find, this being only the third time I have managed to acquire one. It’s easy to see why it has not been at the top of the reprint list (Polygon have been particularly good at bringing his work back into print over the last few years): the focus on religion is especially strong (almost all the main characters practise their different, and competing, versions of Christianity) and it is set against the background of an American nuclear submarine base, an issue that does not excite people in the way it once did. Jenkins explores the morality of his characters in response to the base or to the American sailor Luke Dilworth. Ann Plenderleith, the minister’s daughter, regards the base as evil and greets Luke with the words:

“You are here in the service of the Devil.”

before slapping his face. Her sister’s friend, Agnes, sees Luke quite differently, as the answer to her prayers:

“He was not like other men. The difference was that the Lord was at work in him: he saw her as beautiful.”

Where Ann sees evil everywhere she looks, something which eventually causes her to have a nervous breakdown, Agnes sees good, because she regards events as God’s will, something which gives her enormous strength, but also leads her to pursue a relationship with Luke even when it is clear that he does not love her. Agnes is one of a long line of ‘justified sinners’, her particular weakness being sexual. Her first sight of Luke immediately leads her to imagine him as a lover:

“Her breast itched. She gasped. This had happened before when she had seen a man she fancied, but never so violently as now.”

Later, she all but forces Luke to sleep with her:

“She was like one possessed or under divine goadings. Up she pushed the window, in she scrambled, off came her clothes and she was down to only stockings and bra before Luke, with one weak yelp of astonishment, groped for the switch of the bed-lamp and found it.”

Though his narrative style can often seem blunt, Jenkins’ characters are complex, and Agnes is also presented to us as an excellent teacher who brings happiness to her pupils and is admired by her headmistress. Other characters are as confused in their reaction to Agnes as the reader, not knowing whether to pity her, be irritated by her “smug holy smile”, or admire her unbreakable faith.

Between Ann and Agnes, Jenkins places a number of other religious characters, including their fathers. Ann’s father is a Church of Scotland minister, conservative and compromised in his beliefs. He will not speak against the base but also rejects the best bedroom in the manse as it has a view of it. Agnes’ father has founded his own church, but this brings him no happiness and prevents his wife from seeking the medical attention she needs. Of course they live in a society where religion is still important, more important than it probably was in most of Scotland even in 1972 when the novel was published. However, though superficially dated, what Jenkins is expert at presenting is the complexity of moral choices.

As with many of his novels, A Toast to the Lord also contains a central child character, Tommy Springburn, an orphan whose surname comes from the area where he was found. Both Ann and then Agnes befriend and attempt to help him. Towards the end of the novel he goes missing, but this plot line is quickly superseded by more dramatic events. However, this is exactly Jenkins’ intention: the reader’s attention, like that of the characters, wanders from Tommy, who never said much anyway, and whose thoughts we are, unusually, not allowed access to, and it is not until months later that his body is found. Agnes’ headmistress highlights Jenkins’ point:

“Soaked, exhausted, hungry, feet blistered and back sore, as he walked past he must have noticed the light in her window….On the long walk from Ardhallow he must have past many doors, but it was her share of the failure that concerned her.”

This, and not the weapons of mass destruction, seems to be Jenkins true test of humanity, and one that the village fails. Cleverly, it is not that no-one wants to help Tommy; it is simply that he is allowed to be forgotten. In tackling such basic human issues related to what we belief and how this makes us act, Jenkins is a writer who should not be forgotten.