Monthly Archives: September 2012

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‘Elsewhere’: short stories by Cargo Publishing, MacSweeney’s Books and the EIBF

 

‘Elsewhere’ Day: five launches, four volumes and three publishers

On Thursday 26 September, Cargo Publishing, MacSweeney’s Books and The Edinburgh International Book Festival organised a five-city launch of their four-volume short story anthology Elsewhere. A bit like the synchronised watches worn by a military team, each event was meant to kick off around 6pm.  In Manchester, the event was hosted by Legend of a Suicide author David Vann and Scottish writer Rodge Glass. In Glasgow, it was Docherty author William MacIlvanney and Edwin Morgan International Poetry Prize winner Jen Hadfield. The Inverness launch was hosted by childrens’ writer Barry Hutchinson and author of Buddha Da, Anne Donovan. In London, Mr. Gum creator Andy Stanton hosted a reading, and in Edinburgh, EIBF director Nick Barley sat with children’s writer Vivien French, crime author Doug Johnstone and cartoonist John Fardell.

 It must be said that these books are lovely to hold (and smell, according to Johnstone ). With their creamy pages, delicate doodles of moody-faced people and hardback covers in colours of red, blue, black and green, they are reminiscent of a writer’s diary.  Each volume bears a different name: ‘Here’, ‘There’, ‘Somewhere’and ‘Elsewhere’. 50 authors were commissioned and amongst the fifty, twenty-five are Scottish.

At the Edinburgh launch, French, Johnstone and Fardell read out their works from their chairs, giving the top level of Waterstones’ Princes St branch the ambience of a living room. French began the evening reading her work ‘Billy D’, a story inspired by people-watching in a library. While there, French noticed a woman who was ‘present in body but elsewhere in her mind’. Fardell invited the audience to read from the books while he narrated his cartoon ‘The Elsewhere Genie,’ a light-hearted piece about a slave who wishes to be freed from his ogre master. Having watched The Wizard of Oz recently, Fardell said the repetitive line ‘There’s no place like home’ got him thinking about the concept of belonging. ‘Elsewhere is where you want to be, but really it’s the people you’re with’, Fardell added.  And Johnstone took the geographical connotation of the term literally in his story about a daughter of a volcanologist who visits the Icelandic mountain which bears her name, ‘Surtsey’. ‘I’m quite an Icelandicphile’ he added, perhaps revealing a desire to live there.

It’s ironic that a collection themed on the impulse to desert one’s present location would bring authors from around the globe together. Barley stated that he wanted to ‘boost Scottish writing’ and he ‘looked beyond Scotland’s borders for inspiration’. The theme of ‘elsewhere’ seems arbitrary; what’s really important is this creative union of writers and publishers. Perhaps French said it the best: ‘this collection is a microcosm of a whole huge bookshop’. 

 

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Alan Taylor on J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’

By Alan Taylor

The first thing to say about about The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s first novel for so-called adults, is that’s it’s long, too long perhaps. The British edition runs to 503 pages, not all of which sing. The second is that it is not the kind of novel that many parents will be eager to thrust into the hands of those whom they were delirious to see read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The third is that, whatever its faults, it is a brave and, to some extent, ambitious piece of work, which is frequently funny but which more often paints a grim portrait of a country that seems hardly to appreciate the trouble it’s in. 

It is set in the English west country, in a bijou village called Pagford. On the surface, it is an idyll, the kind of place viewers of daytime television are apparently eager to inhabit. It has cobbled streets, a crumbling abbey, a pub and a deli, all prerequisites for those intent on avoiding inner city shenanigans. Rowling has spoken of wanting to write a nineteenth century novel for the twenty-first century and there are undoubtedly echoes of the likes of Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford. But while in Gaskell’s day rural England was beset with rampant industrialisation and depopulation, what threatens to engulf Pagford is less easy to identify. Like so many similar towns, it seems simply to suffer from some undiagnosable modern malaise. 

The novel begins with the sudden and melodramatic death of Barry Fairbrother whose ghost nevertheless haunts it throughout. Barry was a parish councillor and his demise in his forties leaves the vacancy referred to in Rowling’s title. At issue is a sink estate known as the Fields, which lies on the outskirts of a larger, meaner, neighbouring town called Yarvil, the seat of the local county council. For historical reasons, kids from the Fields are allowed to go to primary school in Pagford which also houses a drug addiction clinic. With enlightened, liberal Barry gone, conservative councillors, principally Howard Mollison, owner of the aforementioned deli, see an opportunity to rid Pagford of these sores and restore its postcard image. 

This is an interesting, even intriguing scenario. But it is not new. English fiction is replete with novels with similar settings and similar characters, among the most recent being Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers, published last year. Rowling’s grasp of her material may not be as assured as Hensher’s but where she scores is in her full-blooded, unflinching and unsentimental account of what life is like on these islands now, particularly for children.

The character to whom she shows most sympathy is Krystal Weedon, whose surname really says it all. Krystal’s mother is addicted to heroin and incapable of looking after her infant son, whose father is unknown. In the course of the novel Krystal is raped by her mother’s dealer and reckons that the only route out of her predicament is to get herself pregnant. Moreover, she talks like a bumpkin who’s watched too many episodes of The Wire which, incidentally, she hasn’t done, because her mother’s sold everything to feed her habit. That no one else in the novel speaks like her is odd. Do only the marginalised curse like footballers and leave words unfinished? 

Krystal, however, is resourceful, and possessed of talent as a rower, which Barry Fairbrother was alone in identifying. Here, you sense, Rowling is communicating a not-so-subtle message, that our treatment of kids is a cancer that only we can cure. There are scenes in The Casual Vacancy which could have come from EastEnders rather than The Archers, including one in which a father beats up not only his wife but his two sons. He, needless to say, sees himself as a victim. Forget fantasy; this is abusive, inescapable, raw reality. 

The plot — such as it is — unfolds over seven parts, a number Rowling appears obsessed with. Each part is sub-divided into several further parts, allowing the author to introduce and develop characters, of which there are many. One of the best drawn is Shirley, Howard’s wife, who runs a bra shop for busty women and who, when tipsy, is inclined to be crude and abrasive. Sexually frustrated, she takes to watching her daughter’s DVDs of gyrating rock stars, an irony that few readers will miss. 

There is much, therefore, to enjoy in The Casual Vacancy. What lets it down, however, is the quality of Rowling’s prose (“Disgust rose in Samantha like vomit.” “A pause rolled across the table like a fresh tablecloth…”) and the unevenness of her wit. In short, it is a perfectly decent novel by an indecently successful writer. 

[This review first appeared in the Herald]

The Casual Vacancy is published by Little, Brown 

 

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Book Review: All the Little Animals, Walker Hamilton, Freight Books

All the Little Animals, Walker Hamilton

Introduction by Alan Warner

Freight Books, £7.99

 

This week Glasgow-based Freight Books published the slim novella All the Little Animals. But there will be no author readings or signings. That’s because Scottish author Walker Hamilton died in February 1969 of a heart attack. He was thirty-four.

His is a story of hardship. The son of a coal miner, Hamilton was born in Airdrie in 1934. He left school at fifteen and joined the National Service but was let go due to poor health. In 1960 he married Dorothy and they lived as crop-pickers in Cornwall, in a wooden farm cottage which can still be rented out today. Hamilton published All the Little Animals in 1967 and a second novel A Dragon’s Life was released posthumously in 1970.

Though All the Little Animals was made into a film in 1997 featuring John Hurt and Christian Bale, the author and his books have been woefully neglected. As Alan Warner states in his indignant introduction: “The novel remains unmentioned in all the current literary ‘histories’, demonstrating that familiar and destructive inaccuracy as canons are simply engineered from the canons which came before them, rather than from wider reading”.

It’s puzzling that this vibrant novella – full of Scottish literature’s archetypal themes such as urban violence, male camaraderie and the narrator’s quest for acceptance – has slipped through the net. The book opens with the wistful voice of Bobby Platt, a thirty-one year old man with learning difficulties due to a childhood car crash. He ran away from his privileged home in London to escape his stepfather, known as the Fat. Bobby hitches his way to Cornwall where he encounters Mr. Summers, a small man who restores dignity to roadkill. When a car crash occurs in both of their sights, Bobby watches in awe as Mr. Summers attends to the dead rabbit first. Summer explains: ‘Be quiet, boy. You only help good people. That man was a bad man. He killed this rabbit. ‘

What follows is a common theme in many stories. Two vulnerable and mistreated souls band together for collective strength and identity. Bobby and Mr. Summers traverse the fields of Cornwall, drinking tea and burying whatever little animals they can find. Until one day Bobby’s safe future with Mr. Summers is threatened and the duo realise that they must conquer their pasts by destroying those who have hurt them.  

The parallels of this novella to American literature are worth noting. First, the narrator’s moniker of Bobby, an iconic name in 60s and 70s America due, in part, to chess whiz Bobby Fischer and the politician Robert Kennedy. Second, the novel’s thematic connections to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, published almost thirty years earlier and titled after Robert Burns’ poem, soon become apparent. Bobby’s love of cuddly rabbits mirrors kind-hearted Lennie’s own obsession. These gentle men-children, both of whom struggle to control their strength, also rely on the wits of their companions, Mr. Summers and George Milton.  Frequently repeated words and phrases such as ‘kid’ and ‘y’know’ and ‘you’ll never guess’ steer us closer to the Atlantic than Cornwall.

Freight should be commended for bringing this darkly enigmatic work back into contemporary view. Unlike the little animals, the novella has stayed buried for far too long. 

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Book Review: David Spaven: Waverley Route: the life, death and rebirth of the Borders Railway

A rather dense looking book on railways wouldn’t normally recommend itself for review especially as I don’t know a BRCW Type 2 from an A3 Pacific. However, I make an exception for David Spaven’s Waverley Route: the life death and rebirth of the Borders Railway.

I was a youngster in Galashiels when the Waverley line closed in 1969 on the back of the Beeching Report. At the time, I didn’t see that much to be concerned about. My friends and I would no longer be placing coins on the track to see how trains distorted them. On the other hand, nobody had to put an ear to the rail and listen for approaching trains before we passed through the Torwoodlee tunnel in search of more productive fishing spots.

Many years later I realized that the closure had a wider family consequence. My parents both learned to drive in their forties so that they could visit my brother who was a long term Inpatient at Princess Margaret Rose Hospital in Edinburgh. A torturous bus journey was the only alternative.

According to Spaven, my apathy was echoed in the adult community, though in a different way. The campaign against closure was fatally weakened by a Borders sense of “Aye been”. In other words, “that’s what’s going to happen and there is nothing we can do about it”. This contrasts with the outcry in the Highlands which helped save the railway there. Another factor was the transfer from the Borders to the Highlands of Spaven’s father Frank who was a persuasive pro-railway civil servant in the Scottish Office.

Spaven Jr. also blames closure on a failure to see the railway as part of a bigger development plan for the Borders, Governmental structures which ultimately had a London-based ministry with statutory powers for all railways, realpolitik around public spending pressures, and short-sighted strategic decisions taken by British Rail in the 1950s. It’s also fair to say he’s not happy with certain politicians and their civil service advisers ‘supposedly representing the public interest’.

The practical consequence of all this was that the Waverley line became the longest cut made under Beeching and Hawick, for instance, suddenly found itself forty five miles from the nearest railhead. The economic, social and (much neglected) psychological consequences of being summarily cut off from the national train-transport system are more difficult to assess, though Spaven makes a good fist of it.

These are serious issues matched by the author with serious analysis. Spaven doesn’t really do humour. He uses ‘back on track’ and its various derivatives without apparently meaning to be punny. And if he saw irony in the fact that a rail area manager in Hawick missed a meeting because he was off taking a driving lesson, he doesn’t say so. The convoluted calculations in the section ‘How much subsidy did Edinburgh-Hawick really need?’ are as challenging for the reader as the grade at Falahill once was for locomotives.

However, if the amateur reader loses his way a bit through some of the denser sections, he snaps to quickly enough when the author excoriates those individuals and institutions he considers were either implicated in the railway closing or are – to put it kindly – unhelpful in its restoration (now due in 2014).

The latter category includes various authorities who gave consent for building on the rail solum which resulted in transgressions ranging from the Asda store in Gala to a private garage in Stow; certain (though not all) members of the Waverley Railway Partnership which was promoted by Scottish Borders Council; the Borders Party whose leader has suggested that the money be better spent in Glasgow; and a current MSP who has seems to be arguing that no railway at all would be better than one that only goes to Galashiels.

The book is enlivened by anecdotes picked up in various interviews conducted with those involved in the railway issue in the 1960s. One is David Steel, long time Borders MP, who descended ‘into the freezing night’ from the last sleeper train south and addressed the people who were obstructing the line at Newcastleton.  Incidentally, even Steel, a dedicated opponent of closure and leader of petitioners to London, is rapped on the knuckles by Spaven for not carrying out ‘his earlier threat to resign as MP and precipitate a by-election’.

I now know that a BRCW Type 2 is a diesel and A3 Pacific a steam engine and lot more besides (including why it has taken so long to deliver a new Borders railway and why the cost has escalated so much). I am not sure who is going to read this book apart from railway enthusiasts and current or former denizens of the Borders, but it deserves a much wider audience. Social historians should certainly be interested and, above all, any contemporary planners who find themselves in a situation where long term vision is posited against short term cost cutting. 

[The Waverley Route: life, death and rebirth of the Borders Railway is published by Argyll Publishing]

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‘What is a true Scot’? SRB’s Alan Taylor responds to Ian Jack’s Guardian column


Stop Your Tickling, Jack
 
by Alan Taylor
 
AMONG the very few journalists I presently enjoy reading is Ian Jack. Though I have little interest in the trains or boats or planes, about which he writes regularly in the Guardian, Jack usually manages to sustain my interest for a thousand words or so. Indeed, on occasion, I have been known to cut out and keep one of his effusions.
 
His most recent column (15 Sept, 2012) was inspired by something I wrote in the last issue of this magazine. Writing about Arnold Kemp, erstwhile editor of the Herald, I made the following observation: ‘He was, it must immediately be acknowledged, a romantic, which all true Scots are, and given, as all true journalists are, to intemperate and often ephemeral enthusiasms and antipathies.’
 
Since the SRB was published more than a month ago, both in print and online, no one to my knowledge has taken any umbrage at this. Except Ian Jack. First, he said, the second part of the sentence is debatable – ‘cool heads have produced some excellent journalism’. I agree. But where did I say otherwise? All I did say was that all true journalists, i.e. journalists worthy of being so called, are given ‘to intemperate and often ephemeral enthusiasms and antipathies.’ How ‘debatable’ is that? Name one journalist who isn’t.
 
It was, however, the first part of my sentence that most scunnered Jack. ‘What,’ he asked, ‘does the phrase “true Scots” mean in this context? Scots who are quintessential in their Scottishness? Scots who aren’t false to a widely accepted idea of Scottish identity? Scots who wear kilts but no underwear?’
 
One can always sense the direction of a debate about Scotland and Scottishness when there is an early mention of kilts. It seems to obsess pundits like Jack who, like Harry Lauder of yore, will do anything for a cheap laugh, in the hope perhaps that mockery will puncture the pro-independence lobby. For Jack, the phrase ‘true Scots’ seems immediately to invoke a parodical image of the country in which he was brought up and from which he escaped with his underwear intact. 
 
For me, though, it is simply a statement of who I am. I was born, bred and educated in Scotland and have lived and worked here most of my life. I feel Scottish, therefore I am Scottish. Nor have I any wish to be anything else. Nor do I feel inclined to deny where I come from. For me, it’s not an issue, it’s a simple statement of fact. And, like Arnold Kemp, I want Scotland to be as good a place as it can be. Which means I do what I can to make it better, whether that means voting for independence or picking up plastic bags or — to appropriate a phrase Alex Salmond might use — by putting Scotland first. 
 
It’s possible Ian Jack feels the same way. He has, after all, come back to live here in semi retirement. One hopes he’s happy with how he’s found it. What he is unhappy about, however, is the way Scots ‘generalise’, which, he appears to believe, is a peculiarly Scottish trait. If it were up to him generalisation would be outlawed. In short, he believes there is no such thing as a ‘true Scot’, as there is no such thing as a ‘true Englishman’ or a ‘true Irishman’ or a ‘true Catalan’. This, I’m afraid to say, is what happens when you spend too long immersed in the metropolitan melting pot.
 
All of which is fair in love and journalism. But what scunnered me about Jack’s column was his taking of the phrase ‘true Scot’ and associating it with ‘true-blooded’,  which I did not use, and which Jack suggests is imbued with ‘the warning whiff of genetics’. Now looms the word ‘racist’, which those such as Jack, fearful at the shredding of the Union Jack — ahem! — while banging a post-imperialist drum, employ in the hope of scaring anyone who ever read a Commando comic. 
 
It is, alas, a sign of things to come. Expect over the coming months many sometime Scots, such as Jack, who have, like countless others before them, dipped in and out of Scotland, opining (and generalising) as they go. They love it, they love it not. Some things never change. But some things must because the alternative is the eventual erosion of that which Ian Jack and his ilk would already like us to think does not exist.

Read Ian Jack ‘What is true Scot’? here

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Events

BOOK LAUNCH

Chris Dolan’s Redlegs and Allan Cameron’s On the Heroism of Mortals

 

At the offices of Scottish Review of Books (8a Randolph Crescent, Edinburgh EH3 8EY) at 6.30 on Thursday 27th September.

 

The actor Isla Menzies will be reading from both works, and Mike Gonzalez will be discussing them with the authors. Q&A. Wine and nibbles

 

Admittance on first come, first served basis. RSVP essential: allan.cameron@virgin.net

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Nae Scots on the Booker shortlist (again)

There are no Scots on the 2012 Man Booker Prize shortlist. This is hardly a surprise given that there weren’t any on the longlist either. Cue the usual complaints, though Irvine Welsh set the hares running even earlier than usual this year by declaring the Booker “highly imperialist orientated” during a session at EIBF. A ‘rudimentary grasp of sixth form sociology’ is all you need, he said, to refute the Booker’s claim that it is non-discriminatory. But statistics work too according to an ‘open letter’ I just read directed originally to Professor Louise Richardson, Principal of St. Andrews University.

A strange letter in some ways, it starts by pointing out that only one Scot has won the Booker and five made the shortlist since 1969 but grants that Scots are a ‘negligible 0.2% of the population of the Commonwealth’ and this may be seen as ‘an over-representation of Scotland.’ The English, however, are over-over represented with 24 winners while ‘England accounts for a paltry 2.5% of the population of the Commonwealth’.

Comparing the negligible Scots to the paltry English apparently puts ‘charges of English cultural hegemony beyond dispute’. Throw in the treatment of Scotland’s only winner after he won and ‘any remaining doubt as to the anti-Celtic prejudice disappears’.

The peculiar phrase ‘Anti-Celtic prejudice’ made me wonder how many Irish writers had won the Booker (I know I should know this). It’s four – Enright, Banville, Doyle, Farrell – and an asterisk against Iris Murdoch who was born in Dublin. With a ‘meagre’ population of 4.7 million and not even in the Commonwealth, this is a clear case of Celtic partiality.

The only Booker winners I have kept track of by nationality (other than the Scots which isn’t hard) are the Canadians. They are three – Ondaatje, Atwood, Martel. Perhaps Canada should also get a bonus mark as Alice Munro picked up an International Man Booker in 2009. Let’s see that’s three or four into 34.5 million, times the population of the Commonwealth or should that be divided by…….

None of this is going to make us feel any better about our one Scot. Perhaps there are more pertinent questions to be asked that don’t depend on sociology, statistics or arithmetic. How are judges selected (Dan Stevens!)? What literary preferences do they bring with them and how does that affect decision making? To what extent do longlists and shortlists depend on compromises and trade offs?

Someone should probably ask SRB Editor Alan Taylor if it is a coincidence that he was on the judging panel when James Kelman won in 1994. Ok, I’ll ask him myself. And while I’m at it I’ll find out if it’s true that fellow judge Baroness Julia Neuberger threatened to resign if Kelman won and stormed off declaring the book ‘frankly crap’ – as claimed in the letter to Professor Richardson.

And what Scottish books should have won instead of all those English, Canadian and Irish ones? Trainspotting was famously pulled from the shortlist in 1993. Taken with Kelman this looks as if language was the issue rather than nationality though that doesn’t quite explain the absence of Scottish winners writing in Standard English.

What of the five shortlisted Scots? – Gordon Williams, Muriel Spark, George Mackay Brown, Andrew O’Hagan and Ali Smith (Boyd? MacLaverty?). O’Hagan would have had to beat out J.M. Coetzee, Williams/P.H. Newby, Ali Smith/Peter Carey, Mackay Brown/Kelman. Perhaps Spark would have won of any of her three shortlisted books had been ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ which was published eight years before the Booker started? Who knows?

And what of Scottish novels that didn’t see any kind of Booker list but should have? This is not part of the discussion when Booker ‘anti-Scottishness’ is rendered as a statistic. James Robertson published ‘And the Land Lay Still’ in August 2010. Too late for that year’s Booker but it would have looked pretty good on the 2011 shortlist (and on the back of a previous longlisting for Gideon Mack). Galloway? Kennedy?

Coincidentally (or not) 2011 was the year that the word ‘readability’ showed up on the judges’ things to look for. That should just about do it for anything challenging, Scottish or otherwise. By another coincidence (or not) I just picked up a one line e-mail subject line ‘the 2012 Booker shortlist’ from a friend who knows about these matters. ‘The worst shortlist ever?’ is all it says.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Michael Russell on Robin Jenkins and the March of Time: A chronicler of changing Scotland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Michael Russell

[September 11, 2012 was the centenary of Robin Jenkins birth. This tribute to Jenkins was originally presented as a lecture at Cowalfest] 

Anyone who sets out to think about, let alone talk about, the work of Robin Jenkins is faced with three immediate problems: those of range, depth and time-scale.   Those problems arise both from Jenkins’ own life and from his method of working. 

Let me begin with the facts, which illustrate these problems.   Born in 1912, his life encompassed most of the 20th century and a small part of the 21st.  That is a long time, and within it much changed in our country and the world.   He also travelled widely, working not just in Scotland but in Afghanistan, Spain and Malaysia.   He published 31 books of fiction during his lifetime, the first of which appeared in 1951, more than half a century ago and the final one only in 2003, although it had been written earlier.

Their   settings  range from  the North West Frontier , through 17th  , 19th and 20th century Scotland –  the latter with a sweep of time that runs from early years of the century, to the very last decade and which covers most of the country –  through to a Native American reservation in Arizona.   They take in on the way this rural community and some like them, slum tenements in Scottish towns, council estates, military housing in California, remote Pathan villages ,the country estates of the rich, manses at various times and in various places, schools, golf clubs, islands and artists studios –  quite a lot of artists studios as it happens – amongst other locations.

Finally it has to be said that Jenkins was in no sense a self publicist – in fact the reverse. Whilst never a total recluse he was far from outgoing about his work and his means expression. There are contributions he made to the discussion of the novel, and even his novels, but they are not extensive.  He was never a public figure in the way of some contemporary writers and his belief that he was unappreciated, and that others of lesser talent were more celebrated, was sometimes, unfortunately, very true.

It is obvious that all these facts create a huge and difficult canvas to examine.   He is a novelist who in his writing not only covered half a century of real time, but many centuries of imagined time.   He is a novelist with a huge output, not all of which is readily available.  In have to admit that whilst I shall range widely through his work tonight, there are some parts I have not read.    He is also novelist who hoarded his work, who published out of sequence and who refused, for most of his time, to explain what he was about.

And most of all he was a novelist with a vast area of concern.     Whilst tonight I am going to pursue a definite line of argument, it is only of hundreds of possible lines.   Jenkins was a human being of huge sympathy, who stood foursquare with the poor, the suffering and the neglected.   He was also something of a cynic, who saw the foibles in his fellow men and commented on them, sometimes savagely.  He was a believer in faith, but a fierce critic of much organised religion.  He was a visionary, who was however suspicious of visions and those who had them, yet he also accepted and welcomed the mystical.     He was a historian who a love of his country’s past, but he was also worried that the past trapped people and made them unable to improve the present.   He was ascetic in his approach to many things, yet some of his writing is sensuous and indeed there is a whole thesis to be written about his near obsessions with large breasts.   He loved much of the innate goodness and huge courage of America and the Americans, yet he had a huge admiration for those who resisted their influence and developed their own cultures.   He embraced modernity, but resented its destructive power.   He believed in the power of education and taught for much of his life, but he also saw that some education and some educators re-enforced the worst in society

Let me start with an overview – something we can probably all accept. There can be little doubt that Cairns Craig got it right when he said in his essay entitled “Robin Jenkins – a would be realist?” that Jenkins is likely to be

                        “..without peer amongst 20th and 21st century Scottish novelists , for no modern Scottish novelist has presented so many aspects of Scottish society with such incisive concern for its inner conflicts and contradictions.   The range of Jenkins work make him a modern equivalent, in terms of its social scope, of the great realist writers of the nineteenth century”[1]

That comparison – with Dickens in particular – is a common view of Jenkins.   But realist writers are, by definition, writers who have a moral, spiritual and sometimes even political agenda.    That is not to say that their work is a manifesto and certainly not a detailed one, but it does arise from strongly held beliefs, and strongly desired outcomes.

I want to examine what those beliefs and outcomes appear to have been in Jenkins’ case.   I shall lean heavily on two thoughts which occur quite often in his books, either expressed by characters or by his narrative voice.  I shall use those thoughts to construct what I think is a plausible case for suggesting what Jenkins’ two primary motivations were and what he hoped for , though neither consistently or always positively.

The first is about an aspiration for people. The second is about an aspiration for place.   Together I think they say something profound and important, particularly in modern day Scotland.

In Lady Magdalen, published in 2003, the novel finishes with the Earl of Montrose in camp, already facing the likelihood of ultimate defeat.  He is being betrayed even by his monarch and he has lost not only battles, but also his wife and son.   Musing on the situation, his inner voice observes

                        “His soldiers were going about their camp duties with the devotion of priests.  He felt severe qualms of conscience.  These honest faithful men were prepared to give their lives for him and the King.  Surely they must one day get their reward in a Scotland where honour and justice prevailed, under the rule of a beneficent King, appointed by God?”[2]

Those sentences carry so many of Jenkins’ constant themes – devotion to duty, the role of men at work, the willingness to sacrifice, the need for a visionary purpose , the existence and power of God and of belief in him – that is difficult to unpack.   But the thought that “surely they must one day get their reward in a Scotland where honour and justice prevailed?” is not just about Scotland, still less 17th century Scotland – it is about the  universal purpose of life, for if there is no place in which honour and justice can deliver for ordinary men and women, then is life itself worth living?

Jenkins puts the question, of course, as often in the negative as in the positive.  Many of his characters deny that reward is possible, in this life or the next.   In “The Cone Gatherers” as an apocalyptic (and revelatory) storm approaches Neil reflects on his dependent

 

brother Calum’s belief that the shaft of light that has illuminated them has allowed him to see their dead mother in heaven.

                        “If he was unable to walk, far less to climb, who would look after Calum , with his derided body and his mind as foolish as a child’s?    Wherever that light had shone from, it had not been from heaven.  There was no such place.  There was no merciful God.  There was nowhere their dead mother could be.”[3]

This idea – that there is literally nothing to look forward to and, to quote the Greek Alexandrian poet, CP Cavafy “If you have ruined your life in this one spot of ground, then it is ruined over the whole earth”   – that there is in fact no purpose and no reward regularly comes from the lips of other characters in Jenkins work 

Some good examination has been made of Jenkins and his relationship to faith, particularly Christian faith.   That is not directly my purpose here this evening but I do want to draw out as my first theme Jenkins’ view of what can be and should be expected from life: if there is reward and honour in direct relationship to virtue and belief, whether such a thing can be achieved or fought for, or whether no such thing exists or can exist.

Those are eternal questions but they are ones that have particularly worried the 20th century.    Faced with the horrors of world war,   the immediacy of the media which brings us news of famine and abject poverty and the attempts (sometimes on an industrial scale) to create societies in which reward was intended to come as the result of human endeavor even at – perhaps especially at – at the expense of individual freedom, our 20th and 21st century questioning about the purpose of life has risen from the status of individual concern to national and international obsession. Is a better life , we ask ourselves collectively and individually, to be found from material possessions, from sexual or other gratification, from spiritual pursuit, from political achievement, or in the hope of some after life.  Can it be found at all?

These questions are perhaps heightened , and were particularly so during most of Jenkins’ life as a writer, by the ever present threat of nuclear war, and the annihilation of  the whole species, a threat brought home to anyone living in this area by the presence of the American base at the Holy Loch.   For annihilation of the whole species wipes out the possibility of anything better – and wipes it out completely. 

The theme of nuclear war is very strong in perhaps Jenkins’ bleakest novel, Just Duffy which mixes a reaction to the poverty and alienation of the Thatcher years in Scotland with a strong concern about the possibility of Armageddon.  In that novel the young protagonist takes on the right of a state to declare war, but for, but for what he sees as moral purposes which will  “make people more truthful and less arrogant”[4]  and ultimate produce a better society, first of all in his own small Lanarkshire town.   But the consequences of war are soon seen as disastrous – a lesson that we have learned again in our own times.

Some would call – and indeed Jenkins’ himself sometimes  laid claim to the description – concern with all these matters, , when it takes the form of a desire for alteration of society in order to provide answers,  to be the hall mark of a socialist though it could equally well be called humanist or even Christian.   Anger at the failure of our society to bring honour and justice to all its members, and to tolerate and even ignore the suffering of individuals and communities whilst accepting the privilege and wealth of others is seen, in our political terms and in our times, as being a primarily socialist concern, even if that term is hard now to define. 

The character of Mary Holmscroft in “Fergus Lamont” is that of a political socialist, driven to oppose inequality.    She is revered by the women and men of the town during the by-election in that book yet whilst the central character envies that – and takes steps to assist her by arguing for her at a Conservative election meeting in which he has been asked to speak in order to support the candidate – he still has reservations about her and those arise again when, at the end of the book, he discovers she has become a Government Minister.  

Jenkins is most definitely a realist political writer, but he does not promote a particular party nor does he I would argue promote such a specific political ideology.   He is a political writer, just as Dickens was, in seeking a better world from which the effects of poverty and inequality are removed.    In that sense, to introduce for the first time the title of my chosen subject, he is a “chronicler of changing Scotland” for many of his themes chart the progress of, and sometimes push forward, the Scottish desire to move from the nineteenth century consequences of industrialisaion – slums, poverty, lack of opportunity and  a class ridden society, often cemented into place by the effect or organised religion –  and the twentieth century spiritual bleakness, underpinned by the fear of a man made end to everything  into a world in which there was honour and  justice for all.

“Fergus Lamont” has perhaps the broadest sweep in terms of that agenda.   Yet the book has often been read as being something different: a portrait of an off-centre individual who wrong-headedly pursues a vision of individual progress which is bound to fail.     The two readings are of course, not mutually contradictory, but “Fergus Lamont” has a great social meaning and the redemption of Fergus during his last visit to Gantock (a thinly disguised Greenock) when he rejects the cynicism and self destroying hatred of humanity shown by his former teacher John Calderwood as well as the brutality of the Nazi bombers during a fire raid is a moment in the novel which needs to be fully factored into the whole.

                        The sky was red with fire over the town.  More bombs exploded.

                        “The bastards” I cried

                        “Explain, murmured Calderwood at my back, “why our airmen are heroes that drop bombs on German towns and yet German airmen that drop bombs on our town are bastards.   And of course, vice-versa.”

                        Again I might have had some little sympathy if he had spoken with his heart breaking.[5]

It is at this point  – out in the garden of a wealthy villa  on the Gantock waterfront  watching  the area where he grew up  (and which he has rejected) burned to the ground, and the probably immolation of people he still knows and loves  –  that  Fergus Lamont sees that “he could be of help to no one”[6].

Yet by then we know that whilst that was true, it  has became no longer true because he has been of help in allowing us to understand how hard it is to be a good man, and how hard to find true reward and honour still less to understand how those can be gained.  And in the widest context of society, that is a political issue.  But it is also, and perhaps inseparable, a moral and individual one as well. 

Such a political stance – the finding of the means by which society can be changed for ever in order that “honour and justice” can be given to all , and particularly to those from whom it is currently withheld by the very structures and ordering of that society – comes to the fore again and again in Jenkins’ novels.

Yet the means and the ends are complicated things, because they have to take account of human beings, who are also complicated.     

In “Just Duffy” the attempt by Duffy to change the world has horrific personal consequences.   Duffy is an outsider, quite different from those around him but his pursuit of justice and honour for all is overshadowed again and again by his desire to be included – to stop being separated from the herd.    Fergus Lamont is another outsider as is Gavin Hamilton in  “A would be saint” and there are two such characters (very different ones admittedly) in “The Changeling”  – both Tom Curdie and Charlie Forbes stand at an angle to the world, and the combination leads to an awful end.  Yet all of them have something in common apart from their accidental, enforced or chosen estrangement from parts of the world around them.   They are also passionate about changing that world.

Indeed one could go further and point out that in “The Cone Gatherers “ virtually all the main characters who are also agents of change  are isolated from the normal world, as one might put it.   Calum is physically and mentally disabled, Neil is bitter and ill at ease, Durour is going through a profound breakdown, Lady Runcie-Campbell has a degree of religious mania and her son Roderick is a loner. 

Jenkins again and again suggests to us that the world needs changed.  But he also suggests to us again and again that those who know that, and particularly those who then try and bring change about , are outcasts from society and must be so , whether they succeed or fail.   Gaining “honour and justice” for others is a task that can only be undertaken by, in a sense, a sacrificial lamb.    Most of the world is content to go on as it is, accepting – in the words of Duffy’s mother – that

                        “You’re looking for perfection Duffy, and it doesn’t exist…you’ve got to make allowances.  We’re only human” [7]

Those that wish something else, says Jenkins, are bound to suffer.   If they cease to wish it – if they give up – then they can rejoin the crowd.  But that is something that is not worth doing for although there can be sympathy and even admiration for individuals in the crowd, the crowd itself is a beast, which reduces the world to dirty rubble ; dirty rubble like the slums of Gantock in “Fergus Lamont “ (above which people must rise) or the slums of Gowkburgh in “Guests of War”.

It is tempting to read into this theme a great deal about Jenkins himself, and his profession of writer.    A man who was not sociable, who saw himself as being “outside” and who felt that he had been and was being ignored, may have projected into his work that very feeling.  But of course he would do so primarily because he would see himself as being engaged in a task which was “world changing” – a task which attempted, as much as Duffy‘s war did but in a much more constructive way, to force his readers to be “more truthful and less arrogant” and in so doing to bring about the dawn of the new Jerusalem.

But if my first theme is that aspiration for “honour and justice” and the difficult life of any individual who seeks to bring it about, my second is about where this New Jerusalem is, and what can be made of the place.

“Lunderston Tales” is a much neglected book of short stories by Jenkins.    Published only in 1996 by Polygon, the internal references in the introduction particularly suggest that it was written much earlier, possibly in the mid 1980’s.   Further work on Jenkins and his output may confirm that point. 

Just as this village features strongly in Jenkins work – even to the extent of naming the holiday location in “The Changeling” “Towellen”, bringing together Toward and neighbouring Inellen, so Lunderston Tales – and a number of other works – are clearly based in the town much like Dunoon.

There is a fascinating task awaiting some scholar or student – that of identifying the places in Jenkins novels and matching them to real places in Scotland.   It is task that, whilst looking simple, has been made more complicated by Jenkins own attempts to muddy the waters, and never less than in this issue of Dunoon.   For while one local critic of Jenkins, is so certain about it that he admits to private surprise that Jenkins was not sued by at least two individuals who are clearly identifiable in the stories  – there is either an accidental, or deliberate, confusing element which comes in his very late novel “Childish Things”.  Near to the start of the book the anti-hero, Gregor MacLeod,  sets out to see an old lover after his wife’s funeral  observing that:

                        “It was dark as I drove alongside the Firth.   The amber lights of Dunoon twinkled across the water and, every five seconds, there was flash from the Toward Lighthouse.   If any of my Lunderston acquaintances recognised my Mercedes, they would think I had come out for a drive , being unable to settle in the empty house.”[8]

Only a few sentences earlier he has placed his home town of Lunderston as “”15 miles along the firth from Gantock” and as we know Gantock is Greenock, then Lunderston might be Largs.   And indeed there is a touch of Largs in his description in the first of the “Tales” about the view to be had from the place.  

But if it is  Largs in situation and landscape, and Dunoon in humanity and  detail, Lunderston itself in the Tales has a touch of genius.   Indeed it is the same type of genius that informs John Galt’s “Annals of the Parish”.   In fact  there is more than a touch of Galt in a great deal of Jenkins’ output with a local focus: a slightly pawky humour and pricking of civic pride which, for example,  characterises both Galt’s political works  and Jenkins similar stories, for example as in  “ “The Provost and the Queen” .   

Some of the stories in Lunderston Tales take place very far from either Largs or Dunoon  – the book includes important references to India ( in the story “Don’t you agree , baby ?”), Arizona, and – very touchingly – in the last story where the whole point is the remoteness of the desert communities of California which make the bright lights of  small towns doon the watter  seem positively metropolitan, particularly to a good time girl who is virtually a prostitute.

There are some wonderful things in “Lunderston Tales” including the portrait of a community activist who finds his own way of securing “honour and justice” for the poor.    The best perhaps is the story entitled “With a tinge of yellow” which is about racism, ignorance, prejudice, small mindedness, pride, estrangement and lust.    It is a portrait of the worst aspects of small town thinking, yet  the main protagonist does what some  people in small towns always do – constantly try to break the barriers which enclose them, and equally constantly, always fail. 

I refer to the book, however, primarily because of its Foreword [9]which comes as close as Jenkins ever does to giving a clear personal statement of belief and intent.

Let me quote the first paragraph in full:    “A Scottish Novelist” writes Jenkins,

                         “recently complained that one of the disadvantages of belonging to his nation was that nothing ever happened in it spectacular or exciting enough to be of interest to the rest of the world.   No president was assassinated, no government overthrown, no political prisoners tortured.   All that is true and shows virtue or at least placidity on the part of the Scots , but one can see why a novelist would feel frustrated.   A few years ago, an offer, grudgingly made by the Parliament in London, of a measure of self government was not accepted by the Scots on the grounds it seemed, that it would mean their having to assume responsibility for their own destinies.   The lion rampant was happier on his belly, with his paws covering his eyes. “

Later on in that Foreword he says:

                        “In brief therefore a country that, too supine to take itself seriously, does not deserve to be taken seriously by any other country.   This also was what the novelist was grumbling about.”

“Yet paradoxically” he goes on:

                        “ its individual people are as interesting as any in America or Russia.,  Take for example the small seaside town of Lunderston…..”

And then he concludes:

                        “Anyone passing through or staying overnight might remark on the scenery, or the bakers shops, or the courtesy of its citizens, but they would be incredulous if they were told that in this small town, so douce and placid on the surface…..there were to be found individuals whose lives touched upon the great issues of our time and who represented the twentieth century as much as any inhabitants of New York or Moscow.   Yet it is true.   With them as his material no novelist need feel parochial.”  

For a variety or reasons this is a fascinating statement.  For a start the “Scottish novelist” that Jenkins quotes,  may well be William MacIlvanney , although the interview is not yet finally identified.    But the views are very similar to points which Jenkins himself made in an interview in  1980 in which he said that “ I simply don’t think you could get a great novelist out of Scotland” and to  one in 1989 in which he called Scotland “ a dull wee place”.

Jenkins’ disgust at the failure of the referendum of 1979 is not the response of a doctrinaire 1960s or 1970s’  socialist but more that of the type of nationalist which was the backbone of the Labour movement in the first part of the 20th century – a variety which stretched from the democratic socialism of Keir Hardie (who fought the mid Lanark by-election of 1883 on a platform that included home rule for Scotland ) to the Marxism of John MacLean who believe that you could establish a workers republic in Scotland in six months, starting anytime.

For these people – and for Jenkins – the creation of a place worth living in , a place where “honour and Justice “ were to be gained – meant the creation of a Scotland worth living in.   A Scotland which was not only, as it was, in beautiful (though only when not defaced by man) but also economically, socially, morally and spiritually recovered from the dark side of humanities influence.

This being Jenkins of course such a desire cannot always be expressed as an unalloyed positive, and indeed one aspect of Jenkins genius is to point up the desirable by contrasting it with what presently exists.

Thus it is that  the slum dwelling, but country reared, Mrs McShelvie, in the very opening section of “Guests of War” reflects that

                        “To her it seemed dreadful that human beings , with only one life to live, should have to live it in such dreary places as Wallace St and its surroundings, especially when Scotland was one of the most beautiful countries in the world.[10]

Whilst all Jenkins novels set in Scotland touch upon this subject, it is perhaps in Fergus Lamont that it emerges to become a really dominant them.  It also has its clearest expression in that novel and one which links the two ideas I have been talking about most clearly.

During his time in the Western Isles, in a community that seems to have been modeled on the real “Orasay” in South Uist, Fergus lives with, and finds his greatest love in, the character of Kirstie.   Kirstie is Jenkin’s “Chris Caledonia”, the central symbolic figure in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s “Sunset Song” Trilogy.   She stands for all that is best in our country, and if she is slow and sometimes even the butt of Fergus’ arrogance and snobbery, she is still eternal in her truthfulness, her beauty and her humanity.

One day Fergus, whilst living as man and wife with Kirstie, receives a letter from Mary Homscroft , which recounts her experiences in Spain during the Civil War.   After reading it, Fergus, in his own words “holds forth” on this subject, observing that

                        “It seemed to me that since Scotland was small , proud , poor and intelligent, with a long history , she, better than any country I could think of , certainly better than backward Spain or class-ridden England, had an opportunity to create a society in which poverty and all its humiliations had been abolished, without refinement and spirituality being sacrificed.  It would be help that the Scots never regarded themselves as particularly refined or spiritual.”[11]

But Kirstie’s response to this is more than prosaic.    All she can muster is the words:

                        “Would you like more soup?”

But even that keeps Fergus thinking for he adds:

                        “In the Scotland of my dreams her kind would be needed too.   In the past the Scots had lost too many battles because, while waiting for the fighting to begin , they had been given prayers instead of second helpings”

And there perhaps we have the nub of it.   Scotland can, says Jenkins, not only become the place it should be, but it can do so because of the place it already is.   Yet there are things holding us back, and one of those, in that wonderful phrase, is that we are usually given (or give ourselves) “prayers instead of second helpings” – in other words we rely on outside forces, and sometimes forces that many not exist, in stead of relying on our selves and preparing ourselves to take the necessary actions to produce change.    Or to put it in Jenkins’ own words from that introduction to “Lunderston Tales” to “take responsibility for our own destiny”. 

Why we do this is also germane, in the context of Fergus Lamont.    Early on in the novel John Calderwood – when his cynicism is far less advanced – is teaching a history lesson, focusing on an ordinary individual affected by the clearances.   One pupil has to be posted at the door in case the head teacher finds out.   Of course he does, and he remonstrates with Calderwood, saying:

                        I must warn you.  You are filling these children’s minds with poison.  You are undermining their confidence in legally constituted authority.  It is a mistake to study the history of one’s own country.  It divides us instead of uniting us …… Why bother with stuff so out of date?”[12]

But again it is the riposte that strikes home.   For a child answers, a child of the Gantock slums:

                        “It isn’t out of date, Mr Maybole” said Mary.  People are still put out of their houses”

Another expression of this attitude comes later in the novel.   During the by-election, the Nationalist candidate is Alasdair Donaldson, a novelist known to Fergus.  .   But when he is pressed to support the Tory, who is wife’s lover, he at first demurs by claiming that  , if he had any political sympathies at all, they would be for the Scottish National Party.

Jock Dunsyre, the Tory candidate, dismisses this, first by pointing out Lamont’s previous dislike for Donaldson, and when that does not work, saying

                        “The country is facing ruin.  It is no time for an irrelevance like Scottish Nationalism”[13]

The folly of trying to shoe-horn a writer into an existing political party or narrow set of partisan beliefs has been well pointed out by, amongst others, Conor Cruise O”Brian in his great essay on Yeats.   We know the error of that ourselves when considering the way in which Burns has been treated, and MacDairmid pointed it up in “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”.  

So I am, and will, make no political claims on Robin Jenkins.   But much of Fergus Lamont echoes Edwin Muir’s attitude towards Nationalism in his 1935 book  “Scottish Journey”, and Muir’s longing for a social justice (for example in his description of the horrors of the bone factory in that book) is also matched by Jenkins.   Both seem to have been seeking, in Muir’s words” a noble purpose” in which a Scottish political movement , or even a movement above politics, could enlist majority support and which could combine a desire for the betterment of the poorest with a desire for national renewal as well.   The fact that they could not find it  either in the 1930’s or the 1970’s and 80’s – the decades in which firstly Muir and then Jenkins make the point – speaks volumes for Scottish politics – then and now.

What would that movement have done?   Well it would have sought to establish “honour and justice”.  It would have fought to abolish poverty.   It would have – as Jenkins himself was – been a conscientious objector to warfare and inhumanity.   And it would have sought to do those things within the context of a small nation (but not a parochial one) which would not sacrifice – in Jenkins own words – “refinement and spirituality”.

We have not found the will to create that movement yet – but the potential, Robin Jenkins has told us, remains.

One of the purposes of fiction is to describe a world which does not exist, but which in summoning into existence, the writer can use to point up present weaknesses and future possibilities.

A writer of such output and variety as Jenkins does many things in his books.  But he does certainly create such worlds.  Of course Jenkins’ worlds are very close to ours, and his use of real places – usually disguised, but not always, as we have seen – help to bring close to us the lessons he teaches by means of this device.   Realist writers are writers of this world, and of their own time.  But their realism is not like a photograph.  It is, more accurately, like a painting in which the use of light and shade, colour and texture and even elements of non-reality and fantasy are used together to create a means by which we can ponder not just the work in front of us, but ourselves standing in front of it.

The “march of time” in the novels of Robin Jenkins is our time – a time that stretches from the start of the last century to the present day.    We are fellow travelers with Jenkins, and because we also live in his landscape, we as inhabitants of Cowal and inhabitants of Scotland should be able to feel closer to him, and appreciate his message more, than some who are further off.      For his that “chronicler of changing Scotland” that I chose for the title of this lecture.  He tells our story, but he also refines that story and using the alchemy of creativity, gives it back to us new minted, with new lessons to be learnt from it, and new opportunities for us to change so that we can live better as a result of having read it.   For me, the strongest message that results is the message I have talked about this evening – the message that honour and justice are worth striving far, that they can be found, and that we have the potential to find them here in Scotland.    But we have to take the responsibility so to do.

It has been a great privilege, as I said at the outset, to be asked to give this first Robin Jenkins Memorial Lecture.  But the greatest part of that privilege has been to have the necessity and encouragement to return to his books and to read them, and think about them, again.   And in that sense it is a joy to know that that task is still far from finished – for there are almost as many still to re- appear, as have appeared.

I look forward to further discovery in that rich field of literature.  I hope that each of you will continue to travel within it too.  And to thank whatever Gods there are for Robin Jenkins and the gifts he gave us during his long life, much of spent very close to where we are now: in both the geographical and the spiritual sense. 

 


[1] Edinburgh Review No 106, P12.
[2] Lady Magdalen, P326/7
[3] The Cone Gatherers, P123
[4] Just Duffy, P30
[5] Fergus Lamont P336
[6] Fergus Lamont, P 336
[7] Just Duffy, P 11
[8] Childish Things, P12
[9] Lunderston Telas P ix / x
[10] Guests of War, P 2
[11] Fergus Lamont , P283
[12] Fergus Lamont, P46

[13] Fergus Lamont, P 177

Michael Russell is Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. He is also a television producer and director and the author of seven books, including one novel.

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Michael Russell on Robin Jenkins and the March of Time: A chronicler of changing Scotland

By Michael Russell

[September 11, 2012 was the centenary of Robin Jenkins birth. This tribute to Jenkins was originally presented as a lecture at Cowalfest] 

Anyone who sets out to think about, let alone talk about, the work of Robin Jenkins is faced with three immediate problems: those of range, depth and time-scale.   Those problems arise both from Jenkins’ own life and from his method of working. 

Let me begin with the facts, which illustrate these problems.   Born in 1912, his life encompassed most of the 20th century and a small part of the 21st.  That is a long time, and within it much changed in our country and the world.   He also travelled widely, working not just in Scotland but in Afghanistan, Spain and Malaysia.   He published 31 books of fiction during his lifetime, the first of which appeared in 1951, more than half a century ago and the final one only in 2003, although it had been written earlier.

Their   settings  range from  the North West Frontier , through 17th  , 19th and 20th century Scotland –  the latter with a sweep of time that runs from early years of the century, to the very last decade and which covers most of the country –  through to a Native American reservation in Arizona.   They take in on the way this rural community and some like them, slum tenements in Scottish towns, council estates, military housing in California, remote Pathan villages ,the country estates of the rich, manses at various times and in various places, schools, golf clubs, islands and artists studios –  quite a lot of artists studios as it happens – amongst other locations.

Finally it has to be said that Jenkins was in no sense a self publicist – in fact the reverse. Whilst never a total recluse he was far from outgoing about his work and his means expression. There are contributions he made to the discussion of the novel, and even his novels, but they are not extensive.  He was never a public figure in the way of some contemporary writers and his belief that he was unappreciated, and that others of lesser talent were more celebrated, was sometimes, unfortunately, very true.

It is obvious that all these facts create a huge and difficult canvas to examine.   He is a novelist who in his writing not only covered half a century of real time, but many centuries of imagined time.   He is a novelist with a huge output, not all of which is readily available.  In have to admit that whilst I shall range widely through his work tonight, there are some parts I have not read.    He is also novelist who hoarded his work, who published out of sequence and who refused, for most of his time, to explain what he was about.

And most of all he was a novelist with a vast area of concern.     Whilst tonight I am going to pursue a definite line of argument, it is only of hundreds of possible lines.   Jenkins was a human being of huge sympathy, who stood foursquare with the poor, the suffering and the neglected.   He was also something of a cynic, who saw the foibles in his fellow men and commented on them, sometimes savagely.  He was a believer in faith, but a fierce critic of much organised religion.  He was a visionary, who was however suspicious of visions and those who had them, yet he also accepted and welcomed the mystical.     He was a historian who a love of his country’s past, but he was also worried that the past trapped people and made them unable to improve the present.   He was ascetic in his approach to many things, yet some of his writing is sensuous and indeed there is a whole thesis to be written about his near obsessions with large breasts.   He loved much of the innate goodness and huge courage of America and the Americans, yet he had a huge admiration for those who resisted their influence and developed their own cultures.   He embraced modernity, but resented its destructive power.   He believed in the power of education and taught for much of his life, but he also saw that some education and some educators re-enforced the worst in society

Let me start with an overview – something we can probably all accept. There can be little doubt that Cairns Craig got it right when he said in his essay entitled “Robin Jenkins – a would be realist?” that Jenkins is likely to be

                        “..without peer amongst 20th and 21st century Scottish novelists , for no modern Scottish novelist has presented so many aspects of Scottish society with such incisive concern for its inner conflicts and contradictions.   The range of Jenkins work make him a modern equivalent, in terms of its social scope, of the great realist writers of the nineteenth century”[1]

That comparison – with Dickens in particular – is a common view of Jenkins.   But realist writers are, by definition, writers who have a moral, spiritual and sometimes even political agenda.    That is not to say that their work is a manifesto and certainly not a detailed one, but it does arise from strongly held beliefs, and strongly desired outcomes.

I want to examine what those beliefs and outcomes appear to have been in Jenkins’ case.   I shall lean heavily on two thoughts which occur quite often in his books, either expressed by characters or by his narrative voice.  I shall use those thoughts to construct what I think is a plausible case for suggesting what Jenkins’ two primary motivations were and what he hoped for , though neither consistently or always positively.

The first is about an aspiration for people. The second is about an aspiration for place.   Together I think they say something profound and important, particularly in modern day Scotland.

In Lady Magdalen, published in 2003, the novel finishes with the Earl of Montrose in camp, already facing the likelihood of ultimate defeat.  He is being betrayed even by his monarch and he has lost not only battles, but also his wife and son.   Musing on the situation, his inner voice observes

                        “His soldiers were going about their camp duties with the devotion of priests.  He felt severe qualms of conscience.  These honest faithful men were prepared to give their lives for him and the King.  Surely they must one day get their reward in a Scotland where honour and justice prevailed, under the rule of a beneficent King, appointed by God?”[2]

Those sentences carry so many of Jenkins’ constant themes – devotion to duty, the role of men at work, the willingness to sacrifice, the need for a visionary purpose , the existence and power of God and of belief in him – that is difficult to unpack.   But the thought that “surely they must one day get their reward in a Scotland where honour and justice prevailed?” is not just about Scotland, still less 17th century Scotland – it is about the  universal purpose of life, for if there is no place in which honour and justice can deliver for ordinary men and women, then is life itself worth living?

Jenkins puts the question, of course, as often in the negative as in the positive.  Many of his characters deny that reward is possible, in this life or the next.   In “The Cone Gatherers” as an apocalyptic (and revelatory) storm approaches Neil reflects on his dependent brother Calum’s belief that the shaft of light that has illuminated them has allowed him to see their dead mother in heaven.

                        “If he was unable to walk, far less to climb, who would look after Calum , with his derided body and his mind as foolish as a child’s?    Wherever that light had shone from, it had not been from heaven.  There was no such place.  There was no merciful God.  There was nowhere their dead mother could be.”[3]

This idea – that there is literally nothing to look forward to and, to quote the Greek Alexandrian poet, CP Cavafy “If you have ruined your life in this one spot of ground, then it is ruined over the whole earth”   – that there is in fact no purpose and no reward regularly comes from the lips of other characters in Jenkins work  

Some good examination has been made of Jenkins and his relationship to faith, particularly Christian faith.   That is not directly my purpose here this evening but I do want to draw out as my first theme Jenkins’ view of what can be and should be expected from life: if there is reward and honour in direct relationship to virtue and belief, whether such a thing can be achieved or fought for, or whether no such thing exists or can exist.

Those are eternal questions but they are ones that have particularly worried the 20th century.    Faced with the horrors of world war,   the immediacy of the media which brings us news of famine and abject poverty and the attempts (sometimes on an industrial scale) to create societies in which reward was intended to come as the result of human endeavor even at – perhaps especially at – at the expense of individual freedom, our 20th and 21st century questioning about the purpose of life has risen from the status of individual concern to national and international obsession. Is a better life , we ask ourselves collectively and individually, to be found from material possessions, from sexual or other gratification, from spiritual pursuit, from political achievement, or in the hope of some after life.  Can it be found at all? 

These questions are perhaps heightened , and were particularly so during most of Jenkins’ life as a writer, by the ever present threat of nuclear war, and the annihilation of  the whole species, a threat brought home to anyone living in this area by the presence of the American base at the Holy Loch.   For annihilation of the whole species wipes out the possibility of anything better – and wipes it out completely.  

The theme of nuclear war is very strong in perhaps Jenkins’ bleakest novel, Just Duffy which mixes a reaction to the poverty and alienation of the Thatcher years in Scotland with a strong concern about the possibility of Armageddon.  In that novel the young protagonist takes on the right of a state to declare war, but for, but for what he sees as moral purposes which will  “make people more truthful and less arrogant”[4]  and ultimate produce a better society, first of all in his own small Lanarkshire town.   But the consequences of war are soon seen as disastrous – a lesson that we have learned again in our own times.

Some would call – and indeed Jenkins’ himself sometimes  laid claim to the description – concern with all these matters, , when it takes the form of a desire for alteration of society in order to provide answers,  to be the hall mark of a socialist though it could equally well be called humanist or even Christian.   Anger at the failure of our society to bring honour and justice to all its members, and to tolerate and even ignore the suffering of individuals and communities whilst accepting the privilege and wealth of others is seen, in our political terms and in our times, as being a primarily socialist concern, even if that term is hard now to define.  

The character of Mary Holmscroft in “Fergus Lamont” is that of a political socialist, driven to oppose inequality.    She is revered by the women and men of the town during the by-election in that book yet whilst the central character envies that – and takes steps to assist her by arguing for her at a Conservative election meeting in which he has been asked to speak in order to support the candidate – he still has reservations about her and those arise again when, at the end of the book, he discovers she has become a Government Minister.   

Jenkins is most definitely a realist political writer, but he does not promote a particular party nor does he I would argue promote such a specific political ideology.   He is a political writer, just as Dickens was, in seeking a better world from which the effects of poverty and inequality are removed.    In that sense, to introduce for the first time the title of my chosen subject, he is a “chronicler of changing Scotland” for many of his themes chart the progress of, and sometimes push forward, the Scottish desire to move from the nineteenth century consequences of industrialisaion – slums, poverty, lack of opportunity and  a class ridden society, often cemented into place by the effect or organised religion –  and the twentieth century spiritual bleakness, underpinned by the fear of a man made end to everything  into a world in which there was honour and  justice for all.

“Fergus Lamont” has perhaps the broadest sweep in terms of that agenda.   Yet the book has often been read as being something different: a portrait of an off-centre individual who wrong-headedly pursues a vision of individual progress which is bound to fail.     The two readings are of course, not mutually contradictory, but “Fergus Lamont” has a great social meaning and the redemption of Fergus during his last visit to Gantock (a thinly disguised Greenock) when he rejects the cynicism and self destroying hatred of humanity shown by his former teacher John Calderwood as well as the brutality of the Nazi bombers during a fire raid is a moment in the novel which needs to be fully factored into the whole.

                        The sky was red with fire over the town.  More bombs exploded.

                        “The bastards” I cried

                        “Explain, murmured Calderwood at my back, “why our airmen are heroes that drop bombs on German towns and yet German airmen that drop bombs on our town are bastards.   And of course, vice-versa.”

                        Again I might have had some little sympathy if he had spoken with his heart breaking.[5]

It is at this point  – out in the garden of a wealthy villa  on the Gantock waterfront  watching  the area where he grew up  (and which he has rejected) burned to the ground, and the probably immolation of people he still knows and loves  –  that  Fergus Lamont sees that “he could be of help to no one”[6]. 

Yet by then we know that whilst that was true, it  has became no longer true because he has been of help in allowing us to understand how hard it is to be a good man, and how hard to find true reward and honour still less to understand how those can be gained.  And in the widest context of society, that is a political issue.  But it is also, and perhaps inseparable, a moral and individual one as well.  

Such a political stance – the finding of the means by which society can be changed for ever in order that “honour and justice” can be given to all , and particularly to those from whom it is currently withheld by the very structures and ordering of that society – comes to the fore again and again in Jenkins’ novels. 

Yet the means and the ends are complicated things, because they have to take account of human beings, who are also complicated.      

In “Just Duffy” the attempt by Duffy to change the world has horrific personal consequences.   Duffy is an outsider, quite different from those around him but his pursuit of justice and honour for all is overshadowed again and again by his desire to be included – to stop being separated from the herd.    Fergus Lamont is another outsider as is Gavin Hamilton in  “A would be saint” and there are two such characters (very different ones admittedly) in “The Changeling”  – both Tom Curdie and Charlie Forbes stand at an angle to the world, and the combination leads to an awful end.  Yet all of them have something in common apart from their accidental, enforced or chosen estrangement from parts of the world around them.   They are also passionate about changing that world.

Indeed one could go further and point out that in “The Cone Gatherers “ virtually all the main characters who are also agents of change  are isolated from the normal world, as one might put it.   Calum is physically and mentally disabled, Neil is bitter and ill at ease, Durour is going through a profound breakdown, Lady Runcie-Campbell has a degree of religious mania and her son Roderick is a loner.  

Jenkins again and again suggests to us that the world needs changed.  But he also suggests to us again and again that those who know that, and particularly those who then try and bring change about , are outcasts from society and must be so , whether they succeed or fail.   Gaining “honour and justice” for others is a task that can only be undertaken by, in a sense, a sacrificial lamb.    Most of the world is content to go on as it is, accepting – in the words of Duffy’s mother – that 

                        “You’re looking for perfection Duffy, and it doesn’t exist…you’ve got to make allowances.  We’re only human” [7]

Those that wish something else, says Jenkins, are bound to suffer.   If they cease to wish it – if they give up – then they can rejoin the crowd.  But that is something that is not worth doing for although there can be sympathy and even admiration for individuals in the crowd, the crowd itself is a beast, which reduces the world to dirty rubble ; dirty rubble like the slums of Gantock in “Fergus Lamont “ (above which people must rise) or the slums of Gowkburgh in “Guests of War”.

It is tempting to read into this theme a great deal about Jenkins himself, and his profession of writer.    A man who was not sociable, who saw himself as being “outside” and who felt that he had been and was being ignored, may have projected into his work that very feeling.  But of course he would do so primarily because he would see himself as being engaged in a task which was “world changing” – a task which attempted, as much as Duffy‘s war did but in a much more constructive way, to force his readers to be “more truthful and less arrogant” and in so doing to bring about the dawn of the new Jerusalem.

But if my first theme is that aspiration for “honour and justice” and the difficult life of any individual who seeks to bring it about, my second is about where this New Jerusalem is, and what can be made of the place.

“Lunderston Tales” is a much neglected book of short stories by Jenkins.    Published only in 1996 by Polygon, the internal references in the introduction particularly suggest that it was written much earlier, possibly in the mid 1980’s.   Further work on Jenkins and his output may confirm that point.  

Just as this village features strongly in Jenkins work – even to the extent of naming the holiday location in “The Changeling” “Towellen”, bringing together Toward and neighbouring Inellen, so Lunderston Tales – and a number of other works – are clearly based in the town much like Dunoon.

There is a fascinating task awaiting some scholar or student – that of identifying the places in Jenkins novels and matching them to real places in Scotland.   It is task that, whilst looking simple, has been made more complicated by Jenkins own attempts to muddy the waters, and never less than in this issue of Dunoon.   For while one local critic of Jenkins, is so certain about it that he admits to private surprise that Jenkins was not sued by at least two individuals who are clearly identifiable in the stories  – there is either an accidental, or deliberate, confusing element which comes in his very late novel “Childish Things”.  Near to the start of the book the anti-hero, Gregor MacLeod,  sets out to see an old lover after his wife’s funeral  observing that:

                        “It was dark as I drove alongside the Firth.   The amber lights of Dunoon twinkled across the water and, every five seconds, there was flash from the Toward Lighthouse.   If any of my Lunderston acquaintances recognised my Mercedes, they would think I had come out for a drive , being unable to settle in the empty house.”[8]

Only a few sentences earlier he has placed his home town of Lunderston as “”15 miles along the firth from Gantock” and as we know Gantock is Greenock, then Lunderston might be Largs.   And indeed there is a touch of Largs in his description in the first of the “Tales” about the view to be had from the place.   

But if it is  Largs in situation and landscape, and Dunoon in humanity and  detail, Lunderston itself in the Tales has a touch of genius.   Indeed it is the same type of genius that informs John Galt’s “Annals of the Parish”.   In fact  there is more than a touch of Galt in a great deal of Jenkins’ output with a local focus: a slightly pawky humour and pricking of civic pride which, for example,  characterises both Galt’s political works  and Jenkins similar stories, for example as in  “ “The Provost and the Queen” .    

Some of the stories in Lunderston Tales take place very far from either Largs or Dunoon  – the book includes important references to India ( in the story “Don’t you agree , baby ?”), Arizona, and – very touchingly – in the last story where the whole point is the remoteness of the desert communities of California which make the bright lights of  small towns doon the watter  seem positively metropolitan, particularly to a good time girl who is virtually a prostitute.

There are some wonderful things in “Lunderston Tales” including the portrait of a community activist who finds his own way of securing “honour and justice” for the poor.    The best perhaps is the story entitled “With a tinge of yellow” which is about racism, ignorance, prejudice, small mindedness, pride, estrangement and lust.    It is a portrait of the worst aspects of small town thinking, yet  the main protagonist does what some  people in small towns always do – constantly try to break the barriers which enclose them, and equally constantly, always fail.  

I refer to the book, however, primarily because of its Foreword [9]which comes as close as Jenkins ever does to giving a clear personal statement of belief and intent. 

Let me quote the first paragraph in full:    “A Scottish Novelist” writes Jenkins,

                         “recently complained that one of the disadvantages of belonging to his nation was that nothing ever happened in it spectacular or exciting enough to be of interest to the rest of the world.   No president was assassinated, no government overthrown, no political prisoners tortured.   All that is true and shows virtue or at least placidity on the part of the Scots , but one can see why a novelist would feel frustrated.   A few years ago, an offer, grudgingly made by the Parliament in London, of a measure of self government was not accepted by the Scots on the grounds it seemed, that it would mean their having to assume responsibility for their own destinies.   The lion rampant was happier on his belly, with his paws covering his eyes. “ 

Later on in that Foreword he says:

                        “In brief therefore a country that, too supine to take itself seriously, does not deserve to be taken seriously by any other country.   This also was what the novelist was grumbling about.”

“Yet paradoxically” he goes on:

                        “ its individual people are as interesting as any in America or Russia.,  Take for example the small seaside town of Lunderston…..”

And then he concludes:

                        “Anyone passing through or staying overnight might remark on the scenery, or the bakers shops, or the courtesy of its citizens, but they would be incredulous if they were told that in this small town, so douce and placid on the surface…..there were to be found individuals whose lives touched upon the great issues of our time and who represented the twentieth century as much as any inhabitants of New York or Moscow.   Yet it is true.   With them as his material no novelist need feel parochial.”   

For a variety or reasons this is a fascinating statement.  For a start the “Scottish novelist” that Jenkins quotes,  may well be William MacIlvanney , although the interview is not yet finally identified.    But the views are very similar to points which Jenkins himself made in an interview in  1980 in which he said that “ I simply don’t think you could get a great novelist out of Scotland” and to  one in 1989 in which he called Scotland “ a dull wee place”. 

Jenkins’ disgust at the failure of the referendum of 1979 is not the response of a doctrinaire 1960s or 1970s’  socialist but more that of the type of nationalist which was the backbone of the Labour movement in the first part of the 20th century – a variety which stretched from the democratic socialism of Keir Hardie (who fought the mid Lanark by-election of 1883 on a platform that included home rule for Scotland ) to the Marxism of John MacLean who believe that you could establish a workers republic in Scotland in six months, starting anytime.

For these people – and for Jenkins – the creation of a place worth living in , a place where “honour and Justice “ were to be gained – meant the creation of a Scotland worth living in.   A Scotland which was not only, as it was, in beautiful (though only when not defaced by man) but also economically, socially, morally and spiritually recovered from the dark side of humanities influence.

This being Jenkins of course such a desire cannot always be expressed as an unalloyed positive, and indeed one aspect of Jenkins genius is to point up the desirable by contrasting it with what presently exists.

Thus it is that  the slum dwelling, but country reared, Mrs McShelvie, in the very opening section of “Guests of War” reflects that

                        “To her it seemed dreadful that human beings , with only one life to live, should have to live it in such dreary places as Wallace St and its surroundings, especially when Scotland was one of the most beautiful countries in the world.[10]

Whilst all Jenkins novels set in Scotland touch upon this subject, it is perhaps in Fergus Lamont that it emerges to become a really dominant them.  It also has its clearest expression in that novel and one which links the two ideas I have been talking about most clearly. 

During his time in the Western Isles, in a community that seems to have been modeled on the real “Orasay” in South Uist, Fergus lives with, and finds his greatest love in, the character of Kirstie.   Kirstie is Jenkin’s “Chris Caledonia”, the central symbolic figure in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s “Sunset Song” Trilogy.   She stands for all that is best in our country, and if she is slow and sometimes even the butt of Fergus’ arrogance and snobbery, she is still eternal in her truthfulness, her beauty and her humanity.

One day Fergus, whilst living as man and wife with Kirstie, receives a letter from Mary Homscroft , which recounts her experiences in Spain during the Civil War.   After reading it, Fergus, in his own words “holds forth” on this subject, observing that

                        “It seemed to me that since Scotland was small , proud , poor and intelligent, with a long history , she, better than any country I could think of , certainly better than backward Spain or class-ridden England, had an opportunity to create a society in which poverty and all its humiliations had been abolished, without refinement and spirituality being sacrificed.  It would be help that the Scots never regarded themselves as particularly refined or spiritual.”[11]

But Kirstie’s response to this is more than prosaic.    All she can muster is the words: 

                        “Would you like more soup?” 

But even that keeps Fergus thinking for he adds:

                        “In the Scotland of my dreams her kind would be needed too.   In the past the Scots had lost too many battles because, while waiting for the fighting to begin , they had been given prayers instead of second helpings”

And there perhaps we have the nub of it.   Scotland can, says Jenkins, not only become the place it should be, but it can do so because of the place it already is.   Yet there are things holding us back, and one of those, in that wonderful phrase, is that we are usually given (or give ourselves) “prayers instead of second helpings” – in other words we rely on outside forces, and sometimes forces that many not exist, in stead of relying on our selves and preparing ourselves to take the necessary actions to produce change.    Or to put it in Jenkins’ own words from that introduction to “Lunderston Tales” to “take responsibility for our own destiny”.  

Why we do this is also germane, in the context of Fergus Lamont.    Early on in the novel John Calderwood – when his cynicism is far less advanced – is teaching a history lesson, focusing on an ordinary individual affected by the clearances.   One pupil has to be posted at the door in case the head teacher finds out.   Of course he does, and he remonstrates with Calderwood, saying:

                        I must warn you.  You are filling these children’s minds with poison.  You are undermining their confidence in legally constituted authority.  It is a mistake to study the history of one’s own country.  It divides us instead of uniting us …… Why bother with stuff so out of date?”[12]

But again it is the riposte that strikes home.   For a child answers, a child of the Gantock slums:

                        “It isn’t out of date, Mr Maybole” said Mary.  People are still put out of their houses”

Another expression of this attitude comes later in the novel.   During the by-election, the Nationalist candidate is Alasdair Donaldson, a novelist known to Fergus.  .   But when he is pressed to support the Tory, who is wife’s lover, he at first demurs by claiming that  , if he had any political sympathies at all, they would be for the Scottish National Party.

Jock Dunsyre, the Tory candidate, dismisses this, first by pointing out Lamont’s previous dislike for Donaldson, and when that does not work, saying

                        “The country is facing ruin.  It is no time for an irrelevance like Scottish Nationalism”[13]

The folly of trying to shoe-horn a writer into an existing political party or narrow set of partisan beliefs has been well pointed out by, amongst others, Conor Cruise O”Brian in his great essay on Yeats.   We know the error of that ourselves when considering the way in which Burns has been treated, and MacDairmid pointed it up in “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”.   

So I am, and will, make no political claims on Robin Jenkins.   But much of Fergus Lamont echoes Edwin Muir’s attitude towards Nationalism in his 1935 book  “Scottish Journey”, and Muir’s longing for a social justice (for example in his description of the horrors of the bone factory in that book) is also matched by Jenkins.   Both seem to have been seeking, in Muir’s words” a noble purpose” in which a Scottish political movement , or even a movement above politics, could enlist majority support and which could combine a desire for the betterment of the poorest with a desire for national renewal as well.   The fact that they could not find it  either in the 1930’s or the 1970’s and 80’s – the decades in which firstly Muir and then Jenkins make the point – speaks volumes for Scottish politics – then and now.

What would that movement have done?   Well it would have sought to establish “honour and justice”.  It would have fought to abolish poverty.   It would have – as Jenkins himself was – been a conscientious objector to warfare and inhumanity.   And it would have sought to do those things within the context of a small nation (but not a parochial one) which would not sacrifice – in Jenkins own words – “refinement and spirituality”.

We have not found the will to create that movement yet – but the potential, Robin Jenkins has told us, remains.

One of the purposes of fiction is to describe a world which does not exist, but which in summoning into existence, the writer can use to point up present weaknesses and future possibilities.

A writer of such output and variety as Jenkins does many things in his books.  But he does certainly create such worlds.  Of course Jenkins’ worlds are very close to ours, and his use of real places – usually disguised, but not always, as we have seen – help to bring close to us the lessons he teaches by means of this device.   Realist writers are writers of this world, and of their own time.  But their realism is not like a photograph.  It is, more accurately, like a painting in which the use of light and shade, colour and texture and even elements of non-reality and fantasy are used together to create a means by which we can ponder not just the work in front of us, but ourselves standing in front of it.

The “march of time” in the novels of Robin Jenkins is our time – a time that stretches from the start of the last century to the present day.    We are fellow travelers with Jenkins, and because we also live in his landscape, we as inhabitants of Cowal and inhabitants of Scotland should be able to feel closer to him, and appreciate his message more, than some who are further off.      For his that “chronicler of changing Scotland” that I chose for the title of this lecture.  He tells our story, but he also refines that story and using the alchemy of creativity, gives it back to us new minted, with new lessons to be learnt from it, and new opportunities for us to change so that we can live better as a result of having read it.   For me, the strongest message that results is the message I have talked about this evening – the message that honour and justice are worth striving far, that they can be found, and that we have the potential to find them here in Scotland.    But we have to take the responsibility so to do.

It has been a great privilege, as I said at the outset, to be asked to give this first Robin Jenkins Memorial Lecture.  But the greatest part of that privilege has been to have the necessity and encouragement to return to his books and to read them, and think about them, again.   And in that sense it is a joy to know that that task is still far from finished – for there are almost as many still to re- appear, as have appeared. 

I look forward to further discovery in that rich field of literature.  I hope that each of you will continue to travel within it too.  And to thank whatever Gods there are for Robin Jenkins and the gifts he gave us during his long life, much of spent very close to where we are now: in both the geographical and the spiritual sense.  

 

[1] Edinburgh Review No 106, P12.

[2] Lady Magdalen, P326/7

[3] The Cone Gatherers, P123

[4] Just Duffy, P30

[5] Fergus Lamont P336

[6] Fergus Lamont, P 336

[7] Just Duffy, P 11

[8] Childish Things, P12

[9] Lunderston Telas P ix / x

[10] Guests of War, P 2

[11] Fergus Lamont , P283

[12] Fergus Lamont, P46

[13] Fergus Lamont, P 177

 

Michael Russell is Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. He is also a television producer and director and the author of seven books, including one novel.

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McLellan Arts Festival Poetry Competition: ‘Jackie Kay in Performance’

The auspices weren’t great. A classic Scottish mid-winter summer’s day and a power cut to boot. When I arrived at the Brodick Hall on Arran, I expected to find Jackie Kay and a half dozen hardy poetry fans reading by torchlight. Instead the electricity returned in the nick of time and the hall was packed.

First up was the SRB’s own Theresa Munoz whose poem ‘All the places I have’ was commended from the 844 (844!) entries for the McLellan Poetry Competition. In a pitch-perfect reading Munoz translated the intricate spacing of her page poem into a series of pauses as she explored the emotional geography of two intersecting lives:

were you there                         did you see

the unfinished glory of the Sagrada Familia

did you take a train across Europe       across Canada

did your skull burst of boredom along the Prairies

could you have been in the same place               at the same time

twin Gondolas under the Bridge of Sighs

Next was the winner – Irish poet Davnet Heery. She can see ‘three Arans’ from her home in Connemara and had used a complex transport relay to arrive on the ‘one Arran’ and read her moving poem ‘Diagnosis’:

I looked at it

this word I’d never seen before or heard before

and I folded the slip between my fingers

and I put it in my purse

like a receipt from a cash machine that told me

how much credit I had left.

With the exception of a heart-warming set from local singing group Ain’t Misbehaving, the rest of the evening belonged to Jackie Kay. And whoever decided to advertise the event as ‘Jackie Kay in Performance’ chose their words carefully.

It is hard to reproduce here the method by which Kay reduces her audience to helpless, air-clutching laughter, not possible to replicate the beaming smile and infectious giggle that accompany her introductions to the readings. “My Mum and Dad are here” she said before introducing a poem about family singing gatherings when she was a child “and they don’t like the caricatures. Too bad! I have the microphone.”

Mum and Dad are key parts of the magic. Before Kay went in search of her Nigerian birth father (see the brilliant autobiography Red Dust Road), her mother was ‘picturing a Paul Robeson figure with maybe a bit of Nelson Mandela mixed in’. When it all went wrong and she wrote a poem called ‘Burying my African father’ Dad’s response was ‘Christ, he’s no gonnae like that!’

And so the tone was set. The sight of 80 Scottish Trade Unionists ‘all wearing similar trunks’ on the beach in Romania ‘is what turned me into a Lesbian’. 1500 Lesbians in York sang happy birthday to Mum at Jackie’s instigation and the two took great pleasure reporting that to ‘an unsympathetic neighbour’ in Glasgow.

All this could have made the actual readings into the poetry equivalent of Billy Connolly’s banjo, but not to fear. The rapport Kay establishes with her audience allows her to take things any way she wants to. The ingenious word play of  “Ma Broon’s Vagina Monologue’ piles funny on funny until you realize between choking fits that it is making a serious point about Scottish attitudes to sexuality. The only prose reading of the evening was from her latest collection of short stories Reality, Reality and had an eighteen stone woman conducting an internal monologue while trying (or not) to lose weight. That too was hilarious until the line ‘everything is about loss’ jumped out of it.

I am not sure if an evening like this can easily be reduced to a single theme, but loss was certainly a recurring one. Muñoz and Neery dealt with it in their own ways, Kay read two poems inspired by Burns’s ‘John Anderson My Jo’, another called ‘Knitting’ (‘I knit to keep death away’) and one called ‘The Returning’ which deals with the temporary loss of her son through an epileptic fit. Two people who were signed up to the workshop the following day told me that they had been given ‘homework’ on loss.

So hard things and hilarity and stamping and cheering and the first encore I have ever seen demanded of a poet. The last word should go to Arran poet Cicely Gill who organized it all. What a performance!

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