Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Robin Jenkins, Scotland, Setting

‘The Changeling’ by Robin Jenkins


Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 240 pages; 2008.

Robin JenkinsThe Changeling, which was first published in 1958, is a remarkably powerful tale about the class divide — and one man’s attempts to bridge the gap and help someone less fortunate than himself.

That man is Charlie Forbes, a teacher — repeatedly overlooked for promotion — who strives always to see the good in his students, even if they may have bad reputations.

Thirteen-year-old Tom Curdie is one of those students. A product of the Glasgow slums, he is on probation for theft. His headmaster has labelled him as “deep and sly”, another says he’s “a practiced liar”, most regard him as having been “born wicked”, but Forbes recognises the boy’s intelligence and thinks he deserves a second chance. He hits upon the idea to take Tom on holiday with him, and informs his boss of his plans.

“I propose to take Tom Curdie with my family to Towellan this summer. It seems to me the experience might give the boy some support in the battle which he has constantly to wage against corruption.”

He is warned against the idea and told it is foolish, that his holiday will be ruined, but Forbes goes ahead regardless. His wife reluctantly agrees, and so the Forbes’ — Charlie, Mary, their two children, Gillian and Alistair, and Charlie’s mother-in-law, Mrs Storrocks — take Tom with them to the cottage in the countryside they stay in every summer. It’s perhaps telling that from the outset Tom is forced to sleep in a hut in the garden, because there’s not enough room for him indoors, though Tom doesn’t seem to mind.

But everyone else is on edge. Forbes constantly bickers with his wife, while Mrs Storrocks never keeps her (often prejudiced) thoughts to herself. Gillian, in particular, takes such a strong dislike to Tom she decides to spy on his every move, which leads to a shocking discovery that puts the whole holiday into doubt. There is talk of sending Tom back to whence he came, but Forbes is loath to end his social “experiment”…

A story about being good — and doing good

The Changeling is a fascinating read, as we watch the effect of Tom’s presence on each individual character and how their views and attitudes towards him change over time. Jenkins is particularly good at scene setting — his descriptions of the Scottish countryside are evocative, a kind of love letter to Nature, if you will — and his dialogue is rich and authentic.

Admittedly, some of it feels dated — Mrs Storrocks’ vile views, for instance, are what we’d now call “politically incorrect” but which I assume were probably quite common at the time — and even its depiction of the poor strays into cliché (Tom’s mother, for instance, is a complete caricature, the only character who speaks in dialect).

But its notion of fairness, justice and equality have never been more paramount, particularly in times of austerity. And the ways it explores what it is to be good and to do good, and the importance of social and moral responsibility, are spot on.  Its condemnation of child poverty and its long-lasting effects also make it an important read.

The Changeling isn’t without humour, however: some of the characters behave in ridiculous and comic ways, even if they might not know it, and the author occasionally pokes fun at Forbes, who is often absurdly jolly and has funny notions about nostalgia and romanticism. But on the whole this is a tragic story — and a deeply unsettling read.

Author, Birlinn, Book review, general, literary fiction, Publisher, Robin Jenkins, Scotland, Setting

‘The Pearl-fishers’ by Robin Jenkins


Fiction – Kindle edition; Birlinn; 179 pages; 2011.

Several years ago I read Robin Jenkins’ A Very Scotch Affair and was so enamoured by it I bought several more of his novels — he has 30 to his name. Unfortunately, when I purchased The Pearl-fishers, which was heavily discounted as a Kindle edition, I hadn’t clocked it was a “lost” novel, the manuscript for which was found in a drawer after his death and published posthumously. I think this might explain why the book has a sort of unfinished feel to it and why I felt reading it was a waste of time.

Scottish pearl-fishers

Set sometime in the 1950s, the story  is about a family of pearl-fishers from Sutherland in Scotland, who travel 200 miles south because the patriarch is very ill and wants to die and be buried near his own people. Accompanying him on his journey is his middle-aged daughter and her three children — Effie, 19, Morag, 10, and Eddie, 6.

But their arrival in Argyllshire is met with hostility and prejudice by the locals, most of whom derive their living from forestry or farming, because the family are “tinkers” or “travellers” and they are viewed as dirty, thieving people who will set up camp and never leave. “We don’t want their kind here. Human trash, and not so human at that, doing their business behind bushes, like animals,” is how one of the locals puts it.

But Gavin Hamilton, a forestry worker with plans to become a church minister, invites them to camp in the field behind his house — a lovely old manse he has inherited which is due to be converted into a holiday home for children from the Glasgow slums. He later forbids them from putting up their tents: “I want you to sleep in the house, all of you.”

Marriage proposal

The third-person narrative is largely told from Effie’s point of view. She’s headstrong and feisty, but also plagued by worry and self-doubt. Her hand in marriage has been promised to a family friend 30 years her senior who tried to rape her when she was 15.  Clearly, she does not want to marry him but her options are limited.

This is where Gavin steps into the frame. He’s 10 years older, a devout Christian, well respected by the community, generous to the point of extremism (he’s renowned for once having given his whole pay packet to a tramp) and free from the prejudices that might otherwise turn him off establishing a relationship with Effie.

Of course, the plot is entirely predictable: within a week he’s asked Effie to marry him. Perhaps what is less predictable is Effie’s reaction to this — she is confused and unwilling to accept that the offer has been made with the right intentions.

Fable-like quality

If you think the story sounds a little like a fairytale, you’d be right. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was reading a Scottish version of Cinderella — without the glass slippers.

And while it’s quite a touching story and written in that kind of stripped back prose I generally like, the plot was a little too simple and the moral message it pushes too heavy-handed.

I could be wrong, but it almost felt as if this was a first draft, that Jenkins had sketched out his story arc and he would later go back and flesh it out and perhaps edit scenes that were no longer needed. (There’s a lot of repetition here, mainly about local prejudice, and the main characters aren’t well developed, they’re caricatures more than anything.) I suspect that’s why the manuscript, originally titled The Tinkers, was buried in his drawer and not published during his lifetime.

Fortunately, this hasn’t put me off exploring more of Jenkins’ work, but if you have not read him before this is definitely not the place to start.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Polygon, Publisher, Robin Jenkins, Scotland, Setting

‘A Very Scotch Affair’ by Robin Jenkins


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.