Fiction – paperback; Polygon; 191 pages; 2005.
The late Robin Jenkins is a Scottish author, best known for his 1955 novel The Cone Gatherers. But up until last November I had never heard of him. It was only while browsing in Waterstone’s in Edinburgh that I chanced upon A Very Scotch Affair, first published in 1968, and liked the sound of the plot — a man stuck in a miserable marriage decides to leave his wife even though she’s been diagnosed with cancer — and bought it on the spot.
Now, having read it, and laughed along with it, been angered by it, and wept over it, I want to rush out and buy all of Jenkins’ back catalogue, which supposedly runs to 30 works of fiction, although not all of them remain in print. If A Very Scotch Affair is indicative of his talent, then the man surely is a genius. In fact, the late Scottish nationalist Sir Compton Mackenzie described him as the “most outstanding novelist that Scotland has produced since the war” and even BBC journalist Andrew Marr has weighed in with this claim on the blurb: “If you are interested in books that are humane and wise, not slick and cynical, then treat yourself this year to some Robin Jenkins”.
The book is set in Glasgow in the 1960s. It feels profoundly Scottish, not just because of the strong sense of place but by several of the characters who speak in dialect.
It opens on a dark, snowy January afternoon, and Mungo Niven, an insurance collector with a socialist streak, is in a tearoom with his lover, Myra, discussing their adulterous relationship and the possibility of running away to Spain. But there’s something holding Mungo back, despite the fact he clearly detests his wife of 24 years, Bess, whom he describes as “fat, gluttonous, unimaginative, and, in the dark, lecherous”.
“As I’ve said before, Mungo, your wife degrades you.”
Yes, it was true, Bess did degrade him, wilfully. All their married life she, who never read a book herself, had sought to stultify his every intellectual ambition.
“Your children will go their own ways soon enough. Why sacrifice yourself any longer on their account? They certainly won’t thank you for it. Yes, Mungo, the time’s come when you must escape.”
And so, by the time Mungo returns to his dingy little house in Minden Street that he shares with Bess and their children — university student Andrew, 20; sixth-former Peggy, 18; and Billy, 11 — he’s made up his mind to leave that very night. Even when Peggy reveals that Bess is not well, that she’s been complaining about a severe pain in her stomach, he’s still plotting his escape route.
It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without revealing crucial spoilers, but let’s just say it explores how Mungo’s decision affects everyone in his immediate family.
However, there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Jenkins offers a drip feed of information, slowly revealing the strengths and weakness of all his characters, so nothing is ever black and white. This makes it difficult to form judgements about who is in the wrong and who is in the right. Should Mungo, and his strong conscience and weak willed desire, be condemned for his decision? Is Bess to blame for their seemingly one-sided marriage? Where do the children fit in, particularly Andrew who has his own relationship problems with which to contend? And what of Bess’s loyal siblings, and her friend, Florence McTaggart, who is so bitterly opposed to Mungo that she petitions everyone in the neighbourhood to cast him out as a villian?
This is a wonderfully realistic exploration of the far-reaching consequences of a private scandal made public. That Mungo has dreams far beyond his upbringing in a Glasgow ghetto and waits so long to put anything into action speaks volumes. That his overweight, over-cheerful wife does everything to keep him in the dull domesticity to which he’s become accustomed also says much about her character.
Jenkins writes all this with a lightness of touch, even though much of the subject matter is as dark and depressing as the city and the time in which the book is set. He has an uncanny ability to make even the blackest situations quite comic. There’s a wicked streak of humour running throughout the entire story that made me laugh and wince at the same time.
A Very Scotch Affair is a tragicomedy about love, betrayal, conscience and desire. It was my first Robin Jenkins novel; it won’t be my last.