Shortlisted for the 1994 McVitie’s Prize, Robin Jenkins is one of Scotland’s least known, underrated authors. Ann Donald talked football and God with the elusive man of words.
Robin Jenkins has the verbal throttle full-on and running. Only ten minutes into the conversation and the literary editor of a national newspaper has already been sized-up as a ‘bloody idiot’; the views of the London literary establishment are about to be condemned as ‘bloody stupid’. and the lucky dip of literary competitions will shortly be dismissed as ‘a piece of bloody nonsense‘.
Seated in a huge armchair not dissimilar to that featured in the TV programme Jim '11 Fix If. one of Scotland’s finest and most underrated authors is vociferoust holding forth on a number of topics that start with James Kelman and stop with Jesus Christ. with a vigour and invective that belie his 83 years and tender prose.
For despite the tranquil surroundings of his white cottage overlooking the Firth of Clyde and the archetypally SOs-fumished sittingroorn. Jenkins’s voice is as colourful as the crocheted patchwork blanket adorning his armchair. His quietly commanding presence and tones that osscilate from a whispery lvor Cutler to a gigeg Alasdair Gray seem to fill the room.
As a man who implicitly believes that, ‘lt‘s the books that matter and not the writer.’ Jenkins has kept a deliberately low proﬁle. preferring to socialise with his pals at the Dunoon Golf Club than attend literary lunches. During a teaching career that has taken him to Borneo. Spain and Afghanistan. Jenkins has written 22 novels and was last year honoured by the SAC with a Lifetime Achievement Award. However. with Willie Hogg shortlisted for the McVitie’s Prize and the re-publication of three earlier novels, Jenkins’s wish to ‘remain private’ may well be under threat from stampeding press and public alike. both in search of the genius behind such unsung classics as The Thistle and the Grail and A Love of Innocence.
Both novels encapsulate Jenkins’s central motifs of poverty, religion and loss of innocence in childhood. The Thistle and the Grail — which was hailed by one critic as ’The best book yet to be written on the relation between football and society in Scotland‘ — incorporates a robust humour into its storyline of struggling local team The Thistle and their pursuit of the ‘Holy Grail’. the Scottish Junior Cup. Inspired by Jenkins’s boyhood obsession with the lamented Cambuslang Rangers, he confesses that his interest in football has dwindled since then, as has his respect for the fans."lt appals me that the beggars will go in the pouring rain to watch their football team.‘ he comments, flabbergasted. ‘And yet when it came to
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the referendum they wouldn’t walk down to the Polling Station to vote.’ he snorts with contempt. If football fans inspire ambivalent feelings in Jenkins then religion and its followers provoke a positively ‘antagonistic’ response. In keeping with many of his novels. The Thistle and the Grail also meditates on the inadequacy of Christianity and the imperfections of humans and their need to love at Christ in whom there can be no disappointment. As
‘Il I was to stumble upon Jesus Christ I’d say, “Good Afternoon,” and then walk on. But it I met Robert Burns or Shakespeare, well, that would be a
different matter. I’d stop and talk for a wee while.’
with his hero Willie Hogg. Jenkins is quite categorical in his own religious views. Rocking to and fro on his Jim'll Fix It chair he hypothesises. ‘I go for walks on my own in the woods,‘ he says by way of explanation. ‘And l’tn telling you this — Ifl was to stumble upon Jesus Christ l‘d say. “Good Afternoon." and then walk on. But.‘ he continues with hand and voice rising to falsetto. ‘lfl met Robert Burns or Shakespeare, well, that would be a different matter. I’d stop and talk for a wee while.’ The parable over. he sits back in his chair and
Jenkins scores a hat-trick with three republished novels
releases a hearty laugh.
Jesus Christ may not rate too highly with Jenkins but the motif ofchildhood certainly does. ‘I do have a tendency to harp back to childhood,’ he admits. referring to novels Tire Changeling and A Love of Innocence. Paraphrasing the Wordsworth quote. ‘There is a wonder in your mind that vanishes', Jenkins goes on to explain that in his current novel he aims to take this idea one step further. ‘l’m going to combine the idea ofevil with the wonder and fascination of childhood in a story about two eleven year-olds — a boy and a girl — where the boy thinks the girl could be a murderess.‘
Despite Jenkins's lively conjecture and proliﬁc output — he has four novels awaiting publication - he comments quietly that his zest for writing has disappeared since the death of his wife May and son Colin in recent years. ‘Writing is a refuge to keep my mind off other things.’ he says indicating the photograph of his wife on the rnantelpiece. Steering the conversation round. I enquire as to his current reading habits and am informed that detective and thriller novels occupy his shelves. Then the old verbal dive-bombing comes into action and P. D. James is condemned as ‘the worst writer going’. Jenkins still has the capacity to inspire and electrify. whether in fiction or conversation.
A Love of Innocence and A Would-Be Saint. republished by B & W Publislting at £6.99 on I 2 Dee. The Thistle and the Grail. £8. 99 and Mllie Hogg. £7. 95 are published by Polygon.
The List 2—15 December 199411