It would be hard to find two more different novels than Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam and Robin Jenkins’ The Cone-Gatherers. The only thing that unites them is the bleakness of their view of the world, and the confidence in their uncompromising voice. In Jenkins’s case, this dark perspective was in part attributable to his hard childhood, and his experience of war, as a conscientous objector. Trocchi, a heroin addict who once shot-up on live television, was famously described by Hugh MacDiarmid as “cosmopolitan scum”. A life spent between fixes, in which he occasionally pimped his wife for money, may explain his pugnacious, anti-establishment outlook.
In order to find a respectable publisher, Trocchi edited the original version of Young Adam, removing several sex scenes and an almost comically misogynistic scene near the novel’s end. The result is a powerful and disturbing account, by Joe, a most unreliable narrator, of the death of his girlfriend, and his affair with a miserably married woman. Critics consider Young Adam the best example of Trocchi’s proto-modernism. Whatever label is put upon it, there is no denying the enormous influence this, and others of his works, have had on the collective conscious of Scotland’s modern writers. A less conservative and judgemental country would have embraced this troubled firebrand in his own lifetime, but as is often the way, critical acclaim came too late for the author to enjoy it.
The Cone Gatherers is a much more traditionally composed work, but under its surface it is as angry, and violent, as Trocchi’s. Set during World War Two, and using Jenkins’s war-time work in the Argyll forests for some of its detail, it’s a story of a very personal battle between an embittered gamekeeper and a gentle but simple forester, played out in a seemingly idyllic rural setting. As with much of Jenkins’s later work, The Cone Gatherers is an exploration of the struggle between good and evil. The elegance and evocativeness of its telling make this modern parable timeless.
Other works published in the fifties give the impression that Scottish writing was beginning to spark off in every direction. In this decade thrillers and comedies such as Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love (1957), Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone (1957) and Neil Munro’s immortal Para Handy Tales (1958) rubbed shoulders with Norman MacCaig’s very fine poetry collection Riding Lights (1955), James Kennaway’s brooding classic, Tunes of Glory (1956) and Jessie Kesson’s unforgettable autobiographical novel, The White Bird Passes (1958). Almost overnight, it seems, Scotland’s literary landscape had risen as if from beneath a blanket of ice.
Rosemary Goring, Literary Editor / Columnist The Herald